Members of a new grassroots movement in Chico talk about bringing neighborhoods together to create a self-sustainable community
On a recent Tuesday evening at the Chico Grange Hall, 16 Chicoans munched potluck goodies like sushi and cookies while Tim Truby, a community services officer with the Chico Police Department, gave the lowdown on how to organize Neighborhood Watch groups in various neighborhoods around Chico.
Grange members had invited Truby to be the guest speaker at the sustainability-related educational-program portion—part of an ongoing series—of their most recent monthly meeting, hoping to glean information about community organizing and communication.
The intent of the Neighborhood Watch program—a crime-prevention program facilitated by improved communication among neighbors—seemed to complement the Grange series’ goal of building strong communities that can withstand the pressures of modern ills like climate change and the necessary transition toward a more sustainable lifestyle. This movement—gaining popularity the world over—has been dubbed “Transition,” referring to communities’ need to transition away from a dependence on oil, deal with climate change, and become economically independent.
Grange members decided to attempt their own local version of the Transition movement, and titled the series, which has been running since October, “Connecting Neighborhoods for a Transition through Unstable Times.”
“The Grange is very community oriented. It’s oriented toward the health and sustainability of our community,” said Lee Altier, a Grange member and the executive director of the Organic Vegetable Project at Chico State’s University Farm. During a recent phone interview, Altier read the Grange’s holistic goal, which accompanies its mission statement. It includes “healthy living in a thriving environment, with local food and water security, and a trusting, shared sense of community, honoring our interdependence with nature.”
“The orientation of the Transition movement seemed to fit well with our own concerns about wanting to maintain and regenerate the natural capital of the local area,” such as farmland, water and energy resources, Altier said.
Equipping neighborhoods with the tools to be self-sustainable by pulling together folks of varied interests, such as bicyclists and solar-water-heater enthusiasts with small-scale organic farmers and members of the local knitting circle, is what the Transition movement is all about. The idea is to build a resilient community, one that can withstand the pressures of a post-oil future.
“It’s beyond being a set movement,” said local filmmaker and eco-activist Gerard Ungerman. “It’s a general concern of coming out of our addiction to a finite energy source” by forming community connections, to move from “short-term exploitation to respectfulness.”
Ungerman has worked hard to ensure the conversations continue beyond the Grange meetings by providing a virtual forum at GreenTransitionChico.org to allow the ideas to gel and for community members to join forces. The website is designed to provide a place of “visibility, of community, for [various events] to be seen by more people, so they can link up, and inspire other people into action.”
The Transition movement has spread from its origins in the United Kingdom to cities and towns across Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia over the past five or six years. Organizers often refer to their groups as Transition towns.
Ungerman, along with Peter Hollingsworth and Karen Goodwin from the Butte Bicycle Coalition, became proponents of the Transition movement after reading Rob Hopkins’ seminal book, The Transition Handbook, and its follow-up, The Transition Companion (both available at Lyon Books, even though the former is out of print). Hopkins—often cited as the founder of the movement—continues to work in Totnes, England.
In Totnes, the Transition Town Totnes group supports such things as street-by-street community approaches to solar-energy generation, garden sharing and even its own currency, the Totnes Pound, which ensures money stays within the community. Totnes is the Transition-town ideal; high participation and long-term support from community members has resulted in long-lasting, significant strides toward small-scale, block-by-block independence. Neighbors increasingly rely on each other to feed, clothe, house and power themselves, without petroleum and without multinational corporations.
Closer to home, Transition towns can be found in Santa Cruz and Ashland, Ore.
“The focus [of Transition Chico is] connecting people with their neighbors. They’re their closest resources, their closest strengths,” said Stephanie Elliott, who, along with Altier and former Chico Grange President Jon Luvaas, first conceived of the series last summer. “[Transition] is a topic we could continue to build off of over multiple meetings,” and so the Transition Chico movement could develop as the series developed, Elliott explained.
Past topics have included community gardens, community initiatives like Love Chapmantown (the community coalition aiming to improve the lives of Chapmantown residents by allowing a space to talk about neighborhood concerns), and the Neighborhood Connections Project, “a Chico State outreach effort” whereby students encourage neighborhood communication with the goal of supporting fledgling Transition movements around Chico.
Both Elliott and Ungerman referenced an invigorating event back in 2009—a final synthesis meeting after an on-campus environmental film series Ungerman had assisted in organizing at Chico State. Green-minded community leaders came together to discuss goals of and obstacles to a unified local Transition movement. One of the topics discussed was the need for a single location to enable people to find out about Transition happenings, which is where the Grange and Ungerman’s website come in.
“I … realized that the most important thing is that we have to create this platform … for visibility and communication for anything green and respectful happening in town,” said Ungerman. “We need these spaces” to connect, he said, for “people who are concerned with building up community support.”
Altier finds the process of communicating with friends and neighbors as a benefit in and of itself. “Regardless of your personal philosophies or … whether or not you have confidence in scientific data about global warming or peak oil, I think everyone appreciates the value of good interpersonal relationships, especially with neighbors,” he said.