Talking Resilience with Lynn Benander: Community is Created by Filling the Cup
September 2, 2015
Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.
Lynn Benander is the President and CEO of Co-op Power. Co-op Power is a consumer-owned sustainable energy cooperative that operates within a regional network of Community Energy Cooperatives to create a multi-class, multi-race movement for a sustainable and just energy future.
Lynn has worked since 1996 to develop sustainable energy resources in the Northeast based on a community-ownership model. She has worked with membership groups in New England and New York representing more than two million people, interested in building affordable sustainable energy resources.
Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared this conversation with her.
Ken: How do you describe yourself?
Lynn: I’m a community entrepreneur; building enterprises that provide people and community with the things they depend on most.
Ken: That’s a neat definition. And what is your definition of community?
Lynn: Oh, community. That’s an easy one. Community is the people that you engage with socially, economically, politically. People that are in your network, that you have interactions with.
Ken: It’s broader than that classic Dunbar’s Number of 150 people then, but it does include some element of human contact with them?
Lynn: Yes, there’s economic activity or social activity or political activity that you’re engaging in with them. It’s often place-based but not necessarily.
Ken: If you think about community in the context of resilience, how do those two things line up?
Lynn: I think resilience is based on the communities that show up and support us when things get hard, that celebrate with us when things are great, that create the backbone of our life together.
Ken: Tell me more about how [community] shows up when things are going well, because people tend to think resilience is something more that you draw upon when bad things happen.
Lynn: I think that if you haven’t built connections with other people when good things are happening, they probably won’t be there when bad things are happening. Community is created by filling the cup that you share with other people with good things, and so it’s celebrating accomplishments and joys, building things together, helping to raise each other’s kids….
I raised my children in a town where other people knew them. When my girls were 6 and 8 years old they could walk a mile into town and take their little pennies and nickels and quarters out and buy themselves a grilled cheese sandwich. The waitresses were really happy to serve them. They could walk home and have a sense of independence and autonomy and yet be in a completely supported environment.
This community, Shelburne Falls, is a resilient community because we’re watching out for each other’s kids and for each other. We’re engaging in as much economic activity as we can with each other, buying whatever we can from each other. We’re sharing and bartering. We’re supporting our local currency. We’re celebrating. We have a race that is happening this weekend where hundreds of people from around the world are going to come and run in the Bridge of Flowers race. We’ll have a huge community dinner the night before and hand out water and snacks and cheer along the race route.
These kinds of celebrations and parties and programs and initiatives are what builds incredible connections between human beings so this town is a place that is resilient when things are hard. Those human connections that people have created from all of this fun and work together come through when things are hard.
When my daughter had a car accident, and had a one in 10,000 chance to live, people brought us food every day for weeks. People showed up at the hospital and just witnessed there for days on end. It carried me through and I’ve done that for other people. These kinds of personal, economic, political engagement in our local town governance, these are the things that will ensure that whatever we have, we’ll share; whatever we need, we’ll build together.
Ken: Hearing you speak about this, it sounds almost like a throwback. So many of the modern trends seem to run counter to that. The idea that kids walking on the street unaccompanied…in some extreme cases, it’s been considered child neglect. The idea that people would stay in a place long enough to be able to build those kind of relationships, when we’re in such a mobile society and people are moving around…because of jobs and family situation, or because they want to. I’m just wondering how that plays out in a world that—at least in the US context—seems to be headed in the opposite direction.
Lynn: I’ve talked with my kids a lot about this. I’ve talked with many of the young people who work at Co-op Power, and who are starting their careers here. I’ve been a teacher. I’ve spoken with a lot of people about mobility and resilience, and I do think that they do run counter to each other. That making a commitment to a place is part of being a human being. I think it’s natural, kind of built into our DNA. The idea that we are mobile and can jet-set around the world as many times as we want in a week, that idea runs counter to our soul. Our souls are of a place, and when we separate ourselves and are apart from the place and the people of a place, I think we become less human.
