Charlotte Celebrates Social Entrepreneurs

Are you discouraged by government gridlock?   Taylor Batten of the Charlotte Observer writes about 80 Charlotte area residents who feel the same way and decided to back innovative ideas from truly passionate people.  Calling themselves Social Venture Partners, they get involved with their grantees, serving on boards, helping make connections, providing strategic direction.  Hosting an event called Seed20 they heard 10 finalists out of a group of 84 applicants compete for prize money by giving dynamic three minute presentations about their idea.  One of the winners, teacher Julie Jones, was awarded $20,000 for her non-profit called Grub to Grub that collects food leftovers from school cafeterias and feeds them to grubs that then become fat and juicy feasts for chicken and fish.  Check out the article, sent by Sonya Dyer, titled  “Innovation?  Look beyond usual places” by Taylor Batten of the Charlotte Observer, 3/10/12.

How Do You Pay for Global Renaissance?

One promising answer: leverage market forces to pay for needed changes and do so in a way that makes everyone happy.  Is that possible?  “Yes!!!” says George Hamilton, President of Vermont’s Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC).  George told a story of how this works at our recent Face to Face Meeting of the Vermont Global Exchange, a group of seventeen leaders of Vermont-based international development organizations.

In March 2011, China, set high targets in its five-year plan to cut emissions, clean up industry and improve air and water quality.   Implementing the plan is another matter. “ISC’s target was to reduce emissions in one of the most polluted areas in China, Guangdong Province,” George told us. “With some seed money, we interviewed over one hundred key people to listen and learn what was going on in the region. We discovered that factory employees needed help in interpreting and implementing government guidelines without incurring too high a cost.”   ISC designed a solution: the Environment, Health and Safety Academy.

Establishing the Academy entailed affiliating it with Sun Yet-sen University in Guangdong and obtaining funds, curriculum, and technical assistance  from multi-national corporations such as General Electric, Honeywell, Adidas, Pfizer, Sabic Innovative Plastics, Walmart and Alcoa that were eager for new ways to improve the environmental performance and working conditions of their supply chain factories.  The US Agency for International Development matched the corporate support to help ISC realize its vision.

Now up and running, each year the Academy trains 4,000 factory managers to champion environmental cleanup and safe practices.  So far, ISC’s China  programs have averted 380,000 metric tons of CO2 with projections of over 1 million metric tons by the end of 2013.  The Academy has gained recognition from local and national Chinese government bodies. The Clinton Global Initiative highlighted ISC’s academy as an example of a successful public/private partnership that is leveraging big impact.   Next, ISC plans to spread its training model to other countries where supply chain factories face major challenges including Bangladesh and India.

ISC walks a path well known to those successful in sustainable development:  conduct thorough research to learn the local situation; design a workable model that can be piloted locally; to support the model, enlist partners from various sectors – business, government, academic; iron out kinks as the model is tried; when the model succeeds, partner with government, business, and academic institutions interested in trying it in new settings.  For ISC, donations from individuals were key to seeding the initial research which then leveraged market forces to create a win/win solution for everyone. 

Create a Positive Future – Kids Take the Lead

Kids around the world take the lead in creating a positive future.  The sidewalk paving around a school is crumbling.  Students go to the City Council, discuss how to fix it, keep watch until it’s repaired and then send a thank you note for good work well done.  After school, students and teachers cultivate a school garden and bring fresh produce to the local Food Shelf.  

Activities like these are part of school life in Tokyo, Mumbai and Burlington, Vermont. Inspired by the United Nations designation of 2005 -2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, Japan and then Sweden challenged their schools to prepare  youngsters to live sustainably on an earth with ever shrinking resources. Americans formed the US Partnership for the Education for Sustainability Decade to spread education for sustainability. Projects are sprouting in states and towns.  To learn more, I visited our local Sustainable Schools Project head, Jen Cirillo, based in nearby Shelburne Farms.

Sustainability = the shared responsibility for improving quality of life for all, economically, socially and environmentally, now and for future generations.  “That’s the working definition we use,” Jen told me. 

How to tackle the huge challenge of changing school cultures around the world? “We believe in creating local models,” said Jen. In August 2008 the Burlington School Board voted to transform a local elementary school into the nation’s first K-5 magnet school with a sustainability theme. Re-named the Sustainability Academy, its approach can be summarized:

  • Expose kids to all aspects of the community – urban and natural and help them see how the world interconnects
  • Engage them in making a difference – to identify and solve problems

“Youth have marvelous ideas,” says Jen. “An eight year old student came up with thirty practical, doable suggestions for improving teaching!”

