The Last Ten Years of the U.S. Bioregional Movement
and One Small Kansas Group Got Things Going Again
by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Over ten years ago the bioregional movement in the U.S. was basically in shambles after a steady stream of continental-wide congresses organized in the U.S., Canada and Mexico from 1982 – 1995. The continental bioregional office – directed so successfully by the likes of Bea Briggs, Gene Marshall, David Haenke and others over the years – ran out of funds, focus, and energy. The not-for-profit center in New York City, which housed the bioregional office and funds for future congresses, went bankrupt. The vision councils in the U.S., which had been so instrumental in helping guide the development of congresses in over the last decade, in locations such as British Columbia, the Gulf of Maine, San Antonio, Kentucky, and Michigan, dissolved.
Plenty was happening in Mexico and Central America – including many consejos (bioregional congresses), educational projects, ecovillage development, publications, and mentorship of a whole new generation of bioregionalists (largely nurtured by Laura Kuri, and also La Caravana – a traveling bioregional education road show developed by Alberto Ruz). Yet all the initial excitement in the U.S. (except for the excellent publications of the Planet Drum network) to network, catalyze projects and programs, share resources and inspiration, and continue to build the movement seemingly seeped into other movements, local projects and academic studies.
Ken Lassman, my husband, and I had many late night discussions on the fate of the bioregional movement in the U.S., which he compared as being a patient in a coma. Yet none of us felt the particular fire necessary to turn these thoughts into action. That was until the Kansas Area Watershed Council (KAW Council), a group I’ve been involved with since it was founded in 1982, fell into our own crisis which propelled us toward organizing the next congress and revitalizing the movement, much to our own surprise.
Taking Ourselves By Surprise
KAW Council is the second oldest (next to the Ozark Area Community Congress, which formed a year earlier) bioregional group on the continent, organized along our watershed which encompasses most of Kansas, a wide swatch of Nebraska and a little of Eastern Colorado. Founded in the late 1970s as the Appropriate Technology Center in Lawrence, Kansas (our motto was “Greater Self-Reliance in Energy, Food and Health”), KAW Council members, when exposed to bioregionalism, changed our bylaws and became a bioregional group in 1982. For our first dozen years or so, we organized quarterly camp-outs and gatherings – traveling throughout Kansas and Nebraska to learn more about our watershed by visiting as much of it collectively as possible. We had hundreds of potlucks; dozens of public programs on various aspects of ecofeminism, organic farming, natural healing, and more; published a quarterly (until it became bi-annually, then annually, and now very occasionally) bioregional literary magazine called Konza; organized collaborative events with other Kansas ecological organizations; supported various bioregional causes locally and continentally; and mostly just hung out with each other and ate. In 1984 we were also were very involved in co-planning, with OACC, the North American Bioregional Congress, the first bioregional congress.
We’ve always been a fairly small group with probably no more than 150 at our largest gathering, and usually more like 40-60 at our annual spring gatherings. Most of our meetings bring together about a dozen of us, and we have no paid staff, and an annual budget of usually less than $1,500. Many of us face the usual problems of living in 21st century America: over-commitment, exhaustion, health challenges, never enough time to relax, and always too much to do.
By 2000, we hit what felt like the rock bottom of a crisis, namely the continued desire for bioregional activity but not enough will, energy or time. All the usual suspects were worn out from 19 years of organizing our usual events, editing our usual publication, or coming up with new things for us to do. The first wave of kids who had grown up in KAW and even planned our 10th annual gathering were off to other things, and the second wave of KAW kids were still fairly young. KAW was vitally important to our hearts and souls, yet we didn’t know what to do with the organization, if the organization should and could continue, or how to proceed.
Faced with the slow and painful fade-out of an organization that meant so much to us, we decided to have a meeting – and potluck of course – to talk about what to do from here. Some came expecting a memorial service for KAW, and some (like me) hoped for a second wind. In any case, close to 25 of us showed up that hot summer afternoon in 2000 in the backyard of Joy DeMaranville to sit on blankets (gotta avoid the chiggers), eat watermelon, and decide the fate of KAW.
