Increasing Our Impact through Local Government Collaboration

Two dozen Transitioners participated in the April strategy call to talk about the benefits and challenges of working collaboratively with units of local government. In this, our 10th Zoom conversation, we heard from folks doing the work of Transition in communities across the U.S. Their feedback will help to refine the strategic direction of Transition US. This session also featured guest speakers Ash Valenti from Eco Vista and Brianna Schaefer from Daily Acts, who talked about the ways they and their organizations work with – and in – local government.

Background & Context

In 2019, the Transition US Board of Directors began a strategic planning process by surveying stakeholders to determine critical areas for future development. Influencing and partnering with local government was one of the themes that emerged from that survey (see page 14 of the Strategic Planning Input Paper). 

It’s not the first-time local government engagement has drawn the spotlight. A 2014 survey of Transition groups found that many groups experienced local government as an obstacle to achieving low-impact lifestyle goals due to building codes, zoning ordinances and development standards that: 

  • Restricted chickens and front yard gardens
  • Produced plumbing and wastewater standards so rigid that greywater use and composting toilets were disallowed
  • Prevented co-housing and tiny houses (and sometimes even small houses)
  • Preferenced cars, often at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists

But as you’ll see in the discussion below, neighborhood and municipal government – as well as parks boards, libraries and government agencies – have been and can be valuable partners in change efforts.  For example, municipalities are tasked with emergency preparedness, a perfect opportunity for engagement on projects like Ready Together. For cities working on climate action plans, Transition groups can help bring community to the table.

“We need to create models of resilience that can be applied on a local level-village, town, city, metropolis – showing how to do versus enabling the theoretical discussion.”
– 2019 survey participant

The survey also found that Transition US could develop case studies of successful collaborations (European case studies already exist), could host a database of proposed ordinances and laws, and could conduct workshops tailored specifically to municipalities. 

What Would Successful Government Collaboration Look Like?

The conversation began by asking participants to imagine successful collaborations with local government. It’s clear that this kind of powerful partnership would make many Transition dreams possible. 

  • More home “victory” gardens and urban community gardens
  • More affordable housing and housing options
  • Walkable, bikeable, human-centric communities, maybe car-free downtowns
  • Clean water and a healthy watershed
  • Municipal clean energy, microgrids and community solar
  • Collaborative communication across neighborhoods and between cities 
  • Shifting bloated police budgets to real public safety and community care
  • Ensuring everyone can exercise their right to vote

What will it take? At minimum, a critical mass of citizens able and willing to work collaboratively with government agencies.

Daily Acts, Sonoma County, CA

Brianna Schaefer, programs director at Daily Acts, provided an overview of her grassroots educational nonprofit that inspires transformative actions to create connected, equitable and climate resilient communities. 

Daily Acts has worked with the cities of Petaluma, Windsor and Cotati on water conservation and stormwater education projects. They’ve worked with Petaluma to preserve open space. They worked with residents in Santa Rosa, providing water-saving landscape design templates for homeowners rebuilding after destructive fires. And the list goes on…

Schaefer pointed out that their government partners are often so overwhelmed with essential tasks that they don’t have time to act strategically or proactively. Community partnerships can be invaluable in providing the extra resources cities need to succeed. 

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Kaat Vander Straeten, of Transition Wayland, chimed in that this is especially true in small local governments made up of volunteers. They are often in crisis mode. 

EcoVista, Santa Barbara County, CA

Ash Valenti is a member of the Eco Vista Community in Isla Vista, CA. Eco Vista seeks to build the foundation of an ecovillage that provides cooperative, affordable housing, uses renewable energy, and grows food regeneratively. Valenti and another member of Eco Vista ran for office on the Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District and were elected. 

Valenti said parks departments are a good place to get involved because they control land, which provides an opportunity for water protection, tree planting, and expanding native and edible plants. Schools and libraries are also good potential partners. He reminded call participants to consider local tribal governments as partners as well.  

Eco Vista volunteers have collaborated with the Recreation and Parks District to create a food forest. They also started a compost collective that was funded by a grant, but when it grew too big, they partnered with their Community Services District to continue the project. 

What Experiences Have Groups Had Working with Local Government? 

Don Hall (formerly with Transition Sarasota (FL) shared that Transition Sarasota won an ordinance permitting backyard chicken-keeping. And although they lost an effort to re-municipalize their city’s electric utility, they received a Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency side-agreement. The group was involved in getting regenerative agriculture policies included in their county’s comprehensive plan, and they are a major organizing partner for Sarasota County’s annual Sustainable Communities Workshop. 

Janice Lynn said her Transition group in Fort Collins (CO) hosted Transition Streets in collaboration with the city as a way to build neighborhood connections. Her group helped to legalize goat-keeping in the city, and they are working to make tiny homes legal. They have worked with the city council to try to get a moratorium on oil and gas development, and are beginning work with the county on emergency/disaster planning.

Vander Straeten said that Energize Wayland (MA) works closely with their municipal Energy and Climate Committee and has representatives on both those committees as well as the Select Board. They have used their outreach network to help with get out the vote efforts for candidates running on a climate platform, and for city committees and departments who need to get the word out on projects. 

Ruah Swennerfelt (Charlotte (VT) Sustainable Living Network) said “Transition without collaboration doesn’t do much.” She pointed out that there are opportunities for collaboration through committees and commissions. The public library is a great resource for projects. Her group has planted gardens on municipal grounds.  They have worked especially closely with the Energy Committee, Conservation Commission, and Public Library. 

