Interview #103 Jan/Feb 1999

Sustaining Community Power

Growing up in Cleveland, Greg Watson says he “intuitively knew” early on that environmental issues were important, and at Tufts University in the late 60s he became involved in the […]

Growing up in Cleveland, Greg Watson says he “intuitively knew” early on that environmental issues were important, and at Tufts University in the late 60s he became involved in the environmental movement, at a time when his peers weren’t necessarily supportive or even understanding. Some African Americans felt that “it wouldn’t be so bad if the environmental movement was even just irrelevant to our cause,” Watson recalls, “but they really felt it was counterproductive and even sinister because of the slogans ‘no growth,’ and ‘limited growth.’ They really felt that it was a ploy to maintain the status quo. They couldn’t see how you could pursue an environmental agenda and at the same time achieve economic equality.” Watson felt the issues were related, though, and began exploring food issues, first working with Boston Urban Gardens, and then teaching environmental science to inner-city teens.

From there, Watson worked with the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture, organizing farmers markets as part of the state’s effort to revitalize agriculture and create links between urban and rural constituents. After a stint at the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, a nonprofit organization that develops appropriate technologies to meet basic human needs in environmentally sound ways, he was recruited into state government and for six years was the assistant secretary for economic affairs, running the state’s Office of Science and Technology, and eventually became commissioner of agriculture.

Watson later served as director of the Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Regional Office, and then at Second Nature, a nonprofit organization working to introduce the concept of sustainability in education. Since 1995 he’s been executive director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community-based organization in the Roxbury section of Boston. His background in sustainability and agriculture has been put to use by Roxbury residents, and they’ve developed a community-based revitalization plan that emphasizes urban gardening, energy conservation, and environmental justice.

When you were teaching at Thompson Island [an alternative high school on an island in Boston Harbor, focusing on environmental science] in the late 60s, what was the response of the kids to the concepts of sustainability?

At the beginning I think they felt it was the farthest thing from any of their existence, but they responded incredibly well. I worked hard at trying to say ‘What is important? What’s relevant? What sort of things can you really know and understand?’ Most of the projects we undertook – building a windmill, for instance – were cold taught. The teachers hadn’t done any of this before, and Thompson Island allowed us to learn along with the students. And so in many cases we would try something and one of the students would come up and say “You know, there’s a better way to do that,” and we would say “Yeah? What is it?” and they would tell us and we would do it.

We team-taught and were learning along with the students. I think we made an earnest attempt – and the whole concept of sustainability centers around this notion – to try to understand whole systems. It’s incredible when you take that approach to education. Buckminster Fuller says that for the most part education is ass-backwards, because we really focus on the parts. We take the world apart and compartmentalize it so you can analyze each part. But the thing that’s amazing about the world is that when it’s put together it works. The earth is an incredible whole system, where everything has been recycled. Four billion years it’s been around, and only one incoming source of energy – the sun. Now think about that. Everything else is recycled. When you say that to kids you really start to get to them. It’s a concept that very rarely comes across in a classroom because of the way we tend to be analytical. What we would try to do with these courses was give them a sense that there were some important concepts – basic principles – and if they could get a hold of those, that would unleash this incredible sense of control and power.

How did your work at the Department of Agriculture deal with sustainability issues?

When I was with the Department of Agriculture I noticed a number of things about the state of Massachusetts. While traditional agriculture was important, there was this whole network of agricultural entrepreneurs blossoming throughout the state, doing things like growing hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes, aquaculture, raising fish, shiitake mushrooms. They were undertaking some very economically viable agricultural activities that could be done anywhere, including the city. As a matter of fact, some of them were being conducted within industrial parks, where two or more enterprises were working together, sharing resources and recycling each other’s waste for their own use. You had this neat closed system that showed that the notion of sustainability is how do you produce something in environmentally sound ways, how do you reduce even introducing some by-products or pollutants into the waste stream? One [way] is to recognize that it’s not waste – if you link it with the right other system you realize that the by-products of one system can actually be the raw inputs of another. The concept of pollution is a human concept; nature doesn’t understand it. Most of the things that we consider to be pollutants really are valuable resources, if they are put in the right place.

After working on such a wide range of projects, what’s your definition of sustainability?

Sustainable development to me means finding economically and environmentally sound approaches to development. Are there environmentally sound ways to meet basic human needs? The key to me is taking the whole systems perspective, to not just look at the short term, but to step back and see systemically how the pieces fit together so that you can find the compatible path between economic development and environmental quality. There’s also a social aspect, because I do think there is a notion of community that is key. The cohesiveness, the networking, the wholeness of community is an integral part of sustainability.