“We focus on teachers. When they are turned on to sustainable living, their enthusiasm spreads to students, families, the community,” Jen said. Professional development and curriculum design give teachers tools and ideas. An upcoming workshop will include a visit to the Food Shelf to learn who uses it and why, then a walk to the Intervale, an urban farm with a gleaning program that shares produce with the needy, and finally a discussion of how to bring food justice into the curriculum.

How can you and I help prepare kids to live sustainably? “Get involved in a local school, identify one or two teachers who champion this important approach, fund scholarships for them to get hands-on experience,” Jen told me. Whether or not we help directly, let’s cheer all efforts to equip students to be skillful leaders in positive change.

Peace on Earth – It’s Happening More Than Ever

Invited to write an essay on the theme “What Are You Optimistic About?” Harvard professor of evolutionary psychology Steven Pinker answered: “The decline of violence.” Response to the essay was surprising. “I started hearing from scholars saying, ‘There’s much more evidence on this trend than you were aware of,” said Pinker in a recent New York Times article. “I realized there was a book to be written.”

The Better Angels of our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined  makes an encouraging point: “Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Here are the kinds of examples he cites: 

  • The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008
  • The number of people killed in battle has dropped 1,000 fold over the centuries as civilizations evolved.  Before countries were organized, battles killed more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. Now battle field deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.
  • Murder in European countries has steadily fallen from near 100 per 100,000 people in the 14th and 15th centuries to about 1 per 100,000 now

There are multiple reasons for the decline in violence. Before the rise of the state, revenge was in the hands of individuals and clans and caused much bloodshed. With the rise of civilization, the ground rules of society changed. Most countries now are organized around concepts of justice and include safeguards against violence. The invention of movable type stimulated the generation and circulation of new ideas that could be debated and changed into ways of operating society more smoothly.

New ideas of equality gave rise to the empowerment of women who took more public roles. “Women are statistically more dovish than men,” says Dr. Pinker. The rise of democracy also produces more peaceful societies. According to Pinker, there were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. The number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to 25 now.

According to Joshua Goldstein in Winning the War on War, the patient work of peacekeepers has reduced war. This is corroborated by Andrew Mack’s Human Security Report 2009/2010 that attributes peaceful trends to the work of the thousands of non-governmental organizations dedicated to peace.  

“Peace on Earth, Good Will to All” were words attributed to angels in the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth. Let’s jump on board with the scholars and share the good news that more peaceful living is happening around the world now than ever before.

Global Renaissance Hits Dayton, Ohio

Dayton, Ohio has come up with a unique formula to revitalize its economy:  economic recession + influx of immigrants = economic vitality. 

Ya gotta be kidding.

The Burlington Free Press on October 25, 2011, reported that on October 5, 2011 Dayton, Ohio officials unanimously adopted the Welcome Dayton Plan to attract and assimilate legal immigrants to the greater Dayton community.  Before the vote Mayor Gary Leitzell told the city commission that immigrants bring “new ideas, new perspectives and new talent to our workforce…To reverse the decades-long trend of economic decline in this city, we need to think globally.”     

The recession has pounded Dayton. Unemployment is nearly 11 percent, 2 percent higher than the national average. Population has fallen 15 percent in the last 10 years. Powerful companies pulled out: National Cash Register, after 125 years in Dayton and the General Motors plant in suburban Moraine.

City leaders started examining the immigrant population: Indian doctors in hospitals; foreign-born professors and graduate students at area universities; Turkish, Mexican, and African owners of new business. Not only is good work being done but rundown inner city housing is being revitalized as immigrants move into and fix up vacant homes.

“Here we have this underutilized resource,” said Theo Majka, University of Dayton sociology professor who has studied and advocated for Dayton’s immigrants.

Key tenets of the Welcome Dayton Plan are:

  • Increased information and access to government/social services and housing;
  • Language education and help with identification cards;
  • Grants and marketing help for immigrant entrepreneurs to help build poor neighborhoods.

Rather than a depressed town with a population exodus, Dayton has a new image of itself: “We will be more diverse, we will grow, we will have more restaurants, more small businesses,” said city official Tom Wahlrab who helped craft the plan.

If the Dayton plan successfully lures more hard working legal immigrants to its city and that contributes to a comeback, there’s no reason why the welcome can’t be extended more widely. Let’s watch developments there and see how adding two problems together yields a solution that works for all.   

If Your Dreams Do Not Scare You

A Message to the Occupy Wall Street Folks and Us All

The Occupy Wall Street folks are grabbing lots of headlines. You have to applaud their guts – camping out day after day and lifting up the question that’s on our minds: Is it right that the rich have so much when so many ordinary people must struggle with loss of jobs and homes?

