Talking Resilience with Sarah Byrnes: Figuring Out Your Role
August 19, 2015
Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.
Sarah Byrnes is the Co-Director of the New England Regional Transition, a program of the Institute for Policy Studies. She also supports the local Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition pilot program in Boston.
Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute and a former New Englander, shared the following conversation with her.
Sarah: I’m Sarah. I work at the Institute for Policy Studies, where I support a local initiative called Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition. We’re working on community resilience here in Jamaica Plain, which is a neighborhood of Boston. And I also support a regional network of grassroots groups around New England.
Ken: And because you mentioned community resilience, the obvious question: How do you define community resilience?
Sarah: That’s a good one. I think we’ve been defining it as the ability for a community to thrive and for people to have well-being no matter what the circumstances. Given coming challenges, and given current challenges, in many communities, it’s the ability to deal with all of that, and have some sense of well-being and happiness.
Ken: How is “community” defined in the case of Jamaica Plain?
Sarah: [T]hat’s another question that I can answer in a lot of different ways…. I think there’s a real movement in community resilience for people to reconnect with each other as neighbors, so it has lot to do with getting to know the people who are physically very close to you, like your neighbors upstairs or across the street.
There’s also a broad understanding that community that…we have to identify with our larger community as well. We have to understand we’re interconnected with people all over the globe…. There’s both a broad sense of the word “community,” and then a very concrete return to a local focus on relationships and the economic side, as well with a local focus on providing for the community in a more sustainable way.
Ken: Jamaica Plain has a fairly accepted definition…of what the boundaries are, and who’s included, is that right?
Sarah: Oh yeah. Jamaica Plain is an officially designated neighborhood of Boston (there are 16 of them). [W]e have our own Zip Code.
Ken: Can you tell us a little bit about the neighborhood?
Sarah: JP is a diverse neighborhood, and it’s facing gentrification and displacement, which is the core challenge to [the work] we’re doing. But we’ve got a lot of folks from all around the world, a lot of immigrant communities, a large Dominican population, Spanish-speaking population. I think we’re still technically majority white, slightly over 50%.
We’re very diverse economically, we have a lot of people living below the poverty line, I think it’s about 22%. Then we also have some humongous million-dollar homes. There’s the beautiful pond, Jamaica Pond, and the real estate around there is quite, quite valuable so we have some very wealthy families as well. And then a bunch of folks in the middle.
Ken: What are the big issues? You mentioned gentrification….
Sarah: We’re part of the Transition movement, and part of the broader movement for economic justice, so we bring awareness of climate change, of resource depletion, those sort of traditional Transition kind of issues. But being rooted here in the neighborhood, we want to respond to what neighbors are thinking about and we [are] committed to bridging what’s called the “Two JPs.” Often, that means connecting folks of color with white folks, or low-income folks with higher-income folks. We want to be a bridge. You can’t be resilient if you’re not creating relationships, and if you’re not creating them across some of these historic divides.
We believe that equity is an intrinsic part of resilience, and that’s deeply important to everything we’re doing. What we’ve done to help with that disconnect is [to] have a community organizer on our staff who’s bilingual and bicultural. That’s Carlos, of course you know him.
Ken: I do.
Sarah: What he’s been able to do over the last couple years is host a lot different events in Spanish, in particular where we’re been hearing directly from community members what they’re concerned about. And gentrification and affordable housing are top of the list. People are being displaced as real estate prices go up, as rents go up. And it’s not just the people of color, a lot of white people have been displaced as well. And a lot of the time, those are the people who made JP really what it is, a fun, funky, special place and it has a lot of community festivals and a lot of community celebrations and institutions. And the people who built the community are being forced to leave, and there’s this sort of sadness about that. And, of course, a sense of unfairness.
We have to work on that, we have to address that. We can’t just have this abstract conception of resilience; we have to actually address what people are concerned about.
Ken: One of the questions that we like to ask people is, “What’s the relationship between community resilience and justice?”
Sarah: For us I think they ultimately mean the same thing. This is something we talk a lot about in our New England network. If you…build sort of a little enclave of resilience where [you have] solar panels, and you are feeding yourself a lot of your own food, that’s really lovely—but chances are, there’s a community close to you where things are not so pretty, or not so easy.
