Community Discussion Groups Examine Values and Habits with the Goal of Creating a Sustainable Future

By Alison Rooney

Many people have a desire to do what they can to perpetuate the environmental riches of this planet of ours. The familiar themes of reduce, reuse, recycle are the broad strokes now known to all, but actually breaking these big picture goals down into easily accomplished personal behaviors and actions can be a daunting challenge.
       Perhaps that’s the reason why the community discussion groups, which have been sprouting up locally over the past few years, have become so popular. These structured, small-sized groups, following a model designed by the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) have attracted participants seeking an exchange of ideas on such topics as “Menu for the Future,” “Discovering a Sense of Place,” and, in a series beginning this week at Butterfield Library, “A World of Health.” According to Cold Spring’s Shasta Crombie, who has coordinated a number of the groups, the idea arose following the first Sustainable Living Expo in 2005 as a way to continue exploring some of the ideas put forth by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. Susan Bates, Ellyn Rosenthal and Randi Schlesinger organized the first course. The response to the first offering, “Voluntary Simplicity,” was enthusiastic and there were enough people to form two groups.”
       More followed: three at the HHLT space, one at Glynwood, and now the programs have found a home at Butterfield Library. Jessica Rozman, a staff member at Butterfield, who has been involved with the groups as a participant and behind the scenes, pronounced them “very successful at the library.” Groups of eight to twelve participants meet once weekly, for about an hour to an hour and a half, and, with the assistance of a facilitator, make their way through topics, questions and strategies. Generally the discussions include the great question of what you can do in your own life to act upon what you’ve read and learned.
       The spine of the sessions takes the form of special workbooks, designed for each topic. The workbooks are distributed to participants prior to each session, allowing participants to come prepared to discuss the week’s topic. The course books include links to websites and references to many other source materials, some recent, others from decades ago and still relevant. Crombie says that the workbooks provide “background on the subject and details that open your eyes “¦ ways to implement incrementally that will add up in the end. You come out optimistic.” The course books are revised constantly and Crombie notes that the NWEI encourages participant feedback. “They want to know. You can vent, and they listen.” She adds that “they’re good at looking at all the information out there and sifting through and condensing it.”
       The goal of the program is not to acquire a consensus, but rather about participants acquiring the disseminated information and then figuring out what they personally can do with it. Jessica Rozman, of the library feels that “actually, it is better if there is no consensus.”
       The facilitator is key to the success of the program. This position moves among participants over the course of the sessions. The facilitator does not dominate the discussion, but instead keeps the group on topic and within the allotted timeframe. Crombie says that sharing this role “encourages equality and participation and gives people encouragement and support to be a facilitator, because you don’t have to be the one with all the knowledge, just the eyes and ears to stay on topic, not lose track of time. It empowers each individual to be in that role, whether you’ve done it before or not. Allows the quiet ones a voice. The facilitators have different styles—some emphatic, some organic.”
       The next series begins this coming Wednesday (Oct. 6) at the Butterfield Library. The topic is “World of Health: Connecting People, Place and Planet” and includes “roots of Western medicine, the intersection of health and the environment, and actions promoting good health and a healthy environment.” These programs often fill up quickly, but if enough people are interested, additional sessions can be started. As Rozman describes it, “Shasta approached the library two years ago. The library embraced it and purchased the books — it fits in well with the programs the library offers, as we have a broad range, for all sectors of the community. We’re committed to doing more of them.” A “Healthy Children, Health Planet” series attracted the very specific demographic of mothers of young children, all then new to the program.
       The Butterfield Library purchases the required books for the programs it sponsors and participants are allowed to borrow them for the duration of the sessions. Afterward they are available for similar groups in the future. Those who are unable to attend can create their own groups through a program called “Book Club in a Bag.” The library itself “borrows” a set of ten books pooled from the resources of other Mid-Hudson Library participating members, for use by participants. If you are interested in starting a group, contact Jane D’Emic, the head of Circulation, at Butterfield.
       Interest often continues after completion of a given series as participants implement their newly acquired knowledge in other environmental pursuits, such as community gardens and participating in farm sharing programs.
       For  detailed information on the program, visit the NWEI website at www.nwei.org. For information on the local group and to register, contact Butterfield Library through the interactive calendar located on their website, http://www.butterfieldlibrary.org/, or call 845- 265-3040.