Talking Resilience with Timothy DenHerder-Thomas: Powering Community
July 23, 2015
Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.
Timothy DenHerder-Thomas is the General Manager of Cooperative Energy Futures, a for-profit co-op that builds people-powered solutions to the energy crisis and global warming, and strengthens communities through the creation of those solutions. Timothy also helped found Grand Aspirations, which supports teams of youth innovators in 16 cities to create green economic opportunity for themselves and their communities through innovative energy efficiency, green industry, sustainable food, transit access, and clean energy solutions. Timothy, is a Young People For Fellow, a Morris K. Udall Scholar, and a recipient of the 2008 Brower Youth Award and the 2009 Mario Savio Award.
Asher Miller, Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared this conversation with him.
Asher: Let’s start with how you define resilience or community resilience, and what does community resilience look like to you?
Timothy: I’m aware of the connection to the concept of resilience, but it isn’t necessarily the primary way I think about stuff that I’m involved in. I think there are many different aspects of resilience and part of it is just basic needs, like how to we ensure that our community has multiple and redundant ways to get the food, water, shelter, energy, mobility, connection to each other, communication—all of those types of things that we need as a community. And as much as possible have that be without dependency on structures that are very vulnerable to the types of energy, economic, and climate changes that are headed our way.
I think there’s another really important aspect to it that definitely is connected but maybe sounds and looks a little bit different, which is really thinking about resiliency in an economic context.
In my work I think a lot about how can we relocalize the flows of wealth and keep more of our money in the local economy, really because I think the way we have structured the job market and structured the economy is a big source of vulnerability and lack of resiliency right now. There are a lot of communities already—even before Peak Oil and the energy crisis and climate change gets substantially worse—who lack resilience in a wide range of areas primarily because they don’t have access in our current economy. And so how do we keep our energy dollars local, keep our food dollars local, keep our transit dollars local, keep our housing dollars local? How do we relocalize ownership so that control of assets and the infrastructure we need to produce what we need is controlled by people who are rooted in place?
Seeing that kind of economic aspect of resilience as kind of a foundation or starting point that gives people some stability and security so that they can start asking broader questions. Ultimately we are not going to be resilient even at the local level until as a society we start to address some of these much larger challenges. But it gives us more capacity and tools and resources to ask those tough questions.
Asher: You said at the beginning of that answer that resilience isn’t how you tend to think of your work. Is that right?
Timothy: I just don’t usually use the term resilience. I’m very aware that it is resilience work but I usually talk about what I do as energy democracy work or local economic control work or bringing power back to communities. There are other values and aspects than resilience in all of those things but resilience is obviously a very prominent piece of it.
Timothy: I just don’t tend to use that word when I describe what I do.
Asher: Right, totally fair. But in that context how would you say the work that you do builds community resilience?
Timothy: There’s a couple of pieces of work that I do. Through Cooperative Energy Futures I’m really focused right now on developing community solar gardens. It’s a model where community members can subscribe to a large solar ray in the community and get credit on the utility bill. From an economic perspective, it is both cutting people’s actual energy cost and it’s also reducing uncertainty and volatility in terms of those energy costs. You fix your energy costs out for 25 years. Obviously, it’s also contributing to addressing carbon emissions and climate change. I think the other big resiliency piece is that—even though in the short term it’s not providing an energy source where the actual electrons are controlled locally, since it just goes out into the grid and powers the utility—it does create a lot of infrastructure at the community level that could easily be knit into micro grids or other community owned and community controlled energy infrastructure, if at some later point, we have broader grid instability. It creates some of those preconditions for a more localized physical energy system, at the same time as it is localizing the economics of the energy system.
So that’s, I would say, one of the core pieces of resilience in my work. It ultimately ties into other energy efficiency and grid management, demand management business models that have the same principals that are further along in the process. And I would say the other thing I’ve been doing—particularly with energy here in Minneapolis—is organizing so that the local government and community members have more control over how the energy utilities themselves operate. I’ve helped organize the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership , which is, as far as we are aware, the first partnership in the country where the city has a prominent decision-making role in a new legal body, with the energy utilities and managing energy operations in the city. That is a very strong community advisory group that is guiding and directing how energy is managed locally.
I think that’s a really important contribution to resilience. Both, because of the very physical infrastructure changes that are happening because of it. Changes that are re-localizing energy and reducing exposure to energy risks and low-income families that are paying an arm and a leg for heating in the winter and all that type of thing. But also because it’s taking the process of decision-making and internalizing that into the community that’s being served, so that people have more political and economic control over how energy decisions are made.
I would say the third resilience implication of my work is really more on the training and capacity-building end. I think, in many ways, our communities have had the responsibility of economic innovation and community management and governance outsourced. Whether that’s outsourced to bureaucratic governments that people don’t have a lot of participation in or large corporations that are creating the jobs. That’s a really big threat to resilience. As long as our communities don’t feel like they can or have the skills or abilities to do economic development themselves, to do community governance themselves, and all of that type of thing. And so my work, training organizers and building up capacity of community organizers to do community economic development and build stronger communities that can self-govern is also a big contributor to resilience.
