Transition Business: Interview with Environmental educator and community organizer Susan Silber by Willi Paul. Sponsored by permaculturexchange.com/
Susan’s Guiding Principles:
* The 21st Century is emerging as the time for a unique and urgent opportunity to transform our society into a world that is more earth-centered, respects all species and places an equal emphasis on people, planet and profits.
* Communities can and should work together to build resilience and local economies in the wake of climate change, economic instability and peak oil. There are already thousands of amazing projects happening all over the world, which we can use as models and replicate.
* Environmental education programs offer some of the best opportunities to teach children about some of the most pressing issues of their generation through best practices in education – hands-on, placed-based, real-life, academically-challenging learning.
* Our children are our future. Let’s give them the opportunity to speak to the world about their visions for the future and the role they can play in building a sustainable and healthy world.
* * * * * * *
Interview with Susan by Willi
As Co-Founder, what are the short and long-term challenges as you build the Transition Berkeley Initiative (TBI)?
So many challenges lie ahead of us! First, the external challenges: the Transition Movement was created to try and find local solutions to some of the great challenges of our time: climate change, economic instability and peak oil. So we are really racing against the clock to try and put some important infrastructures into place before these challenges become too overwhelming. We want to promote (and create, when needed) systems like swapping and bartering, for example, and back/front yard gardening. These solutions really promote a healthier lifestyle, so we like to look at these crises at opportunities as well.
One challenge is that the environmental movement has been in the messaging, and the perception that it is a white, privileged movement. We want to help change to change that, and create a more inclusive movement. Part of that is in the messaging. Promoting messages of health and saving money, rather than using a buzzword like sustainability helps. Resilience is one buzzword that is just catching on which resonates with many environmental justice organizations, thanks to groups like Bay Localize. Our message is: we are in for some tough times. Let’s work together, and along the way we can live healthier more fulfilling lives.
Another interesting challenge for Transition Berkeley is that there are so many like-minded groups working in Berkeley already on these issues! So we are really looking for a way to connect these groups, while supporting them and bolstering their efforts. We would love to put on a greywater workshop with Greywater Action, for example, perhaps at a neighborhood in an underserved community.
Do you have a sense of how many members are most active online vs. face-to-face? Do these folks require different strategies?
The Transition Movement is all about getting out and doing stuff. We have had some tremendously successful face-to-face events, from our annual bike rides, which have attracted close to 80 people each time, to our weekly Crop Swaps. We also have a few hundred members who receive our bi-weekly newsletter each week, so we definitely use the Internet as a primary way to promoting our events. But the face-to-face events are what connect people, so we really work to organize substantial events at least once or twice a month.
Please define sustainability. Where is sustainability in relation to transition, permaculture or occupy?
I really like the definition of sustainability that I just read: meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. That means designing with nature, being stewards, using methods, systems and materials that won’t deplete resources or harm natural cycles” (Rosenbaum, 1993). Another definition is: Sustainability “identifies a concept and attitude in development that looks at a site’s natural land, water, and energy resources as integral aspects of the development” (Vieira,1993)
Permaculture embodies this definition and more; if we look at the 12 design principles of permaculture, we see that it’s a philosophy that works with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single project system.
The Transition Movement was created by permaculturist Rob Hopkins, who really integrates permaculture (and sustainbililty) into the movement. Transition Initiatives look at sustainable projects, at permaculture design projects – like Food Forests, like community gardens, like riding our bikes together. And we do it as a community.
The Occupy Movement is so young that it’s hard to define and know where it’s going, and it’s been largely about economic injustice. Occupy has done a great job of stating what they are “against” – big banks, corporate greed. . I would love to see more cross-fertilization and collaboration between the various movements. I think that the Transition Movement could really help to propel Occupy to support what does work in our society – projects like I just discussed. Community banks, community gardens, less greed and more sharing. These projects could be supported and bolstered by the tremendous energy behind the Occupy Movement. There were already some great examples of permaculture happening at various Occupy Camps! There were greywater systems, seed ball workshops, guerrilla gardening — some of this cross-fermenting of ideas was already happening, but we can do it on an even larger scale.