If you accomplish a gated version of resilience, for me that’s not really resilience. You have to be thinking more broadly, and this gets back to the broader sense of community. You have to be thinking about the next community over because as things deteriorate [there], it’s going to impact here.
So there’s this sort of pragmatic piece to it, and then there’s of course the moral piece to it. You have to be doing this work well, to be doing it authentically. We have to be thinking about everyone who is part of this struggle. And that means acknowledging deep historical issues that plague all of our communities in terms of race and class divide.
So for us it all comes together. There is no resilience without justice actually.
Ken: It’s really interesting you used the word pragmatic, and then you used the world moral. Those aren’t words that come up [that often] in Transition and resilience [conversations], which tend to be more around aspirational, fun, and vibrant, or dire and urgent. I wonder if you want to explore those two words?
Sarah: I don’t want people to think that we’re not about being vibrant and fun!
Ken: Oh yeah! [Laughter.]
Sarah: Because…we want to be vibrant, and we do think we’re kind of fun actually. I guess it’s one the reasons why resilience has to be broader than just the enclave, kind of what I was getting at before.
I think those things really resonate with people, and even teasing them apart feels a little bit cynical. We’re not pragmatic, ultimately, because otherwise we’d probably be just having regular lives.
Ken: [Chuckles.] Right.
Sarah: Most of us who do this work are very aspirational, and we’re thinking outside the box. So it’s all in there.
Ken: When you think about community resilience, how do you know when you see it? What does it look like?
Sarah: I think that’s a really good question….. I feel it at certain community events that are diverse, where you have a cross-section of the community coming together, and where you can tell that people are actually connection with each other.
We actually call those holy moments.
Sarah: We have a lot of people who have come up to faith-based organizing traditions around here, so maybe we use words like “holy” and “moral” sometimes. Sometimes at a community event you can just feel that people are like, “Ah-ha! Yeah!”
Like [it] made some now new [connection] with them, or made [it] clear. People are just really connecting with each other, they’re kind of breaking through old myths or through old stereotypes.
I think that’s a huge part of what community resilience looks like to me, because if we can have more of those moments, and have more of these relationships, then…actual concrete, tangible work flows from there. And we’ve seen that time and again. It’s really the bedrock of the work of helping people inter-connect and inspire each other.
Ken: If I were a visitor from another city or another neighborhood in Boston and I were walking through JP, how would I see, “Oh this is what community resilience looks like”? Relationships are sort of difficult to quantify, and difficult to see on a cold Wednesday afternoon, when hardly anybody is out in the street.
Sarah: I think there a lot of tangible signs or visible signs. And JP has a good leg up on that because we’ve been valuing things like green space for a long time….
We have a lot community gardens, we have wait lists for our community garden; people are dying to garden more. We have the first-ever garden in a state park here. The neighborhood got together and [said], “Let’s just grow some food here and see if the state will let us.” And eventually [the state] did come around. We have people taking the initiative to grow food in unusual places…food is a big part of it.
Obviously there are resilient forms of energy, you can look around and see solar panels, you can look around and see different kinds of housing. We need to have very well-insulated housing….
Ken: Well, it actually is visible if a house is well-insulated in the winter, because you can see the snow is still on the roof, it hasn’t melted away.
Sarah: True. That’s another sort of tangible sign of resilience.
I think these things in terms of food and energy and transportation, of course—you see a lot of people on the biking and using the T [subway/streetcar system]. Again we have some of that infrastructure, but we need a lot more of it.
Ken: I’ve been captivated by a question that your group put out, I guess it was about a year and a half ago, as a focusing question for some of your work, “What would it take to have cancer-free JP by, what was it, 2030?”
I’ve…shared that with people who work in the public health field, and people who work in childhood obesity, and other realms that connect with that, and they’ve all been struck by how powerful it is…as a way of imagining all sorts of things that ripple out into different areas.
Sarah: [T]hat’s another way we’re thinking outside the box and connecting these long-standing issues with this idea of resilience. Of course the new economy should be a cancer-free economy, right? What we can bring to that is kind of flipping the traditional focus on treatment into a focus on prevention.
That’s what we’ve done here…is focus on getting rid of these chemicals that we know are causing cancer.
As you know, we’ve helped a dry cleaner here in the neighborhood to switch from using the chemical dry cleaning [process], and now they use the cancer-free wet cleaning process.