Thanks to many of us being well-trained in facilitation by the likes of Caroline Estes and Bea Briggs over the years, we knew how to do such a meeting well. Ken facilitated a long round where each of us could speak to questions about what mattered most to us in our lives now, what work and callings occupied us, what KAW meant to us, and what we felt we should do with KAW.
Immediately, most of us found so much warmth and joy in our being together, some not having attended a KAW event for years, that any fears of KAW’s demise quickly became ludicrous. Within a short time, it was obvious that we all wanted KAW to continue. We felt what we needed most at this point was a good project to give our passions a focus.
While we talked about the possibility of starting a KAW website or doing bioregional educational programs again, what emerged most clearly was our concern about the bioregional movement. By the end of the meeting, I tossed out the notion to call together all the people we knew who had helped develop and grow the movement in the U.S., Canada and Mexico for a meeting to see what we should all do next. Within a few months – Oct. 8, 2000 to be exact – we started a listserv (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the expressed purpose to invite people to our spring of 2001 KAW meeting to discuss the future of the bioregional movement.
What happened next encouraged us further. Within days, many people responded that they would love to come, including Judy Goldhaft, Bea Briggs, David Haenke, Stan Slaughter, LaVetta Rolfs, Suzanne Richman, Jeanne-Marie Manning, Gene and Joyce Marshall, Betsy Barnum, Gary Tucker, Stephanie Mills, Debra Giannini, Gwyn Peterdi, Laura Kuri, and so many others. Over the next six months, we emailed back and forth details of the April 27-29 gathering, during which time we would spend a day in a renovated barn near Ken and my house in the country to discuss the bioregional movement. The next day, we would head out to Camp Hammond, the camp between Lawrence and Topeka where we’d been having spring gatherings since ’82, for a KAW Council weekend, with all our special guests presenting workshops.
That was the plan, and I figured that once together, someone would stand up at the meeting and say, “Yes, I will gather a group around me and start organizing the next congress.” None of us realized that simply by calling the meeting, we were already calling out to ourselves to be those volunteers.
April came, and soon the back deck of our home was packed with bioregionalists, old friends, new ones, too, who had traveled from the likes of Mexico, Northern Vermont, Southern California, deep in the heart of Texas, and the wild Ozarks. People came from car, bus and train. Ken and I walked to the field around sunset and looked up, amazed to see David Levine from New York City, Laura Kuri from Mexico, Michael Almon from Lawrence, and Gene Marshall from Texas drinking beer, eating pie and admiring the sky together.
At the meeting we held the first day in Ray’s barn, a short walk down a diagonal trail through the brome field that Ray mowed for us, the 40 of us sat in a circle and went around, speaking of what we saw in the movement and what was needed. Many people missed the congresses, and yet all of us were living bioregionally at home to a great extent, finding that the movement had infused the center of so much that we did on a daily basis. People shared dreams they had recently, work they were doing, yearnings that grabbed hold of them.
When it was my turn, I said, “I just have to have another congress. We just have to make it happen.”
“You! You will organize the congress!” said Laura Kuri, jumping out of her seat. “KAW will do it.”
KAW people – Ken, Joy, and also Jerry Sipe, Dan Bentley, Mark Larson – and I looked at each other, stunned. Ken and I were so wiped out by working full-time with three young children while also taking care of the farm that adding a continental congress to our daily work would be insane. Others were similarly busy. We were too small a group. There was no bioregional office, no records, no mailing lists, no money, no way. All of these thoughts lasted about a second because at the same time, the air was lit with a kind of recognition that told us we would do the congress regardless. Rita deQuercus, from Ohio on route to find a new home, stood up and said she would devote herself to helping us. Curtis Andrew Beckworth from Tulsa said he would drive up for meetings.
Laura, who Jerry even today calls “the seductress from the south,” was hugging us, telling us how it was meant to happen this way, and strangely enough, none of us were disagreeing. And all of us down on the farm were agreeing with her.
The next day, at Camp Hammond, we sat in a circle in the main building as Laura unrolled the Turtle Island Quilt. The quilt, created out of squares made by people from different bioregions in the continent in 1984, and then quilted together by the men at the first bioregional congress in Missouri that year (as a way to counter-act a millennium of handiwork being women’s work). The quilt was in the shape of a giant turtle with embroidered symbols and messages added by various congresses and groups over many years. All of us held the quilt between us: a turtle made of time, place, animals and air. In the last day, KAW had committed to do the next congress.
