Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience. Read more interviews.
Marissa Mommaerts works with Transition U.S. the national hub for the International Transition Towns movement. She also is helping to organize the Northern California Community Resilience Network, an emerging group of permaculture, transition and community resilience grassroots groups. She’s also part of Transition Sebastopol and the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence.
Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared this conversation with her.
Ken: You’re a woman of many hats, including a red bicycle helmet [Marissa biked to the conversation]. How do you define community resilience?
Marissa: Well, there’s kind of a standard response to this; the ability to bounce back from challenges…, the community’s ability to respond and adapt to challenges. The challenges we’re looking at are ecological and economic mainly….
As a young person, my future is very uncertain. I have no idea what to expect in my lifetime, what kinds of challenges we’re going to be facing, and we need to be prepared for pretty much anything. That means designing our lifestyles, our organizations, our businesses, our food, energy, water, and economic systems to be able to…absorb shocks and challenges, and also to be able to navigate changes gracefully so we have a smooth transition….
It’s resilience in terms of, “Will the human species be able to survive, and how many other types of species will be able to survive?”
That means that we can’t continue with business as usual. So it’s not resilience to be able to return to what we’re doing, it’s resilience for us to be able to survive and thrive.
Ken: [A]s a moderately old person, who’s relatively set in my ways, can you help me visualize what that actually looks like in practice?
Marissa: So at an individual level, I would say emotional resilience, to respond and adapt to changes, to be open to change. Economic resilience, so our ability to meet our basic needs is independent of a very fragile, vulnerable financial economic system. It means a lot of household changes that better prepare us to meet our own needs and to weather things like natural disasters and increasing variability of weather patterns,….
For example, rainwater and graywater [systems], and securing our own food and rebuilding soil, all those things can happen at a household level.
Then taking that out another level to the community, these same sorts of changes, but aggregated at the community level. It means having relationships with each other, and knowing where we can go to for different types of support. Having a network within which we can meet our needs so we’re not, again, dependent on a centralized, vulnerable, system for things like food and water.
Ken: I know that you’re living a life that’s a little bit different than probably I was as a young person. I had an apartment and maybe housemates…but it was predicated on, “We’re young, and we’re not making very much money, so [let’s] live together for a while, but that’s not really the end goal.” Do you want to talk about the way you’re practicing resilience?
Marissa: Sure. I live in a house with minimum of three roommates, often more, and that’s because we don’t have a lot of money. We understand that there are a lot of people like us who want to be living sustainably and either can’t afford to or encounter other barriers… it’s almost illegal to live sustainably, because of zoning and things like that.
There’s just a lot of barriers, so we use the space that we have, which is the rental house with a nice yard and very relaxed landlords, to be able to practice, scale up, and share our knowledge, and share our resources, and help other folks learn and experience what it’s like to live in a community where we really look out for each other.
We take turns cooking, we make most of our food from scratch. We get it as locally as possible, either we’re growing it, we’re getting it from the neighbor down the street, our CSA farm share, which is a little bit further down the street, or from the farmers’ market. We’re learning how to, for example, rebuild topsoil, and how to conserve and move water as efficiently as possible, to take care of our garden.
We’ve rebuilt a ton of habitat for birds and bees. It’s incredible to see how much wildlife is in our backyard now. We’re setting up systems that will be resilient, so even if we leave, the systems will continue to thrive, because we don’t imagine we’ll be living there forever since it’s a rental property.
Then there are things like alternative healthcare. We also have a really resource-intensive, fragile health care system, so we’re exploring alternative medicine and herbal medicine and studying how to practice herbal medicine and how to grow the herbs that we need.
I think for a lot of young people like me, who probably have a significant amount of student debt and also want to do work that is meaningful and not necessarily well-paid, we have to be really creative about how to meet our basic economic needs.
One thing is work trade, so we don’t have to actually pay for rent….. That’s a great thing that folks that are more established can offer, if they want to help build resilience in the next generation, if they have extra room available in their home and are willing to offer that.
I’m trying to minimize my dependency on fossil fuels as much as possible. My car broke down, as you know, about a year ago, and I decided I was done with it. I’ve been practicing getting stronger and biking since then and taking public transport. It feels so good, it’s really liberating. So basically trying to get out of the dominant extractive, exploitative economy as much as possible. Doing as much making or homesteading as possible.
One other thing we do is we make all of our own cleaning and toiletry supplies. So soaps, cleaners, and all that sort of thing, because it’s cheaper, it’s fun, and we know that we’re not putting toxic chemicals into our bodies or into the environment.