Asher: That’s great. You’ve touched upon this a little already but, I’m curious if you could say more about what you view as the relationship between community resilience and social justice and economic justice?
Timothy: Sure … I think it’s a really strong relationship. I think that one of the patterns that is really common throughout our society but is especially prominent and problematic in low-income communities and communities of color in the city—although, I would say it’s also actually pretty similar to what you see in low-income rural communities that are statistically more white, although that is changing—is that the control and ownership management process of the economy is absentee. It is large entities that are not within the community and don’t share the values, culture, and social connections of the community.
I think it’s a really big driver of poverty. And it’s a really big driver of political marginalization … The economic injustices that low-income communities and communities of color face around housing and banking and food access and energy poverty and all of that. I think, ultimately, it also ties into the more cultural and social norms of what we value and who we value, which we can ultimately tie into the violence and police brutality and all of that that’s going on right now. I think there is a very large relationship there, in terms of how giving people and equipping people to take more control over their economy and their political system is essential for addressing social and economic injustice.
Asher: Is there a framework that you’ve used or a particular resource that you use to help you think about where you intervene in the system or has influenced your thinking about both the challenge but also the areas where we need to intervene?
Timothy: I wouldn’t say there’s a specific, formalized framework, but there’s a lot of different mental tools that have their roots in wide bodies knowledge. The systems-modeling approach. I don’t actually do systems-modeling very much, but I’m very familiar with how that works and what it looks like. As I’m building a mental model of the world, I’m always thinking about what are all the factors that influence this, and which of them are more and less powerful? Which of them trigger feedback loops and where are the lags and the delays and all of that type of thing. Even if I’m never actually mapping it out on paper or on a computer, I’m trying to build a mental model where I’m getting clearer and clearer about that all the time. That’s a very powerful one.
I also really like to look at and understand how money is flowing in an economy—really seeing how are households and cities spending their money and where is that going and who is that accumulating to? Since that’s our measure of wealth, our primary measure of wealth. Looking at which of those things are not only the largest and the most significant, but how are they changing? Which of them are becoming more and more significant versus less significant? Where is wealth—and therefore power—being centralized versus distributed?
I think part of that is also looking at the economic structure of which of those systems have the greatest influence over other systems. I tend to focus on energy, specifically because I think it has an out-sized impact on other systems. I’ve looked at energy, from researching and thinking about the macro scale things effecting the system, all the way down to trying to build business models. I spent a lot of time looking at food systems. There’s a lot that one can do at the margins, but it’s really hard for me to figure out how we substantially change it, while energy is still the way it is currently.
I look at manufacturing and I see the same thing. I look at urban design and transportation and I see the same thing. I’m less arguing for energy as the answer, even though that might be what my current thought process has led me to. More, that process of questioning which systems have the greatest impact on other systems. Based on the economies of scale that they set up and the ways that they centralize economic power and therefore political power. Which systems are the key leverage points that … Maybe not small, but comparatively small push gets an out-sized result.
Asher: In thinking of it that way, I know these questions are sometimes hard to answer or too simplistic. Is there any particular political or policy or cultural change you think would be the most useful or beneficial in terms of either furthering community resilience generally or even thinking about it more specifically in terms of energy democracy.
Timothy: I assume you’re pretty familiar and a lot of the readership or listenership of resilience.org will be familiar with Donella Meadow’s leverage points?
Timothy: The most meaningful to me, but also in many ways to me least tangible answer is it’s really the paradigm shift. Maybe there’s some concrete ways to translate it. I’ve sometimes described the fundamental paradigm shift as machine to ecosystem, or from units to systems. It’s funny, I talk about this in so many different ways. I talk about this as the difference between Newtonian and Quantum Physics. I talk about this as the difference between a deterministic or liberation-oriented view of faith and religion.
I think all of those are aspects of a common pattern. Do we look at the world and do we look at who we are and how we live as if there is a unit self separate from a landscape or a surrounding context? Do we see all of these things as just this really complex, emerging, woven together thing? That’s kind of abstract because it is a paradigm shift. But in terms of energy democracy it has really important, very tangible parallels—in terms of shifting from central-station power plants, to a distributed network of small energy production, that also integrates smart management and smart consumption. It’s not just “measure demand, provide supply.” It’s weaved together—supply and demand in a localized and ever adapting framework.
And that has very physical and very material economic structures that are different between those two systems, when one looks at energy and when one looks at any other system as well.
Asher: Thinking about that, paradigm shifts from the individual unit to the larger system, I think that it is also a huge cultural shift, right?
Asher: It’s not just been the consumer age. It goes back to Manifest Destiny and what brought people from Europe to the Western Hemisphere—at least the ones who came voluntarily—was this idea of more of that individualistic freedom. It’s deeply embedded in our culture. I don’t think it’s impossible to change, in fact I think it’s necessary to change. It’s part of an evolution or a re-evolution, you could say. A return to something. It is really fundamental.
Timothy: It’s deeply fundamental and it’s extremely hard to change. At the same time, just like the Donella Meadows thing, I’ve seen that mentality change for people in moments. There’s just that kind of realization.