Does TBI work with other Bay Area or national groups? Challenges herein?
TBI is all about collaboration with other groups. In Berkeley we have worked closely with the Ecology Center, and have collaborated with a number of other organizations, including the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, Global Exchange and Bay Localize. We are an official initiative of the U.S. Transition Movement, which offer a great deal of resources. But we would like to have TBI collaborate beyond the traditional environmental groups. For our upcoming community resilience workshop, for example, we will be reaching out to neighborhood groups, to churches, to local businesses, to environmental justice organizations – to help facilitate a discussion about community resilience.
Part of our challenge lies in not having funding to really do some serious organizing. We would love to organize a Bay Area-wide gathering of Transition groups, for example, but currently we don’t have the money to do so. But part of Transition is finding a way to go beyond the traditional model of needing money to make things happen! So somehow or another we will… make it happen. But a little funding would be great, and we plan on being more proactive about fundraising in 2012.
Tell us about your business services? What are you really good at?!
I think that I have worked best as the creator, the incubator of projects. I’m really proud of the projects that I started. For example back in the early 2000’s I became interested in creating a project to support two causes that I’m passionate about – youth and bikes. I approached the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and later the Presidio YMCA, and wrote a grant for $25,000 to start an after school program for middle school students. We fixed up hundreds of bikes, taught a bunch of kids to ride, wrote a curriculum guide and the program is still going strong at the Presidio YMCA ( it’s called Y-Bike now). I also worked with Acterra and then the Ecology Center to start Climate Action Groups; I wrote a grant to the San Francisco Foundation to bring groups to the East Bay. And last year I co-wrote a grant to pilot test a green schools certification program with the organization Green Schools Initiative. I just really enjoy creating projects!
What were the outcomes from your role as strategic planner and grant writer for the Kids vs. Global Warming’s matter Campaign?
Originally I worked with Kids vs. Global Warming to help them write grants for this campaign, started by an amazing kid named Alec Loorz. He had tremendous success speaking all over the world about the urgent need for our leaders to take action to fight climate change – as a moral obligation for his and future generations – and wanted to get more kids involved. So I wrote many grant proposals for them and ultimately helped them to get funding from the Threshold Foundation, which is being used to help update their website. Other proposals are still pending so I’m not sure about their outcome. I also worked with them to help organize the iMatter March in San Francisco, which brought together Bay Area youth last Mothers Day to bring the message to leaders: “live and lead as if the future matters.” I was really inspired by the not just environmental heavyweights like Annie Leonard and Mark Haartzgard spoke at the rally, but by the youth speakers who did such a tremendous job of sharing their emotional appeal to leaders to take urgent action NOW against climate change – before it is too late. The march was one of 150 worldwide, with youth organizing marches in places like Nepal, Mexico, Cameroon and India. The iMatter Campaign is moving into organizing a speakers bureau for youth to talk about the moral obligation for our leaders to do something about climate change; though I’m no longer helping to organize these efforts I still wholeheartedly support these efforts.
Grant writing – as a mentor of mine likes to say – is like driving at night without headlights! In general, how do you write a successful grant?
Grant writing has really become more and more challenging over the years, as funding from foundations has dried up. First, you gotta get to know the guidelines of the foundation. Projects much absolutely fit into the foundation’s explicit guidelines; otherwise it’s just not worth it to write a proposal! Other Advice: Be concise. They are not looking for wordy elaborate applications. And absolutely try to connect with the program officer. They will give you the best insights about the foundation. And don’t be personally offended if your proposal does not get funded. Keep trying if you think that your project is a good one! My bike education project was turned down by probably a dozen foundations before Team Up for Youth gave us $25,000.
In your Guiding Principles, you write: “Let’s give them the opportunity to speak to the world about their visions for the future and the role they can play in building a sustainable and healthy world.”
How is TBI supporting your vision for kids?