[T]here’s so many things, and it’s a gradual process. It’s going to take me probably many more years to be where I really want to be in terms of feeling resilient and I’m having a positive or regenerative impact on the planet, but it feels good to be moving in that direction and to have made some progress.
Ken: Wow that’s really cool. So that’s sort of personal on the household level. Then what’s the next layer at the community level?
Marissa: Well a piece of it is…rebuilding relationships that have been lost over the last few decades as we’ve become increasingly dependent on money to meet our needs: we go to a job, we make money, and then we use that money to pay for what we need. We’ve had to rely less and less on other people, and also our lifestyles are set up in a way where we’re pretty isolated. We drive around in cars, we’re not out on the streets. People are afraid to leave their homes in some cases.
Ken: People are afraid to let their kids walk to school.
Marissa: Exactly. I was just in Chico a couple of weeks ago, giving a talk there and people’s biggest hesitation for responding to the drought and doing a permaculture retrofit on their homes is, "What am I going to tell my neighbors? How am I going to talk to my neighbors about this? What if my neighbors don’t like it? What do you think about being the only person on your block who’s doing this?"
It all comes down to being able to handle conflict and tension and being willing to step outside of your comfort zone. My main piece of advice was get to know your neighbors. It helps if you share something with them or give them cookies, give them things that you grow in your garden and then you start a friendship. Then you can start to have challenging conversations, where they’re coming from at least a place of trust or friendship. So, rebuilding relationships and learning how to work together.
We are organizing a lot of different types of community events to raise awareness, to help people build skills that they need like gardening, homesteading, natural building, and things like that. It helps us learn how to collaborate in a non-hierarchical way, which is what we need when moving out of the age of hierarchy and into the age of collaboration and cooperation.
Then once we’re organized enough, we need to also be engaging with local government and influencing local policy. We’ve seen success in Sebastopol, just by showing up to important City Council meetings with solutions, then also demonstrating that we have the people power to mobilize in support of those solutions, and help implement those solutions. Makes it a lot easier for local government to agree to move forward with the solutions that they really need, and sometimes aren’t equipped to address. For example, the emergency drought regulations coming down from the state. Our City Council doesn’t necessarily know how to do a huge public campaign to reduce water use, and what are all the household-level changes….
Ken: And they’re probably worried—in the same way as, “What will the neighbors think?”—they’re probably worried about, “What will the voters think?”
Marissa: Yes, so if we show up at a City Council meeting and the room is full of people who are in support of graywater and front-yard gardening, it makes it really easy to say yes.
Ken: Making it easy to say yes, that’s an interesting way to put it. [Often] people…think about responding to all this big megachallenges [by] ripping up the existing systems and replacing them in this very large-scale way. But your philosophy sounds like it’s very individual, household, community—and then you get into the governmental and large-scale levels.
Marissa: I think both are important, but the household changes are things that can happen regardless of what sort of political will exists at the higher levels of government and … we can see changes happening at the local level. We can see impact, we know that there are positive impacts, but yeah I think we need both ends.
One other piece that I didn’t mention before, is we can also organize in our communities to take back control of public resources. We need to reclaim our political power. There’s some great work happening with organizers reclaiming the commons or communities reclaiming public resources to be used for the benefit of the community, especially if they’re being used inappropriately or are being underutilized. For example, one thing that’s going on right now in Albany, California, I just watched a documentary about it last night, “Occupy the Farm.”
Ken: Oh yeah, the Gill Tract.
Marissa: Yeah, the Gill Tract Farm. There’s some great organizing happening there to keep this last piece of prime agricultural land in Albany from being paved and developed as supermarket….
We need to stand up, and we need to reclaim those resources. In Sebastopol we have, for example, a community food forest at our city hall and library. So that’s public space, and we’re using it to produce free food for the community. We also have a very vibrant seed library—[those] are popping up in a lot of communities. Regaining control of our seeds is one of the most important things we need to do to have resilient local food systems. There are other things between the household and government level that are also political in nature.
Ken: Yeah. There’s lots of a political nature. And this is an insight from the Sixties, that the personal is the political and vice-versa, right? So when you start making all those changes, as I think you said, "It’s almost illegal to live sustainably." You’re skirting the margins of what’s acceptable both socially and legally.
Marissa: Another piece is whatever we do at the household level, we’re shifting resources out of the exploitative, extractive economy and into building our regenerative economy. The more of us who do that, the less we’re feeding an extractive economy.
Ken: Actually that touches on a topic that I wanted to hear you talk about, which is the relationship between community resilience and justice.
Marissa: I think they go hand-in-hand. It’s essentially the same systems of extraction and exploitation that have degraded our environment to the extent that has happened, and have created really vulnerable, marginalized communities. It’s an opportunity to address both. It’s the right thing to do, to address both.