Ken: Interesting. [So],…being human is somehow intimately tied to living in a community and having relationships with people that grow over time.
Lynn: Yes. I think that we’re more ethical and at peace in our souls when we have a social structure with deep connection to other human beings in a specific place on the earth.. These connections draw us to share resources in a way that’s equitable and fair, and we’re less likely to enrich ourselves at another’s expense or at the earth’s expense. I think that we can create a way of life that is more satisfying to ourselves at a soul level because of the richness of the connections we have around us.
[It] can be very isolating and very powerful to move from job to job, making more and more money each time, but I think our souls are that voice in each of us that shows up and says, “I’ve lost something important and I’m not sure how to find it again.”
The quest for more and more money…it’s not about happiness. It’s not about good parenting. It’s not about a life that’s fulfilling. It’s about something else. I don’t think is about resilience…. I think we need more long-term relationships with the people and with the place where we live if we want to have resilient communities.
Ken: You touched on the issue of equity and fairness. Another word that comes up a lot in this conversation is “justice.” Do you have thoughts on the relationship between community resilience and justice?
Lynn: I don’t think you can have resilient communities without looking at justice as a core component. When you exclude anyone from access to the resources they need to care for themselves and their families, you are creating a serious problem. This group, by design, won’t have what they need. They’ll be angry and upset. They’ll need to fight to get what they need and that will threaten the sustainability of the system. It’s just not logical or wise to put anyone in that position.
These systems also create privilege in another group, and that burdens their souls in an even more dreadful way. When you take more than you need while others suffer at your expense, while the earth suffers, you will lose a great deal. The only way to have peace is to have justice. We’ve got to share resources in an equitable and fair and generous way. Systems based on inequality and injustice, aside from being morally corrupt, are just bad policy.
Ken: We live in a time when a lot of people in the US live in isolated suburbs, oftentimes gated [neighborhoods], when there’s less and less opportunity to rub elbows with people who are not like us. How does that play out in your vision of community resilience as inclusive, where you have those kinds of relationships with [different] people?
Lynn: More exclusive communities are symptoms of people’s discomfort with unfair distribution of resources. The only way to stay comfortable in having way more than everybody else is to not have to see them. That segregation by class, which often follows along racial lines, is very destructive to resilience. We need to find ways of bringing the extraordinary divide between rich and poor much closer. We can’t possibly exist in a peaceful way when some people are getting so much more than they could possibly ever use, and growing numbers of people don’t have what they need to survive. This is not a recipe for a society that’s sustainable or resilient in any way.
You can just think about it in terms of a family sitting at the table: if one person has more food than they need and another person they love is starving, it’s just a human and natural and loving thing to share the food that we have with another person we love. We have to figure out how to come back down off of this crazy and insane way of inventing differences to separate ourselves from others, and evolve into something that is more loving and generous and makes more sense.
We’ve got to live together in order to get to know each other and learn to love each other. We’ve got to learn to share resources and we’ve got to build a common pool of resources that’s easier to share equitably. I don’t know if that’s getting at what you’re looking for but….
Ken: No, it is. I’m wondering how does the work that you’re doing in particular relate to building community resilience?
Lynn: Our work is multi-class and multi-race. Our Community Energy Co-ops organize with the intention of bringing people together from communities that are often kept separate. A lot of people come to a Co-op Power event for a day and find something there that they’ve never found before. They have an opportunity to talk to people who are different from themselves. An opportunity for creating relationships with people who have way more than they do, or way less than they do, or both. There’s just something really magical in that.
When we learn to love people, to build a relationship with someone who is coming from a very different experience, and have a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes, we become more human. One example is the solar hot water system Installation program that we’ve been running that we call Neighbor-to-Neighbor. Where 15 people sign up, and they come to someone’s house and they help that person install a solar hot water system at their house in a day. It’s just this amazing, magical day where we live in a world that we’re trying to build.