So the community sort of rallied together to support that transition and raise money, we did a Kickstarter, we raised $17,000. I think a resilient community is also going to look a lot different in terms of the businesses that we have, and the practices of those businesses. And there are tons of them that use chemicals that we know cause cancer, and it’s just absolutely mind-boggling that we let that go on.
It really [remarkable] how broken our regulatory system is…. [W]e know these things cause cancer, we just let them go on. [At] the community level there’s energy and innovation and some ability to actually address these issues.
Ken: How has that focusing question been able to connect up with…the things that people tend to focus on in the Transition movement around community, food, climate change, peak oil, and things like that?
Sarah: I think the cancer-free work is always a little bit of an] “Ah-ha!” with people. People tend to really silo these things but then when they think about it they see that they’re actually quite interconnected because if we’re all sick then we can’t all be working on these new systems that we need to build.
If we can prevent things like cancer and obesity, then we have that much more vibrancy in our communities, right? And I think the solution is really—as I was saying before—similar to the kinds of solutions that we have around food and energy, it’s engaging people and inspiring people and working at the community level….Building it up, starting small and building up a base of support….
And I think that applies in all the other areas as well, when we do this community based work, we’re also building a movement, and it helps when we explicitly think of it that way.
Ken: [So], what is the long-term community goal for JP?
Sarah: Another great question. JP is part of the city, so it has to be interconnected with all the neighborhoods as we’re doing it. [A]long these lines of resilience, we want the softer indicators that I was talking about before, we want people to be less isolated, we want there to be sort of a vibrant cultural things that people are inter-connecting around, especially across race and class.
And we have more tangible goals too, we want more renewable energy. There’s a pipeline that’s going to be built right through Boston. We want to keep that out. We want no more fossil fuel infrastructure in Boston. We want more food. We’re building a Boston food forest. We want that to be growing and thriving, and growing food in vacant lots around the city.
Those are some of our goals. We want more of the traditional forms of resilience that we were talking about before.
Ken: How responsive has the neighborhood been to the larger picture, versus the immediacy of something like getting rid of Perc [perchloroethelyne], a toxic chemical used in dry cleaning] in the neighborhood, or building a food forest?
Sarah: I think it’s different for different people and one of the challenges is actually finding the right stage to convey the larger vision and convey what we sometimes might call the meta-story, like. “What is the bigger shift that we need, what you might call a system shift?”
So the challenge is figuring out how and when to talk about that. First is how I’m going to talk more about a discrete issue—food or Perc, or something tangible and visible. And I think for some folks, their comfort zone is probably always going to be more on the tangible growing food side, and that’s actually great, because we need a lot of people doing that tangible, visible work.
Other people want to see about the big picture and how it all interconnects. So it’s important to have a clear answer about that, and [as] a community resilience movement and transition movement and new economy movement, we’re still really articulating that vision or story about how it all interconnects, and that’s something that’s still in process.
It’s important to have that, because people are going to be like, “Wait, why are you working on Perc and also food?”
Sarah: And then you have to explain, “Well it’s all part of a broken system, that’s based on a broken form of energy, and these are just some of the manifestations of it.”
Ken: And that must be a lot to try and juggle.
Sarah: [Laughs.] It’s a lot, and it’s also…there’s a million ways to intervene in this system. So that’s positive. You can fix this broken thing in a thousand different ways, and we need people working on all of those thousand different ways. The challenge is always what’s the particular role of an individual person or of an individual organization. The discernment process is something that everyone is working on, figuring out my role in this systems change.
Ken: That’s a really beautiful way to think about it, that [there are so many challenges], but that means there’s a million different ways to intervene, or a million different opportunities to intervene. That’s actually quite compelling.
Sarah: Good. Glad you think so.
Ken: And how does that play out in the work? [Do] you try and bring the doers and the thinkers together, or do you try and get the thinkers to hang out with the doers on occasions?
Sarah: I have to answer with two things. One is the events that we’re always doing. We have events on a range of topics and sometimes it’s a systems thinker like Charles Eisenstein was the big one we had last year. Or a big political name, like Ralph Nader. So we have opportunities for people to come together and think about the big system. And then we have a bunch of events as well on very concrete things like community solar projects. You offer all the spaces for different kinds of intervention, kinds of ways of thinking about it.
