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Relocalization in Massachusetts

Rebuilding Community for a Sustainable Future

Michelle Skolnik March 25, 2010

Men anpil chay pa lou. This Haitian proverb means many hands together make the burden light. It was written on an old political poster, printed by the Red Sun Press on display at the Haley House Café in Dudley Square, Roxbury. This proverb evokes the ideas of community, justice, and change—all of which are crucial elements of Relocalization in Massachusetts. Relocalization is a national movement to bring life closer to home, to a local level, in order to create “resilient, healthy, just, diverse, sustainable, people-powered communities.” The Relocalization Network began in 2003 as an initiative of the Post Carbon Institute in response to climate change, the breakdown of community, and an insufficient economic system—all of which are believed to stem from our over-dependence on oil. Many of today’s global issues that relocalization tries to address threaten our society, our ecosystems, and the preservation of world cultures. Relocalization focuses on making change and taking action on these global issues at the community level.

Though the Relocalization movement has just picked up energy within the last few years, the issues it addresses are not new. In fact, one of my most striking findings is that this kind of organizing has been going on for over 30 years. George Mokray–a solar engineer and an active participant in the Massachusetts self-reliance movement of the 70s and 80s, shared that there is a whole history related to relocalization, food, and alternative living that most people don’t know about. There was an energy crisis in 1973, known as the Oil Shock, which caused people to question what might happen if oil ran out or if prices increased. In response to the worries, people in Massachusetts along with others around the country, began to establish an alternative economic system. According to George, people realized that if they wanted to change the culture and politics of the U.S., they needed to change economics. People in Boston established community gardens, land trusts, food coops, and community supported agriculture projects. Outside of the city, more people began to farm organically, they established farmers markets, and conducted alternative energy research.

Relocalization is not a resurgence of the old movement, but many of the projects people are working on now directly relate to previous efforts. Relocalization in Massachusetts is a dynamic movement that consists of numerous organizations working toward similar goals through varying methods. The organizations did not emerge out of the effort to Relocalize; they were all started for separate, individual purposes, but together they make up the relocalization movement. Eli Beckerman, of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, sees the movement “accelerating in speed and growing in strength” as people engage in relocalization from many perspectives, many without even thinking about it. Time Trade Circle, an organization which allows members to earn and use “time dollars” to exchange services with other members, is one example. The bank was started as a social support network for families involved in a parent support group that Director Katherine Ellin was leading at the time. She hadn’t even heard the word “relocalization” until she attended the MCHC Relocalization Conference, but the time bank certainly supports the local community by putting resources into it and providing a tool for people to connect. Boston Localvores is another group that provides resources and a way for people to interact, but their approach is through the enjoyment of local food. The Localvores group is more deliberately part of the relocalization effort, and aims to encourage local alternatives to corporate industrial producers, manufacturers, and retailers.

Social justice is built into the foundation of the Massachusetts Relocalization effort. Part of the goal is to support “just,” “diverse,” and “people-powered” communities, making Relocalization accessible to all people. In his keynote address at the Relocalization Conference, Mel King—lifetime community and political organizer—addressed the need to be inclusive of all people and therefore emphasized the idea that anyone can participate in relocalization. “Talk is cheap,” he said – “anyone can do it, and talking is how you generate ideas and motivate people to act.” The conference, as well as the Vegetarian Food Festival, was held at Roxbury Community College. People of color, low-income, and immigrant communities are often argued as being left out of the environmental and sustainable food movements, but hosting major events in this diverse neighborhood demonstrates the desire to include everyone in this critical social and economic transformation. In addition, many of the local farmers markets now accept food stamps and there are various local food and agriculture projects aimed specifically at making good, healthy food available in parts of the city where it is scarce. Organizations like the Food Project, ReVision Urban Farm, and the Haley House all work to provide affordable, nutritious food along with skill training and education to a diverse community.

It turns out that living local in Massachusetts is certainly feasible, but as expected, the reasons people have for living local varies widely. It is true that not everyone is working towards environmental sustainability, but many organizations see a need to start patching the gaps of our current system. There are an abundance of resources helping people to engage with environmental and social issues if people seek them out. Living local can be a powerful tool if the community element is embraced and if we get creative about the way we think about our lives. Though Relocalization is only one of many routes toward a vibrant future, it is inclusive of diverse interests and most importantly, encourages a practical approach to getting there.


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