“If it’s only just us again,” Gene Marshall told me on that beautiful May day as he pointed to the 40 or so bioregionalists eating lunch on picnic tables, “it’s a success. The congress is already a success.” This was welcome news, especially since all we had was our memory and each other, but we were also invigorated by the light of past congresses.
As David Haenke later said of that weekend, “I felt there the wondrous energies of the Congresses that had gone before, and there they miraculously were again to rekindle the green fire through KAW.” Luckily, we were surrounded by other great souls of bioregionalism.
Continental Bioregional Congress on the Prairie in 2002
Organizing a congress after a long hiatus and the disappearance of valuable resources was overwhelming at times, challenging at other moments, but overall, an act of joy for our group. For one thing, we truly enjoyed working together, and between us we had enough experience in enough vital areas to have some sense of what we were doing even if it felt a lot like walking through a dark wood at times
We first found our initial roles. Jerry expanded his role of treasurer to do finances, and because he knew how to wield a spread sheet, he took on transportation coordination. Ken used his prairie knowledge to coordinate the site committee, which included himself and Jerry. Joy took on hospitality and health care for the congress, along with Danny, planning ways to make people feel welcome and stay healthy. Rita agreed to coordinate food for the congress with help from Curtis, Aaron Calovitch (Joy’s son and one of the kids who had grown up through KAW), and Mark, one of our elders and founders. I had the role of overall coordinator, something I was suited for after years of being the lead organizer on several national conferences and lots of bioregional gatherings.
The 18 months between the meeting at KAW and the congress, set for Oct. of 2002, first entailed revamping our use of consensus to make our meetings work well, then rebuilding a mailing list, fundraising, and developing cosponsorship materials. Luckily, Caroline Estes, who had trained some of us in group process over the years, happened to be visiting to give some workshops, and she saw that we absolutely needed some retooling. We knew it also, especially after one tedious six-hour meeting when we got into a heated discussion about whether people needed to eat three times a day or less. After the weekend workshop with Caroline, hosted by LaVetta Rolfs’s Learning for Life Center in Topeka, we re-committed ourselves to use our meeting time for action, discussion, connection, and to report details to each other in writing beforehand. We also became far more faithful at sending out agendas (through having a rotating agenda gatherer) before each meeting, and rotating facilitators who were any of us in the group except me on Caroline’s good advice at the main organizer had too much to say at meetings to facilitate. Ken explained that, “….to streamline that process, creative structures that really did allow much more to be shared and for all to be listened to. That old Kansas motto [“To the stars, through difficulties”] is true as far as process is concerned, but to have Caroline Estes come and give us this very structured way to run meetings really freed us up….so that the focus of our meetings was taking care of each other.”
We soon evolved a rhythm of meeting monthly, usually at our house, for a three hour, well-planned, prepared-for-ahead-of-time, and well-facilitated meeting followed by eating of course, and thanks to Rita’s constant insistence on what she called “Full Circle,” taking turns cleaning dishes and sweeping floors. Mostly, we hung out for hours after each meeting, passing around books and magazines, telling
One of our early moments of great challenge came with what to call the congress. It was the North American Bioregional Congress in ’84, but was changed to Turtle Island Bioregional Congress in later years and eventually to the Turtle Island Gathering, a term – although meaningful to those who understood what Turtle Island was – just didn’t communicate the intent of the congresses to potential attendees. Our group had heard months of debate on the bioregional listserv of what name we should collectively hold. We took in all this information, and spent a long meeting trying to decide. In the middle of our time, we were almost in tears because we couldn’t decide. Jerry suggested we each walk quietly in the field for a while and see what comes.
When we gathered again, we decided: It would be the Bioregional Congress of North America, or BCNA for short. We put it out on the listserv, and within days, we received an impassioned email from Laura and others in Mexico, explaining to us that people in Mexico didn’t identify so readily with the term “North America,” which implied only the U.S. to them, and that with that term on the congress heading, it would be even more challenging to get visas.