For example, one day we had a young man from a limited resource community who had been in a green jobs training program, where he had recently learned how to install a solar hot water system., teaching an 80-year-old woman from a middle-class community how to install the solar hot water storage tank in her basement. Throughout the day, he taught her how to move the tank into place, how to use a wrench to install the pump and they used a blowtorch to solder the pipes—all things she had never done before. He helped her understand how the tank was going to bring hot water to her home. They both gained confidence, built their skills, and built a relationship with someone they were unlikely to meet anywhere else.
[B]ecause we’re there all day, we eat breakfast and lunch together. Often people don’t even want to go home at the end of the day! They’ve had these wonderful relationship-building opportunities with people that they didn’t know before, and they accomplished something that was really valuable in the world, and learned all kinds of new skills. People just leave feeling, at some soul level, very fulfilled.
The isolation in these segregated pockets in our community, I don’t think is serving anyone. They keep us from knowing who we are as a people on this planet.
Ken: Can you tell me a little bit about the communities you work in?
Lynn: I work in communities across Massachusetts and Southern Vermont and across all of New England. These are very diverse kind of communities. They’re urban and rural. They’re wealthy and poor. We work with the Community Energy Co-ops that serve these regions. These Co-ops design their constituencies so they’re embracing a good cross-section of people in their region, and linking people from isolated suburbs with those from an urban setting.
Ken: You talk a lot about community energy. I wonder if you could give me a quick definition of that.
Lynn: We look for community ownership, local ownership of the energy resources that people depend on. It’s what we call locally owned energy. We create businesses that install residential clean energy systems, that generate or manufacture clean energy or clean energy systems, that train people to be able to do this work, that support consumers in buying the local energy they need, that support workers, that support public policy efforts and that support local investment efforts.
We build the enterprises that will help people invest locally, and own the things that they’re depending on for their energy.
Ken: What does a local ownership structure look like? Is it individual owners or is it community ownership?
Lynn: Four of the six solar hot water companies that we help to start were single entrepreneurs, and two of them were cooperatives. The single entrepreneur businesses quickly grew, got bigger, sold to national companies and didn’t work with us anymore. The two that were cooperatives also grew, but they didn’t sell out. We’re still working with them.
We learned a little bit from that, and our members decided that they really wanted to focus our time and energy, the market power, the financial resources, and the public policy resource on building businesses that wouldn’t cash out and leave the community. They wanted to really focus on businesses, which are owned cooperatively by consumers or workers, owned by a municipality, or owned by a nonprofit that were less likely to cash out the value we helped them build or move to another place, and more likely to stay in the community to continue to provide products and services for a long time.
Ken: Interesting, and so, going forward, what’s the next thing for you or what’s on the horizon?
Lynn: Well, we’ve just finished putting together a Community Shared Solar Program so that all of our community co-ops can now install a community-shared solar system for all the low-income folks and the other people who can’t put solar on their own roof for a whole variety of reasons. They can build these community-shared solar arrays that put between a half megawatt and 2 megawatts on marginal land, with local financing, and offer about a 50% reduction in the price of electricity to the people who are participating. We’re very excited about it.
Ken: You’re pretty vertically integrated (to use one of those phrases from the business world), from the organizing of people to the delivery of the services, the financing, and then eventually the ownership handoff.
Lynn: Yeah, we weren’t able to get the bank to work with us for many years so we developed our own member loan fund. We’ve raised more than $2,000,000 now from our members. Most of the loans come have been for $500 or $1,000, and we’ve had a few $1000 loans and then some $50,000s and some $75,000s and a couple of $100,000s, and one $250,000. But mostly it’s been small investors. We, at first, weren’t able to secure traditional financing. We’ve had to provide all our own for the dozen businesses that we’ve helped to build.
Ken: If you don’t mind my asking, what’s the default rate been like?
Lynn: Well, we haven’t defaulted on anything, but for some loans, the payments are spread out longer than we anticipated initially.
Ken: The reason I ask is because there was a [This American Life episode] a few years ago, during the whole craziness around the crash. The reporters bought a tiny piece of one of those complicated mortgage securities.