The second thing we’re doing, I wanted to mention, is the Community Leaders Fellowship, where we’re explicitly working with six individuals right now, on helping them discern that place, their in systems change. And it’s something that we’re co-creating with them as we go. We’ve been doing this for about a year and a half now. Folks come and work with us for four or five months…on a lot of our projects, and in return we provide professional coaching for them, and also some support sessions where they get together and talk the work and figure out how is this working, and what am I learning, and where will I go from here.
I really think the key intervention right now for the movement is to tap into all the underemployed people or all of the people who don’t want to just work for The Man you know?
So many people out there who want meaningful work, and they’re dropping out of the mainstream economy, or they’re forced out of the mainstream economy, and they are our best resource right now.
So this CLF fellowship…is a chance to for six of them to come in with us and try to discern it together like “OK, what are you going to do to intervene in this system, and meanwhile how are going to pay your bills?”
So that’s a way where we’re trying to really bring it together for just a couple of people, thinking about ways that that could be brought to bigger scale.
Ken: Do you find that the young people that you’re talking with, are they receptive both to the immediate, pragmatic stuff and also to the big picture?
The second question is, “How are they making those connections? Are you giving them opportunities to make those connections? Are you explicitly drawing them? Are they making them themselves?”
Sarah: I think that people that people are very receptive. Obviously they’re self-selecting into this fellowship. [T]here’s a general sense of their general knowledge that the system is broken. People don’t exactly know how to articulate it. But I think you guys have the term, “Walking Worried,” right?
Sarah: Everyone worries about something, and it’s kind of a relief to actually put it in a large context and say, “Oh yeah, the economy is terrible, and federal government is utterly broken. Oh, that’s why I’m feeling all this anxiety. That’s part of why.”
Then people want to put their story in that larger context, and they have some of the pieces. So it’s really not so hard to actually connect the dots, and provide a supportive environment for people to connect their own dots. That’s actually really fun to see that happen.
And then the second question was how to actually draw that out. I think that’s similar, it’s just providing space for them to talk to each other, and think through their own experiences and hear a little bit about the trends in terms of inequality and unemployment and just locate their own story in those trends.
Ken: And …working with specifically young people, and also first-generation immigrants, or close to first-generation immigrants, do you find that there’s difference in how people respond to these larger systemic questions? In the sense that the system’s broken, or that the future might be very different from what they’re hearing in the mainstream?
Sarah: Yeah and I think Carlos would be good to talk to. In general the folks who are [first-generation] Americans have a lot more hope. We have a lot of folks in fellowship who are of color and are generally the children of immigrants or they moved here when they were very young. Their parents are incredibly innovative and motivated people, and they have high expectations of their kids. They still have a more intact version of the American dream, and they’re moving up the ladder, they’re being successful and getting an education.
And it actually reminds me of what’s not entirely broken in our system. There are pockets still of really wonderful things happening. And that’s important to always keep in mind too, the chance for young people to get a really good education and to find meaningful work. It’s great to work with them and think about how can we bring a more positive view of this. And not just try to say, “Oh by the way, it’s all going to Hell in a handbasket.”
How can we combine that viewpoint with some of the realities around the energy stuff and climate change stuff, which is a little bit harder to discuss with a positive view of things.
Ken: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I believe it’s actually Chuck Collins [from your organization] who might have used this phraseology. Richard Heinberg from Post Carbon Institute wrote a book called “The Party’s Over.” And Chuck’s question is, “What about the people who were never invited to the party to begin with?”
Their expectation, based on the mainstream view, is that sooner or later…everybody will get an invitation to the party. And yet the message that we’re conveying, both Post Carbon Institute and your organization is, “Well maybe the party actually is kind of coming to an end, we can’t expect to have this continuing burgeoning economic growth.” How do you approach that issue with the people you’re working with?
Sarah: Yeah, I’m thinking of a couple individuals in particular and I feel like my role is to sort of introduce this information, and…let it bounce around in their mind. Everyone is on a bit of a journey in terms of processing this information in terms of energy and climate change especially.
We’re meeting some people at the very beginning of their [awareness] about it. So it’s sort of a matter of, “OK, now I’m more aware of that.”
I didn’t know much about it either, to be honest, until I got this job four and half years ago, and it’s taken me four and half years to get to where I am which is…I’m certainly not done.
