Part Two: Engaging the Community

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Posted: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 11:50 am

This is the second of a monthly four-part series excerpted from chapter 2 of my book Social Change 2.0. It is built around four questions that lie at the heart of any strategy to make a community more environmentally sustainable - the engagement of its citizens.

1) Can we get the citizens in our community to adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyles?

2) If so, can we get these behavior changes to be sustained over time?

3) If we are able to achieve these objectives, how do we take such an effort to scale?

4) And finally, what are the possibilities that can accrue to our community from achieving this type of pro-environment behavior change and community engagement?

This series is based on a decade of social learning and experimentation to answer these questions with some 20,000 people in 25 cities across the country. Enjoy the journey!

From my initial research I had learned that one of the biggest obstacles limiting people from taking action was their belief that they were just a drop in the bucket, so why bother? To address this issue we developed the final topic area in the EcoTeam's agenda which we called "Empowering Others."

The appeal to people was this. You want to make a difference or you wouldn't be doing this program. To make any meaningful positive impact on the environment, many of us need to make changes in our daily lifestyle practices. This program is designed to help you adopt sustainable lifestyle practices and then encourage others to do the same. We need to be role models and we need to get others involved. If enough of us do this, rather than being drops in the bucket, our drops will actually fill the bucket.

And reaching out to friends and neighbors is socially rewarding. We heard from many people who were grateful for the chance to create more of a sense of community where they lived. "I've lived in the neighborhood for twenty-one years, but getting to know my neighbors [only] started three years ago with an EcoTeam," wrote Sarah Conn on West Newton, Massachusetts in a representative letter. "There is a lot more friendliness on the streets now. It's given us the feeling of being embedded in the community and having roots." It was a sentiment we heard echoed again and again.

Through making the intention to multiply one's impact an explicit part of the program and providing people the tools to share their natural enthusiasm for their experience, many of the teams were spawning other teams. In several cases, as many as eight new EcoTeams came from a single team. This was, however, a hit-or-miss process. Was there a way to make this ripple effect more systematic and replicable?

Portland would provide the opportunity to find out how. To start with I needed to recruit two local program managers to be responsible for managing the outreach effort. I was very fortunate to find two outstanding individuals, Llyn Peabody and Michael Dowd, both of whom are imaginative, enthusiastic, and very smart about community organizing. Along with my program director, Eve Baer, another gifted community organizer, we created what we called the Portland Sustainable Lifestyle Campaign. Our goal was to form sixty EcoTeams in year one. To do this we would need to find people willing to start the EcoTeams and then convince each team to start at least one new team.

We were lucky to begin this learning adventure in a city known for its environmental consciousness and accomplishments. There was a lot of buzz around the sustainable lifestyle campaign; it was seen as the next new environmental thing. But could we build this buzz into something that was self generating?

Hello, I am Your Neighbor

By now I had discovered that while social networks of friends were naturals for starting teams, you soon exhausted the number of people in those networks. As a consequence this was not a strategic pathway for systematically expanding the program. The neighborhood, however, was attractive because there were no built-in limitations for expansion. On several occasions the number of teams being formed kept growing from block to block, as neighbors told other neighbors about the program. It also provided people the very important motivating benefit of getting to know their neighbors.

It was a daunting thought, however, to imagine building this program around a neighborhood dissemination process. The conventional wisdom is that in America we don't know our neighbors and that's just fine; we are an individualistic society and people like their privacy. But my intuition told me this was not what people really felt. Given a chance, I believed, people really would like to know their neighbors. They just did not know how to go about it.

Prior to starting work in Portland, I had gotten a small grant to test market the idea of a neighbor-to-neighbor organizing model. We hired a market research firm to test a script for organizing at the most local of levels-the block. We developed the script based on what we learned from debriefing both those people who had successfully started teams on their blocks and those who had been unsuccessful.

"Hi, I am your neighbor from up the street. I would like to invite you to my home to hear about a new program sponsored by (city's name). Its purpose is to help us better conserve our environment's natural resources for the sake of our children, get to know each other better as neighbors, and make our neighborhood a healthier and safer place to live. The meeting is at (location, day, and time). Can you make it?"