Ken: By both, what do you mean?
Marissa: Both community resilience and environmental regeneration—environment and people. We have to address injustice as against the environment and people together…..
[W]e can’t have resilient communities if we don’t have justice. We’re only as resilient as those around us, whether that be our family, our neighbors, the neighboring community, or even the neighboring country. Right now there are many communities that are much more vulnerable to the increasing impacts of climate change and ecological and economic instability. As long as they’re vulnerable, no one else is secure because, if people are facing life-or-death situations, they’re going to fight to survive. They’re going to migrate, they’re going to do whatever they need to do to continue living, and it’s going to affect everyone around them.
We sometimes joke about Sebastapol being a “Sebastobubble,” because it feels so isolated and insular, but it’s really not. We have to be prepared to absorb the impacts of climate migration from the Bay Area, from Southern California as that region can’t hold the density of people that it has [in the event of] drought and sea level rise and things like that. So we have to be prepared to absorb that here in Northern California. So it’s good to think in the long term, about those types of demographic changes.
Ken: I was thinking about this the other day, when we were at Canticle Farm in Oakland. I walked over there from [the subway]. There were two houses a few houses apart on opposites sides of the street. The first house had chickens and had food growing and it was a family that looked like, just to judge by appearances, had fairly recently immigrated here from Central America. And then five houses up there was a house with chickens and food growing, and it was a bunch of young hippies. These are two demographics actually building resilience in this neighborhood.
It’s ironic in a sense that the people who are living the suburban lifestyle—driving everywhere, not knowing their neighbors, and being dependent upon a brutal economy and fragile food system—are actually, in some of the ways you talked about, [most] vulnerable…. [I}t sort of inverts our impression of who’s vulnerable and who’s resilient, when you think about longer term..
We’re only as resilient as those around us, whether that neighbor or a neighboring country…has been practicing resilience because [they] choose to, or because [they] have to.
Marissa: Yeah, that’s a really good point…. It’s our responsibility to address injustices that set people up to be more vulnerable.
Ken: There’s a response that I’ve heard from some people about the term “resilience.” And that is, “We’ve been resilient for a number of generation or years, because we’ve had to be. Because we’ve been economically marginalized. Because we’ve been environmentally dumped on. Because we’ve been brutalized by military interventions and our rights have been violated. So we’ve had to be resilient. Frankly, we want to be in a world where we don’t have to be as resilient.”
So there’s that kind of irony…in saying, "OK, well, the future is all about resilience." Meanwhile, there’s people who have been trying to get out of [having] to be quite so resilient. Does that come up as a justice issue in some ways?
Marissa: [Y]ou’re right, there is a lot of incredible resilience work happening in many different types of communities, and it’s important to honor and recognize that, and not to think that we’re creating community resilience at Transition U.S. or in this [Post Carbon Institute] office. That’s one important piece that links to a bigger issue, which is that it’s going to take a lot of work for us to be able to address social justice issues…. So, the environmental movement, for example, and Transition to a degree as well, have been largely white.
Ken: Increasingly not so.
Marissa: Yeah, yeah, but in order to really address social justice we need to be willing to do some serious personal work, and understand and reflect on our role in an economy that’s built on structural racism. We have to be able to approach that with a lot of humility and patience in order to make any real steps forward, I think.
The second piece of your question…I think resilience doesn’t have to mean scarcity…. I’m much happier than I was living a more normal life ….
[I]t feels like a better way of living for me. I can’t say that that applies to everyone, but it doesn’t have to be about living with less, or with scarcity. What I think needs to shift is equity, so that people are sharing resources equitably, and it’s not that some people are forced to be very resilient because they’re living on the margins of a global economy that has exploited them for centuries. It’s because we’re all doing the best that we can to live with the legacy that we’re inheriting, and try to survive and thrive as a species.
Ken: So how does it feel better, if you don’t mind me asking [another] personal question. How does it feel better?
Marissa: Well, a big piece of it is connection to nature. I get a lot of fulfillment out of that, out of working in the soil and just understanding Nature and how incredible it is in a way that I never did, even growing up in Northern Wisconsin, and then living in cities. I didn’t have that sort of awareness. My life is simpler to a degree. I would like it to be a lot simpler than it is currently, but it just allows for everyday life and simple things to be really pleasurable. Also, having deeper, more meaningful relationships and connections, and really feeling like I’m part of a community, which is not something I’ve experienced before. I’ve had a lot of friends, but this is bigger than that. It’s really a whole community, which is pretty amazing.
