Rick Theis is Founder of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy. As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Rick about working with government, prioritizing social equity, reclaiming our food system, and more:
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
It happened at the Environmental Grantmakers Association retreat a few years ago in Anchorage, Alaska. Some of us took an after-conference trip to Barrow to meet with leaders of the Inuit. There were 18 of us from various foundations. One of the foundation program directors asked, "What do you need?" and the Inuit chief responded, "We really need cell phones and laptops so we could communicate by email and strengthen our work to stop the drilling that is happening on the Eastern Shelf."
I thought, "Wow, that’s really amazing – here I am with people who give away millions, and what the Inuit leaders need is probably in the realm of $10,000." I looked across the room and made eye contact with a fellow participant. It was like a light bulb went off in our heads, like "Wow – funding this is a no-brainer." But nobody said anything and the conversation just went on. Later, I suggested to my fellow foundation members that if we each chipped in we could grant their wish. One program manager from a foundation with a famous computer founder’s name said, "Don’t ask me for computers!" Another woman from a major Bay Area foundation said "We don’t make grants in Alaska," which made me wonder why she was there.
I was really mad that someone had asked what we could do to help but no one wanted to do anything. So I proposed that each of our foundations contribute $1,000, and a more modest amount, personally, from those whose foundations wouldn’t help. I had to be tenacious but we raised the $10,000 and the Inuits got their cellphones and laptops. While they haven’t stopped the drilling, it has slowed down. Did the grant make a difference? That’s not easy to measure but I believe the Inuit leaders are more effective in their work, and it makes me feel good.
Ken: What did you learn from that?
I learned two things: First, if you ask people what they need, you should be ready to help. Second, get out of your shell – stand up and ask for help. For me personally it’s very difficult to ask for help, but I realized that unless you "just do it" nothing happens. It’s helped me change my life.
To add to that, we were in Bhutan a month ago and in one of the places we visited, in a very remote region, the lama’s daughter-in-law had begun building a guest house. It was much needed in the community and would be welcome to those visiting the region. And, it would provide the lama’s family with needed income. Unfortunately they couldn’t complete it because the economy had declined and her husband became a paraplegic in an accident and could no longer work. I asked the tour leader to ask how much it would cost to finish building it – I’d heard it only costs $20,000 to build a house in Bhutan – to see if we could raise the money from our group to help her complete it. The other people on the tour said, "We can’t do that." But the tour leader went and spoke with her, and came back and said it would only cost $5,000 to complete. "We can raise that among us," I proposed. But our tour leader said he had a whole network of people who had gone on tours with him to Bhutan who might be willing to help. So he sent out an email request and within a week we raised $6,000 and helped that family achieve their dream.
Ken: How does this story relate to your own community (of funders or in the north bay)?
What I’m doing is sharing these stories with other people. For instance, I founded the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, and when I spoke to this year’s class on their last day, I talked about these experiences to help convey to the graduates that it is possible to help, to make changes. They don’t have to be huge changes but they make a difference and are greatly appreciated by those they’re intended to help.
What is most alive in your work right now?
I guess it’s seeing change happen. It’s sometimes small, incremental, with plenty of setbacks. But we’re making change both at the Leadership Institute and at TransformCA, where I’m on the board. We’re making incredible progress in providing world-class transportation for the Bay Area and California. While climate change and the environment are important, the driving force behind our work is social equity. We’re really making a difference in the legislature. This year we were instrumental in getting them to allocate cap-and-trade revenue to build affordable housing near transit. This will make it easier for poorer people to get to work and reduce carbon emissions in a big way.
And this is a real surprise for me: I can’t believe I’m suddenly a developer. A friend of mine asked me to be a partner in creating a Central Valley development of 600 homes in a mixed-use, livable, walkable, affordable community – to see things which I’ve advocated for years really happen is very exciting.
Until a few years ago I always felt I was beating my head against the wall – I’d go to city council meetings and they’d say "Here he is again, Rick Theis, the idealist…" and they would tell me it’s nice to be an idealist, but the economic reality just makes it impossible to do the right thing. But more and more, change for the better is really happening.
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
a) What has been catalyzed in the world?
First of all, we’ve re-instated democracy to our institutions of government. We’ve eliminated corporate contributions to political campaigns, and suddenly the politicians are listening to the people. We’re building communities that actually create a spiritual community – spiritual not in a religious sense, but one where we live with one another in a way where we understand, accept and support each other in a very deep way. While we’re going to see setbacks in the environment, loss of species and continued global warming, we also know how important it is to create living spaces that enable camaraderie to flourish in our communities.
We see more people getting together, sharing meals and glasses of wine and local beers and really getting to know each other. We have transportation that virtually eliminates carbon from the atmosphere. We’re building carbon-neutral, waste-free buildings. No one goes to bed hungry, all children have an opportunity for all the education they can handle, and everyone one is covered by single-payer, universal healthcare. If you go down the list of One Planet Communities it pretty much follows what they suggest.
We begin to realize that with increased productivity as a result of technology, not everyone has to work. So how do we provide people with the money they need to live a happy life without them having to punch a time clock? This is going to be a very difficult task for us because it goes against so many of our beliefs about the importance of work as a way to contribute to our families and communities – so there will be a radical transformation among people that it’s OK not to work and that you’re going to be adequately compensated to live a happy life nonetheless. And of course, everything Gus Speth says about the new economy will come true.
