Leveraging Capacity for Change

Staff of the New Economics Institute

e-Newsletter, March 12, 2011

Together with others around the world, our thoughts are with those affected by yesterday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. The following eNewsletter was prepared in advance of that tragedy.

The Laurel Hill Association in the town of Stockbridge in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts is the nation’s oldest Village Improvement Association.  Founded in 1853 and still operating, its members pulled weeds, laid sidewalks, installed lamps, planted trees, and helped construct the town library.  It owns the park-like Laurel Hill near the center of town and maintains the trail at Ice Glen.

In the period following the Civil War, Village Improvement Associations were started all over America.  Small in scale, place-based, citizen driven, they were flexible enough in structure to respond to the needs of a specific community.  The Associations might organize concerts or put up window boxes on Main Street buildings, but just as easily serve regular meals to those in need or build a wing on the hospital or collect supplies for distribution after a flood swept through the town.  In 1903 the Groton, Massachusetts VIA constructed children’s gardens on land loaned for the purpose.

The Associations created a way for citizens to initiate community projects that local government and local business could not. In our age of professionally run non-profits each focused on addressing a single issue, VIAs might be dismissed as generalists and amateurs.  But the Associations were experts in knowing where the resources were in their communities — human, technical, financial, and natural resources — and they were skilled in mobilizing these resources when the need arose.

As federal, state, and local budgets are cut, and professionally run service programs close, it may be appropriate to imagine the emergence of modern day Village Improvement Associations and consider what projects they would now inspire.

Westport Green Village Initiative (www.wgvi.org) started in 2008 with a simple objective: to ban plastic bags in Westport, Connecticut. The project engaged concerned citizens to act together.  The success and fun of the project encouraged the group to stay together and turn their combined energies to other green initiatives.  Westport Green Village Initiative was organized to turn Westport “into a model of social-inclusivity and environmental sustainability,” that could well serve as the mission of Twenty-First Century VIAs.

Relying on much volunteer labor and a little bit of well-placed philanthropy, WGVI has built gardens at the public schools; run educational programs on energy-saving techniques, organic gardening practices, chemical  free homes, and the local economy; and identified the resources and local businesses that could help with transitioning to greater sustainability. WGVIers increased membership in the local Community Supported Agriculture farms and organized RSA — restaurants banning together to pre-buy from farmers, saving the farmers from marketing and creating cooperation in the restaurant  community.

When the town inherited an historic farm and farmhouse, it was WGVI that organized local contractors to volunteer time in its renovation, keeping its historic characteristics while reducing its ecological footprint.  Members cleaned out the barn and turned it into a community resource center on sustainability; they planted educational gardens where children from the schools come to learn about the history and craft of local agriculture; and they welcomed the school’s favorite teacher and his family to live at the farm, providing tours during visiting hours.

The Westport Library partners closely with WGVI, hosting bi-monthly lectures and films and discussions.  Projects arise as the volunteer members of WGVI stand up to lead them.  Much volunteer time matches a little bit of philanthropy to purchase equipment and produce outreach materials.  Members work hard and play hard together.  They celebrate their community and achievements with festivals and dances and lots of good local food.

In many ways WGVI employs the open structure and flexible multi-project form of the old Village Improvement Associations, but with a modern emphasis on sustainability.  Dan Levinson, a co-founder of WGVI, runs a successful private equity fund in Connecticut.  Witnessing a growing global ecological,
social, and financial crisis, his response was to contribute to shaping a more sustainable future for his hometown, and by example for other regions around the world.

Westport Village Green Initiative thus carries the particular vision that Dan Levinson brings to it.  That includes an understanding of the importance of producing locally what is used locally, creating jobs for local youth, maintaining production skills and infrastructure, and gradually freeing the region from dependence of goods shipped over long distances.  Westport Essentials (WE) is an effort to indentify basic goods now imported to the region that might be produced locally and setting up conditions to encourage their manufacture — access to land, job training, consumer pre-purchase, and investment.  Westport Essentials, a project of WGVI, uniquely characterizes a new type of Village Improvement Association, citizens reaching to that intersection of ecology, economy, community, and culture to leverage local capacity for change.

WGVI is just over two years old and already news of its accomplishments has spread to neighboring towns.  As a result WGVI recently changed its name to Green Village Initiative in order to serve as an organizational vehicle for volunteer efforts in Ridgefield and Bridgeport amongst other nearby communities.


About the New Economics Institute

The New Economics Institute [formerly the E.F. Schumacher Society] is working to make the new economics, one which supports people and planet, mainstream in the United States.  Our current economic system is failing in its essential purpose: to provide fulfilling and healthy lives for all people while nurturing the social and natural systems on which the economic system depends. The New Economics Institute is helping people imagine the kind of economy that is designed to enhance human well-being and ecological health. To do this, it is forging a narrative and theory of such an economic system, showing how it is possible to get from here to there. It is setting out a new language for economics, which describes the world more effectively, and – using a combination of cutting edge economics and innovative communications – it is explaining how this new economics is already emerging. http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/about_us

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About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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