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Conference to offer tools for change

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Community Solutions turned 75 this year, so it’s fitting that organizers of its annual conference are reaching back as well as looking ahead. This year’s conference, “Climate Crisis Solutions: Tools for Transition,” to be held Sept. 25–27, will highlight a range of individual and community responses to the interconnected problems — political, economic, environmental — that drive climate change.

“Conferences have been part of our structure since the beginning,” said Executive Director Susan Jennings in a recent interview. Since 2003, when the organization refocused its mission on peak energy and climate change, its conferences have tackled these subjects.
While “climate crisis” was not part of the language in 1940, when Arthur Morgan founded Community Service, Inc., the forerunner to Community Solutions, the solutions and approaches Morgan advocated then have surprising relevance today.

“The things we’ve talked about through the history of this organization are the things we talk about today,” said Jennings, citing equitable economies, cooperative communities and the value of face-to-face relationships. She noted that Morgan developed one of the country’s first local currencies in Yellow Springs. It’s an idea that’s gained new life in recent years; according to Wikipedia, communities in nearly three-quarters of states are experimenting with local scrips.

“You could say this conference has a ‘back to the future’ focus,” she said.
But it’s not just the solutions that bridge past and present, said Jennings. It’s the organization’s way of approaching problems. “People learn best through example,” she said, and so each conference is organized around practical actions and “tools” that are currently being tried in Yellow Springs and other communities around the country and world.
“It’s about offering models, hearing what other people are doing and disseminating ideas,” said Jennings. The format is “interactive and participatory,” she added.

Though the conference is not primarily geared to describing climate problems, she said, new learning about problems does happen. For example, Jennings herself, who attended the conference twice before becoming Community Solutions’ executive director in 2014, learned about peak oil through conference presentations.

Most attendees are aware of the key problems, she said, and come to the conference hungry for ideas for change, ideas like the time bank in Dane County, Wis., the country’s largest platform for exchanging services and connecting a community’s needs and resources. (Yellow Springs has its own time bank project, the Yellow Springs Time Exchange, launched last June.) Other ideas include the citywide energy reductions in Athens, Ohio, or the local economy project in Jamaica Plains, Mass., which has helped keep people in their homes and supported local businesses and community gardens amid gentrification pressures, according to Jennings.

All of these projects will be discussed at this year’s conference, as will the many innovative efforts incubated right here at home.

“Yellow Springs is far along,” in lowering its ecological impact, said Jennings. For example, the village has more passive houses per capita than any other community in the country, she said. CSAs and local food movements abound. The village was one of the first in the nation to pass a local bill of rights to clean air and water, a measure aimed against fracking and related activities. (The Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled against such laws.) And another homegrown group, the Resilience Network, created after last fall’s New York City climate march, is taking local climate action by working in six areas, she said.

Those areas are transportation, waste, local economy, buildings, renewable energy and food. Each area will be the focus of an educational workshop over the next year. The forums are funded by the Yellow Springs Community Foundation.

“The conference serves as a kick-off for these Resilience Network forums,” said Jennings, noting the close ties between Community Solutions and the newer climate action group.
This year’s conference is headlined by the Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two Dayton natives who through their blog, books and worldwide presentations inspire people to lead lives of less — less stuff, less stress, but more passion, contribution and contentment.

The Minimalists were selected for their appeal to younger audiences, said Jennings. Other efforts to engage a younger demographic include a student panel, featuring students from Antioch College, Yellow Springs High School and elsewhere, and an intergenerational dialogue focused on youth.

While some of the tools the conference explores are practical, others are psychological and spiritual. Jennings believes these aspects are essential.

“There’s a psychological piece to [climate crisis] — what people are going through emotionally,” she said. A lot of people are experiencing climate change through economic pressures and disruptions that “can be hard to talk about.” Facilitating these “difficult conversations” is one of the things the conference is designed to do, she said.

Community Solutions advocates for a “holistic” response to climate crisis. “We believe climate change is the apex of other environmental issues,” she explained. “All these issues stem from a materialist view of the universe,” the belief that humans are fundamentally separate from nature and from each other.

“We can cut out all the carbon, but we’ll still need to revise our views of who people are in relation to the universe and each other,” said Jennings.

She highlighted psychotherapist and author Carolyn Baker, featured in a couple of conference events, as addressing these deeper, less tangible dimensions of climate crisis. Storytelling and drumming events also tap into “the emotional and archetypal responses” people have, she said.

About half of conference presenters are from Yellow Springs, and local residents will likely make up about half of the expected 100 attendees.

Jennings hopes attendees take ideas and actions back to their communities — which may mean right here in Yellow Springs. Participants from past conferences have made concrete changes in their own lives, and sparked changes within their communities, she said, citing the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living in Chicago, started by a former conference attendee. Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter from Black Oaks will present at this year’s conference.
Arthur Morgan believed that small, well-connected communities were the “seedbed of democracy,” said Jennings. Seventy-five years later, his words and vision are still sending up new shoots.

All events will take place at Antioch College and Glen Helen. Tickets are $100 for students, $250 for Community Solutions members, $285 for nonmembers. Some events are priced a la carte. Scholarships are available thanks to Yellow Springs Brewery and local donors. For more information about events and speakers, call 767-2161 or visit http://www.communitysolution.org.

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Conference to offer tools for change

by Audrey Hackett