Deserving of equal billing is the little heralded but astounding work of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, recent Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of Liberia. Sirleaf has spent her life dealing with the same frustrations that catapulted the Occupiers into the streets: disparity between rich and poor, government disarray, power in the hands of folks who run away with it. Sirleaf’s words to graduates at last spring’s Harvard commencement summarized lessons learned in the trenches. They could provide focus for the Occupy Wall Street folks and for us all.

Resist cynicism. “As you approach your future, there will be ample opportunity to become jaded and cynical, but I urge you to resist cynicism – the world is still a beautiful place and change is possible. As I have noted….my path to the presidency was never straightforward or guaranteed. With prison, death threats, and exile, there were many opportunities to quit, to forget about the dream, yet we all persisted. I have always maintained the conviction that my country and people are so much better than our recent history indicates.”

Dream big. “So graduates of 2011, the size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. If you start off with a small dream, you may not have much left when it is fulfilled because along the way, life will task your dreams and make demands on you.”

Be fearless for the future. “Fearlessness for the future, youthfulness of the heart, toughness for the distractions, creativeness for the complexities: these remain the indispensable ingredients of national and global transformation. Add to that envelope the elements of hope – robust hope and resilience – and there’s no telling what can be accomplished.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is telling us what so many truly successful change makers have told us before. Take your frustration with what is not working, convert it into a positive vision, and then roll up your sleeves and work like crazy to bring it about.

There’s no telling what can be accomplished!

A Common Goal for the Whole World

This Saturday, people all over Vermont will pick up trash along roadsides as part of a state-wide campaign called “Green Up Vermont”. Coordinators in 235 towns and villages will assign crews, equip them with collection bags, and make sure their corner of the state is fresh and clean as it should be. All this effort is coordinated by two part-time staffers in a tiny Montpelier-based non-profit.

Meanwhile another effort is going on parallel to Green Up Vermont, not organized, but happening big time. People, down on their knees, plant vegetables and flowers hoping to make their place gorgeous and to have fresh vegetables on their family’s table.

Whether through organized effort or individual initiative, Vermont’s highways, by-ways, public and private spaces will look great and produce nourishing food. Springtime is here and everyone is delighted.

Springtime, or rebirth, is a great metaphor for the kind of positive future we want to have together on earth. Just as the woods here are still full of dead leaves and fallen trees, even as the wildflowers push up, so the world is littered with failing states, melting glaciers and polluted streams. If we focus solely on the pile of problems confronting us, overwhelm can set in.

However, as we embrace the positive change that like spring is popping up around us, it
will flourish. Those who study global change tell us that big goals produce big change. So why not put a name on a big goal we all truly want – a positive future where creation and civilization flourish? Let’s put a name on that goal. The name I like best is Global Renaissance.

The first Renaissance was seeded by individuals and small groups whose creative spark ignited a huge blaze that eventually dispelled the Dark Ages. Positive innovation is happening now in so many ways. People are even using the word “renaissance” to describe it. Vermont newspapers report an “agricultural renaissance” even as dairy farms fail. General Tony Zinni in his book Leading the Charge describes today’s most effective leaders as “renaissance people,” those capable of envisioning new possibilities no matter how stuck a person or group is. The City of Buffalo announces its own renaissance being seeded by making a city-wide promise to its students: “If you set your sights high and work hard you will have the financial means to go to college. We promise.”

Renaissance is happening. As we claim it as a personal goal as well as a world goal, it will spread more widely. Ask each day, “What can I do to foster Global Renaissance?” It’s a great way to live. All kinds of doors open. Connections are made. New things happen. Try it!

Clean Energy on a Roll

Today something encouraging happened. Invited to brunch by local climate activist, Barbarina Heyerdahl, we gathered with about thirty Shelburne and Charlotte folks to hear how easy and affordable it is to install solar panels on our houses. Making the presentation was Duane Peterson, President of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, known as VPIRG.

“Once this is up and running across Vermont, I’ll be ready to take the story around the country to those who want to hear. It’s a win for everyone – consumers get affordable clean energy and Vermont vendors enjoy a thriving market for teir installations. This is the beauty of social enterprise. You do good but also make money.”

A former organizer of Ben and Jerry’s social mission program, social entrepreneur Peterson has put together a deal that folks were eager to explore further: With federal and state rebates and a discounted price for installation, it’s possible to install solar panels for $15 per month more than our current electricity bill and once it’s paid off we do not pay for electricity for the life of the equipment guaranteed for at least 25 years.

“Market formation” is the term of art to explain Peterson’s strategy. If you bundle the market, that is, organize groups of homeowners in specific communities to buy in bulk, then you have the negotiating power to get installers to offer price discounts.

Heretofore, the prospect of going solar was daunting – all sorts of complicated regulations and technical details to master. Duane simplified all this, vetted the solar installers in the area, chose the best, and boiled it down to a simple decision: Would you like to sign up today for a site visit?