One of the typical responses in opposition to environmentally sound development is that it’s too costly and so is prohibitive in low-income communities. Is that a false assumption?

It’s a false assumption if you rely upon the traditional way of assessing economic development. It’s really about trying to find substitutes. Take energy, for instance. If you look at the life cycle of a particular strategy – super insulation, energy efficient light fixtures – there are some costs up front that can be prohibitive. But we need to look at it over the long run and then look at our savings after that original investment.

In many cases it is very cost effective, but in some cases it does require an initial investment which for some folks, particularly low-income folks, can be prohibitive, in the same way that homeownership can be prohibitive if they can’t overcome that initial investment of the downpayment. So the idea is to look at ways that incorporate the same sort of strategies and incentives and subsidies that will allow them to undertake these sustainable steps in the same way people were helped into homeownership when they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do it.

With so many important issues facing people in low-income communities, how can sustainability be a community-building tool, or a way to develop resident power?

In the past I think there was an assumption that there were certain aspects of our lives that were beyond our control.

You have to look at economic development as not only getting a job and earning a decent wage, but what are you earning a decent wage for? If I reach a certain level of income but my cost of living keeps going up I feel that’s out of my control because the price of heating my home continues to go up, the price of food continues to rise, and I can’t keep up with it. The question is, can you? Is there a way to buffer that? Do we even know what our options are? I’m not saying we’re going to be totally independent of the whims of the global marketplace. We would like to be participants in it, just not subject to its every whim.

As we plan and look at the options and our development plans for Dudley, one of the things we’re doing is saying what are all the options that are out there for us to look at? For instance, we can build structures that are super-insulated, and super-insulation means that there are ways that we can build a home today that probably would not need a central heating system. If you could cut your home heating bill 30 to 40 percent, that’s money in your pocket, and that’s a form of economic development. That’s a very powerful concept. That’s one that you could have some control over.

If you start thinking about economic development and community building, the idea is “how much of that can I really understand and control?” particularly those things that center around meeting basic needs. Economic development certainly means jobs and job creation, but if you can also find ways to cut your costs of living, especially around energy and food, in many respects that’s almost like getting a raise.

Besides urban agriculture, what other elements of DSNI’s work follow the principles of sustainability?

Brownfields development is a key for us. Land is one of the most valuable resources we can have. Unfortunately every vacant parcel in the neighborhood is probably considered a brownfield. We’d like to see some of that land used by the right types of light industry. One of the businesses interested in coming here is a modular energy-efficient home builder, so the whole idea would be not only producing jobs as a result of producing those homes, but actually introducing some of those homes here. We’re part of the 100 Rooftop project that is looking to introduce some solar photovoltaic units into the community, which is a key for us in terms of cutting costs by cutting electricity bills.

We’re working with our merchants to see if we can introduce more resource-efficient, particularly energy-efficient, technologies and strategies for them as a way of cutting their costs, because again, whatever cuts we can introduce to them in terms of doing business are going to contribute to their competitiveness.

The bioshelter is a 10,000 square foot integrated greenhouse being built here. The idea is that we would set up a community development account, where the profits from the greenhouse would be invested in socially responsible investments, and that would provide a resource for the community to tap for certain types of projects. We want to build wealth as well as jobs, and so are looking to see if the profits from a business like that can actually come back to benefit the community. We had looked at the option of the greenhouse selling produce to consumers in the area or to local business, but the option the community chose was to maximize profits, so even if it’s herbs and they leave the community, the profits coming back in will eventually be there to provide the community with a source of funds to support community-based programs.

This is a way of saying “How do we start to wean ourselves away from being totally dependent upon foundations for our support?” This whole notion of a community development fund is a way to do that. We would eventually like to tie this in with the whole notion of a local currency. There’s a real value in looking at whatever strategy you can for circulating dollars within your community. There’s a role for a sophisticated barter system so that businesses within your geographic area can exchange goods and services and improve their cash flow. That’s a form of sustainability because it’s creating a very strong, inter-dependent web of local businesses and hopefully residents as well, who will be encouraged to buy locally.

If I go to Gino’s sub shop, he’ll accept the local currency only if he knows it will allow him to buy something he needs. Now, if the local currency allows him to buy produce from America’s Food Basket, even if America’s Food Basket perhaps is a little bit more expensive, but he can use his local currency to buy all or a portion of it, he’ll probably still be encouraged to shop locally because of being able to use that. So we’re trying to find ways to increase and enhance local purchasing power. The sustainability piece says we can create a sound local economy, even in the face of the global market, if we learn how to be cooperative.