Well I’ve been working for about a year now with the Albany elementary schools, teaching enrichment classes to kids around environmental projects. We have built worm boxes, cooked recipes using local seasonal ingredients, and done art projects with nature – to name a few lessons. I’m trying to bring these classes to Berkeley schools, as a project of Transition Berkeley. The classes focus on fun and community-based solutions, fitting right into the mission of TBI. We also have the vision of hosting these classes for middle and high school students, as well as starting monthly re-skilling classes which invite kids to be part of our workshops – from gardening to greywater. I’m also in the beginning phases of organizing a website which collects the voices of youth who write about problems and solutions to the environment. I’m hoping that this will be a project of Transition U.S. So I have big plans to integrate youth more into TBI in 2012.
Please reflect on your experience in the United States Peace Corps. How is Berkeley & TBI like or unlike your host county’s issues, and mission in the Corps?
The Peace Corps lives and breathes community organizing, which is what TBI is and does. In the Peace Corps I utilized many of the same tools which I am using now, but on a much smaller scale. I networked, I supported community groups. We had some similar issues as well. In the small Costa Rican town that I lived in the Peace Corps, for example, the biggest company in town, who exported ornamental plants all around the world, paid very low wages and used a lot of pesticides. I tried to do some education around pesticide use but it was tough. But people as a whole were much more engaged in their community. It was small and there wasn’t much to do there so it was easier to organize! Most people were on some sort of town committee. And they lived and breathed the local economy, and lived and breathed sharing and working with their neighbors while living a simple but fulfilling lifestyle. The Transition Movement in Berkeley wants to bring some of that back. Wouldn’t it be great if neighbors actually knew each other, if people became more engaged in local issues to make our community a better place?
Where do you find beauty? Is beauty a kind of barometer for the sacred?
I find beauty first and foremost in untouched nature. And in connecting with my daughter. Her energy is so deep sometimes, her beauty so raw. Then her interaction with nature has been a joy. We have a weekly playdate in nature which I find beautiful. I find it fascinating that some beauty if universal, and other beauty is not. So if we look at beauty in a non-traditional sense – going beyond the western sense of beauty as a pretty face – then yes, I find beauty a barometer for the scared.
What makes you so passionate about environmental education?
I have been both a classroom teacher and an environmental educator. When I teach kids about the environment – and usually out in nature – I see how excited they get about learning. I see that they WANT to help protect nature. And many of today’s youth really get that the problems that adults have caused are not going away – in fact, they are getting worse and worse. So they get on a very basic level that we need to take care of nature.
Furthermore, environmental education really embodies the best practices of education, first of all. EE programs are hands-on, they use lots of teamwork, and they are project-based. For example, the amazing organization Kids for the Bay teaches kids about watersheds by doing hands-on projects both in the classroom and in streams and creeks close to the schools. Kids have a blast and learn so much in the process! It’s also very interdisciplinary, which is just the natural process of learning. Kids read about watersheds, they write about them, and they do lots of hands-on projects with this topic.
It’s also just so essential to bring kids today into nature, because parents are doing it as much on the weekends or after school. Kids today spend an average of seven hours a day in front of a screen, according to a new Kaiser Foundation study. Crazy, eh? Kids now have what author Richard Louv has termed “nature deficit disorder.” They are suffering from not being out in nature – from the obesity epidemic to ADHD to not understanding and respecting nature. So any environmental education program that gets kids outside is essential.
Susan’s Bio –
I am more at home on a mountaintop than a computer, and am happiest when surrounded by caring, compassionate people who are passionate about the natural world. I am proud to say that I have always loved what I do and have always treasured who I work with. For the past 20 years I have worked as a projector designer, community organizer, events planner, fundraiser, program coordinator, educator and writer. I have delighted in working and collaborating with some of the most exciting and esteemed organizations in the Bay Area and beyond, including the United States Peace Corps, Hostelling International, Acterra and the Green Schools Initiative. I live with my husband Shea and young daughter Luna in Berkeley, California, surrounded by loving neighbors in a cozy home with a veggie garden, chickens and a cat. When I’m not working on inspirational projects I can be found riding my bike around town or in the mountains, hiking on beautiful trails, playing or listening to music or attempting to cook seasonal local food. I’m grateful for all of the beauty in my life!