Less Summer, More Solutions

(Title borrowed from SoS Twin Cities!)

I just got back to the Pioneer Valley from a week in Hartford, CT at the Grand Aspirations National Gathering.

Spending the past week in Hartford, CT with 50 other young leaders in the transition to a sustaining economy was re-affirming and joyful. I feel more connected than ever to other people across the country who are refusing to accept the standards options laid out for youth and community progress. While we all faced struggles and doubts during our summer programs, coming together this past week proved to me that collectively we are more powerful, knowledgeable and hold more potential than I can imagine.

A few of my highlights from the week:

  1. We’re learning our to sustain ourselves. I’m a food person. At gatherings I tend to take on some responsibility for making sure everyone gets feed well. This gathering had the biggest outpouring of food donations of any I have attended (short of Occupy Wall Street’s kitchen!). We brought bags and bags of veggies from our farm in Greenfield, Mass. The Hartford team had preserved vegetables for us all summer. Sarah Murphy (formerly of the Detroit program) brought boxes and boxes of vegetables from her farm in New Hampshire. We talk a lot about growing our own food and sustaining ourselves. I’m excited to say we’re actually doing that.
  2. We’re building our identity as a national organization. This week we got to review, discuss and revise the Strategic Plan for Grand Aspirations. This afforded the opportunity to discuss what the purpose, role and vision of our group are. People who first heard of GA this summer, and those who helped found it five years ago (and those of us in between), came together and sought built our collective understanding and direction.
  3. Our struggles are bound up in each other. We all know that it’s not enough to just act in our local communities. The issues which effect our neighborhoods also act on national and international scales. That’s why I’m so excited that we talked about how to support new programs in an accessible way, how to learn from the struggles other communities face and value the connections we build across geography and culture.
  4. We’re getting some serious stuff done (but having lots of fun). Listening to presentations and conversations this past week, I learned about so many successful strategies and projects. From the new Bike and Walk Center opening in S. Minneapolis, to the hundreds of pounds of compost diverted from the waste stream in Middleton, to the hundreds of homes canvassed for energy efficiency in Iowa City, to the solar installation training going on in Highland Park, to the Yard Sharing network in Chicago, to the… okay you get the idea. We are achieving results.

Some of the best advice I got this summer came from a farmer named Ricky in Orange, MA. He encouraged me to always be thinking about what comes next, and to prepare for my next project before getting too burnt out on my current endeavors. He farms full time, but felt burn-out on the horizon. So he started devoting one day a week to his wood working practice.  There is always more to be done on the farm, but he chose for himself to set that boundary, and grow in a new direction.

For me, that’s what the GA national community is about. Every time I feel discouraged or doubtful, I hear about something new that inspires and motivates. I can shift what I’m doing to better meet my needs, and lean on the people around me for help. Spaces like the National Gathering can help us become agile and resilient individually and collectively. It’s those spaces which keep me coming back for more.

Yeah, it was that fun. Photo: Leo Qin.

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Fixing Up the Turners Falls Skatepark

Post by SoS Pioneer Valley Program Leader Evan Scheltema 

This post I’ll be talking about patching up the Turners Falls Skatepark, with much help via tools and supplies from Bryan Dolan, Turners Falls resident and skateboarding guru.

The patching up of the park I did with a friend and part time participant of Summer of Solutions, Mason Poulin, came about as a result of the cancellation of a skateboarding workshop, set to take place as a part of the Summer Workshop Series, of The Brick House Community Resource Center. The park was dubbed unsafe to skate because of obtrusive objects and metal bits sticking out from the ramps, and recently a youth had been injured at the park. Unbeknownst to me, due to this the park was closed, and this was found out only days before the workshop, leading to its cancellation. In turn, I felt it should be fixed to allow kids to skate in an environment that promotes, not rejects, skateboarding.

Mason and Evan (l to r) work on the Turners Falls Skatepark.

It really is a shame that the park is in such a state a disrepair. When talking with Bryan (who, along with his girlfriend, is on the skatepark committee in Turners Falls), he told me that the park’s life may be limited to the rest of this summer/winter and maybe some of next year. Since it was in such a state of disrepair and maintaining was a job that required much too much time in the busy life of Bryan. This made me really sad considering I learned to skate at that very park back when it was over by Unity Park. Recently too, Greenfield lost its park leaving quite a few angsty youth with nowhere to skate. If the Turners Falls park were to close, there would be no more skate parks in all of Franklin County. Considering how many displaced youth I know personally and gauging from the interest level based on our outreach project, I would say that is pretty ridiculous. Especially when the skaters now get a lot of flak from the town officials and the paper about skating in other, non-sanctioned areas. It just doesn’t make sense to me. How can you take someone’s space, then get mad at them when they move to another?

