Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience. Read more interviews.
Trathen Heckman is the founding executive director of Daily Acts, which transforms homes and communities into vibrant centers of homegrown sustenance and celebration. Daily Act’s 2015 Community Resilience Challenge inspired more than 8,000 acts in Sonoma County alone to save water, grow food, conserve energy, reduce waste, and build community. Trathen is also the board chair of Transition US.
Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared this backyard conversation with him.
Ken: Trathen, you’ve been working on this for a while. What’s your definition of community resilience?
Trathen: Good question. I don’t have the simple “sound bitey” definition. You could have resilience in everything from your personal ecology to household resilience to the resilience of materials, businesses, economies. There’s this whole range.
[At the] community scale, what’s the ability of a community, not [just] to adapt and spring back after adversity, but to spring forward into a preferred future?
It’s not going back to the broken way that our culture currently is. It’s how do we spring forward in our vision, where it’s healthy, just, resilient, and reverent?
A lot of our thinking and framing is around that…. A cornerstone of this is resilient individuals and households and the neighbor-to-neighbor relationships, and the trust that gets built. It’s that social fabric. You have skilled, engaged individuals, households, and neighborhoods.
It really starts from that personal scale of building resilience in your home: cycling your nutrients at your house, cycling your gray water, catching your rain water, putting food in the ground and food in the pantry, talking with your neighbors, helping them do these things, and building skills in that way.
Then those engaged, skilled people inspire and encourage other people to be more aware and engaged and to take action, to show up at their schools and churches or city council meetings.
That’s the basis at the levels of personal and home scale, taking care of yourself and your home-building skills, creating models. Then there’s your civic engagement piece, so that you’re actually giving back in a larger sense. Through that, you’re plugging in and supporting small grassroots local sustainability organizations, or your local school, or church.
Ken: We’re sitting in your backyard. You’ve got a 1500-gallon rainwater tank here. You’ve got a huge variety of fruit trees. You’ve got chickens. You’ve got bees pollinating; that’s what’s making me sneeze right now. So, you’re practicing this at your home. How are you practicing this in the community?
Trathen: They’re pretty integrated. I’m sitting on my stool, where I meditate for an hour every day to reorient and make sense of things. This is what we do. We teach people about how to model sustainability and resilience in yourself, in your home, in your neighborhood and the larger community.
Right behind you is the first permitted household gray water system installed in Sonoma County. That led us to be involved with the county and eventually the state gray water policy process. We do events here hosting people who range from neighbors and friends to mayors and state legislators—all kinds of folks—in our garden. {We] show them here’s how you can use sixty, seventy, eighty percent less resources while having it be more lush, productive, and resilient, building and enriching community all the while.
Across the street is the first public food forest installed in Northern California that we did in partnership with the city of Petaluma. Next to that is a household garden that we helped transform. Around the corner… a whole bunch more of those.
The programs we run range from presentations about personal and community scale resilience to inspiring tours, skill-building workshops and community mobilizations. "Here’s how you install a graywater system. Here’s how you keep bees. Here’s how you grow food. Here’s how you build skills and community while doing those things."
Then we go across the street and we install a public food forest, or we get thirty people together and we go to the neighbors next door and help them transform their garden. Then we go from our neighborhood to Petaluma City Hall and by partnering with other organizations show how we actually transform a landscape. The capstone in our programs is the Community Resilience Challenge. You go from hearing about it to experiencing it through a tour, like we’re doing this weekend, to building skills, to creating models, to actually getting dozens of schools and church and businesses and nonprofits together to register thousands of actions and projects, to support and partner with groups in other communities, and show, "Here’s how this adds up to over 5, 10, 20,000 projects and actions by a 100+ cross-sector organizations."
Small, low-cost, low-tech, people-powered, nature-sourced, decentralized solutions, but at scale. At the scale of not just creating models and connecting neighbors and building skills, but collaborating with others to shift local, regional, even state policies. Daily Acts works locally and partners regionally, as well as nationally with Transition US to support similar and learn from groups in other places.
Ken: Your philosophy, it sounds like, starts with the individual, starts with simple daily acts, and then builds outwards. Like it’s nested, and begins with the individual.