It was a hard moment for us, having had such a fabulous group process to make a decision and then finding out it was the wrong decision. We met in a local coffee shop, and passed around a silver spoon as our talking stick, joking that it was all too appropriate given that we Norte Americanos just didn’t “get” some things. We decided to head toward inclusively and a bit of vagueness by using the name Continental Bioregional Congress. The difficulty of deciding the name brought us closer and seemed the biggest hurdle we would have.
We were right about our connection, but wrong about the difficulties ahead. Nine months into our planning, we faced another surprising challenge. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in March of 2002. Our next meeting, just two days after my diagnosis, was on a slate cold March day. I was so stunned and numb from the diagnosis that I couldn’t even cry yet. The agenda had a list of items, and above them, in red marker, “Caryn’s cancer.” Ken and I told the group about the diagnosis, then steeled ourselves to head onto other items, but Rita stopped us.
“Wait. I can’t go on to other things yet. So many of my friends are getting breast cancer these days, and now that Caryn has it, I need time to just absorb this.” She started crying. As I sat in a rocking chair in the quiet that settled over us, I realized that everyone else in the room started to cry also. The irony that working for bioregionalism while suffering from one of the most dangerous environmental effects on humans, cancer, wasn’t lost on us any of us in that sorrow.
Doing the lion’s share of the work until then, I was now faced with the realization that I needed to pull back from many of the responsibilities in my life, and heal as I went through what turned out to be a much-longer-than-anticipated journey through three major surgeries and a particularly aggressive chemotherapy regime. Some people from the movement wrote to say that we could drop the congress if need be, but that was never something we considered, especially me. While I knew I needed to pull back, I knew also that organizing this congress was vital to my journey.
Strangely enough, we found the redistribution of my work seamless, and when I started up again on mailing out flyers, emailing announcements, corresponding with potential attendees and raising funds – right around the time I also began six months of chemo – I found the congress organizing work a blessed distraction from my symptom-of-the-moment. The redistribution of the work was good for our group, helping us find a new kind of rhythm.
I also had a recurring image guiding me: It was of a long walk through a dark wood, no way to clearly see the trail, and yet on the far distant edge, I could make out all these people holding lanterns, leading us to the new land. I knew when I reached that edge, I would at the congress, the people were all those coming to hold up their light so that we could see something vital in our collective being.
The congress began less than a week after my last chemo appointment. While we had 120 participants – less than the 200-plus in congresses in the past – it was a good number for beginning again. We successfully raised – mostly through individual solicitations, and cosponsorship fees – all our funding needed, plus $5,000 to help bring up people from Mexico. Laura stretched that money to get over 17 people from Mexico and Central America to the congress, some by bus, some by train, some by plane. “It was essential they came. They were the heart of the congress,” said Jerry, citing the rituals they facilitated while there.
The congress itself got the patient out of his coma and at least sitting up, contemplating what to do next. During the congress, workshops, large plenary sessions, rituals, men’s and women’s circles, talking circles, volunteer group, interest group meetings, and cultural sharing events brought the 120 of us together to recommit ourselves to bioregionalism, and widen the spread of the movement. Held in a stunning location in the heart of the Flint Hills – tall grass prairie, big hills that look at voluptuous women lying on their sides, and lots of sky – the congress also revitalized all who came.
Having been through our experience of starting over, we were determined that future groups wouldn’t face these obstacles. So Ken and I spent much of the congress kibbutzing with people to plan for a council to help govern the council between congresses, a bioregional office to help with organizing, and a site committee somewhere that would organize the next congress.
In a massive moment of elation and not perhaps the clearest thinking, we called out for the council volunteers with the only criteria being a willingness to work hard. We didn’t bother with making sure we could talk to each other in a common language or that we all had email access so that we could work together over distances of hundreds of miles. Something like 18 of us jumped up and said, yes, soon affirmed by the plenary. We didn’t realize how important it was to have time at the congress for our new council to meet and get started, develop ground rules and a way to function.