They went to somebody who defaulted, and said, “We actually own a piece of your loan.”
And he said, “Oh, I defaulted because I figured it was just some bank, and who cares about some bank if I default? I get a ding on my credit rating for a couple of years, and then, who cares?”
He said, “But if I knew it was you I was defaulting on, I wouldn’t have defaulted.”
Lynn: He would have paid the debt.
Lynn: Yeah, we’ll pay our members back.
Ken: Does it work that way, with spreading out the payment schedule if people need it?
Lynn: Oh, yeah. Our members are happy to do that…. It’s kind of our version of “slow money.”
Ken: That’s great. Is there any relationship between the people who put the money in and the people who are getting the loan?
Lynn: You mean getting the services? Yeah, absolutely.
It’s not required that people be customers. We just ask everybody, “Can you help make this happen?”
And because they help plan it, they own it, and then this is what they want to have happen they make it happen. We’re building a $4,000,000 biodiesel plant. It’s going online in October. We’ve been working on that project for 10 years.
Lynn: It’s a project that took the longest time for development on any project I hope we ever will have. People were persistent—really wanted to see it happen. The board of directors have been meeting every month for 10 years, and by God, we’re going to have a biodiesel plant.
Ken: That’s fantastic. Do you bring people together who are on both sides of the equation? Those who are putting money into the loan fund, and those who are benefiting from it?
Lynn: They are the same group.
Ken: Basically everybody’s in the pool together.
Lynn: That’s right, they’re just our members.
It’s like the solar hot water installation I was telling you about. They’re at the annual meetings together. They’re at the dances we put on, the same group or groups.
Ken: I’ve been talking with a number of people about community resilience and one of the things that comes up over and over again, and you’ve emphasized, is that aspect of fun, of events, of getting to know each other as a vital part of…maybe even preceding building resilience. The idea of building community [first].
Lynn: I believe that’s true. How can you care about another’s ability to survive hardship if you don’t love them already or care about them in some way? Your family circle has to be big enough to include them to make it work.
Ken: We draw our circle too small in many cases.
Lynn: Yeah, to our own detriment, but you never know where the real resources for surviving things are going to come from.
Just because you have wealth, doesn’t mean you know how to survive. Resilience relies on the skills of surviving with few resources. Those skills I think are going to come in really, really handy. I think it’s a really in the wealthier folks’ best interest to actually have friends who know how to survive with few resources.
Ken: [Y]ou hear over and over stories of communities that have been hit by some disaster, whether natural or otherwise induced, and it’s almost like they look back fondly to that time when people came together and worked together.
Let me just ask you a slightly different question. Are there any physical signs that a community is resilient? I walk down the street and I see what [as] a signal that this community may be more resilient than the baseline.
Lynn: When you go down the street and people are warm and welcoming and say, “Hello,” especially if you’re a stranger, I think that’s a really great sign that you’ve got some resilience there, some safety and openness. Caring about other people.
I think the number of community-owned enterprises is a very good indicator. If you got a lot of enterprises that are locally owned, there’s governance mechanisms that are bringing people together to make decisions about how to steward those resources. That creates relationships,…and you also have local resources then to use when you need them.
I think [an] active civic [realm] is a good indicator. Again, places where people are building relationships, and they have a sense of what the mechanisms are for emergency response, and how to access resources for all kinds of different things.
When my little town I told you about earlier [was] hit by a terrible hurricane and we had to evacuate our town—that kind of civic infrastructure was pretty amazing.
One town over from us had a very different response. It was interesting to see how the ability to respond and communicate in a disaster, how those skills are developed, where they come from, and how we build them. How we make sure they’re there and that they’re human and that we don’t go into fascist mode, but we go into connection and caring and stewardship and equitable just sharing of the resources that are available?
All of those circles overlap. The community-owned enterprises, the municipal activities, all of those … The same people are in those different circles. Where people are learning skills of communication and joint decision making, so that in an emergency you’ve got a good response. You can tell.
