Weaving a Sustainable Future: An Interview with Gay Nicholson

In September 2011, New Dream spoke with Gay Nicholson, founder and President of the citizen-based group Sustainable Tompkins and a member of our Board of Directors, about her efforts to advance the sustainability movement in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Can you briefly describe the mission of your organization, Sustainable Tompkins, as well as some of the group’s key initiatives in the Finger Lakes region?

Since 2004, Sustainable Tompkins has been a leader in laying the groundwork for the transition to a resilient local economy, healthy environment, and strong social fabric.  We act as convener, connector, and catalyst to engage both the grassroots and policymakers in the work of redesigning how we work and live so that our community can successfully cope with global influences such as climate change and energy descent. 

Sustainable Tompkins works to provide the hub and spokes for a community sustainability movement that protects the long-term well-being of our region.  We advocate a systems approach to build the infrastructure and social capacity for more sustainable ways of living and working. Projects and programs have focused on energy efficiency, climate protection, green purchasing, sustainable community development, green collar jobs, sustainable enterprise, healthy infrastructure, greening heath care, and economic/ecological justice.

You’ve been able to achieve a lot in the seven years since you launched the organization. What do you see as the biggest drivers of your success?

Sustainable Tompkins came together in 2004 after I conducted a feasibility study to test our community’s interest in forming a coherent local sustainability movement. Through this process I engaged about 80 community leaders in study circles on various aspects of sustainability and hosted salons for hundreds of people throughout the county. A repeated refrain in those gatherings was “I thought I was all alone. I thought I was the only one with these concerns and aspirations for a better future.”

Much of our work has been to simply make people and their sustainability projects visible to each other, and to inspire hope and courage. Our Signs of Sustainability program and Tompkins Sustainability Map celebrate the amazing inventiveness and leadership of local citizens building the infrastructure of sustainable living and shifting the norms of behavior. So, our work in “building the movement” has been a critical part of our collective success.

In terms of our organization’s success, we’ve also been willing to stick our necks out and be the first ones to raise topics and educate various target audiences on areas such as clean tech, green collar jobs, and sustainable health care. It can be challenging to introduce new concepts, and we’ve faced some friction at the boundary layer that those following us haven’t experienced. But I think that leadership has resulted in others recognizing Sustainable Tompkins as a key participant in local issues. 

And of course, we would not have been able to concentrate on so many projects and partnerships without the incredible support of the Park Foundation. They’ve been with us from the start and have made it possible to focus on building the movement, creating infrastructure, and widening the conversation. We only recently established an office with employees in 2009, so we also got a lot done in the early years by keeping our overhead very low so that all funds went to the projects and contracted services. We are now in the phase of building our own organizational infrastructure and local support via a membership program.

What motivated you personally to get involved with sustainability efforts at the local and regional level?

I grew up in the woods and fields of southern Wisconsin, so my earth connection has always motivated me to work to protect our Home. I spent many years doing research in sustainable agriculture, but as I was finishing my doctorate, I felt called to lend a hand in promoting environmental stewardship to the general public. I worked for a few years on global warming and consumption projects with Cornell’s Program on Ethics and Public Life, before I took over as executive director for the Finger Lakes Land Trust. Land conservation is an important piece of designing a sustainable community, but I moved on to cofound Sustainable Tompkins because I wanted to work at the systems level and help people connect the dots and design for better solutions. We need to help people overcome their denial about the culture they are living in, and help the pioneers who are building a new culture.

Sustainability is a broad concept that covers everything from energy and transportation to social justice and economic livability. As a small organization, how are you able to maintain this broad outlook while also not stepping on the toes of other groups and individuals working in the same issue areas?

We try hard to create an atmosphere of collaboration and partnership within the local sustainability movement, although not everyone is able to fully embrace those ideals due to our cultural conditioning and the competition for resources. And as some of the mainstream institutions have added sustainability into their programs, the small groups and pioneers have sometimes been overrun. 

Another arena for trust building has been between social justice groups and environmental groups.  We’ve often been lumped into the latter category because of our work on energy and climate (which of course have a huge justice component!), but lately we are making some headway in creating trust and shared purpose. This year we are part of a team working with the Dorothy Cotton Institute and Breakthrough Communities to bridge the gap between the two movements with a specific focus on economic justice and job creation.

