Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tony & Mary Lipnicki: Building Grassroots Community

Here is the excellent presentation Tony and Mary Lipnicki gave us on Saturday:

Building Grassroots Community and First Fridays:
Ways to Encourage Participation in Local Community
Anthony and Mary Lipnicki, August 11, 2007

We would like to welcome all of you to the panel discussion on Building Grassroots Community and to the New York State Green Party “Green Fest.”

Community is defined as people sharing an environment. In communities, the degree of adhesion of community members is based upon everyone participating in something bigger than each other. In this talk, we hope to throw out some ideas that we have tried to help build community through First Fridays, a monthly discussion group.

Several years ago my wife Mary and I began a journey to simplify our lives and to disengage ourselves from the fast pace, draining, market economy that we found ourselves living in. We had been sold the idea that success in career through competition and performance would bring happiness. We learned – at least for ourselves – that this was the wrong way to go. There came a time when honesty, personalization, and human dignity, came to be what really mattered to us. We read Joe Dominguez book, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, and began cashing in our so called ‘security’, paid off our indebtedness, and began living our lives which meant - contributing to making the community we lived – a little more like what we thought it should be.

After quitting my job in NYC, we sold our house, and moved to rural Western New York State. We bought an old house in Andover New York, used the windfall from the sale to renovate it, and opened up the Mustard Seed Inn and Bed & Breakfast, a platform for us to build grassroots community. It was through the idea of ‘hospitality,’ that we would initiate a response to dealing with the problems we saw in our culture - problems which limited us and enslaved us it seemed.

In the book, ‘The Coming Anarchy – Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War,’ Robert D. Kaplan describes a coming world of scarcity and violence as the peoples of the world fight for their share of the limited resources needed to survive. Kaplan says, “The breaking apart and remaking of the atlas is only now beginning. Volatile new democracies in Eastern Europe, fierce tribalism in Africa, civil war and ethnic violence in the Near East, and widespread famine and disease, and the brutal rift developing as wealthy nations reap the benefits of seemingly boundless technology, while other parts of the world slide into chaos, are logical extensions of what to expect in the near future.” If this isn’t a reason to build local community, we don’t know what is.

We decided to focus on abundance rather than fear and scarcity, and went down the path of community – a practice of age old security – to rediscover ourselves, and the place where we lived.

Living amidst the poverty of Allegany County, we saw people who had once participated in the local economy, becoming more isolated and dependent on grants and the welfare state to survive at the very basic level of existence. The rural self-sufficient agricultural economy had left for more profitable greener pastures. Replacing community interdependence with government programs, deregulated monopoly based electricity, natural gas and water, state controlled education, and the effects of globalization on the local economy, stacked the cards against the people in our community.

We launched First Fridays in August 2006. First Fridays is a “community oriented group of people interesting in learning about issues that are close to their hearts, and concern them, but need to be better understood, so a response could be initiated in the community.” First Fridays is open to all and meets the first Friday of the month from 7:30 – 9:00 pm at the Mustard Seed Inn and B&B in Andover, New York. The makeup of the group is relatively diverse, including women and men, young and old, and people from different political parties and religious persuasions. There are no dues or other costs associated with participation, though participants are encouraged to assist in the planning of the programs. We encourage people to bring a non-perishable food item for donation to the village food pantry on behalf of the First Fridays group. We have used the food pantry to help members of the community in need – a member of the group was helped while out of work recovering from surgery. We made a donation of mittens and hats to the Andover Central School nurse during the winter for the school children too!

We get the word out on First Fridays by writing up a news article every month on the last meeting, and submit it to the local newspapers. We have the cooperation of the local press. We announce the next month’s topic at the end of the article. We have upcoming First Fridays programs announced on the local radio station. Down the road, we want to have the topic leaders do interviews with the local radio station. Word of mouth helps too. We may do seminars and workshops on topics too.

First Fridays, therefore, was a culmination of what we thought would be the initial step in building community. In the last year we have discussed:

1. the corporation and its influence in our lives, and the work of POCLAD;

2. peace through direct non-violent service to others;

3. the restorative justice movement;

4. the Catholic Worker movement;

5. sustainability and community;

6. the Baker Hamilton Alternate Peace Plan for Iraq;

7. healing inner violence through centering prayer;

8. understanding violence in the scriptures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism;

9. breaking our dependence of foreign oil through renewable energy;

10. Genesee Valley Habitat for Humanity; a way for the working poor to afford owning a home with a zero interest mortgage;

11. Oasis of Peace – an Israeli Palestinian village of peaceful coexistence;

12. the Canticle Farm CSA; a way of supporting the local agricultural economy

We are now reaping some of the benefits of our discussions at First Fridays. First of all we have developed a sense of honesty and trust between each of us who have participated; a sort of interconnectedness has developed between us and people outside the group as well, and the idea that we are all in this thing together, and the realization that we can make a difference.