We’re going to try to take these pieces and put them together so people can see what kind of an impact we can have. I think it will be an important step in terms of what it means for an urban community to be sustainable.

Do you see Dudley as a model for the way community development can apply principles of sustainability?

I would never claim that Dudley or anybody is a model. I think the interesting thing about Dudley is that we are trying. A model means you know that it works, and we don’t know yet. We are going to try some things that others will want to look at even if they don’t work. One of the things we’re going to try to lay bare is if some things don’t work, why they didn’t work.

I think there is a vision, a direction we’re heading in that can be useful for folks to look at. I also think that we don’t have all the answers. We have an opportunity to do some things that could be very useful and exciting for people to think about and to learn from, and so to that extent yes. But I also think that we want those eyes on us because people will be able to provide us with some insights that we haven’t thought of.

It can’t just be Dudley Street; that makes no sense. If we’re alone then we were a nice experiment, but not relevant to anyone else. We’re going to try as much as possible to say here it is, and here are the warts. There’s value in talking about works in progress. We want to document all of our processes, because there’s more value to seeing some of the glitches.

The key to what’s happening here is we’re really defining ourselves as a place, rather than succumbing to homogenization of the landscape. We’re looking at these approaches to development as creating our unique sense. That means also making cities not only attractive but desirable. When we did our urban village visioning process and talked about our economic power strategy, what became clear was that economic power was not the end, it was a means toward quality of life. That’s really what people want for where they live.

If we do this right, and if other urban communities do this, the ripple effect is pretty amazing. It has a positive impact on health, it begins to address other issues of development that people are grappling with, and it affects the whole notion of resources and infrastructure and even arts. Cities are exciting places, and we can also make them exciting and healthy and desirable and attractive.

Are there situations in which the principles of sustainable development are completely inappropriate for the community development needs of a neighborhood?

Rather than get hung up on the principles, if the residents feel it’s inappropriate then we wouldn’t do it. When we go through our planning process, when we have the time to step back and plan, when you allow residents to really weigh the options, what emerges more often than not, without giving it that name or that tag, are sustainable strategies. If we allow the wisdom of the community to emerge and really are honest about tapping what folks know, in most cases the solutions that are applied are at least in part sustainable.

One thing I hate about the whole environmental movement is this whole brow beating and “You’ve got to do this; if you don’t you’re a bad person.” The key is making the option available. There are going to be tradeoffs. The question is, can this thing survive by letting people participate as they desire, and if some folks don’t want to do it, then that’s OK. Hopefully it will grow, but don’t impose it or do this guilt trip thing.

Usually when people think about community development they think about inner-city neighborhoods, but a lot of sustainability has to do with rural issues. Is this the chance for some new kinds of linkages?

The problems of rural poverty are even more difficult to grasp than inner-city poverty, because it’s so isolated and sometimes people are totally unaware of the fact that it exists. In our region when you look at the decline of agriculture, you realize that [agriculture] has been the basis for a lot of the economic and community development in rural communities, and they’re losing it.

Urban agriculture really taking off will involve value-added food, not quantity – growing types of food that reflect the cultural diversity and excitement of being in Dudley. If we can do that, then we can begin to market it. Can we take advantage of the fact that Dudley gets a lot of attention, and link our small processors to larger markets with relatively low overhead?

We would like to get to the point where the demand for Gladys’ homemade sofrito is so great that no matter how much land we have here can’t meet the demand. Who can? Our rural farmers. We use our identity to create markets that exceed our capacity to provide the raw inputs. Community-based regional economic development is a collection of grassroots efforts, where you identify the linkages and begin to realize how do we compete in the global marketplace.

Any other thoughts?

Agriculture is a technology, and it disrupts the natural flow of things. If you disrupt your ecosystem through the act of living, over a certain period of time it becomes uninhabitable. That’s why 90 percent of the species ever on the planet have become extinct. We’re going to distort and transform the environment by our act of living, obviously. The question is can we understand some of the patterns. That doesn’t mean being passive and sitting back and saying you’re going back to the land.

We need to understand how we create the built environment in ways that observe the principles of nature. You can’t mimic the natural world in the city, but you can re-create some of the principles of recycling and compatibility.

When you really get down to it, sustainability is really a matter of intuition, common sense, a notion of whole systems, and letting people know what their options are.


Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative;
504 Dudley St.; Roxbury, MA 02119



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