Banding together for a common cause

Linden Hills entrepreneur Eric Utne launches Community Earth Councils initiative to inspire groups to take action on environmental, social justice issues

To save the world, switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Move your thermostat down two degrees in the winter and up two degrees in the summer.

Use only Energy Star-labeled appliances.

Use less hot water.

Dump the dryer; use a clothesline.

Unplug electronics when you’re not using them.

Don’t buy frozen foods

Switch to a hybrid car.

The list goes on and on and on.

But for every person who actually follows these directions, laid out by the mainstream bible of the green movement — Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” — there are many others who don’t. How can you be sure that even your next-door neighbor cares?

To Eric Utne, the social entrepreneur and founder of the Utne Reader, that’s the key issue with the current environmental movement. Without a group’s motivation and support, how much change can really be effected?

Utne believes he’s found a solution: Community Earth Councils.

In concept, these councils are small groups — maybe a dozen members, give or take — composed of elders and “youngers.” Together, the members share advice, create discussions and, ultimately, find an issue they’re passionate about to take action on.

Elders, who are 50 years and older, have experience, connections and the ability to listen, Utne says. That meshes well with the youngers, who in their mid-teens to late 20s have energy, enthusiasm and — Utne hopes — idealism, along with a need to be listened to.

“This is a very symbiotic relationship,” he says.

With those characteristics combined, they form a group that holds itself accountable and discovers ways to help the greater good. Or, at least, that’s the goal.

Community

Utne is the first to admit his concept isn’t groundbreaking. The elder system has been around for centuries — nay, millennia — but its use has taken a nosedive in recent history, he says.

What worked about the elder system is that it created a sense of community. People naturally feel an urge to be listened to and to share advice, Utne says.

“We don’t even know what we’re missing,” he says.

While the modern world offers new technologies to create personal networks, Utne hesitates calling MySpace or Facebook actual communities.

“Often, it’s networks of like-minded people,” he says, “and that’s not community.”

By bringing in a variety of mindsets, the community council system would bring people closer together through understanding, and people who feel close can and want to work together, Utne says.

Perhaps seeking that closeness is why his first crack at a Community Earth Council hasn’t so much taken action as it has given its members inside looks at each other’s lives. The group, which has met for a number of months above Wild Rumpus bookstore in Linden Hills, tried to start by bringing in suggestions for action.

Support the elderly.

Create a “living history” project.

Campaign against plastic bags.

The suggestions were overwhelming. So they took a step back, deciding they needed to get to know each other before aligning with a central goal. Now, Utne says, that may be all the group does for a while.

“We’re falling in love with each other,” he says.

It may be no surprise that some of the group’s members are names familiar to community action. Linden Hills Power and Light, the nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and energy conservation, began as a community dialogue among several neighbors about making an impact — much like the Community Earth Council calls for. Felicity Britton, Bryce Hamiton and Tom Braun, three of Power and Light’s founders, are also a part of Utne’s first council.

Braun sees a difference between his nonprofit and the council’s efforts, particularly in terms of goals. Power and Light, he says, begins with and focuses strictly on energy-related goals.

“The council,” he says, “really begins with the individuals, the persons, with the discussion.”

It’s a group, he says, that very much has its own identity, whether it’s with the meditations that lead off the meetings or in the personal stories each member shares.

“Out of that always comes a bit of a surprise every time we meet,” Braun says. “It’s a great alternative to all the electronic communication so widely touted today. … You’re actually face-to-face with someone.”

Beyond Linden Hills

Utne sees Community Earth Councils going national, if not international. He’s already tagged connections at AARP, civic service nonprofit Campus Contact and activist members of the youth climate movement, among others, to gauge their interest, and he says he’s received universally excited responses.

By the end of 2009, Utne hopes to have established as many as two dozen councils in the Twin Cities and more than 100 across North America. He also hopes to further develop a website — www.earthcouncil.org — that allows the councils to share ideas and initiatives and find links to other groups and resources that might fit with their goals.

Utne knows there are challenges beyond getting people motivated to meet regularly. Mainly, there’s the issue of homogeneity. How do you find diversity among neighbors, especially when we surround ourselves with people similar to us?

Perhaps the answer is creating unusual pairings between elders and youngers. Or maybe it’s through the website’s variety of resources.

Regardless of the answer, Utne believes people will want to participate in the councils.

“It’s a social form that humans have used and enjoyed for countless millennia,” he says. “They’re natural — they help humans be humans.”

Eric Utne: A snapshot biography

Eric Utne is no slouch. Call him an educator, a scholar, a publisher, an editor or an entrepreneur — all are accurate.

He perhaps is best known for founding and, for 15 years, editing and publishing the Utne Reader, a bimonthly independent magazine that focuses on economic, environmental and social issues. That’s what putting your name on a magazine will do.

But it wasn’t his first foray into the publishing world. He also was the founding publisher and editor of the New Age Journal, today owned by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Community is key to Utne, and it fueled his close involvement with City of Lakes Waldorf School and Watershed High School. From 2000–2002, he was a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at City of Lakes. He also is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

In 2006, he was elected to the executive committee of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which organizes annual conferences in the Midwest featuring the previous year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

As for his namesake magazine, it was sold in 2006 to Ogden Publications — although Utne will begin writing a back-page column every other issue later this year.

FYI

To find out whether there’s already a Community Earth Council in your neighborhood, or to start one, go to www.EarthCouncils.org. Send your name, street address with zip code, daytime phone number, and e-mail address, and you’ll be introduced to others in your neighborhood who express a similar interest. It may take a week or two for a response.

Form your own council

Community Earth Councils can start anywhere, whether it’s at a coffee shop, in someone’s living room or with a fireside chat. It’s meant to be an organic process.

Here, by way of Eric Utne, are some steps to establish your own group:

1 Invite, then talk. The Linden Hills council began with a group of eight to 10 elders — people 50 years or older — who committed to meeting at least once or twice a month for about a dozen sessions. Eventually, the goal is to launch a project for a good cause, but don’t start there. Make getting to know one another your council’s first priority. Ask questions such as “What is something you love?” and “When did you feel part of a community?” Do this before bringing in the “youngers.”

2 Bring in the youth. Each elder should try to invite one younger — someone 16–28 years old — to join the council. Open your ears to what the youngers find important. What are their hopes, dreams and fears? Then have them join the full council. Again, before getting to a point where action is taken, have all members of the whole group really get to know each other.

3 Find a cause. What does your community care about? What is the group passionate about?

4 Find or develop a project
. This can, and perhaps should, take some time. Make sure it counts in the community you’ve formed.

5 Do it. Carry out the project.

6 Talk throughout. Make sure the group continues to talk while the project is under way. If there’s an end to the project, discuss what worked and what didn’t. If need be, move on to another cause — whatever the group sees fit for the community.

7 Share. The world benefits when examples are freely available, Utne says. So share the group’s experiences so that if others want to follow your lead, they can. Utne established www.earthcouncil.org to act as a hub for ideas and best practices.

As a final note, to stick with the idea of being organic, don’t force anybody to join. A complaining neighbor or reluctant nephew probably won’t do the group much good.


Want to join a Journal-sponsored Community Earth Council?

We would like to organize a Community Earth Council made up of Journal readers. If you would like to get involved, please contact Journal editor Sarah McKenzie at smckenzie@mnpubs.com. Please include your contact information (e-mail address, phone number and address) and some information about your background — occupation, age, interests, etc.