So I guess the point I am getting at, is that skateboarding is necessary, and by removing a skatepark you will not get rid of the skaters. It is exercise, a sport, a lifestyle, an art form, and in my eyes, it is the adaptation of urban/sub-urban youth as a product of their environment. Skateboarding is limitless and stretches not only your physical limitations but also stretches your imagination to come up with never before done tricks and stunts unique to you. There is no coach yelling at you to get up and do it again, it is personal motivation and perseverance that lend themselves to skateboarding. Seeing the world through your eyes while on a skateboard will literally transform it into a massive obstacle course, and allows you to step out of your day to day mind into an entirely new perspective. So now I ask, why is this activity shunned? It escapes and baffles me. So lets all stand together and support skateboarding!

A skater in action at the T.F. Skate Park.

When I Say “Community,” You Say “Space!”

Canvassing can either be great or incredibly discouraging.

Generally those two reactions are interspersed throughout any time period spent canvassing.

One good interaction, one awful, a few mediocre.

Wednesday I had the pleasure of enjoying myself while canvassing, and feeling like I was canvassing for something actually meaningful.

Summer of Solutions Pioneer Valley has been working on a community space project, so dubbed because we are interested in creating drive behind a community space in Greenfield.

We have talked about the idea a lot and pulled together some materials, but this was our first time really pounding the pavement and talking to people about the idea.

I had the pleasure of pairing up with my buddy Duncan for this adventure.

C’mon, who wouldn’t want to canvass with this guy?

One reason I’m interested in creating a community space for Greenfield is the stark divisions I see between different parts of the local population.  It’s a town of 18,000.  As someone from the city, it definitely has that small town vibe which makes me think everyone should know each other.  In some ways that’s true, and it can start to feel like a very small place.   In other ways however people of differing class or race backgrounds rarely interact.

Many aspects of life here are really wonderful and desirable, like the beautiful natural surroundings, the accessible downtown area, the strong local businesses.  In a way, I think that makes people hesitant to acknowledge the issues which do exist for the community.  Just as other places across the country, unemployment and poverty rates are high.  Addiction and homelessness are deeply engrained cycles many people in the community are struggling to break out of.  Youth finish (or don’t) public school and have few local options for employment.

Look, it’s really pretty. All our societal ills have gone away!

These realities don’t fit into the picture a lot of people hold in their mind about this place, so they often are overlooked.

These attributes have made it difficult for me to find a place in the local mix.  While I am an environmentalist, I view environmental issues through an intersectional lens.  I don’t just want to talk about carbon emissions, but also inequality and hierarchy in our communities.

I haven’t found that in the somewhat siloed aspects of local politics.

So that’s just why I want a community space, a place where people can get together to talk about these things,and  have musical and cultural events.

Duncan and I started walking east down Main Street, with some flyers and surveys in hand (longboard too).

We first stopped to talk to a group of guys standing on the sidewalk.  Duncan bummed a cigarette and we asked them what they thought of the community space idea.  They all took a survey and wrote in their ideas.  A few gave us their numbers so we could be in touch about future activities.

We then headed down to Greenfield Community TV to borrow a camera to document some of the day.  We talked awhile with one of the directors and got set up with a camera, tripod and boom mic to film on the street. Back outside, the first woman we talked to, pushing a stroller down the street, seemed particularly excited about the idea. She is a teacher at the closest elementary school and said she’d be happy to help.

If at any point we had started to wonder about the importance or utility of this project idea, we were certainly reassured yesterday.  It’s clear when you ask someone a question that strikes at their own desires.  Whether it’s because they feel targeted by police on the street, or want a place which offers free programs for kids, or they want to share their music more with their neighbors, we’re talking about an idea that rings true to many people.

Some assorted characters at our first community space potluck.

That was exciting to see, and while we only have a few weeks left in Summer of Solutions to move this project along, I can see it has real potential to carry on past our program and be taken on by others around us.

The SoS crew at a recent community event.

what’s up with s.o.s. p.v.

We’ve been busy getting our hands dirty in the Pioneer Valley, but I cleaned up enough for Sunday supper to write a blog post without soiling the computer.  

After a dry March and April, those April showers finally showed up in May.  That means the past two weeks have seen a lot of growth in our various growing spots in Franklin County.  The seeds that would barely germinate are now growing too quick for us to keep up with.  

But it’s worthwhile to take some time out from the weeding and transplanting and word-spreading to do a round up:

-The Summer Workshop Series is taking shape.  Advisory Groups in Turners Falls have provided feedback, totaling about 26 workshops that the Brick House will attempt to put on this summer.  SoS-ers will be in volunteer roles, facilitating some courses and also doing outreach and logistics.  The free workshops will range from wilderness skills to English conversation practice to Kids Gardening.  

-Several rows are planted at Harvest Moon Farm and more are in the works.  Our first SoS workday on Wednesday May 30 had six of us out transplanting tomatoes, spreading mulch, weeding and harvesting scapes!