In that same rush of excitement, David Haenke volunteered to open up and run a bioregional resources center. While a more sensible approach might have been to first decide the role of this resources center, find ways to fund it, develop a job description, and then do a search for staff, we weren’t entirely sensible at that moment. The sense that the movement was back was intoxicating to many of us, and so we leapt joyfully into this new configuration.
The most exciting moment for those of us in KAW, however, when when four people – Keith Johnson, Peter Bane, Patricia Allison and Kimchi Rylander – who came to the congress from Earthaven, indicated their interest in doing the next congress.
After the congress, we shuttled back to Lawrence. I rode with Angelica Flores, a medicine woman from Cuernavaca, and although she knew as little English and I knew Spanish, we managed to communicate by pointing at birds and clouds, and laughing together. For at least a week or so, many from Mexico stayed in the area, all of us coming together for feasts of barbequed tofu and tequila, great talks on bioregionalism, and the sense that we were all bonded into a huge, traveling and stationary family who loved the earth.
Jerry explained, “To me, the it was a ceremonial village, a gathering of kindred spirits, a dream time that gives birth to a kinder and softer reality, and a gathering of hearts and minds a sharing on deeper levels of heart emotion unforgettable and ever present and ever expanding. It’s not over, it’ll never be over.”
Continental Bioregional Congress 9 at Earthaven
Within a year, it was obvious there were significant problems on all fronts. The coordinating council members didn’t all speak English or Spanish, so it was very difficult to understand what some of us were saying in emails. Ken and I often used the web program, Babblefish, to translate, but what came was more like Dadaist poetry. Entertaining yes, but effective, no. Several members on the council never checked email; others were sporatic. Ken, Rita and I soon found ourselves the only people who really participated fully as council members, and we quickly got frustrated with how difficult it was to make decisions on email, let alone pass on information. The office David was to start never really got going because, in David’s excitement and passion for bioregionalism, he hadn’t realized that he was simply too busy with his forest management and restoration work.
When the Earthaven folks went back home and brought the proposal to do the congress to their community, they initially found a strong consensus to go forward. Unfortunately, the decision to do a congress was made on the assumption of having a strong coordinating council and bioregional office. This wrinkle didn’t surface until the middle of a meeting at Earthaven in spring of 2003 that Rita, David and I attended to help orient the Earthaven site committee. By this time, it was increasingly obvious that without a bioregional council of more than three, and an active office, the site committee would have a lot of work on their hands.
This realization, coming to all of us in the beautiful Earthaven round meeting hall, was a painful and charged moment that immersed us not just in the humidity of the North Carolina air, but in confusion and mystery. After several long meetings, a wonderful splash in the creek, some good meals, and lots of long talks, Earthaven decided to do the congress, but to host a year later than planned, in 2005. This would give Earthaven time to organize locally and build the excitement. Ken, Rita and I committed to raising money to bring people from Mexico and Central America to the congress.
Thanks to a trio of amazing women especially – Patricia Allison, Mary Armstrong, and Kimchi Rylander – plus the support of many other Earthaveners (Keith Johnson did a great job on the website, and Peter Bane on promotion and finances), the congress was extremely successful, bringing together over 250 people in June of 2005 to co-mingle with the chiggers, mountain streams, each other, and massive amounts of rain. Our fundraising for people from Mexico and beyond was also successful. Hurricane Dennis passed over the congress not once, but twice, yet sturdy tents, some Earthaveners opening up their homes to some of us camping in what quickly became ponds, and everyone’s good humor, resulted in a powerful event.
One of the innovations of Earthaven was to have a conference-like event for the first two days of the congress, which was brilliant because it helped first-time congress-goers enter the congress on the same ground as more experienced ones, breaking down barriers that had in the past sometimes alienated newbies. It also helped everyone learn about topics of great importance, such as ecovillage governance, straw-bale building, ecopoetics, bioregional theory, sustainable waste water systems and much more.
The plenaries of the congress began the third day, by which time the overall group had come together through invigorating workshops and rainstorms to begin deliberating on overall goals of our time together. The congress also included another innovation: Time each day for people from local bioregions to meet together to develop their own local bioregional tools and strategies. While this wasn’t always as effective (some groups hardly met at all, and our group – the prairie bioregion – was so large and diverse that mostly, we got to know each other and our work), it did place greater emphasis than ever on the need for a bioregional curriculum. An interest group that met regularly drafted a rough draft of a curriculum, which would serve as a template for local groups to then infuse with local wisdom (the idea of a bioregional curriculum is still actively in development today).