I think you can tell how resilient the community would be facing hardship or emergencies, by how active those circles are.
Ken: You said one community over had a very different response. How was it different? How were the outcomes different?
Lynn: In one community near me, the Selectpeople, the emergency response team, the firemen and the police were all communicating well with each other, and communicating honestly and openly with transparency with all the people in the town. There was a sense of calm.
My town had a more fascist response, where the police were not telling the truth about what was going on. They said that a dam upstream was threatening to break, and that the entire town was going to be flooded and they evacuated everyone.
There wasn’t a lot of communication between those different groups. It became a much more fascist kind of feeling. We had a lot of work to do after it was over to debrief from that experience.
Ken: Was there something that was pre-existing in those two different communities that led to those different ways of acting?
Lynn: People in the [first] town had different ideas about what leadership looked like, and elected people into positions of power, who had a different idea about what leadership was. The people in the town that wasn’t evacuated are more collaborative, more trusting, more open. And the people in my town that was evacuated have a much more hierarchical sense of wanting security and control, and the leaders responded in that way.
Ken: Interesting that you bring up the role of government. A lot of people have given up on government as a means of creating change, or at least supporting change. But in a lot of the interviews that we’ve done for this conversation series, people have mentioned the importance of building relationships with, and working together with local government.
Lynn: Yeah, I think having relationships with the police department, with the fire department, with the local officials seems to be a really critical part of this work.
It’s all about relationship-building. Meeting each human being, can you connect with them? Can you create a shared mission to keep people safe, respond well in an emergency, and share resources in a equitable way? If you can articulate those shared values before anything bad happens, then you’re more likely to get that kind of behavior when it does.
Ken: Going off in a different direction, do you have a framework that you use for community resilience? Is there some sort of conceptual model that you’re working from?
Lynn: Well, we base our work on community ownership of the resources that we depend on and multi-class, multi-race relationship building. Those are the two pieces of our formula.
Ken: It’s pretty simple.
Lynn: And maybe focusing on having fun together too.
Ken: [Laughing] OK, three things.
Lynn: We’re focusing on here and now too. We don’t talk much about things in the future. That’s our recipe.
Ken: That’s an interesting contrast to what we hear from [some] people who are thinking about the future, and thinking [the] future might be very different than the present to which we’ve become accustomed. How do you balance the need to be very here-and-now, with also thinking long-term about something [potentially] different?
Lynn: I think it might be because we are multi-class. We live and work with a lot of folks who have very few resources, and for them, the time for resilience is now. It’s not something in the future, and so we’re trying to build a response to current and future needs for this kind of an infrastructure.
Ken: That’s very powerful.
Lynn: We’re not just looking at climate disaster. We’re also looking at economic disaster, and that has already hit many communities, many families.
Ken: Are there other factors that you are looking at?
Lynn: Social. Just discrimination, being left out of systems, being stuck in educational systems that will not provide you with an education—just warehouse your body— and not help you learn the skills you need, and help you get into college or get a good job. The way…we just create toxic communities for all these kids to grow up in, and then don’t provide them with very many opportunities or an education and healthcare. And then we’re wondering why they’re not working and contributing to society…. We’re focused on all of those things.
Ken: That’s a lot to hold. We talk about the E4 challenges: energy, environment, equity and economy, and we’re also are focused on what’s the most appropriate response [to those challenges]: building community resilience. But that’s a lot to hold—those very big challenges, and those very local, small-scale responses.
Lynn: Everything that we do works for economic, social and environmental justice. We just look for a project where you can do all three. That’s not hard. There are so many things where you can hit them all.
We figure if we can do something, we might as well go with the ones that have the biggest impact on the things that we care most about.
Ken: [Can I ask] you to put your “Wish List” hat on? Other than the obvious—which would be more money—what’s the one form of support that would most help you in your efforts?
Lynn: It’s interesting, because my first thing would not be more money. The money has to come from the right people for the right thing in the right terms. Just being granted a huge amount of money can truly mess up your organization
[Instead, I would say] more like-minded organizations that understood and were committed to building a commons, rather than their own separate organizations.