Mark Juedeman (formerly with Transition Houston) said that there were many opportunities in his town to volunteer to serve on citizen boards. Other boards (like the agricultural boards or conservation and Farm Service Agency) are elected positions. “These may be effective ways to get Transition thinking into local governance.”

John Foran agreed and pointed out that direct political participation, like Ash Valenti took when running for office, is also an avenue. “Some of the principles of Transition may have an appeal to conservatives as well” (e.g. localization, traditional skills). 

Jessica Parfrey (Eco Vista) said that her group provides free labor for some projects of the Community Services District. They have also worked with the Board of Supervisors. 

William Mutch (Transition Palo Alto, CA) said that his group received money from local government to host collaborative events.

Angela Gabaret (Transition Framingham, MA) said her local Transition group worked on a plastic bag ban. 

Paul Carlson, (Simply Living, OH) said he has been on his city’s Green Team for 10 years. His group works with parks, utilities, and more. “We are very open to working with the right person at the city. If you do it the right way, you can accomplish a lot working within the system.

“Cities need our help. They spend money on consultants to make a plan, but then don’t have the feet-on-the-ground to implement their plans, so they sit on the shelf… But you need to have nuance to work with the city.”

Shelley Buonaiuto (Fayetteville, AR) said that there were a lot of fantastic things going on in her city – tiny homes, affordable housing, food activities – but people hadn’t heard about them. “Obviously, what they need from us is ways to help citizens engage with things that the city is doing.”  

Janice Lynne said “I think collaborating has been an awesome experience that has taught me what it’s like to have different grassroots “nodes” working on different things. I first learned of this concept when I went to a Transition Thrive training in Chicago and met with Fred Brown who is an awesome community organizer in Pittsburgh, PA.  

“I liked his knowledge around how important it is to be able to join with others in what they have going instead of trying to get them to come into your paradigm or project to organize around your vision and brand.  I have found that his advice on finding common ground and working to empower others in their work, with your assistance, was invaluable.”

Break-out groups added to the list:

  • Helping to draft resolutions
  • Attending government meetings and voicing concerns
  • Tracking what is happening with government committees and informing people when they should show up to have their voices heard. This is a particularly useful service in places where there are many different committees or agencies and it would be hard for the average citizen to keep up with all of them. 
  • Partnering with a local environmental protection agency on clean-up efforts and addressing sources of pollution

Several participants talked about the value of acknowledging accomplishments and celebrating successes small and large. Marissa Mommaerts said: “To get the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence approved, we would show up to City Council meetings with 30+ community members. That made it easy for our City Council to say “yes.” Then we would go celebrate afterward at a local pub, so it was a fun social event too.”

Make the celebration visable and obvious. 

Any Difficulties Working with Local Government?

One participant shared that her experience talking with the local Government Services District had not been the best. She questioned how they were prioritizing climate resilience. When she proposed ways to help, all her ideas were shot down. 

People shared their challenges:

  • Barriers to feeling included, especially for folks who aren’t citizens
  • Confusion about which government body to go to 
  • Lots of committees, lots of meetings, and they are dry and boring
  • Lack of public support
  • Constraints of the current capitalist structure
  • Too often, local government doesn’t have the capacity, the funding or the staff to do things

William Mutch reminded the group that when they talk to folks in government, we are talking to human beings who have moods, on-days and off-days. “Realize that even if a policy might prohibit a thing, a human might allow it, if you know them and they like you.” 

Skills to be Successful in Local Government Collaboration

We can prepare ourselves to work more effectively with local government. Participants identified interpersonal skills of empathy, patience, and perseverance. This will be important when you join together and work respectfully with people and groups across political-ideological boundaries. 

Come forward wanting to help the whole community. 

Take time to build long-term authentic relationships; develop “friending” skills. 

Ayako Nagano of Transition Berkeley said “Know your principles when you walk into a difficult conversation where power is at work. Have them ready to make explicit and stand on them.”

Listening & Communications

  • Let go of your own assumptions and listen for understanding (non-violent communication). 
  • Learn to frame subjects so the audience can truly hear what you want to say. Speak in a way that resonates with them. Use the language that people you’re working with can relate to.
  • Understand your audience. Who are they?  What is their life experience? 

Engagement!

Many participants saw great value in Transition groups helping their city with community engagement. 

  • Look for the range of voices you can bring to the table. 
  • Show up in numbers, with folks from all generations and a good representation of the concerns that are in the community. 
  • Aspire toward anti-racism and inclusiveness.
  • Learn to use the tools your audience and your community use. Learn how to run a public awareness campaign, how to use Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Learn how to set up web pages and emails. Transition US could offer workshops on marketing to help groups do a better job of outreach and attraction. 

Understand Government

  • Identify the right people to talk to at government agencies. 
  • Understanding political language and structure is important.
  • Participate in community boards. 
  • Remember Tribal nations. “Being worthy of trust in the native community is a skillset,” said Monty Smith (Puyallup Watershed Initiative, WA). 
  • Provide your community with education/infographics to explain how government works, productive points of engagement, and how people can make public comments. 
  • Host community meetings and conduct surveys to gather input from folks who are representative of the community you live in.
  • Mobilize actions that local government has the power to actually work on, and know which bodies of government have the power to make those changes.
  • Create shared calendars and messaging lists to mobilize people when opportunities arise.

And look for ways to make engagement fun! (See VW’s The Fun Theory video series.) Help participants feel seen and valued so they are eager to participate more fully and more creatively in the future. 

Resources
Participants shared information about a variety of organizations and resources they felt related to this topic. 

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