For those who signed, a technician will come by, look at your electricity bill and roof, and then present a written proposal that includes the discounted price, federal and state  rebates, utility premium, and discounted loan availability.

It was exciting to see the level of interest, the eagerness to sign up, and to hear Barbarina’s tales of actually contributing energy to the grid through the solar panels she installed five years ago. Her meter frequently runs backwards!

Duane’s dedication is inspiring. Focused on creating a model that works well here in Vermont, he will stick with it until the evidence shows it does work. When the program was launched on Sept. 23, 2010, there were 30 solar installations in the targeted communities of Waterbury and Williston. VPIRG’s organizing effort added 53 more solar arrays in three months. It’s clear that Duane and VPIRG are on a roll.  (802/223-5221 x8420) is the way to find out more.

All Hands on Deck to Restore the Earth!

Last night “Plan B – Mobilizing to Save Civilization” kept us riveted to TV as we watched Lester Brown, sustainability guru, travel around the world trumpeting his crucial message:

We can save civilization if we mobilize quickly!

Plan A, according to Brown, was the Industrial Revolution which at first brought material goodies to many but which now, if unchecked, could do us all in. One bleak scenario: rising temperatures cause Himalayan glaciers to disappear; rivers dry up; the mad scramble for water results in uncontrollable mob scenes; insufficient water for crops; failed states simply cannot feed their people.

But there is a Plan B. Everything needed to reverse this situation has already been tried successfully in some nation, according to Brown. These solutions must be scaled up. Jim Collins, in his study of business success, Good to Great, says that every great organization has been guided by BHAGs, Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Plan B puts forward four BHAGs for the world:

• Stabilize climate
• Restore earth’s natural support systems
• Stabilize population
• Eradicate poverty

We have the know-how and resources to accomplish these goals, states Brown. To free up the money needed, it is necessary to re-define security. The most serious threat to our future is no longer only armed aggression; much more threatening are climate change, population growth, water shortages, failing states. We need to shift resources away from traditional defense toward stabilizing climate, earth restoration, population stabilization and poverty eradication. A second way to fund necessary change is to restructure taxes: lower income taxes, raise taxes on carbon emissions, and include the cost of pollution in fossil fuel prices. This gives the incentive to develop renewable energy sources.

Brown, obviously a big picture thinker, helps us understand what needs to be done and how it can happen. Check out Brown’s thinking in his latest book World on the Edge or by linking to PBS to see the documentary Plan B on the series Journey to Planet Earth. Earth’s systems are deteriorating rapidly. Can we turn the situation around quickly enough? Brown says, “Yes!” remembering World War II when, in a matter of weeks (!), the entire U. S. economy was re-booted to produce tanks and other needed armaments. Creating a restored livable thriving earth community is not a spectator sport, says Brown. All must be involved. What’s your part? What’s mine?

Party Line for Global Renaissance

Two nights ago 17,000 people in 123 countries joined a gigantic conference call to hear exciting Global Renaissance developments. The term Global Renaissance wasn’t actually used, but that was what the conversation was about.

In the call, two social innovators, Stephen Dinan and Barbara Marx Hubbard, introduced their idea for Birth 2012. On December 22, 2012 they will host a world-wide party to celebrate what some call “The Big Turning” – the shift from a world view based on separation to one based on oneness. The big question they are raising is:

Can we create a global shift of our “operating system” to solve our major planetary crises in time?

Their answer:

Yes, by all means!

Who are these audacious thinkers? One year ago Stephen Dinan, entrepreneur and scientist, created The Shift Network whose purpose is to accelerate the change to a new global operating system based on oneness. Barbara Marx Hubbard, futurist and
founder of the World Future Society, has been writing and speaking about the breakthrough idea that crisis precedes transformation and that for the first time in history, we have the tools to influence evolution. In the call, Stephen and Barbara
articulated a vision, a plan and an invitation related to the world change we need.

The Vision: The great challenge of our time is to create a global culture that is sustainable, peaceful, healthy and prosperous.

The Plan: Use the next eighteen months to build the infrastructure and train the leaders to create the celebration on Dec. 22, 2011. This will include a two hour program broadcast world-wide followed by many local happenings. The purpose is to inspire us to say a collective yes to the new paradigm, and to set our vision and intentions for the next one hundred years.

The Invitation: Jump on board. Name how you want to be involved. Link with other pioneers in creating, mapping, tracking, connecting and replicating innovations. To learn more, click In order to create a sustainable, peaceful, healthy and prosperous future, many are calling for the peace, justice, and environmental movements to join forces and unite behind powerful replicable solutions. Dinan and Hubbard propose a way to give that call a huge boost. They deserve our thanks and attention.