Then there’s also the not having as much nagging guilt about the negative consequences of my lifestyle, which I still have some for certain things, like every time I put gas in the car when I borrow my friend’s car. But less and less of that.
Ken: So I just want to back up. We were talking earlier sort of conceptually about the work you’re doing, and also the way you’re living…. [I]s there a broad framework that you use to evaluate both the way you’re living and also the work that you’re doing around community resilience?
Marissa: Sure. So very simply I would say, “Utilizing solutions that are Nature-based and people-powered.”
Ken: That’s pretty elegant.
Marissa: I think the most important thing that needs to happen is for people to reconnect to Nature, and to each other. To Nature, so that we understand ecosystems and lifecycles, and how much we depend on them. Also because, like I mentioned, there is something really fulfilling about having that connection that I think a lot of people are trying to get through other sources, like accumulating material wealth, or television, or addiction. There’s some sort of a void that a lot of people have, and…reconnecting with Nature is one way to fill that void. I guess it’s similar to different types of spirituality that people have.
Then reconnecting to each other so that we’re able to function as healthy communities and also so that we are willing to take more responsibility for the impact our actions have on other people.
Then we also want solutions…that empower people to take back our political and economic power, so we’re not externalizing our power to make change to the Federal government or to corporations. We are taking back our power to make change.
The Transition framework is essentially Permaculture applied at the community scale. Permaculture is an ecological design tool that relies on three main ethics, which are Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, or return of the surplus. Every design decision we make should look at and be based on how well it will care for people, how well it will care for the planet, and whether it distributes resources equitably.
Then there’s also a set of design principles, things like “produce no waste,” “use and value renewable resources and services,” and “use small and slow solutions.” That’s why we’re looking at things that are low-tech [at the] household level versus things like seawalls. This is all based on how Nature creates and Nature designs. So they’re the frameworks that I use.
Ken: So let me ask you to play a wish game. If you have to think of one form of support that would that would best enhance the work of community resilience, what would it be?
Marissa: I think our biggest barrier right now is access to resources, both financial and economic resources to support people who want to dedicate their lives to doing this work, when our economy is structured so differently. Or even just so that it makes economic sense for people to grow food. The fact that farming in a way that isn’t exploitative of people or extractive of land isn’t profitable—when food is one of the things that we need to survive—is ridiculous!
We also need access to land, whether that’s urban lots, vacant lots, medians, things like that for growing food in cities and food deserts. Huge pieces of land that can be used for carbon farming, sequestering carbon, and restoring ecosystems, so that our bioregions can absorb and weather some of the shocks that we are expecting.
Ken: Yeah it’s a pretty daunting sort of resources.
Marissa: Mm-hmm. We’re thinking really creatively about how to do that. So like I mentioned, work trade instead of dollar money, to support people to do this kind of work so they don’t have to pay for housing. There’s a group in Colorado, Transition Lab, that’s been really successful in doing that, and [there are] other examples of it as well. Then there are things like taking back public lands again, like the Gill Tract Farm, or our community food forest that’s reclaiming land that is supposed to be a public good, and using it for the common good. Then there’s using marginal land, like really degraded vacant lots and medians and things like that, that can be regenerated and used for food production.
Ken: In my neighborhood there’s this one guy who started farming the median, then he started farming next to the stairs that connect two of the streets, and then he went over to this piece of city property that – was right of way for a street, but has been just a vacant lot for a long time. Now all of the sudden, we’ve got food growing everywhere, and people stopping by and people making contributions….. So it’s really interesting to watch how that builds community, just by the act of somebody getting started with it.
Marissa: Yeah, we have neighbors stopping by whenever we are working in the front yard to ask what we’re doing. I’m sure some of them will start to look into it themselves.
Ken: And you know, if they going to start to look into, [that] at least begins to build up understanding and acceptance into that as a OK thing to do.
Marissa: [Another] thing in my wishful thinking world is an equal playing field at least. So that our legal and political systems, our government systems aren’t set up to just support economic activity, but are really set up to support people and the continued existence of humanity.
Ken: That actually anticipated the next question, “Is there a state or local or federal or, I don’t know, international policy shift that would [generate] really strong leverage?”
Marissa: Well there are a few things that come to mind, one being reversing Citizens United, another being there’s a movement for community rights and rights of Nature. So that’s kind of trying to re-balance the political system by giving communities the right to self-govern and to determine what kind of business they want in their communities and also giving ecosystems the right to exist. I don’t know if that would be powerful enough to stop some of the forces that we’re dealing with, but right now one thing that I see as a huge leverage point or a huge opportunity with the drought in California is some serious work to incentivize local, small-scale, sustainable farms. Our whole nation’s food system is dependent on industrial agriculture, and a lot of industrial agriculture is taking place in areas that are really vulnerable now, like California.
