2005-2006: THE EARLY YEARS
by Aaron Lehmer-Chang, Co-Founder
It all started with the passion and concern of a new father, Dave Room, who had taken to calling himself “Melia’s Papa” when presenting at public events about the dire state of the planet. At many such gatherings, Dave would hold his little girl in his arms, and speak from the heart, warning those in attendance that unless we move on from a world powered by fossil fuels, we will consign our children to a climate-ravaged future riven by scarcity and conflict.
At the time, Dave was working for the Post-Carbon Institute, a nonprofit whose mission was to advocate for local self-reliance as a response to climate change and increasing energy scarcity. He was a consummate organizer, determined to bring more and more people into the “peak oil” movement — a growing network of academics, activists, and energy analysts concerned about the coming end of cheap oil, which threatens to upend our energy-intensive way of life, if not industrial civilization. But even if that prognosis was too far-fetched for most, the solution “peak oil” activists saw would also address our growing climate crisis, and perhaps help reweave our fraying social fabric by bringing more production of food, water, energy, and essential goods and services closer to home. By “localizing” these core sectors as much as possible, we could slash our prodigious burning of fossil fuels while simultaneously rebuilding local economies.
Moved by this vision of a thriving, resilient world where everyone’s needs are met through regional self-reliance, Dave teamed up with another social justice and environmental activist, Aaron Lehmer, to help organize a campaign to help move it forward. Aaron, who had been working for years with Earth Island Institute, and also with well-known tree-sitter Julia “Butterfly” Hill at the Circle of Life Foundation, was eager to dive into a community campaign to transform the local economy. In partnership with Post-Carbon Institute, Dave and Aaron put together an audacious plan, the Bay Area Relocalization Project, with the goal of assessing how many resources our 9-county region was using in key economic sectors, and how much real potential there was for meeting our communities’ needs within the region itself, equitably and sustainably.
After several meetings and presentations, Dave and Aaron decided it was time to go big and host a large public event outlining our vision and, hopefully, secure some additional recruits to help make it happen. In partnership with the Berkeley Ecology Center, we planned a public forum in the middle of February, with no idea how many people would show up. On the night of the event, the house was packed. Attendees were abuzz with interest, and our presentations went over well. Many stayed to engage us during a question and answer period, and a couple dozen signed up to get more involved. We even secured national media coverage in Salon.com!
“In just a few weeks, we gathered the support of nearly 20 local groups, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Friends of the Earth, the Pachamama Alliance, Pacific Environment, and Redefining Progress. Momentum was building, we could feel it.“
In the weeks that followed the Berkeley event, we started building a core team of local activists, some with impressive background and experience in our key sectors of focus. One person who attended, Kirsten Schwind, was particularly enthusiastic, if somewhat skeptical. Having worked on development issues in Guatemala and on food equity with Food First, Kirsten was intrigued by the vision of building more resilient local economies, but wanted to be sure our project was grounded in principles of social justice and human rights. After several meetups, Kirsten decided to join the project as its food relocalization committee chair. Another key member who had been working with Dave on peak oil issues, Ingrid Severson, brought a passion for urban Permaculture and greening our cities by harnessing Bay Area rooftops to grow food and harvest rainwater. Others came with a passion for energy, transportation, and community engagement. By the spring, we had built a strong core team of around 10 people who were meeting regularly, forming new partnerships, and getting the word out about our new effort, which we renamed Bay Area Relocalize.
With a new name and a growing band of passionate souls ready for action, we decided it was time to host a proper kick-off event for the project. We were shooting for no less than the transformation of the Bay Area economy, after all. We would need dozens more people, if not hundreds, to make real headway. Aaron and Dave started reaching out to local organizations to line up speakers, secure co-sponsors, and schedule event announcements. In just a few weeks, we gathered the support of nearly 20 local groups, including prominent nonprofits like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Friends of the Earth, the Pachamama Alliance, Pacific Environment, and Redefining Progress. Momentum was building, we could feel it.
On March 31, 2006, at the Laney College Forum in Oakland, over 125 residents took part in the official launch of Bay Area Relocalize, which featured a broad range of leaders in the peak oil, community revitalization and localization movements. At the time, concern over rising food and gas prices was making headlines, creating a critical opening for people to connect in common cause around a vision for a more resilient, local food and energy economy. Several dozen people signed up to get involved in the project, which we saw as a major affirmation of community interest. The following day, around 45 people participated in a daylong workshop on relocalization conducted in partnership with the Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) project, an inspiring initiative in Northern California that had already crafted a plan to shift that town’s economy toward much greater local self-reliance in food, water, and energy.
The following week, our team received some devastating news. Our main program partner and fiscal sponsor, Post-Carbon Institute (PCI), decided they wanted to terminate the Bay Area Relocalize project and sever relations with Aaron and Dave. They claimed that low attendance at the kickoff event demonstrated a lack of community support. We were shocked, especially since so many people were clearly interested, along with so many local organizations. We suspected that the leadership at PCI had become concerned that we were moving too fast, and didn’t like our broad-based approach to building a local coalition. In a sign of our own community resilience, our team decided to carry on the work without PCI’s official support. In short order, we managed to wrestle up a new fiscal sponsor through one of our partners at Redefining Progress. Even more reassuring was the outpouring of support and interest we received from community allies and groups. Clearly, our work was meant to carry on. Now all we needed were some resources to make it happen and a clear vision to transform our region.