Community Organizing: Catalyzing Sustainability from the Ground Up

Elise Miller, MEd

Many colleagues I know and respect would argue that working on the community level is really the only way to catalyze sustained social change. Again and again, I have seen this to be true. One of my local heroes here on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, is a master gardener. She has put enormous creative energy into developing a thriving organic garden for the community food bank. This means the ever-growing number of families now living on food stamps get to enjoy fresh, healthy vegetables in addition to other staples. She also raises money to allow youth in juvenile detention to work in the garden, giving those teens an experience that for some changes the trajectory of their lives. Then there are other local heroes described poignantly in Steve Lerner’s new book, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States – many who didn’t intend to become community or environmental activists, but simply couldn’t stand by and watch their families and neighbors succumb to various illnesses linked to exposures from nearby industrial sources. (Please join us for our CHE Café call on Monday, November 15th featuring Steve Lerner).

Of course, a number of local heroes have become nationally and internationally recognized, such as Lois Gibbs who, in the 1970s, helped launch myriad environmental health and justice efforts when she stood up to a chemical company dumping toxic waste in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY. Wilma Subra, a chemist who works with local communities in Louisiana to provide citizens with the evidence-based science they need to oppose polluting industries, is another remarkable example. (Listen to the CHE Science Café call held in August 2010 featuring Wilma Subra).

Yet we know that given the global nature of our trade and communication networks, we also need academics in an array of fields, health professionals, policy wonks, writers, artists and many others who work at different levels  –local, state, national and international  – to press for systemic change for a healthier future. One clear example of that was reflected on the CHE partner call on November 9th regarding fracking, a relatively new drilling technique that fractures rock with high-pressure fluid that is opening up vast shale-natural gas deposits with many unknown long-term consequences for human health and the environment (see Fracking: Implications for Human and Environmental Health). The presenters discussed not only the science, but the importance for federal agencies to provide stronger oversight, the need for companies to be fully transparent and implement best practices, the actions some local communities are already taking, and the emerging networks between different municipalities to determine what steps they can take next.

In short, all of us need to figure out where we can be most effective in leveraging social change based on our particular talents and proclivities. I think of someone like Donella Meadows, whom a number of us called “an academic earth mother” because she worked internationally on sustainable indicators, taught college students about computational environmental science, wrote for the local newspaper on community concerns, raised organic vegetables, and spun wool from her own sheep. Very few of us have the capacity to work at all those levels, certainly not all at once, because of familial demands at different times in our lives, socioeconomic circumstances and many other factors. But most important is to act where you feel most motivated and energized – whether in your own neighborhood or in the halls of the UN.  If we could all find the leverage points that allow our unique and often complementary gifts to blossom in support of the commons, then we will become the heroes, not necessarily recognized or acknowledged beyond our neighbors, but heroes nonetheless, who generations to come will thank for our vision, persistence, compassion and unwavering commitment to a healthy, sustainable future.


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