Having learned from our mistakes with trying to do too much with too little clarity, Ken and I developed a plan, with the good help of Gene Marshall, that we brought to the congress to again form a coordinating council, but this time to have strong criteria for membership. All council members had to commit to check email regularly, participate in monthly phone meetings where we could make our decisions, meet in person each year, speak English, and work hard for the integrity of the movement. Married or joined coupled would count as one member. We were very adamant about the email and phone access especially, and we even turned away some prospective people who admitted to only checking email every month or so. What the last few years had shown us was that while it was technologically-dependent and English-centric to have such rules, we knew of no other way to effectively be a council together over distances in time, culture, and place.
After three sessions at which time interested people could learn more about the council and present themselves to be a member, we settled on a slate of seven members (coupled counted as one each): Laura Kuri and Fabio Manzini, Barbara Harmony, Bob Randall, Kimchi Rylander (who was later replaced by Juan-Tomas Rehbock), Liora Adler, Mary Meyer and Richard Cartwright, and Ken and myself. It was early enough in the congress that our council was able to meet additional times after the plenary approved this slate. During those meetings, we consensed upon Ken as the main facilitator, talked through phone conferencing options, shared stories of our lives and homes, and discussed the range of work we would do. Mostly, we discussed our meeting process – the same one KAW used so effectively from Caroline Estes – for our group, relying on the monthly phone calls to make decisions, and email to keep in touch and share information.
Continental Bioregional Congress Coordinating Council and the Hairpin Turns Toward the Next Congress in 2009
Most of us on the CBC Coordinating Council since 2005 have stayed steady in the work, meeting monthly by phone, once a year or so in person, and sharing many emails. The council is sanctioned by the congress body to be the congress between congresses, and our specific tasks since 2005 have been to find the next site for the next congress, to mentor and support that site committee, to develop (with input from others in the movement) a comprehensive bioregional curriculum, to raise funds to help with the travel expenses of people from south of the U.S. border, and to keep the bioregional movement informed at large about what’s going on and how people can plug into this good work.
One of the overwhelming delights of our work has been our process together. It’s every bit as good now as it wasn’t with the previous coordinating council. We stay in touch, we call in to at meetings, we take seriously our commitments, we communicate when we need to step back a bit, and we all show up in all ways for this work.
Our work during our first meeting mostly focused on finding a site for the next congress. After we developed a detailed and thoughtful list of questions to ponder when considering hosting a congress, we distributed the call to submit a proposal to host a congress throughout all the bioregional channels we could find. We received one strong proposal from the Ohio River Valley, particularly from Mary and Richard, members of our council, who had been on the site committee for the 1991 bioregional congress held in Kentucky. They had an excellent site – a spiritual, cultural retreat center in the process of beginning its own ecovillage, and good people who stepped up to work on the congress.
Our site committee then decided to have our first face-to-face meeting Mexico since it could dovetail with many of us being there anyway for other projects at the time. I was to go to Mexico to facilitate poetry therapy workshops and do a poetry reading, Barbara was going to participate in the Alternative World Water Forum, and Liora and Laura lived in Mexico. So in March of 2006, we all convened in Mexico City for several days of meetings and explorations in Mexico City, followed by more days of meetings at Hue-Hue Coyotl, the legendary ecovillage in Moreles and home to bioregionalists such as Bea Briggs, Orin Ruz, Kathy Sartor and Giavanni Ciarlos, and our own Liora.
In Mexico, we also visited with the Ecopunks of Mexico City, and we even went to their bar, the Bat Cave; the Ecopunks provided childcare for our family, and they provided general security whenever we needed it. We also spent time with people at Hue-Hue, learning about the ecovillage’s founding and functioning. And we spent a lot of time around Laura’s dining room table in Cuernavaca, talking about bioregional curriculum planning and how to keep building bioregionalism throughout the continent. The poetry therapy events drew in a bunch of the central Mexico bioregionalists, including Angelica Flores and others.
