Sustainable Relationships

by Sherrie Kelly

Myles Trainer and Caeleigh Warburton

May 19, 2014

The first Sunday morning in May we left our farmhouse in the North Country to begin a new chapter of the Sustainability Semester: The Urban Component.  With eleven of us squeezed in the van, we made our way south through the Adirondacks and budding trees to Boston where we are spending two weeks studying urban sustainability.  As the first week of the urban component comes to a close, we reflect on a sample of the many people and organizations we have had the pleasure to meet and the lessons we have learned thus far.

In the same way life in the North Country has taught us that collaboration and building relationships is essential for a thorough understanding of sustainability, our experience in Boston has shown us that this is true even in the context of another landscape.  As in the North Country, understanding sustainability in an urban setting requires examining diverse efforts towards sustainability and building relationships along the way. 

We began our week of meetings with alumnus, Jeff Deyette, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Around the conference room table, we listened as Deyette detailed the organization’s commitment to depoliticizing science and providing informative studies regarding climate change and other pressing environmental concerns.  He explained that the Union of Concerned Scientists uses these studies to inform policy decisions that will impact the environment.  It is in this manner that the Union of Concerned Scientists serves as an advisory body armed with sound and reliable data.  Deyette emphasized that while this data is important, it is also essential that you know your audience to effectively communicate this data.  Ultimately, UCS’s aim to reach a broader audience than traditional academia requires that they know this audience, engage in conversation with them, and ultimately build a relationship.

Our third day in Boston we stepped off the beaten trail of standard Boston tourist visits and typical business schemes to visit Bootstrap Compost in Charlestown.  Bootstrap Compost’s small office is in a renovated warehouse, an innovative and creative space that is well suited to Bootstrap’s burgeoning business.  A large colorful chalkboard adorned with dreams of satellite locations lined the walls, and stacks of compost buckets ready to be distributed lined the floor. We were introduced to Andy, the creator and owner of Bootstrap, and his business partner Igor.  They described their passion for composting and its benefits to both community and the environment with particular emphasis on how building relationships with their clients has caused their business to spread.  Andy noted that the act of collecting buckets of compost, a task that was done via a trailer pulled behind a bicycle in the early years, tends to strike up conversation with neighbors and other onlookers.  He said that these conversations often led to business relationships and increased clientele, an essential component of a thriving business. 

On Thursday, Bill Hinkley, a St. Lawrence alumnus and employee of the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, was kind enough to lead us on a tour of the city including a visit to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, a meeting with Rafael Mares, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, and a walk in some new parks that Bill has helped to create along the once incredibly polluted Mystic River.  At CLF, Mares explained how his organization goes about using science, law, policy, and the market as tools for mitigating environmental issues.  He emphasized the importance of networking in the process of creating change and the necessity of maintaining good relationships with other parties involved in your issue regardless of how opposed you may be to their view.

Later in the week we returned to Cambridge where we met Steve Miller, one of the orchestrators of the LivableStreets Alliance. LivableStreets is an organization committed to studying and enforcing ways to make our streets more accessible to bicycle transportation. Having dedicated his life to prompting social change, Steve had a lot of wisdom to offer us as we begin to pursue similar interests.  Steve told us that as people, we have the power to initiate great change, but the change we seek won’t be created single-handedly. As individuals we are not holding up the globe on our own, but rather are gears slowly spinning in hopes of having enough leverage to spin the gears above us that will create the change we hope to see.  It is in this manner that Steve has come to believe that positive relationships with the other gears, or people, in the system is essential to successfully advocating for change.  

On the 10th we headed south on the Orange line to Roxbury Crossing where we met Wendy Ellerston, an energetic woman who has lived in Roxbury since the 60’s and truly believes in the connections urban agriculture has to revitalizing community. At one time, as Wendy recounted, Roxbury saw major fluctuations of investment and disinvestment that has resulted in social upheaval land degradation. Now Roxbury is seeing major improvements from the initiatives of community members to resurrect green space, especially through community gardens.  Roxbury is seeing these improvements because of the strength of its community. People respect one another and believe in each other’s ambitions to keep Roxbury a vibrant community.  It is in this manner that building relationships has proved to be an essential component to Roxbury’s recovery from its troubled past.

Each of the organizations and individuals we have visited this week has very different approaches to advocating for sustainability.  Whether it be through science, compost, law, activism, or urban agriculture, each of these avenues to sustainability is essential for a thorough approach to the topic of sustainable living.  Regardless of this variety, we have found that the common emphasis of the people we have met in Boston on building relationships has enriched and expanded our own conceptions of sustainability.  

As we begin the second half of our time in Boston we look forward to a networking event with Boston St. Lawrence alumni.  We have learned through the organizations and individuals we have visited thus far that collaboration and building relationships is fundamental to building a community and developing solutions for environmental concerns, so we are eager to seek out these relationships and learn how our fellow Laurentians conceptualize and work towards sustainability.

pic 1 - Publications hot off the press from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The various issues are tailored to a diversity of audiences 
pic 2 - A Bootstrap Compost bucket ready for action
pic 3 - Where ideas become reality, inside Bootstrap's office
pic 4 - Bill Hinkley, SLU alumnus, explaining the Environmental Trust Fund's restoration projects around the Boston area. Pictured here is a a path created to rejuvenate the Mystic rivers banks for recreation
pic 5 - One of the many events the Livable Streets Alliance puts on
pic 6 - An urban agricultural space in Roxbury