Trathen: Yes. True to the Gandhian, "Be the Change." It’s about growing a movement of people implementing simple solutions that build self-resilience in the spirit of reverence, then getting that to ripple through society-wide scale.
People say, "We need systemic change," and I definitely agree with that. Our thing is that right here—your self—is the most accessible whole system that you have. That’s the best way to effect change. It’s not just about changing light bulbs or doing your individual garden. It’s finding your voice and building power through the integrity of your daily actions and then supporting others to do the same.
Studies after Superstorm Sandy by the Rockefeller Foundation found that one of the key elements of the communities that adapted back, that were more resilient, was neighbor-to-neighbor trust and social cohesion. For us, thinking systemically, [it’s] starting with people where they have power in their lives, and building relationships and building skills, and then how that ripples out.
It’s also similar to Stephen Covey’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The first three were about building integrity in your vision, in your purpose, in your actions…. After you build integrity in your choices, you’re able to have more influence and trust with other people. Then,…you could start affecting shared vision.
Ken: If I’m living in a typical suburban neighborhood, where everybody drives to work and the sidewalks are hardly used, where do I start?
Trathen: It would depend on where you’re at. Are there local sustainability groups? Are there local Transition groups? Doing an audit, look around, is there anybody growing food in their front yard? Do you see any rain barrels? Who’s doing this work?
In communities everywhere there are people who are modeling this. In some communities there are developed organizations and social infrastructure.
If you don’t have that where you’re at, then find models in other places…. You find those models and you get inspired and you get connected, and you start modeling what you want to see [where you are]….
Ken: Does the same apply if I’m living in a 500-unit apartment block somewhere in the city?
Trathen: Yeah, great point, the urban/rural thing. I would say it does. Anywhere solutions to problems exist, which is everywhere (this is bright spot theory), you look at what’s working. If you’re in an African village and there’s one family whose kids are healthy and thriving, what are they doing differently? Oh, wow, they’re feeding their kids the [nutritious] weeds on the side of the house, or whatever it is. In any community there are people who are thriving and figuring out how to adapt. What are they doing differently? They have a road map to success.
There are groups doing this work everywhere. You could have a food forest on a third-story balcony in an apartment complex, or you [could find] urban agriculture. The solutions would look a little different in that environment, but again, everywhere problems are, there are solutions.
Ken: You said [something] before that ended with “reverence.”
Trathen: Focus on growing a movement of simple solutions that build self-reliance in a spirit of reverence.
Ken: You want to unpack that a bit?
Trathen: Sure. Like Gandhi’s Salt March. That was a very simple act of taking back their power, the power of meeting their needs and building self-resilience, but also was a pretty powerful political statement. It’s not just actions alone, but if you’re taking action to grow your own food, you’re taking care of your own nutrition and your body needs, you’re saving money and resources, you’re pulling your decisions out of the extractive economy, and you start feeding a more local, living, regenerative economy. You start talking with other people about it because you’re super inspired and that enthusiasm is infectious. Coming from a reverence for life not only feels better, it leads to better connections and a more positive impact on those around you.
Another Stephen Covey concept: You have your circle of influence and your circle of concern. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the state of the world. Your circle of concern is huge. But do you spend your time just kind of flailing your hands around, or do you look at what can I control and what can I influence? The more you spend your time within your circle of control, the more influence and control you gain in yourself and your relationships.
Ken: By the way, it’s not hard to get enthused when you’re talking about this. I’m wondering…about putting it into practice. I know a lot of people are very concerned about really huge issues around…
Trathen: Massive.
Ken: …the end of fossil fuels.
Trathen: My God, it’s so overwhelming, right?
Ken: Yeah, it’s overwhelming. You’re on your computer until one o’clock in the morning reading bad news. You’ve got a bad screenburn when you wake up the next morning finally at nine o’clock because you’ve been up all night. What’s the first thing you’d recommend people do that morning?
Trathen: The first thing I would do is to wake up and sit somewhere, ideally in Nature. If it’s on the balcony of a third-story apartment in an urban area, look up at the sky, go to a local park, find some patch of Nature, life, if you can, or just a quiet little room in your place. The first thing I do every day is I sit down [with] a nice warm cup of tea and I stir out all the things I’m vexed with, name them and let them go. And I stir in all the things that I’m blessed with. I reflect, “What am I grateful for, what am I good at, who are the people who inspire and amaze me?”