Our time in Mexico was very much a a traveling meeting, during which time we discussed development of a bioregional curriculum, how to continue to sustain ourselves as a council, fundraising for the next congress, and bringing back the bioregional congress publication, The Voice of the Turtle.The Voice of the Turtle in many years, and mailed it to all attendees of the last two congresses (the publication is also posted at email@example.com). Upon our return home, we put out the first issue.
In the year after our meetings in Mexico, the organizing of the next congress was hitting snags. Despite their best efforts, Mary and Richard found that the geographical distance and, in retrospect, not enough time to discuss the demands of holding a congress before submitting a proposal, kept a core committee from materializing. In our monthly phone call in March of 2007, Laura was brave enough to say, “I don’t mean to be witchy-witchy, but this doesn’t sound like it’s working” after Mary gave her report, which reminded us that the site committee was still just Mary and Richard. Mary and Richard took some time to think about this, and they met with all those who had initially expressed congress interest. Their group decided not to organize the congress, but instead to start holding regular bioregional events and gatherings to educate themselves and their greater community.
On our phone calls, we talked during this time about the importance of not losing our focus, the value of bioregional congresses, the necessity of not blaming each other but looking at the wider picture of how to best do a congress, and most of all, the synchronicity of bioregional congresses. Since all of us had ample bioregional congress and/or other major organization experience, we understood that if things weren’t working, it was often best not to force them but to look instead at what life was trying to show us. Life here clearly had other plans for where and when the next congress would be.
As so often the case when it comes to the timing-is-everything magic of the bioregional movement, around the same time, Liora Adler found herself on a two-hour drive with Greg Landau, lead organizer for the latest Gaia University degree workshop at the Lost Valley Ecovillage. Liora mentioned that the Coordinating Council was looking for a new site to Greg, who is very active in the NEXT GEN (the youth leadership part of the Global Ecovillage Network).
What happened next was what Liora called “a kairos moment” born out of the connection between the bioregional movement, Gaia University, and NEXT GEN. A few days later, we put out the call to the bioregional listserv and other groups for proposals to host the next congress, and within a week, three people from three sites wrote us of their interest, including Greg. Greg soon submitted a proposal and developed a site committee, we approved the plan, and all seemed set, but then, the road turned sharp around another curve.
Greg and some members of the site committee were offered jobs at The Farm in Summertown, Tenn. through the Ecovillage Training Center in conjunction with Gaia University. After more phone meetings, phone meetings, and emails, the new site committee decided to feel out whether there was sufficient interest to organize the next congress at The Farm instead of in the Northwest. There was.
In October of 2008, the coordinating committee traveled again to meet face-to-face, and this time to also meet with the new site committee at The Farm and with The Farm’s board of directors. Set for October 3-10, 2009, the next congress promises to be particularly hands-on with many workshops and minicourses, many of which will pilot parts of the bioregional curriculum in the works, and an infusion of new energy, particularly from younger generations. Greg, along with Jennifer English from Nashville, and many visionary and hard-working people are guiding the organization with an eye toward helping people find tools they’ll need for the changing world.
Meanwhile, our way of relating to one another also creates a new model for international and other long-distance groups to work with the latest technology (from Skype to free conference calling) to keep connected. Other groups – such as a permaculture network, and the newly-formed Transformative Language Arts Network – have adopted this model we developed of phone calls, emails, and visits, and found it very effective.
Mary Meyer said of our process: “Our monthly conference calls keep us on track. Sometimes it feels so weird –this disembodied communication we have with each other through email and phone in a movement that celebrates and acknowledges the tangible Earth and the place we live, but it works somehow, and adequately enough. We manage to be the glue that holds the movement together and to watch and listen to what needs to happen.
What Are We Learning?
We’ve learned through our trial and error since 2002 how to create and sustain this model of council governance, which entails not just regular phone calls and emails, but also a commitment to continually learn from each other in those moments of shimmering connection
What’s the story behind the story of what we’ve learned? The best way I can explain this is how we open and close our phone and in-person meetings: we go around the circle, listening closely to what each person feels like sharing about their lives and places. Often, we walk about the weather, which is all the more intriguing when we’re spread out over hundreds of miles and half a dozen ecosystems. We tell each other about the Indigo Bunting bursting out from the cottonwood trees in Kansas, spotting a herd of turkeys in Indiana, tasting the first tomatoes of the season in Texas, walking on the beach in Mexico, or the further antics of Pretty, the peahen, in Barbara Harmony’s Arkansas backyard.