We had tested the script over the phone in four regions of the country: Northwest, Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. Forty-three percent of the people we reached said they would be very likely to attend the meeting and 42 percent said they would be somewhat likely to attend. We were encouraged by this response, but of course this was a phone survey. We would soon find out if we could really get these results.

Michael was a natural-born salesman. He used to be an evangelical minister, so he knew how to inspire people with his passion. Llyn was charming and had an engaging way of being with people. They were a perfect pair for recruiting EcoTeam leaders and they found them in a variety of places. Some were from likely places like environmental groups, but Michael and Llyn were also successful with neighborhood associations and civic groups. They recruited the first batch of ten EcoTeam leaders by offering the same three benefits used in the telephone script: learning how to conserve natural resources, getting to know their neighbors better, and making their neighborhood a healthier and safer place to live.

These leaders all believed in the cause and were willing to reach out to others, but knocking on their neighbors' doors filled some of them with dread. Many of them admitted that they were afraid of being rejected or, even worse, thought of as pushy. We tried to bolster their confidence by telling them about the very encouraging results from our market research. We also told them that if they were getting doors slammed in their faces, they certainly did not need to continue.

The big door-knocking event would take place on a Saturday afternoon from 11 AM to 2 PM. The leaders were taught the simple script and Michael or Llyn offered to walk with any of them who needed their confidence bolstered. We were all eager to see what kind of response these brave souls would get to their reaching out in a society acculturated to neighborhoods of isolation.

Michael and Llyn called me that night bubbling over with excitement and enthusiasm. "It worked so well," they exclaimed. The feedback from the leaders was consistent. Rather than having doors slammed in their faces, they had been greeted quite warmly. In fact, almost everyone said they were interested in attending the information meeting. Some had to check their calendars or speak with a spouse, but as the market research had predicted, there was clear and genuine interest.

Michael and Llyn debriefed the leaders carefully so we could learn as much as possible. The leaders reported that many of their neighbors said that no neighbor had ever knocked on their door before. They described how many of the people they spoke to were touched by this experience, and quite excited to meet other neighbors at the upcoming meeting. Many individuals told them they had wanted to do something for the environment but aside from recycling did not know how to go further. People consistently thanked these intrepid team leaders for taking the time to do this.

After our initial euphoria of thinking we might have a breakthrough for organizing EcoTeams, it occurred to me that this was a far more profound learning. We had touched a nerve in the modern American psyche. I don't know my neighbors and would like to know them. I don't wish to remain isolated, but I don't know what to do about it. Unwittingly, we had stumbled on a way to reinvent community in our modern disconnected neighborhoods. I would spend many years unpacking this insight.

The neighborhood gatherings in the ten team leaders' homes were scheduled for one week later. The big question was: Would the people who said they were coming actually attend? The team leaders were instructed to call them the night before to remind them and to confirm their attendance. The evening arrived. The market research had indicated that 43 percent of the people were "very likely" to come, and that was exactly what happened.

The "very likely" group came and the "somewhat likely" group did not. They were predisposed, but not quite ready to put this on the top of the list. They would, however, be good prospects for the next round of teams once this program was a more known commodity on the block.

Of those who attended, approximately 75 percent decided to join a team. Some who did not choose to participate would have, but scheduling was an issue. For others, the time commitment was more than they were ready to make, or they felt they were doing enough already. Ultimately, a remarkable 25 percent of everybody approached agreed to participate in a seven meeting program over four months!

This was unprecedented in community organizing and we were thrilled. Equally important was the fact that most of these participants were not what one would call "true believer" environmentalists, but rather they were their neighbors. This neighborhood-based approach was able to tap into a much wider circle of possible participants than our previous approaches had been able to do. The additional benefits of getting to know your neighbors and improving the neighborhood were very strong motivators. We would come to see over time that they were actually the strongest motivators.

As this initial round of teams completed the program they were encouraged to reach out to others on their block. On some of the blocks most of the households ended up joining EcoTeams. The momentum began spreading to neighboring blocks and it became clear that we had laid the foundation for a repeatable way to grow the program.

Join me in a month for the next installment.

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