Every single morning I call on my Mom and Daddy and Gandhi and Che and MLK and and all my permaculture heroes: Toby Hemenway, Brock Dolman, Penny, all these folks. I call on all my leadership reference points. I marinate myself in the things and the people that inspire and empower me. I focus on what I value and how I can live what I value. I start out supercharging myself, grounding, breathing, and connecting with my body….
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the zillion, zillion things that need to be done, and all the issues. What are the most important things I can do today? This week? You go out to the month, the season, the year….To make significant gains each year, you have to make something worthy of each day, starting with reclaiming the power of your choices.
What are the most important things you could be doing each day? One, start with your health, your presence and your attitude, those are the essentials as well as your core relationships, and just really focusing on being proactive in your choices. That’s the thing I think of, that zone of personal ecology work.
From there, if you can, spend your time with people and ideas that inspire and empower you. Like Van Jones…he’s an incredible speaker. He’ll be calling people on their shit in really powerful ways. But somehow you feel inspired and engaged and want to step up, you want to do the hard work. [So], if you don’t know people like that, listen to Van Jones, meditate on [that]. Who are your top reference points that will make you [say], "I need to up my game, live into my potential, and contribute something of worth."
Ken: Not just ranting and raving,…[but people] making direct callouts, and then pointing in a different direction.
Trathen: Yeah, in a proactive way, that helps you feel agency and power.
Ken: Agency comes up a lot in these [resilience] conversations. Do you want to speak about that?
Trathen: It goes back to what…the Peace Pilgrim said, "Find your highest light, schedule and live it."
It’s one of Covey’s core things: [Be] proactive. In permaculture, no matter how dire the situation, there’s always a positive response, even if it’s just graceful acceptance. Eckhart Tolle said, "Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest form of grace on this Earth." Even if it’s just that, of getting right in yourself and being kind to yourself and being compassionate and being good to other people.
Look at the incredible things people do against all odds. Ernest Shackleton! How did their whole crew…not a single person died! It’s astonishing that every single one of them perservered and lived.
Ken: Or that they even undertook it.
Trathen: What human beings have achieved and persevered through is astonishing. It comes down to, something happens, and in that split second between impact and reaction, you have a choice. That’s where all of your power lies, to choose your response, to take a breath. Do you get triggered, do you get fearful, do you back off? I’m not very articulate on all that, but I can’t say enough about reclaiming and not giving away that sense of empowerment and agency.
Ken: I think Victor Frankl wrote, "Between stimulus and response there is space, and in that space lies our possibility, and our freedom."
Trathen: If someone who went through what he went through…. If people in concentration camps…can maintain their wholeness and their power….
Ken: Anyone with a sufficient “Why” to live can endure almost any “How” to live.
Trathen: I think especially living in these times. I get a little worried if people are too airy-fairy, “It’s all going to work out.” Because things are pretty screwed out there. A lot of the smartest people I know, and I’m sure you know more of them, [think it’s] not looking so good, the odds. We’re all getting composted anyways, but maybe sooner…."
Ken: How do you deal with that? Your work addresses some pretty scary stuff, but it also has a very community- and fun-oriented aspects. How do you balance those?
Trathen: Through doing this [work, I’ve been] overwhelmed by the state of the world and then inspired, and [swung] between inspiration and urgency. And then through time, recognizing those are really important power sources. Even the Dalai Lama talks about the need for urgency to maintain your focus, your practice. Inspiration is amazing, but it needs the weight of the reality.
Then there’s…having your inspiration and your urgency, without losing your sense of eternity. I think Richard [Heinberg] does an incredible job of this, keeping a little bit of space around ourselves and life and reality and all these things, being present as much as we can, staying sane and not burning out your adrenals, your relationships and your lives…. That’s not effective long term. That’s not a good strategy. It’s not conducive to being healthy. It’s not conducive to effecting positive change.
