BEC re-blossoms

New executive director plus finances put aright spell promise for revitalized Butte Environmental Council

Robyn DiFalco recently came on board as executive director of the Butte Environmental Council.

Robyn DiFalco recently came on board as executive director of the Butte Environmental Council.

Photo by Matt Siracusa

The Butte Environmental Council (BEC) was the quintessential environmental nonprofit organization when it was formed in 1975 by the fusion of several local groups, including one called Chico Community Gardens and another—a recycling-focused group—that went by the name Forces to Restore Earth’s Environment, or FREE.

Thirty-seven years later—the last few a bit rough-going since the well-publicized, somewhat tumultuous 2009 departure of then-Executive Director Barbara Vlamis—BEC is poised to be back on track as the effective eco-activist organization it originally set out to be, and has been for so many years.

A significant part of the good news is that on Feb. 21 Robyn DiFalco, who stepped down from her position of the past six years as Associated Students sustainability coordinator at Chico State, is now at BEC’s helm as executive director. BEC reinstated the position after solving some financial problems and eliminating the two-part directorship structure that went into place following Vlamis’ leaving.

Chico State professor Mark Stemen, who chairs BEC’s revitalized board of directors, couldn’t be more thrilled that BEC “could entice such an incredibly talented woman to leave such a stable job.”

DiFalco, who referred recently to her A.S. position as her “dream job,” is even more excited about coming on board to lead BEC.

“I’m excited to work in the community more broadly than I’ve been able to, because I’ve been on campus, which is so all-consuming,” she said. “Also, environmental work is a little different from sustainability. I started my career working in environmental activism [in the Bay Area]; this is a little bit like getting back to those roots.”

But the energetic 36-year-old would not have been hired had it not been for BEC’s phoenix-like rising from the ashes of some serious financial woes. Without saying too much, Stemen—who has been on BEC’s board for two years—noted that during that time “we have tried our best to reorganize and get our organization back on stable financial footing.” When Vlamis left, BEC was in debt, he said. “We’ve now worked our way out of debt—we’re debt-free. It was a rough up-and-down out of that.”

Stemen credits longtime ARC of Butte County Executive Director Michael McGinnis—a co-founder of BEC who was on the original board of directors, and is now back serving on the board—with providing the financial expertise necessary to bring BEC into the black, so much so that it could afford to hire DiFalco.

“We were in the depths of darkness, and into that walks Michael McGinnis,” Stemen said. “Michael really straightened out our finances.”

Last year’s Procession of the Species at BEC’s popular Endagered Species Faire.

Photo courtesy of BEC

“He’s a knight in shining armor,” offered DiFalco.

In addition to McGinnis’ accounting expertise, part of BEC’s financial repair came about as a result of money brought in by several fundraisers, including North Valley Community Foundation’s Annie B’s Community Drive, and BEC’s annual Birthday Bash last fall, which sold out the ARC Pavilion.

McGinnis is no stranger to economics. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics and public administration.

“In my 39 years of being involved in nonprofits, well, somebody had to do the math, I guess. And I was good at math,” he said during a recent interview in his ARC office.

McGinnis said he came back to BEC last summer after not being involved since he was elected to Chico’s City Council in the late 1980s. He had been talking with Stemen about the possibilities for ARC involvement in a community garden on a piece of city-owned land that had been acquired when McGinnis was on the council, and then the conversation “just morphed into how I could be reinvolved with BEC.”

McGinnis, who was one of several BEC board members who interviewed DiFalco, said that he is excited about her coming on board, as “she seems like an extremely bright and mature individual.

“I think she comes with a sense of the importance of the issues that we’re facing,” he noted, both locally and in the big picture.

“Climate action would be one of those—climate change caused by man,” McGinnis continued. Because of recent negative publicity poo-poohing the existence of climate change (such as that of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich), the number of Americans deeming climate change an important issue has actually lowered rather than increased. McGinnis believes there is “even more need for agencies like BEC to be active. Nobody has a sense of urgency about [dealing with climate change], which is unfortunate. … Climate action is just one symbol of how important environmental groups like BEC are.”

Besides actively working to raise awareness about climate change, BEC will also be working to create a vibrant community garden and help other struggling environmental outfits, such as the Chico Bicycle Music Festival, survive and thrive—as well as continue putting on time-honored eco-events like the annual Endangered Species Faire, which has been in existence for more than three decades.

This year’s Endangered Species Faire, in May, will see BEC partnering with Kids and Creeks and the Chico Creek Nature Center. The event’s theme will be “Environmental Communities—Big and Small.” “It really is this idea that we’re all the same community and we all need to work together on this stuff,” Stemen said.

“I see myself and many see me as a next generation of BEC,” DiFalco said. “Any organization needs to replenish itself with those who do the good work that the founders started.”

“What we are really doing is returning to our roots,” said Stemen, who served as a BEC intern years ago when he was a student at Chico State. “Robyn is a milestone in a process that’s going to unfold over the next year. We’re excited about the prospects of what she can do with a platform like BEC—the premier environmental organization in the North State.”