Ken:  It’s producing, what, 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables?
Marissa: Yeah. I think that alone should make the [political] climate more favorable for local farming, the fact that the Central Valley is in such a tough place right now. But I would love to see some regulation on industrial agriculture and/or serious efforts to raise up local sustainable farming….
[I]f we use the Central Valley sustainably, it would not only make our food system more resilient, it would help us sequester carbon, it would help us alleviate the impacts of the drought. There’s so many benefits to shifting away from that model of agriculture.
Ken: You mentioned Transition Lab, you mentioned Transition US, you mentioned the Northern California Community Resilience Network. Are there other places that you recommend people go for either information or inspiration?
Marissa: Sure. There are 154 Transition Towns right now around the U.S., and more are forming—and more that we don’t even know about. So one thing people can do is connect to their local Transition Town, which you can find on the Transition U.S. or Transition Network websites. [M]aking the in-person connection to people doing this work in your community is huge, it’s a really important way to move forward. I also always recommend, particularly the Guide to Building Thriving Resilient Communities and the Weaving the Community Resilience New Economy Movement reports…..
I’m a huge fan of Movement Generation. They’re promoting resilience -based organizing with a lot of political strategy around moving assets and capital into the hands of those communities that have been most impacted by the extractive and exploitative economy. They put justice at the center of their resilience framework, which I really appreciate. It also seems the most powerful and effective way for us to do this work.
I also always recommend taking a Permaculture design course. Which is 72 hours. [it’s] particularly [helpful] for understanding how ecosystems work, which impacts all of our decisions moving forward. It’s…”must-have” knowledge…[and] pretty easy to find.
Ken: Anything that I haven’t asked you about that you want to share?
Marissa: Well I’ve mostly been talking about my own experience and a little bit about Transition US, but there’s such incredible work happening all around the country. So many grassroots groups who are—like you said—giving so much of their time, energy, personal resources, and are so committed and they’re such wonderful, inspiring human beings. They deserve a lot of support and respect, and I’m so grateful for everyone who I’ve met doing this work and keeps me motivated and inspired.
There’s such a diversity of work that’s happening, everything from people doing workshops on graywater and installing community gardens, to teaching their neighbors how to cook from scratch, or figuring out a neighborhood-scale emergency preparedness plan, or coming together to do a DIY home retrofits, to shifting culture in terms of how we think about money and wealth and what’s important, to working in local government.
There are Transition folks who are on city councils and planning commissions and mayors and are doing policy work. There’s an incredible diversity and depth of work happening all around the country.
Ken: So one more question which kind of comes out of that. Oftentimes you’ll hear the criticism, "Oh the challenges are so big. Graywater? Community gardens? Is that really the scale at which a response is going to have a meaningful impact?"
How do you respond to that?
Marissa: Yeah it’s another good point, and a tough question. [One response is] with that specific example…it’s something we can do regardless of political will at other scales. The more of us who do it, the greater the impact, and then the greater the awareness that we’re raising to (hopefully) have some sort of political change.
I think just getting people reconnected to Nature, and to understanding where their food and water and all of that come from, knowing how to provide for their basic needs…makes people a lot better-equipped and -informed to interact with the political system. [A] lot of folks don’t know how vulnerable all of these different systems are….  [I]n California, 80% of water is used by industrial agriculture, so when people are doing these graywater, rainwater projects, [when]we have buckets in our shower, people are trying to catch every drop, and it’s very disheartening to know that’s only a…
Ken: Drop in the bucket.
Marissa: Right. Literally. So this work needs to be happening at other scales.
But going back to the water in California example, 80% is being used by industrial agriculture. That means local food production is very, very important. So if we mobilize community gardens on every available acre or [square] inch, we wouldn’t need that much water for industrial agriculture. I definitely don’t think that’s an excuse for not doing anything. I think it’s a valid concern, [and] that means put in the graywater system, [and] go to your local government meetings and pay attention to what’s happening at the state and national level, and intervene wherever you can.
Ken: Well thanks, you’ve inspired me to get off my butt and get out there and help my friend who’s doing the guerrilla gardening in my neighborhood.
Marissa: It feels good to just live a life that’s aligned with my values and I feel like that’s the only certainty that I have right now looking at the future and what’s in store. I can’t predict anything in terms of whether I’ll have a retirement, whether I’ll be able to have a family, like all of these things, but I do know that I can live in alignment with my values and feel really good about the time that I have here.
Ken: Well thank you for doing that, and thanks for the conversation.
Marissa: My pleasure.