Ken: We talk about this as the transition from sustainability to resilience. The idea of being resilient long-term through generations, that’s a much bigger challenge than trying to do it for ten years and twenty years, or however long we have left on this earth. We could use up all the resources that our grandkids and great-grandkids might need, and we could [call ourselves] “sustainable,” because our perspective would be one decade or one lifetime.
That’s an added challenge of [deep or long-term] resilience. You’re trying to think of how to be present, how to be in the moment, but you also want to have that perspective of generativity.
Trathen: I think they’re not mutually exclusive. I start from the place of looking at the future generations and longer-term sustainability, and then backcasting to effect the greatest change. I have to be in my inspiration and my power to be able to connect and support this in others, so we can make really good choices. I think Thich Nhat Hanh said something about the best thing we could do to take care of the future is to sit skillfully with the present moment. I believe that, because you have access to greater wisdom, insight and resources….
Thinking in long term, maintaining our presence, our sense of joy and vitality, our ability to hold the beauty and the hurt, and to be with both, and to not act like the hurt isn’t there, it’s not real, it’s not urgent, but to not also lose the beauty.
Ken: [For] a lot of people who come to the realization that we are in a pickle, there’s a tendency to want to say, "We’ve got to jam it in their faces. These guys don’t understand; they don’t get it. They need to be shocked into awareness." How do you respond to that?
Trathen: I think I did that too, when I was kind of overwhelmed. [But,] "How’s that working out for you?" It didn’t work out so well for me.
Ken: Working out for you, or working out for the people you’re talking to?
Trathen: Both. I’m trying to be effective at connecting with other people and getting them engaged while also myself feeling…that need for connection. We’re social creatures, we’ve evolved with each other—versus getting isolated, and people getting turned off and rolling their eyes back, or walking the other way when they see you. That’s not very effective…. Keep that urgency there, but also focus on solutions, focus on people’s power.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? Start with where people are at and their skills, and reconnect them to other people who care about these things, their social fabric. Help them feel connected to a part of this larger thing in the world, and [to know] that they have a small but essential part. That gives a lot of transformative power.
To me, that felt like a better way to live. It feels better in my body. I like looking at a really beautiful, lush, resilient landscape. I love walking out my front door and looking at our neighborhood with all these landscapes that we helped do, and meet other people who reinforce these positive behaviors, who are effecting culture change. Creating those conditions conducive for light to flourish in your own daily living and your choices, where you live, your neighborhood. If you have that, that’s a pretty solid base to be able to have agency and reclaim it when you lose it.
Ken: We’ve talked a lot about the inner work and some of the indicators of resilience internally. What are some of the external indicators of resilience?
Trathen: I think, again, starting at one scale, from self to the neighborhood, walking down the street. How many people do you make eye contact with, and do you talk to? Do you know your neighbors by name, where they live, what they do? How much food is growing in your neighborhood? Is there an emergency preparedness plan, connectivity? How many rainwater tanks are there? [A]re you connected in the case of emergency?…That’s one level.
Another level is how connected are you to schools and churches and organizations in your community that share [your] values and concerns…? What does your larger social network look like? Do you have people that you could call on and call on you? Like [here where I live], Sonoma Compost is at risk of closing down. The community needs to rally. We need local power, local food, local water and local compost, amongst other things.
[Then], all the way up to city staff and elected officials…. What’s your ability to affect change at those levels, or at least to know what they’re thinking and where they’re going? Not that everybody’s going to [do that], but I know a lot of our elected officials, the different initiatives that are afoot….
And then a larger scale of movements, still teeny, but in the Transition movement, in the emerging community resilience movement….How connected are we with other groups doing this work? [What’s] our ability to share best practices?
There’s this great book called Forces for Good, and it looks at the high-impact practices of needle-moving nonprofits, regardless of left or right…. Whatever your politics, whether you run in a really artsy way, or in a tightly structured MBA program, there are six main things that all of these groups do to effect significant change. Having a leader-full community is one of them. It’s doing advocacy, [running] programs, building leadership outside of your organization, empowering and supporting others in the larger ecosystem to affect change.
One of the things they pointed out was the differences and the benefits between small groups and big groups. Small groups often [are] volunteer-based, they’re close to the mission, they’re innovative. The vast majority of the nonprofits in the U.S. are well under $500K, these small groups of people innovating at the edge. One of the downsides is they’re often not as connected in a network….
