Sustainable Belmont (SB) is a group of concerned citizens and activists who seek to work with the town of Belmont MA to implement steps to reduce its impact on climate change. As a group, it has been undergoing subtle, yet significant changes in how it carries out its work.
The most visible of SB efforts is its monthly meetings. Often these are designed with a strong environmental point of view, to advocate for responsible stewardship of natural resources. For instance, films are shown to describe the environmental impact of consumerism (i.e. the Story of Stuff) and the impact of eating animals. Generally, these events are well attended, but the discussions are often brief, with many taking the same perspective on the issue.
“Preaching to the converted,” some would say. There was a concern that the organization might be growing stale, the same members attending, the same perspectives discussed. Attendance was falling off. Planning meetings were used to exchange ideas on different initiatives. Often these issues were followed-up on by one, maybe two individuals and there wasn’t much more involvement.
Jason Jay joined us to share his Pitfalls and Pathways work with the group on a night with particularly small attendance. Pitfalls are recurring conversations that correlate with the experience of being stuck. We were experiencing being stuck and one could say that our conversations were often recurring. His work challenged us, and as a result, the leadership of SB took on a different strategy, moving from advocacy to engagement. Advocacy was mainly what members were used to, there didn’t seem to be good alternatives. But Jason suggested how advocacy could give us the benefit of ‘being right’ at the expense of alienating audiences we wanted to engage or impact. Indeed, some worried the group’s efforts were becoming irrelevant.
Promoting engagement wasn’t necessarily a safe strategy. More people seemed willing to share in a conversation around “someone should” than willing to take on authentic commitments. What we tried relied on shifting our focus toward smaller groups who cared about a particular issue. One issue that leadership became active in was working to improve the town owned utility. Just a handful of people seemed to care about this issue, but the small group met a few times, with a number of people researching smart meters, utility regulations, and going to public meetings about the utility. SB leadership convened a few meetings to suggest a strategy to engage them in a deeper, more significant manner, to explore a number of questions about how they might take on energy efficiency measures when the group in the past pushed unsuccessfully for goals in this area. The small group seemed to thrive as each member shared information and ideas about how to work with the town’s light department. Then, a number of other areas were engaged by different small groups:
We created a meeting with a State Legislator to hear about his work on e-waste. Many from surrounding communities came with questions and support.
We brought together members of a regional group, Sustainable Middlesex, to share activities and best practices with other community environmental groups.
While advocacy is still part of SB’s activities, a few things stand out from these “engagement” oriented events:
Engagement increased turnout and brought in new people.
More people began to get involved in the group’s activities outside of the monthly meetings.
Engagement provided a deeper appreciation of the issues and people expressing different viewpoints.
New options are emerging as paths forward with challenging situations.
At the large group meeting recently, as members reported on their own interests, it was clear that there was a spark in the group we didn’t have before. It’s yet unclear where this new direction will lead; But, it does seem that we are ‘unstuck’ from our pure advocacy role that was losing steam.