Ken: What was the role of funders in bringing about this transformation?
At the last EGA retreat there was a real transformation during many of the speeches where funders were told: "Okay, you’ve all been funding programs and projects – and as a result we’re feeding more kids, getting the streams cleaned up, and working to reduce carbon pollution – but these simply aren’t good enough. We need to focus on public policy." We need to devote millions of dollars that EGA and other social justice grantmakers give away and devote most of it to make policy changes–to supporting NGOs that lobby. We can do that. We can’t lobby ourselves but we can support those who do. And we want to give in a way that allows them to be flexible and maximize their effort. You can educate in a way that doesn’t constitute lobbying. It takes a little bit of effort to educate foundations about what is legally possible, but it is time we learned and acted.
As funders, we need to begin funding those NGOs that advocate for sustainability, just as the Koch brothers & Libertarians fund Heritage, Cato, Reason—and all of the other 150 or so Libertarian organizations that claim to be free market advocates but as Bobby Kennedy says are not—are really focused on social welfare for the rich and brutal, survival-of-the-fittest, free market capitalism for the poor. So we need to create and support think tanks working on values that the new economy movement needs to broadcast – it might take fifty years before it becomes mainstream, but it needs to happen and start now.
Agriculture is incredibly complex and difficult as we all know, because it seems industrial farms produce massive amounts of foods very cheaply. The US has never paid less for food than we do today, and we kind of hold that as an ideal, yet one third of our kids go to bed hungry – what’s wrong with this picture? Cheap food for America is not the solution – something else has to happen. I think Slow Food is on the right track when it says that industrial farming is not the way of the future, we need more, smaller, local sources of food where we know our farmer, we know they’re not poisoning us, not using chemicals that are injurious to the environment. It’s another long, slow process – organic farming and backyard gardens are growing but growing slowly. We need to give the Slow Food movement for food that is good, clean, and fair a shot in the arm. Part of that is through public policy that not only encourages but requires school systems to purchase local food rather than junk food. That would be an incredible way to begin shifting the agricultural production.
The Google kitchen does that well and more corporations need to buy into that – knowing that it may cost fifty cents more for their employees to eat good, clean, and fair food, but it’s worth it.
We’ve never had fewer people working on the farm, and we need to find ways to encourage more young people to do that. Not many young people willing to farm can afford to buy a twenty acre piece of property to grow a vegetable garden. We need to find ways to make that happen. And we need to hold farmers in higher esteem.
We need to be certain that foundations funding the new "Green Revolution" in Africa understand that giving people gasoline powered tractors, fossil fuel-based chemicals and fertilizers, and GMO seeds is counterproductive to ending poverty and starvation.
b) Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
One thing that’s really bugged me – for at least the past decade, a week didn’t go by that I would listen to PBS Newshour and they had some guest on from the Heritage Foundation talking about the pros and cons of a policy issue. Why isn’t there someone speaking from our side? We need to be much more effective in capturing those media outlets to be a megaphone for what is truly right and just and what a resilient future looks like, and we need to be there constantly. As Milton Friedman said – we need to keep repeating the same thing over and over until people realize what we’re saying is the solution to the problem – we need to get out there and do that.
How we teach teachers needs to be reformulated. In the school system we need to be educating students to think critically and understand sustainability and thriving communities – that’s as important in education as math, engineering, and science.
Marissa: Can you say more about the role of young people and access to land in transitioning to sustainable agriculture?
There are some excellent incubator farm training programs, usually funded by small family foundations. Here in Sonoma County we are connecting training with land. The County has a sales tax to buy open space and preserve ag land. The University of California Cooperative Extension is working with some of that land to create incubator farms, places where new, young farmers can get training, lease land very cheaply, and save up to buy their own farm in the future.
For fourteen years I was Executive Director of Sonoma County Grape Growers Association (the farmers who grow the grapes, not the wineries) and in that time growers about doubled their grape acreage. Now, what some grape growers have done is tear out five or ten acres of grapes and give it to their children to grow vegetables that sell at the local farmers’ markets. They’re keeping their kids on the farm, supporting locally grown food, and the kids are making their own way. Growers who put profit ahead of people aren’t willing to do that. But those who believe in real family values and creating community are glad to see their children stay on the family farm. That’s another kind of success story to spread. And some way or another, we need to really support people who believe that building community is more important than making money. If you have community, you’ll always have bread on your table at night.
Some growers also realize climate change will have an impact on vineyards – maybe not all our vineyard land will be best suited for wine grapes in another decade or two.
I keep suggesting that the Leadership Institute of Ecology and the Economy call a summit of leaders in Sonoma County and the North Bay to start talking about sustainability and resilience, what we’re all doing and how we can work together, but they don’t really have the bandwidth to do that. Perhaps we could talk more about collaborating to organize that sort of gathering. Of course young people need to be a part of that. I forgot who said a movement without young people won’t last for long.
One last thing – for years and years we’ve talked about the three Es: economy, environment, and equity. It’s easy to talk about environment, easy to talk about economy, but when it comes to social equity, it’s kind of a third rail. In my fifteen years of teaching about the three Es at the Leadership Institute, I’ve come to believe that equity might be the most critical. We can’t just focus on economy and environment and expect the equity piece to take care of itself.