You’ve referred to the importance of “spark plugs” in a community—people who are real drivers and implementers of initiatives. Can you elaborate on this and provide some examples?

I’ve been volunteering for over 30 years from the level of the hamlet to the national stage, and the common element of successful projects is the presence of at least one or two key “spark plugs”—the people who care deeply about the project and are willing to carry it forward. Sometimes this is just somebody willing to keep the group meeting by scheduling and taking notes. But often, this is the person who becomes both “vision keeper” for the group and “the nudge” for taking the next action step. Without at least one person dedicated to the success of the project or group, things tend to dissipate and fall apart because there is nobody to hold the center of the team. This is especially true in all-volunteer citizen action groups. Again, many organizations have a core group of leaders, but groups need at least one person to provide the ongoing spark of engagement. 

I think we need to be more conscious about celebrating and supporting the spark plugs in our community. There’s a tendency for those who are too busy “right now” for civic engagement to forget to thank those who are protecting community well-being in some way. This is very relevant to the sustainable communities movement—whether it is springing up on its own around an issue, or using organizing templates such as Transition Towns or Buy Local campaigns. The global sustainability movement has been built upon the passion and dedication of individual citizens who have found the courage and made the time to help shift the paradigm of our shared story. I am hopeful that the new Collaborative Communities program at New Dream can help celebrate and support Americans who are persevering in their communities to make a difference.

What role do you see politics playing in sustainability? Is it critical to have a supportive political environment to actually get things done?

Eventually, we will need to reclaim our state and national politics, but right now they seem quite captured by the short-term and self-interested mindset of the corporate world. Thousands of activists have realized that the action is at the local level where we can make change in hundreds of ways. This will eventually undermine the power and influence of those dependent on exploitation of resources and people. 

In our area, local political leadership has helped advance change on several fronts, but that was in response to the citizen leaders who have been demonstrating the feasibility of a new paradigm. We’ve also seen an influx of sustainability and social justice advocates into elected positions. Thus, it is not essential to start with political leadership, as eventually it will follow if the sustainability movement is effective.

What do you see as the most critical area for your work in the next five to 10 years? Are there important gaps that still need to be filled?

We are focusing more of our efforts on building a sustainable and just local economy. The issue of jobs and economic security has everyone’s attention, and is the perfect meeting ground to connect the economy to health and democracy and justice. This will be our next big program push, and we are growing a number of partnerships in this arena. 

Another area that needs work is in teaching systems thinking to leaders across all sectors. We need to move much more quickly in designing and implementing more sustainable ways of living and working, and we can do that more effectively and efficiently if we are thinking together about system design.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to start or expand a sustainability group in their own community? Are there certain steps that were particularly helpful in your own experience? 

I would start by finding out what is already being done to solve the community’s problems. I wrote an overview of Tompkins County for the participants in our feasibility study that acknowledged the work that had gone before us. The process of researching this builds a base of future partners, and it’s best to start with some humility and gratitude for the other caring citizens in your community. 

Another useful perspective is to not waste your time trying to engage the people defending the status quo of an unfair and unsustainable economy (often those in power). Work with the people who have awakened to that reality and are ready to take concrete local action to build something better. It’s important not to get spread too thin, but you also have to make room for letting people work within their areas of inspiration. Small teams making modest gains that are linked together with a common vision might be the best way to go viral with a new paradigm within your community. Sustainability is all about collaboration and connection and democracy. That’s what makes us powerful. 

You are a member of the board of the Center for a New American Dream. What drew you to New Dream, and what role do you see the organization playing in encouraging the kinds of initiatives you’ve described above?

I met Julie Schor and Betsy Taylor in the early 1990s at a conference on consumption. After that gathering, they went on to found New Dream. I reconnected with Betsy when she was speaking at Ithaca College, and she invited me to be an outside stakeholder to provide feedback at a New Dream board retreat. Later, I was delighted to be invited to join the Board because New Dream has had the courage and the competency to bring national attention to the issue of overconsumption and has offered clear and practical advice on how to live sustainably with a focus on what matters. 

New Dream is now stepping up to the challenge of supporting both individuals and community groups in the work ahead. By providing a portal for sharing best practices and innovative tools for shifting our culture and redesigning our economy, New Dream can help us know each other and link us with a common vision. Together, we will be even more powerful. 

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