There are ally organizations that we would like to be creating in a local energy common with. They see themselves as separate, creating their own resources, and when we try to share our resources, they’re confused about why. We’d like a better understanding in the world of alternative economics, alternative structures for creating the infrastructure…. More understanding of local currency, more understanding of the idea of a commons. There are ways that cooperatives can work for the common good, or work for self-serving purposes. We need to understand all these structures better and we need to understand how to govern them well.
[What] would help our work the most is having other people understand what it is to share in a very radical level – business plans and ideas, money, staffing—whatever we need to do to create changes in our communities, rather than looking at turf and membership…rather than having a competition for resources.
We need a radical sharing of resources to accomplish all that we need to do. All of us working on our own just won’t cut it.
Ken: It’s so hard to live in the present system and also be trying to live in the future system. And it’s even harder to be living as if the future system already existed, within the present system.
Lynn: Which is what we do, and we’re not always understood.
Ken: Yeah, [many] people have been conditioned to be very suspicious of anyone who seems to be doing something for shared benefit as opposed to self-interest.
Lynn: Very interesting, they assume there’s a catch.
It will benefit you somehow, so I’m going to do it myself, even if it costs hundreds of thousands dollars more for every day you’re doing it yourself.
Even if it takes years longer, and isn’t as resilient? Being a part of network of businesses that care as much about the success of the other businesses in a network [as they do about their own] returns incredible value back to a community. That’s what we’re going for. We need a framework, a political, economic, and social analysis about what a commons is, and how we can contribute to it and why we want to.
Ken: Again, it’s that idea of drawing the circle bigger.
Lynn: That’s right.
Ken: Is there some accompanying policy or political—I guess we were just talking about a cultural change—but, is there anything else in a larger context that would help support your work?
Lynn: There’s all kinds of public policy challenges that would be important to address. We need a people’s platform for local energy. What would a local energy policy look like? We invest most of our shared resources, our public resources, in private enterprise. We’re focused on for-profit enterprises that benefit a small number of people, rather than public enterprises that create wealth for the commons.
I’ve had Co-op Power Members tell me that in their municipal energy committees, they will hire Siemens or another large company to do energy efficiency work or renewable energy work. They think it might be conflict of interest if they ask for a bid from a local company where they know the people involved.
And then the laws that really support business development in the US are focused on larger for-profit businesses. The renewable energy legislation supports people with very, very deep pockets owning our renewable energy resources. And really disadvantaged communities, nonprofits, and poor folks are disadvantaged when they try to own renewable energy systems.
The policies are not aligned with the work that we’re trying to do, building a more just and sustainable energy future. Our economic and political systems move money from public to private hands. We see that as an unethical thing to do. Keeping public money for public benefit is a wiser and more ethical investment.
Ken: I want to be conscious of your time. Are there resources that you’d recommend to folks—books, web sites, organizations, people that you find particularly helpful?
Lynn: Huge list. Huge. Business Alliance for Local Living Economies have been very helpful, the Rudolf Steiner Foundation Innovation in Social Finance. Post Carbon Institute, Institute for Policy Studies, Institute for Local Self-Relliance. Local Dollars, Local Sense by Michael Shuman, and Greg Pahl’s book on community power. Marjorie Kelly’s book on Ownership. New England Grassroots Environment Fund. Climate Justice Alliance. Orion Magazine. YES! Magazine. Center for Social Inclusion. Vote Solar. Clean Water Action. Buckminster Fuller Institute. Class Action. Resilience.org. Democracy Collaborative. Community Power. Think Like a Commoner by David Bolier. Books by Richard Heinberg.
We find them all incredibly wise and helpful.
Lynn: The ideas these organizations and authors have developed are the backbone of what we do.
Ken: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed it, and I’ve been looking forward to talking with you ever since I heard you speak in Oakland last year.
Lynn: Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you!