Building Sustainable Organizations and Utilizing Capacity

Denver     Visiting with a whole range of people before, after, and during screenings and meetings at the University of Denver international center and at Café Mayan, a haven of organizing on the University of Colorado campus in Denver, as well as talking to students, professors, and other before and after made for a fascinating day.  Some questions came up over and over again here in this bustling city with apartment complexes seeming to sprout up everywhere and the sky clouded with construction cranes.  One was how to produce sustainability in organizing campaigns that students had initiated.  The other interestingly was how to full exploit organizational capacity.  In some ways these questions confronted each other at opposite extremes of organizational experience.

The sustainability question was not the usual one confronting organizations who are trying to puzzle out how to get enough staff and resources assembled to continue to grow and move forward.  The questions seemed to spring more from activists having initiated campaigns and having difficulty maintaining momentum, especially without clear ideas or commitment to any specific organizational process.   Implicitly, the questions were too often, “then what?” and “what’s next?”  Activity springing “from the resistance,” so to speak, or in reaction to events on the campus and in the community moved with the shared agreement of a cadre of activists fired up and ready to move, but perhaps without a plan for how to maintain work over an extended period in face of challenges and push back.  I tried to respond in a positive way, saying it was important not to quit and to keep pushing, but I had a nagging feeling the real problem was an unwillingness to take the additional steps to organization building as opposed to movement response.  The next steps involve hard work, longer commitment, and acceptance of individual responsibilities coupled with the initial shared consensus.

On the other end of the spectrum were organizational formations both local and national that had certain capacities, in some cases extensive, but were unsure in this time of change and transition whether or not they were meeting the challenges, adapting sufficiently to the current context, and deploying their capacity fully.  National events that are sweeping over local concerns are confronting all levels of organizations to respond.  There is risk and reward there.  Change is hard in existing institutions.  There are always conservative tendencies that caution institutional leadership not to endanger the organization itself, even when opportunity exists to grow and build.  Staff and members need help understanding change.  Routines become habit, order becomes expectation, even when the mission of the organization may call for more, rather than just enough.

Importantly, the leadership were asking the questions about how to utilize their capacity, rather than running from it.  That’s part of the answer that organizations bring to the question of sustainability that gives them the ability to keep on fighting now and for decades to come.

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Lifestyle: Small Footprint Sustainability

New Orleans   Ok, you’re right.  This is not a normal place to look for lifestyle tips.  And, you’re thinking, hey, I was just in California, this will be some hippy-dippy baloney.  Well, have it your way, but this was no hippy strategy but a small footprint sustainability system for living well on very limited income, and there was nothing laid back, California dreaming about it, because no small amount of it was not produced by hard work.

I stayed in Los Osos with Al Barrow, who had invited me to the Central Coast to understand and think with he and others about how to deal with a long standing water and sewer issue (see earlier blog).  Almost as interesting as all of that was seeing how Al had taken his section 8 rental unit with no yard and made a couple of square feet here and there into virtually a farm plot.

There is no soil this close to Morro Bay and the spit.  It’s all sand, so Al had to virtually build soil from compost and dirt garnered here and there.  He had built his own version of greenhouses in several spots using discarded shower stall doors found here and there and picked up along the way.   He needed to protect his tomatoes and other vegetables from the wind and weather.  Around all sides was diatomaceous earth (recognizable as a white fossilized powder) to keep the bugs at bay.  The corn in the back was already knee high by the 4th of July, and tassels were coming out.  Inside the kitchen were large plastic buckets filled with harvested wheat.  Yes, wheat!  Al told me about grinding it out by hand to make his own raw oats for his breakfast oatmeal.

I was here to deal with water and it’s hard to talk about sustainability and small plot farming in this part of California without water.   Al had rigged up a system on his washing machine outside so that he could recycle the used grey water to keep his garden growing.  Pretty amazing stuff:  low cost ingenuity.

Nothing in Al’s background would have prepared him for such small scale home-based farming.  He had lived here and there throughout the west.  Made livings as a Fred Astaire dancer and a lot of other things along a path that included going to Oregon to college and graduating about 40 years old, but what he had obviously learned along the way was how to “make do,” and that turns out to have been an invaluable set of skills and the evidence seemed to be cropping up everywhere around him.

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