Clearing Brush, Selling Bird Seed, Building Community
by John Byrne Barry
It may not seem that a first-ever brush-clearing effort in Silverthorne, Colorado, has much in common with a 26-year-old program of selling wild bird seed in southwestern Illinois, other than they are both Sierra Club volunteer activities recounted in this edition of The Planet. The Colorado cleanup (see "The Fire Next Time") helped protect nine homes against wildfires from the adjacent national forest. The Piasa Palisades Group bird-seed fundraiser (see "Putting the Fun in Fundraising") sells upwards of five tons of seed each fall and raises $1,500 to $2,000. Both however, are examples of "building social capital," something that the Sierra Club is now focusing on with a vengeance.
So much so that the Club has launched the "Bowling Together Task Force," led by Greg Casini, chair of the Organizational Effectiveness Governance Committee, and former board member Lisa Renstrom. The task force gets its name from Robert Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone, in which he chronicles (and laments) the decline in citizen participation in public life. By this he means everything from PTAs to service organizations to bowling leagues to voting. Putnam defines social capital as the "formal and informal networks that connect a community."
This civic disengagement has huge implications for the Sierra Club and how we do our work. While the Club has a true grassroots power base and our membership continues to grow, our local political force has not risen proportionately. We have talented people, but not enough of them, and they don't have enough time.
The goal of this task force, says Casini, is to "retool our organization and develop new ways to connect people to each other in order to advance the Sierra Club's mission."
This past spring, the Club retooled its outreach efforts, putting a greater focus on building social capital. In three dozen communities, Club volunteers knocked on doors and asked residents to post yard signs. We also urged them to send postcards on local issues, but the emphasis was on turning a one-time interaction into an ongoing relationship. While the Sierra Club, at its best, has always done this, we aren't always at our best. Sometimes we only talk to ourselves and focus more on environmental impact reports than on how to communicate with our neighbors.
But if we keep clearing brush and selling bird seed and finding new ways to engage our communities, we can reverse these trends. We can't afford not to.
For more information or to let us know how you're building social capital in your community, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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