How connected is our movement of small groups with other small groups? This is some of the work I think you’ve all been doing through, and Transition US tries to do: connecting the dots, and [highlighting] the bright spots in our movement. I think there’s a lot more that can be done there.
Ken: That anticipates one of my questions: What is one form of support that would make the most difference to your work, and the community resilience movement as a whole?
Trathen: One form of support? The obvious one is the funding piece. We’ve had a good amount of success over the last thirteen years at this scale. We’re doing our work locally, but with the drought, our phone is ringing off the hook. There are groups and municipalities and folks from all over who want to do what we’re doing, or partner, or have us do it there. We’re looking at how can we support the emergence of these sort of programs and groups in other places, and/or help train folks on how to run these sort of programs and grow healthy personal and organizational ecology practices to sustain in this work. That’s one level.
Another level—we’ve talked about this at the Transition US board—if there was a convening organization that could get all these bright spot leaders or a handful of them in our movement around the U.S. together: [like] City Repair and Planting Justice and Daily Acts. You pick ten or twenty successful groups doing this community resilience work around the country, and really hold the space for us to network and connect and share best practices, and look at how we can learn from each other and fit together, just among people who have been doing this for a while and are having some success.
I love it when I can sit down with other leaders and focus on an organization level: What’s your budget, what are your revenue streams, your thoughts on the basics of running an effective organization…? If there was somehow an effort connecting at different levels, [because] a lot of these key organizations around the country are doing good work….We need to network, connect to learn from each other and to feed this emergent movement.
Then, how can we support other groups who are emerging?
[There was a] study [that] looked at needle-moving collaboratives across the country, be it in cradle-to-career education, or working in prisons, whatever it is. Studies like that, connecting with these “best of class” organizations, and getting the snapshot of where they’re at, and doing a larger analysis and sharing out the insights. It feels like we need capacity and support for more of that, to assess both what is and what’s not working so well.
[B]uilding the relationships could be another. That’s something we’ve been talking about on the Transition US board, connecting the folks who are at the forefront of doing the work, and then helping them be mentors and support other organizations that are emergent and want to take that pathway. It’s such a grassroots decentralized movement.
Ken: A related question, because I know you work in policy. If there was one policy or even political or social or cultural change that would really help accelerate and support your work, what would it be?
Trathen: We need resources to build the capacity of this community resilience movement. I think government could be an important part of the solution, funding these action-oriented grassroots groups, providing sustainability, permaculture and community resilience solutions. It’s things like reusing graywater, storing rainwater and installing food forests while growing skilled, engaged citizens and groups, creating models, mobilizing action and bringing a lot of partners to the table to work together. Partnering with local government agencies has been a huge part of how Daily Acts has been able to build capacity and increase our impact. There are a great deal of synergies possible by uniting government and the grassroots, especially at the local and regional scale.
Ken: These are water agencies?
Trathen: Water agencies, municipalities. I think you could apply these programs to energy, to food, to whatever. In California, in Sonoma County, water has been our pathway to then bring in food, energy, community-building, all these sort of things. For me, I don’t know what it looks like, but to create at the state level a funding stream that really promotes and supports the growth of these grassroots organizations and communities that are highly collaborative. They’re creating models, they’re doing education, they’re connecting other community partners, they’re being a catalyst. If you had a chunk of funding that was either supporting these organizations to scale up a bit, and/or to grow them in places, I think that would make an enormous difference. Part of that would be funding for training and sharing case studies and models and all those sort of pieces, and getting a network up.
I said this to the Governor’s office last week. I was on a call about the drought. “Yes, let’s save water, but let’s do it while building soil and growing food and creating habitat. Let’s use this as an opportunity to connect our organizations and our networks. In the process of addressing these problems, we could be growing the local, regional state-wide—even beyond—networks for sharing models of best practice with each other.
Ken: I want to pivot off that. You brought up the drought. I noticed an article the other day that said that Beverly Hills residents use around 300 gallons per person daily, while Compton residents use only 60 or so. We’ve got a major drought in California, and yet there’s this wild imbalance in the use of water, and the ability [of some] to afford to ignore the cost and impact of using water. Do you want to speak about how your work connects with that?