Along with a strong group process, it is this kind of sharing and listening – the everyday sensuous experiences of wind and weather, critter and chaos – that hold groups together, and that help groups cross over from organizations to communities.
As for the nuts and bolts of holding together groups locally and continentally, I also see some imperatives that keep arising – from the wilds of KAW hosting a continental congress and staying together for 25 years, to the intricacies of the Coordinating Council changing congress sites and keeping in contact over great distances. I offer this list of what has worked and continues to work for us on the local and continental levels, but please remember that being any part of any community for the long-term is a continuing education intensive.
- It’s important to have a strong core team of at least five, and preferably seven to ten members, to get things done.
- It’s essential to have a clear and good group process that members agree on, have the proper training for, and can continually hone to be as satisfying as possible.
- Any local group doing a large beyond-region gathering or continental congress needs a circle of support from the greater bioregional movement, particularly the wisdom of our elders (such as Gene and Joyce Marshall, who have been a godsend to both KAW and the CBC Coordinating Council).
- Group members also need to honor and involve youth if they hope to grow community for generations ahead. Kids, teens and those in between need not just be present and welcomed, but invited to organize or help shape events and projects.
- Sometimes we drive each other crazy; sometimes we adore one another. Yet being in good community with people is a bit like being in a good marriage: You can take a break occasionally, but eventually, you need to come back to the table and learn to live with other members without trying to change them. Caroline Estes talks about valuing conflict as one of the key ingredients in a successful group, and that means learning from conflict instead of trying to tame it away. It also implies being committed enough to find ways through, or at least to live with, inter-personal issues.
- The main purpose of meetings, gatherings, projects, etc. is always to build and sustain community. Projects, congresses, publications, and wild turkeys come and go; community endures beyond the sum of its members.
- Most of all, sustaining a local or continental group means showing up: For the meetings, in the emails, in person, for dinner, and with whatever insight, questions, confusion or vision are here for the moment.
It’s not always easy, and it’s not often comfortable, yet the sense of community that emerges is astonishingly powerful. And it’s that community spirit that can carry even a small group through doing a big thing, and like a stone in the water, send widening circles out to shore.
Meanwhile, Back in Kansas
Meanwhile, KAW Council continues in its small and quiet ways to be a bioregional community, and it seems you can teach an old dog new tricks: this year, KAW began having monthly walkabouts, where we meet to take a long walk – open to people of all ages and backgrounds – in prairie or woodlands, winter or summer, followed by a Talkabout, where we sit and eat. We have our annual gatherings, and now a website and blog. KAW is now the umbrella organization for an environmental charter school getting started in the Lawrence area, and for a project to publish the writings of Bill Hatke, a Kansas character, organic farmer, and voracious writer who passed away in 2007. Some members of KAW are also considering starting a seed saving project.
Singing, dancing, and organizing the bioregional movement in the U.S. out of its coma didn’t really change us as an organization, but it did make us appreciate what we – or for that matter, any dedicated small group of people – could do to generate enough sparks to get the fire going.
As one of our members, Nancy Hubble, explained, “Kaw has the bioregional microcosm that has effected the macrocosm.” Like many groups, what we do can ripple out in important ways on occasion. So we try our best to continue to be what our member Jerry calls us: “The local manifestation of the heart of the planet.”
Thanks to members of KAW Council and the Continental Bioregional Congress for their help in this article. In true bioregional group process fashion, members first contributed quotes and ideas, and then read an earlier draft of this article before offering up suggestions.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is Poet Laureate of Kansas from 2009-2011, and the author of many books of poetry and prose, including the forthcoming bioregional memoir, The Sky Begins at Your Feet. She has been actively involved in the bioregional movement locally and continentally for over 20 years. She serves on the Continental Bioregional Congress Coordinating Council See more on her at www.writewhereyouare.org.
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