-We have gotten a lot of great farm donations that will keep us busy filling in the rows.  Plants from Gwen’s work, transplants from Harvest Farm of Whatley, and seeds on the way soon from High Mowing and America the Beautiful. Always plenty of mulch from the farm too!

-We took first place in the Youth Biz Expo Biz Idea contest with our Garlic Scape Pesto concept!  We are now rushing to get ready to go into production, because the scapes are coming in early this year. Once we get a batch out, we now have many local contacts interested in purchasing.  In the meantime, we have very stinky breath from snacking on scapes.

-Program members have also made it out to Laughing Dog Farm in Gill and Warner Farm in Sunderland to diversify our agricultural experiences.  Replete with goats and veggies, Laughing Dog is always a hit, and Warner Farm certainly gave us a lesson in tomato suckering. 

And all this even before the program starts?  There’s no slowing down from here and we’re excited to kick off in one week with all our participants!

Keep up with our adventures this summer at http://pioneervalleysolutions.wordpress.com/.

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Pioneer Valley Summer of Solutions: Take 2!

Just weeks after our program ended last summer, the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts was hit by Hurricane Irene. Bad. 

I was in North Carolina for the Grand Aspirations National Gathering as the storm worked its way up the East Coast.  The GA crew was fine, albeit delayed in our travel plans.  But when I got back to Franklin County, the home of program, I could see Irene had done serious damage.  Turners Falls and Greenfield, the hubs of activity for Summer of Solutions, were spared the worst of it, but near-by neighbors in Shelburne Falls, Conway and many other small towns lost roads, homes, electricity, farm crops, animals and more.  Seeing news footage of the main bridge being wiped out in Shelburne Falls was devastating.  We had helped partner Co-op Power to weatherize several homes in this beautiful and tight-knit community.  

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A big lesson of 2011 for me has been that unprecedented weather in our rural river valley and the surrounding mountain towns is incredibly devastating.  This lesson came in waves: first the tornado which struck Springfield and other towns south of us in June, causing massive damage, then the hurricane in August, and most recently with the surprise Halloween snowstorm, which dumped a foot of snow overnight and knocked out power for almost a week in many parts of the region.  Narrow mountain roads aren’t built to withhold major flooding; aging bridges across the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers can’t handle 100 Year Floods every year.   In an area which depends on agriculture, many small farmers had their worst season in years and lost thousands of dollars in crops.  

While it has been a sobering year to the realities of climate change, I feel hopeful for what we are building in the Pioneer Valley.  I also feel a new commitment to learning how to sustain ourselves and our communities in a changing climate. We will be at it again in 2012. 

Pioneer Valley Summer of Solutions is based in Greenfield and Turners Falls, MA, two towns in western Massachusetts along the Connecticut River.  These towns were rooted in manufacturing industries and are traditional crossing points for the surrounding communities, as far back as when the Pocumtuc tribe lived on the land. 

SoS in 2012 will continue our farming and community education projects from 2011 and expand in new directions.  In 2011 we helped start the Summer Workshop Series, hosted at the Brick House Community Resource Center in Turners, which was made up of dozens of free classes on topics from wood-working to self-defense to herbal medicine.  We will continue this partnership with the Brick House, including the Snack Garden, which we planted and tended with Spanish-speaking neighbors kids in the Kids Gardening Class. 

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We also are continuing a fruitful partnership with Harvest Moon Farm, across the river in Greenfield.  We started a “work-share” in 2011, helping with the Gwen and Eric’s crops in exchange for a quarter acre plot of our own.  We’ll be expanding to grow more vegetables to sell, and expand options for Greenfield residents to eat healthy, affordable and local food and be a part of its production.   We also will be using the Greenfield Community Kitchen to develop our own prepared food product.  

As a program in a small, rural community (combined Greenfield and Turners are under 25,000 people) we face challenges and advantages.  Living in the heart of amazing natural resources reminds me how we depend on them for everyday existence, and even in rural communities, access is lacking.  Learning how to create prosperity in a community which has been abandoned by many commercial industries is more than a summer experience, but we’re lucky to work with a lot of other dedicated residents. 

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Myself (Martha Pskowski) and Erika Linenfelser are returning as second year program leaders, and we’re hiring new local leaders.  Erika and I are both students at Hampshire College in near-by Amherst.  I am excited to deepen my connections in this community and explore ways to make more self-sustaining options for youth in Franklin County, who often relocate to find opportunities.  SoS is an exciting way to connect youth to older residents of the area to create a shared vision for the community.  I also can’t wait for more harrowing bike rides on our narrow roads, and refreshing swims in the Connecticut River after work days.  If you make it out to the Pioneer Valley, you’re sure to be charmed by our beautiful surroundings, and taken aback by the vitality of our local community. 