Asher: Well, I think people are actually also really hungry for it.
Timothy: Yeah, very much so.
Asher: I think that when you follow that path too far, when all interactions are transactional and people feel like everything is calculated by benefits and who gets the better of the situation, that whole mind set, it’s very isolated. I think people are hungry for a re-connection.
Timothy: Right. I think that there are some—both culturally rooted and I would ultimately say evolutionary and core—parts of human nature that are within us all the time, that are all about relationship and connection and community and building meaning and innovation and ultimately survival through interrelationship. I think people feel that and even though we have this cultural story that the individual and taking care of oneself is what it’s all about, most of the times that I see that people feel most happy and fulfilled are when they are in those social and communitarian situations, and we are doing things with and building meaning—in communion with a broader network. It’s just that we’ve made that something we do as our social activity and not as our material, how we keep us alive, activity, in general.
Asher: Yeah. If I had put my money on anything, I put my money on the deep evolutionary biology that has been built over who knows how many generations that we’ve been around. We are a species that is not only good at adaptation but is very social. That is much bigger part of our DNA than this relatively short historical period of individualism. Even though it’s what’s being sold to us every moment of the day, it’s not that deeply embedded into our being. Which gives me hope. It gives me hope that we can, like you said, shift the paradigm. Or re-shift it, I guess, back.
Now, in a much more practical level, in terms of your specific work, when you’re looking for support, what support is most beneficial to you? In terms of furthering your efforts….
Is it financial resources? Is it human capital? Is it expertise? Is it networking? What’s most valuable to you? I guess you don’t have to pick one.
Timothy: I would say, right now, those are all important, obviously. Right now what I feel is the biggest limiting factor for my work is innovation and expertise around community-centered and cooperative financing. Our whole economy is built on this ultra-robust system and network of expertise around financing things for privatized benefit. I find that there’s very little awareness and understanding and mental flexibility around the question of how do we design finance for community wealth? That’s really important for energy projects in general because they are high upfront cost, long-term investments. They’re very capital intense.
It’s really not a limitation in terms of the amount of capital that is out there. We live in a very capital rich society. That capital is not structured, or the thinking of that capital is not really structured around how do we share that wealth and build collective wealth through investments and resilience in community assets and all those types of things. Part of that is that some of the legal structures need to change. Part of that is that our finance institutions are not very innovative and have been thinking the same way about these things for a long time.
I would say that, right now, at least, that’s feeling like number one. I also feel like there is maybe an even larger need for human capital and experience in training. Not so much in the technical things. We need the technical things, but it’s ultimately easy to train in the technical things and there’s lots of training in that. Really, training in a different mindset and a different culture around how do we work together and how do we take responsibility for big, social, economic, political, cultural, and ecological problems that are beyond the scope of what one individually should be expected to be able to be responsible for. Nevertheless, as a community, we must be responsible for them.
I think for those types of mental and emotional challenges there’s not an adequate support system helping change makers and community leaders build their capacity, and that’s really needed.
Asher: Last thing, which is thinking about the readership of resilience.org—these are people that are concerned about these issues and they’re always seeming to want to learn more—but also, I think, in desperate need for hope and inspiration. Are there any things that you come across—individuals or groups or books that you’ve read or movies that you’ve seen—that have really stood out to you recently, that have been either inspiring or just really educational for you?
Timothy: That’s a really hard question. Not because I have any lack of answers but because it’s like … Which of the five things that happened earlier today, or yesterday, or the day before do you want me to talk about?
I guess I can start, very concretely on the energy democracy work that I’m connected to. I really value both being able to work directly with, but also just having access all of the resources and materials from, the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Just really, really good thinking on a lot of those energy democracy concepts. I’ve been really excited by what I’m seeing as an emerging network of practice that includes the Climate Justice Alliance and some of their projects in the Bay Area and the Reservations in Arizona, New Mexico. Also, some of the other communities that are really focused on our energy democracy, as well as some of the work of the Center for Social Inclusion.
And then there are the networks that I’m a part of: Community Power, out of Minnesota, along with the cooperative emergent network of cooperatives working on energy, in the same vein as what I’m doing with Cooperative Energy Futures. But I’m also looking at Co-op Power in Massachusetts. I’m blanking on the names, but there are also a couple of others in Pennsylvania and the Evergreen Coop efforts in Ohio. I’ve been working with a group called Soulidarity that’s been doing some similar stuff in the Detroit Area, in Michigan. There’s a lot. There’s so much happening. It’s exciting, and it’s overwhelming in it’s volume and complexity, in a wonderful way.
I also read a sequence of books, recently, that I found very powerful individually, but also really powerful together, even though they’re very different. The one that I read first was Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. After that I read Gar Alperovitz’s book What Then Must We Do? And then Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution. I just finished reading Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, which, in some ways, is a much more academic and technical book. So I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a “this is an easy thing to understand” book, but it’s just really powerful in terms of talking about how energy systems have shaped democracy. So tying those things together has been a powerful process in my mind.
Asher: Cool. Awesome. Thanks for the conversation, Timothy. And thanks for all your incredible work and leadership.
Timothy: Sure. Thank you.