Part Three: Taking the Program to Scale

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Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 8:57 am

This is the third 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!

A program that could help residents of a city successfully adopt environmentally sustainable behaviors, maintain them over time, and recruit program participants with some consistency was a winning combination. Knowledge of Portland's achievement began spreading to other cities through the local government networks. Mike Lindberg, Portland's visionary commissioner of public utilities and a city council member who had championed this program, began receiving invitations to speak about it at local government conferences, and so did I.

At one meeting of twenty innovative large U.S. cities we generated so much interest that this group of government officials decided to make their next meeting a field trip to Portland to study the sustainable lifestyle campaign firsthand. They wanted to determine if this was just a Portland phenomenon or if the program could work elsewhere. I wondered the same thing myself.

When the time came, Mike arranged for our meeting to take place in one of Portland's landmark Greek restaurants-where, as it turned out, a band was playing very lively Greek music in another room. Not the best of environments to make a presentation to a group of tired, demanding city officials who had flown in from around the country. But in spite of this distraction, the Portland citizens and city officials we had asked to speak rose to the occasion. Program participants passionately shared about meeting their neighbors for the first time, and how much fun they had, and, of course, their environmental improvements. City government officials talked about how exciting it was to partner with committed citizens and how much was possible when you have an engaged citizenry. It went on like this for about an hour. Then challenging questions started coming from these somewhat incredulous visiting city officials. There were good answers, but I could sense that there was still skepticism. This was not how they had always done business and they weren't sure if they wanted to change.

I will always remember the meeting the next morning in Portland City Hall when the city officials gathered and began describing the experience of hearing about the program. "I felt like I was attending a revival meeting," said one with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Others indicated how impressive this outpouring of enthusiasm was in Portland. But the general sense was that although this was all well and good for Portland, it could never work in their cities. Their citizens were just not ready to make these changes. Their city councils would not get behind something like this. They had already tried citizen engagement and it hadn't worked. Their city was just too fill in the blank. After hearing them throw cold water on the Portland experience for fifteen minutes I decided to chime in.

"The term ‘revival meeting' is actually apt, but not exactly how you mean it," I suggested. "This program offers a revival of something that has been lost or severely reduced in American life-citizenship. What you heard were not angry activists criticizing the government, which is certainly needed sometimes, but ordinary citizens saying, ‘we are doing our part and we'd like to partner with our government so we can take it further.'

"You heard city agencies acknowledging citizens for doing their part and saying, ‘Yes, let's take it further,'" I continued. "You also heard residents who had become neighbors and built community where they lived, around issues that mattered. What you experienced was a new civic model-city and citizens as partners. It beats getting yelled at by disgruntled citizens and as a result wishing to avoid them."

I smiled, and couldn't resist closing by saying, "Try it, you'll like it."

We were successful in recruiting two cities: Kansas City, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio. Now I had to face the music. Was this a Portland phenomenon, as they had wondered, only possible in a progressive city with environmentally conscious citizens, or was this model transferable and universal? Many initiatives developed in progressive cities don't transfer well because they are unique to those cities' populations and local government officials. We would soon find out about ours because these two cities were not considered environmentally progressive in the least. In fact, Kansas City, Missouri was still struggling to get a curbside recycling ordinance passed.

We went forward hoping for the best. We created a program manager job description, and coined the term "living-room friendly" to describe how the person needed to be someone who people would want to invite into their homes. We looked for people with a passion for doing environmental work, community-organizing experience, excellent communication skills, enthusiasm, a comfort in selling ideas to people, a pioneering spirit, and a can-do attitude.

If a candidate got this far, there was a final threshold that would determine whether or not he or she was really suited for the experience. In a recruitment pitch, well honed from my previous community organizing adventures, I told them.

"This job will require long hours and a lot of time on evenings and weekends," I continued, "and we can only offer you a modest salary since we are not able to charge much for an unproven product. There is no guarantee of success and in fact the odds are against us. But if we are successful we will have a shot at changing the world." On hearing this, some candidates ran the other way, but there were enough people, I am happy to say for our world, who found this opportunity very appealing.

We worked hard to get various city agencies and elected officials on board. While this is never easy, it was quite challenging in these cities where they were definitely not as enlightened about environmental matters as the government officials in Portland. We ultimately had to work with a smaller base of official support, but we had enough to move forward.

We used the same selling points to recruit team leaders. Again, while not as easy a sell because of the lower level of environmental consciousness, we were still able to find willing people because of the co-benefits of meeting neighbors and improving the neighborhood. From all the EcoTeams we had formed around the country and world, I was confident that the program would deliver behavior change if people were willing to participate. Participation was our crucible. Would our three selling points appeal to people in neighborhoods that did not have Portland's environmental awareness?

We were committed to making sure our new program managers had the benefit of all our learning in Portland. If we were to fall short of our goals, it would not be for lack of our best effort. We created master classes where Michael and Llyn shared the various recruitment and training techniques they had found successful as well as those that had not worked. They, along with Eve and me, were in constant communication with our new program managers. We debriefed them regularly to see what worked and helped them make course corrections where necessary. Because of the length of the program and the steep learning curve of bringing new program managers on line, it would take us awhile to know how we were doing.

As we were going through this learning process in Kansas City and Columbus, word about the program kept spreading and more municipalities signed on: Madison and Dane County in Wisconsin; Bend and Deschuttes County in Oregon; Issaquah and King County in Washington; Rockland County in New York, and the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We now had cities and counties representing a wide diversity of size, governmental structure, and environmental awareness among citizens.

With more cities and people in the game, the number of ideas and social innovations for how to get people to participate increased multifold. We learned how to form mutually beneficial partnerships with local nonprofits, faith-based groups, businesses, and government agencies in which they would help recruit neighborhood team leaders. We kept improving our techniques for helping team leaders succeed in their outreach efforts to their neighbors. We developed personalized support systems for these team leaders by providing them trained coaches who had successfully been through the program.

And most important, we discovered that no matter what city the program landed in, our three benefits were universally appealing. People everywhere care about the quality of life they will leave to their children, and they want to reduce the toll they take on the environment. If given the opportunity, they wish to know their neighbors and to build a greater sense of community where they live. Improving their neighborhood is a wonderful extra benefit, attractive to everyone. While there needed to be adjustments for the culture and environmental circumstances of each city, the program and recruitment process was successful in each of these very diverse communities.

It worked better in some than others, but in no community did we get less than a 15 percent recruitment rate on the block. In Bend, Oregon, we got an astonishing recruitment rate of 32 percent-higher even than Portland. We had proved this program was transferable and could be successful just about anywhere. It was hard work. It was labor intensive. It required the right people on the ground. It required a willing local government. It was not inexpensive, but relative to media information campaigns aimed at changing behavior, it was quite cost effective. And it actually changed behavior! In short, it was successful. We had set out to create a new social innovation to measurably reduce the significant impact our lifestyles take on the environment and successfully disseminate it, and we had done it.

Sustainable lifestyle campaigns would continue to expand in these and other cities, both in the United States and throughout the world, ultimately encompassing some 200 communities with the participation of several million people in twenty-two countries. They would also provide a new policy option for local and state governments and undergird a budding sustainable community movement. But little did I envision the foundation all this would lay for a future none of us could yet imagine.

In 2007 the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would inform the world in no uncertain terms that either we significantly change our behaviors or face an inhospitable world for human beings. In a future series, I will share how the sustainable lifestyle campaign morphed into a solution to take on the issue of global warming-household by household, community by community. Until that time however, I still had more learning opportunities.

Join me in a month for the final installment.

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