You just have to help people expand their awareness, and then provide support as they try to process some of the more intense aspects of say climate change for example. One of the ways I do that with Chuck is actually in a book club that we have every few weeks where we read something depressing and then try to support each other to process it. [Laughs.]
I think for the Fellows it’s similar. When you’re at the very beginning of it it’s like any idea, it just takes a little bit longer to let it sink in. So I guess that’s one answer.
Ken: You’re doing outreach in the community, and Jamaica Plain is pretty diverse place. There are a lot of first- and second-generation immigrants, and people arrive in this country with expectations of whatever they have in their mind as the American dream, or at least escape from someplace that’s not very hospitable to them, or their political views, or whatever.
And the message that you’re bringing—how are you couching it for those people, and how are you having those conversations?
Sarah: We’re just pretty clear. [For example], we do some of the work of Joanna Macy to help people work through it.
We use stuff from Post Carbon Institute, we use the Next Systems video that’s just gotten out. Just different educational tools about, “Oh yeah, so here’s how we’ve been using energy thus far. And here’s this likely future scenario.”
It’s the same sort of educational approach that you would take with anyone. We oftentimes call to try to stay connected very tangible things like all the storms over the winter. That wasn’t normal, was it?
Or back a couple of years ago when had really high gas prices, and correspondingly high food prices, we tried to have conversations around that. There’s entrées when there’s something very visible about the system that is broken, like the T [subway] hasn’t been working for a month. That gives you a entrée to talk about the bigger picture, and we always try to take advantage of those opportunities because often people can make a connection with the more concrete stuff, and then move into the larger analysis.
Ken: We’ve talked about Transition as sort of a backdrop for your work, is that the framework you’re using, or are there other conceptual frameworks…around community resilience that you’re using?
Sarah: Yeah, we kind of bring in a lot of things. The new economy framework is also very important to us of course. We are JP New Economy Transition, of course. Also the thinking of people of the New Economy Working Group, which is based at IPS in DC, from folks like David Korten and Gar Alperovitz and of course Chuck’s own work. A lot of us are familiar with Charles Eisenstein and Joanna Macy, who bring a whole piece about processing the work, and being in touch with your pain, and things like that. That’s a big piece of it too, this sort of human side.
Ken: Are there resources that you’ve found particularly useful…things that you’d want to point people to?
Sarah: I should mention the Resilience Circle Curriculum (www. localcircle.org) because that’s one of our resources, which groups of ten people can use to learn about the economy and then start about thinking about mutual aid and social action together. That’s a resource that’s freely available. And Annie Lenoard’s “Story of Stuff” videos, which people across the board tend to find helpful as an introduction.
Ken: If you just want to play the “What if?” game for a second…. Obviously money would be the first thing that people would call to mind but, “What’s the one form of support that would most help with your efforts?”
Sarah: Yes, money comes to mind. [Laughter.]
The interconnection, the networking, and the coalitions that we’re part of are really helpful. I think it would be particularly helpful to talk with some more Transition initiatives that are rooted in diverse communities. I think there are a lot of really great resources out there,…and the challenge is finding the time to read them [chuckles].
Sarah: It’s a little bit tricky because of the time issue, but more opportunities to connect with people doing this work really helpful.
Ken: How would you want to connect up with them?
Sarah: It’d be good to just chat over the phone once in a while.
And we are providing a similar kind of support to grassroots groups here in New England through the New England Resilience & Transition network – or NERT for short (). It’s a newly forming network for grassroots groups to learn from each other and consider the resilience of our whole region.
Ken: You mentioned policy—and I know you’re working on at least one initiative—but if there was one policy change or even a political cultural change that would most help your efforts, what would it be?
Sarah: Oh my gosh, I don’t feel at all prepared to answer that question. There are so many! Two things come to mind right away, and one of them is the corruption piece, somehow getting money out of politics, and probably a constitutional amendment. Which would help with many, many different kinds of policies.
Sarah: Also anything that could reverse economic inequality. The impact of that is really, really profound on our happiness and on our attitudes and it just affects us so profoundly. You know, the work that Chuck is doing on straightening that out I think is really a key intervention as well.
Ken: Thanks, and thanks for helping people to come together, and make unexpected connections.
Sarah: Thank you.