From the Ground Up: Solidarity Economy in the Pioneer Valley

We’re working on a local farm this summer in exchange for space to grow our own produce, which these days we harvest in over-abundance.  The zucchini, kale, and chard all grow faster than we can eat, so we traded some friends a basket of greens for potato spuds just ready to plant.  At our Grow Your Own Food Class the next day we planted the potatoes with local kids, who will come back to tend them and harvest later in the year. Our small garden at the Brick House Community Resource Center will yield food to share around the neighborhood. This is just one instance of the generosity and interdependence we have experienced this summer.

Duncan with some of our latest produce.

This Saturday, I’ll be heading to Worcester, Mass. for the Green Solidarity conference.  As programs across the country engage in a Day of Action, I’ll be sitting in with innovators, activists and organizers from Massachusetts to learn, and contemplate further how people can transform our economy to work socially and ecologically.  How can the benefits of cooperation and solidarity I have enjoyed this summer extend to the larger community?

Coming from an environmental organizing background, and as a student of political economy, I believe that structural re-invention of our economic system is necessary to halt environmental destruction and environmental racism.  It won’t be possible to buy our way to sustainability. Change is needed beyond a “green” makeover of our current economic system.  To sustain ourselves and the earth, we need an economy that functions to meet peoples’ basic needs and aspirations.  When the demands of capital and profit drive an economy these needs aren’t met.  I refuse to believe we have no other options.

I see the change we need in the solidarity economy movement.  It originated with people’s movements in Latin and South America to self-organize economic activity to meet basic needs, when state government and structural adjustment programs failed them.  My definition of a solidarity economy is an economy people own and operate with the understanding that their self-interest is bound up in the interests of their neighbors- both down the street and around the world, both human and non-human.  A solidarity economy is made up of many parts- cooperatives, non-profits, mutual aid societies, land trusts, extended families.  What binds it together is the understanding that working in solidarity will yield far greater benefits than pursuing self-interest and profit.

The work we are doing as Pioneer Valley Summer of Solutions is helping build the solidarity economy in our community.  We are hosting free classes through the Summer Workshop Series, on practical and sustainable topics; we are learning to fix bikes and make them available as affordable local transportation; were using the Time Bank to share goods and services; we are supporting local farmers by helping grow their produce, and consuming it.  Working together, we as a community can meet our needs, and make sure our neighbors are able to do the same.  As we work to meet the needs of our local community, we in turn understand the importance of environmental stewardship.

I can’t wait, on this year’s Day of Action, to explore how we can bridge the work of the solidarity and green economy movements.  Sounds like a task worthy of Summer of Solutions Pioneer Valley!

A Sneak Peek at Pioneer Valley Summer of Solutions

About a dozen of us filled the living room, sitting on all surfaces available and balancing plates on knees or floor boards. The room was full of relative strangers, from high school up to mid-20s, from nearby towns and every corner of New England, sharing company and a meal of lasagna. Energy was high as we discussed the projects that lie ahead this summer, and the ideas we have for our two months together.

This is Summer of Solutions Pioneer Valley, a program in sustainable community development and youth leadership, based in the towns of Turners Falls and Greenfield in northern Massachusetts.

We are a group of about fifteen full and part-time members who are all dedicated to learning how to create solutions in our communities. This summer, that means working on a local farm, learning home weatherization techniques, improving our bike maintenance skills, facilitating and organizing free local classes on topics from food preservation to stone-masonry and much more. Beyond these tangible skills, we’re learning the pieces that make it all fit together.

How do you start a community project? How can you make environmental solutions accessible? What is solidarity? What does it mean to be a sustainable business? How do you sustain yourself while you’re at it?

Working with an exciting variety of community partners, our participants will have the chance to:
1. Become competent in bike commuting and bike maintenance. In our rural corner of New England, cars are a near necessity. We will explore how transportation in our area can become more sustainable, starting with ourselves.
2. Grow their own food and share it with the local community. Through a partnership with Harvest Moon Farm, we will be doing a “workshare” to exchange our labor for produce. We will also be creating a garden at a local community resource center, the Brick House, to provide food and education in the center of Turners Falls.
3. Weatherize a local home and public building under the guidance of a local cooperative, Co-op Power. We will also develop materials to help renters secure energy audits and improvements on their homes.
4. Take and facilitate courses at the Brick House Summer Workshop Series, which offers free classes to the community on topics from gardening to wood working to meditation.

Summer of Solutions goes beyond the tangible work we will be doing, to instill a mindset for the rest of our lives. It’s the mindset that we have everything we are looking for to solve environmental, economic and social challenges. It’s the mindset that people are the key ingredient to make the changes communities are desperately seeking. It’s the mindset that the future can actually look brighter than our present today, and rolling up our sleeves to make it so.