We have fundraised for Habitat for Humanity, and may be doing a Habitat project in our village; one of our members ran for school board; we are putting together a resource guide of local agriculture producers; we bought a share in Canticle Farm; participated in the Wellsville Balloon Rally Parade with a group against Iraq Troop Escalation; attend monthly village board meetings to learn about issues affecting the community; volunteer with the Quaker Prison Ministry to Attica Prison; volunteer with the local hospice; worked with some Iraqi war veterans on adapting to community life; and as I mentioned the donations to the local food pantry and school, and visits to members of the group who were in need.

To build grassroots community at the local level, I have outlined the following which you may want to keep in mind:

1. Begin by simplifying your life, if you haven’t already done so, particularly in the area of your personal finances. Live at the most basic level possible. I mentioned a great book by Joe Dominguez, “Your Money or Your Life – How to Achieve Financial Independence through Simplification.”

2. Access the needs of your community, and determine what depletes and affirms life in the place where you live. Get to know the people that you live with, and get them to know you and to trust you, by listening and understanding their concerns and needs.

3. Join organizations that support your value system! Learn how they meet a community need. Don’t reinvent the wheel. We attend our local church. I joined the Andover Lions Club, became a hospice volunteer, and board member on the Andover Free Public Library, and the Andover Historical Preservation Corporation, which meets housing needs for the poor. I also joined the community choir.

4. Work with others in small groups! Participate in study groups and issues groups and meet the people who are out there participating in community events.

5. Find a spiritual center! Deal with your fears. Find a spiritual advisor to hear you out and bounce ideas off. Look one up at a retreat house or on the web. Work on developing your conscience.

6. Visit with other organization and meet like minded people! We connect with St. Joseph’s CW House of Hospitality in Rochester, NY, the Olean Area Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Friends Service Committee Attica Prison Ministry, Canticle Farm CSA (community supported agriculture) in Allegany, NY, and the Genesee Valley Habitat for Humanity.

7. Get involved in local politics! Participate in community life. Speak out on issues that concern you. Find out what the local government’s position is on issues, who are the people making the decisions and what are the public and private interest groups shaping community life. Access if these organizations are meeting the needs of the community. Go to village and town and school board meetings. Join the Green Party and participate in communication the political issues that affect the community through political activism. Get involved. Give a talk on an issue that is close to your heart!

8. Put you shingle on your heart! Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Be human! Initiate a community platform, either through a church organization, volunteer and community service organization, or business; to give your community organization authority, presence and respect that supports your meaning and purpose. We began the Mustard Seed Inn and B&B. You could run for political office, or the school board, or join a peace and justice organization, or a group with an affinity toward community and social justice issues (Franciscans, the Catholic Worker, the Canticle Farm CSA or POCLAD.

9. Motivate people to help them realize their interdependence! Start a small community group and network with like minded people, and learn through them how to refine your value system. We began a weekly Short Story Reading and Discussion Group at our house after a course we enjoyed on short stories. We also began First Fridays. There are Book Groups at the local public library. All these ideas help engage oneself with our common humanity, and help each of us better understand each other and the world we live in, and what really is important.

10. Take some risks! Encourage everyone to participate in community life. Help identify people’s interests and skills, and support them unconditionally in their passions. Learn from people who have special abilities and are different from you. Buy local! Support family run businesses.

11. Provide vision and purpose to the group and to the community! Get the group to participate in a community oriented-civic minded project. We are considering as I mentioned, working on a local Habitat project, and studying the feasibility of beginning a community farm share farm in our area.

12. Think outside the box! Take courses at the local university and continue to learn. We have taken humanities and history courses at Alfred University, and Alfred State College (SUNY), our local colleges, and are considering courses in agriculture and community economics. These courses teach us about alternatives we never quite imagined in our lives. There is a great book called ‘Deep Economy’ which gives other ideas on alternative community economics.

In summary, First Fridays uses a variety of programs to achieve its goals: speakers on community oriented topics, letters to the editor, communication with elected officials, radio interviews with First Friday speakers on topics addressed at meetings, prayer vigils, protest events, study groups on topics to better understand the market based global economy, and the dominate pervasive presence of the corporation in our lives, participation in village and town meetings, articles in the newspapers on First Friday topics, support of local grassroots community oriented organizations, i.e. Habitat for Humanity, Canticle Farm CSA, development of alternatives to the global market based economy, like renewable energy, alternatives to the justice system in defusing disputes and disagreements and bringing about peace through direct non-violent service to others.

We encourage all of you to find your inner self through participating with others to help build local community, and in so doing turn the course of history to a more amenable place to coexist and enjoy the beauty, goodness and kindness available at the grassroots level of community. We encourage you to open your consciousness, develop you conscience and participate in community life at a new level. We are not meant to live in isolation nor in fear nor as individuals. We are designed to live with others at a basic level of interdependence and understanding. We are designed to participate in community!

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