Trathen: Yeah. Another piece within that, in California, roughly twenty percent of the water goes to urban, whether you use a lot or a little, and then the eighty percent goes to ag[riculture]. There’s a whole bigger more complex thing around needing to retrofit our water policies…. The divide with the Haves and Have-Nots seems to be getting more stark. A lot of what I’m hearing from some agencies is targeting the high users, which makes sense.
I was just at a meeting this morning, and [there’s] this tool that’s used around [Sonoma] county to identify the social determinants of health, longevity and educational attainment, and identifying these places that are underserved. They’re the ones who are going to be the hardest hit too, as the temperature goes up or as we swing from drought to flood, which are surprisingly coming together at times. There’s not the tree shade covering those communities, they’re on a tighter line with their food, their budget and in general.
This can be hugely helpful to be able to target resources and services to those places, and partner with the people in those communities so it can support local wisdom and leadership and be from the community—I’m definitely hopeful [seeing] that level of awareness and a growing commitment. It’s not about bringing top-down solutions, but at least identifying that, from one Zip Code to the next, the span of life difference is ten or twenty years, and it’s stark.
Ken: To be more explicit, what is the relationship with community resilience and justice?
Trathen: If you’re going to have a resilient community, you’ve got to take care of all the folks in that community. It’s not resilient if it’s just for the Haves. and not for the Have-Nots. Relative to what I’ve experienced, observed, of our work, you have more white-led permaculture, transition, sustainability, community resilience efforts. Then there’s been these more social and environmental justice and climate justice efforts. It feels like there’s some real work in bringing those worlds together and increasing our awareness about white privilege, and the institutional racism and issues we’re facing, and figuring out how we could partner together. There’s a lot of rich learning that’s happening there. We’re really excited about that organizationally, being able to partner and chew on these issues with folks like Bay Localize and Movement Generation.
Locally, I just had a conversation with North Bay Organizing Project. There’s the blue, green, and brown, and they’re more of the blue and the brown. So we are talking about, how can we partner together to support each other and the sustainability of our whole community?
Ken: By blue you mean …?
Trathen: Labor. It’s essential. I think there’s a lot of good work that’s being done around figuring out how we build relationships and build trust and build work together.
Ken: You give shoutouts to lots of people and lots of organizations. Are there any other resources or books or people or videos that you want to recommend to people?
Trathen: A book that I mentioned, Forces for Good, is a great one for folks working in organizations. Jim Collins’ work. His last book, Great by Choice, the tagline is "Chaos, Uncertainty, and Luck: Why Some Thrive Despite It All." He comes back down to the power of daily actions. What else? This group called PCI is doing some cool stuff!
Ken: Thanks. What’s the thing that I haven’t asked you that you want to talk about?
Trathen: I think we covered it pretty thoroughly, but obviously I’m pretty squarely rooted in the personal resilience, personal leadership piece. I know a lot of the folks we reach, they’re super clear on the overwhelming macro, and it’s just so easy to get negative and overly urgent.
[I believe in] rooting back into our presence and our power and believing in our ability to live rich lives that enrich life and can also take care of future generations. It’s just the power of your daily actions captured well by this Harold Thurman quote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come you alive and then go do it. Because what the world most needs is people who have come alive.”
Like Michelle Obama said [quoting Frederick Buechner], "It’s been said that our true calling in life is where our heart’s greatest gladness meets the world’s deepest need."
In our sphere it’s easy for people to look at the world’s deepest need, but the heart’s greatest gladness is as important.
Ken: That’s a great way to end. I really appreciate you sharing not only that perspective, but also what brings you joy, what brings you alive.
Trathen: Yeah. This is it. I did an audit of that recently and listed out the top ten things that bring me most alive, and then ordered them to the top five, [and looked at] how many I’m doing. This right here is one of them. It’s being in the garden, this living, breathing, regenerated ecosystem where there’s food and medicine and beauty everywhere. This is where I like to meditate, write, garden, strategize and have conversations about stuff that matters.
Ken: Thanks for connecting. This is a great place to be, and the mulberries were delicious.
Trathen: Those things are off the charts, huh?