Leveraging Capacity for Change

The Laurel Hill Association in the town of Stockbridge in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts is the nation’s oldest Village Improvement Association.  Founded in 1853 and still operating, its members pulled weeds, laid sidewalks, installed lamps, planted trees, and helped construct the town library.  It owns the park-like Laurel Hill near the center of town and maintains the trail at Ice Glen.

In the period following the Civil War, Village Improvement Associations were started all over America.  Small in scale, place-based, citizen driven, they were flexible enough in structure to respond to the needs of a specific community.  The Associations might organize concerts or put up window boxes on Main Street buildings but just as easily serve regular meals to those in need or build a wing on the hospital or collect supplies for distribution after a flood swept through the town.  In 1903 the Groton, Massachusetts, VIA constructed children’s gardens on land loaned for the purpose.

The Associations created a way for citizens to initiate community projects that local government and local business could not. In our age of professionally run non-profits each focused on addressing a single issue, VIAs might be dismissed as generalist and amateurish.  But the Associations were expert in locating the human, technical, financial, and natural resources in their communities, and they were skilled in mobilizing these resources when the need arose.

As federal, state, and local budgets are cut and professionally run service programs close, it may be appropriate to imagine the emergence of modern day Village Improvement Associations and consider what projects they would now inspire.

Westport Green Village Initiative started in 2008 with a simple objective: to ban plastic bags in Westport, Connecticut. The project engaged concerned citizens to act together.  The success and fun of the project encouraged the group to stay together and turn their combined energies to other green initiatives.  Westport Green Village Initiative was organized to turn Westport “into a model of social-inclusivity and environmental sustainability” that could well serve as the mission of twenty-first century VIAs.

Relying on much volunteer labor, WGVI has built gardens at the public schools; run educational programs on energy-saving techniques, organic gardening practices, chemical free homes, and the local economy; and identified the resources and local businesses that could help with transitioning to greater sustainability.  WGVIers increased membership in the local Community Supported Agriculture farms and organized RSA—restaurants banding together to pre-buy from farmers, thus saving the farmers from marketing, and creating cooperation in the restaurant community.

When the town inherited an historic farm and farmhouse, it was WGVI that organized local contractors to volunteer time in its renovation, keeping its historic characteristics while reducing its ecological footprint.  Members cleaned out the barn and turned it into a community resource center on sustainability; they planted educational gardens where children from the schools come to learn about the history and craft of local agriculture; and they welcomed the school’s favorite teacher and his family to live at the farm, providing tours during visiting hours.

The Westport Library partners closely with WGVI, hosting bi-monthly lectures and films and discussions.  Projects arise as the volunteer members of WGVI stand up to lead them.  Much volunteer time matches a little bit of philanthropy to purchase equipment and produce outreach materials.  Members work hard and play hard together.  They celebrate their community and achievements with festivals and dances and lots of good local food.

In many ways WGVI employs the open structure and flexible multi-project form of the old Village Improvement Associations but with a modern emphasis on sustainability.  Dan Levinson, a co-founder of WGVI, runs a successful private equity fund in Connecticut.  Witnessing a growing global ecological, social, and financial crisis, his response was to contribute to shaping a more sustainable future for his hometown and—by example—for other regions around the world.

Westport Green Village Initiative thus carries the particular vision that Dan Levinson brings to it.  This includes an understanding of the importance of producing locally what is used locally, creating jobs for local youth, maintaining production skills and infrastructure, and gradually freeing the region from dependence on goods shipped over long distances.  Westport Essentials (WE) is an effort to identify basic goods now imported to the region that might be produced locally and setting up conditions to encourage their manufacture—access to land, job training, consumer pre-purchase, and investment.  Westport Essentials, a project of WGVI, characterizes a new type of Village Improvement Association: citizens reaching for that intersection of ecology, economy, community, and culture which leverages local capacity for change.

WGVI is just over two years old, and already news of its accomplishments has spread to neighboring towns.  As a result WGVI recently changed its name to Green Village Initiative in order to serve as an organizational vehicle for volunteer efforts in Ridgefield and Bridgeport and other nearby communities.

Dan Levinson was the speaker at the Annual Meeting of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires on March 12th in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  His topic was “Local Action Leveraging Capacity for Change.” We are pleased to say that Dan Levinson is one of the valued board members of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics.