Sarah Baird is Director of Outreach and Communications for Center for a New American Dream. 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 Sarah about life beyond consumerism, translating online community into on-the-ground action, and more:
Interview with Sarah Baird (edited transcript)
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
I think something that has been wonderful in our work was when we launched the SoKind registry last Fall. It’s an alternative gift registry where instead of giving stuff, people can give more meaningful gifts – of time, of services, etc. Our tagline is "more fun, less stuff."
We’ve had such positive feedback and anecdotes from people using it, and we’re seeing how they used in ways we had no idea they would–they were inspired and thrilled that there was this resource out there. They used it to bring their families and friends into the fold.
We’d imagined it would be used for weddings, birthdays, graduations, baby showers, etc. But one of the first things it was used for was by a woman whose husband had cancer. We had no idea the tool would be used this way. It was such a meaningful and important way to use it, and without it she wouldn’t have been able to register for these non-tangible things, so it was really inspiring.
I really think something that is central to our mission at New Dream is joy! We’ve really been able to help people increase their joy through building community.
Our very first baby shower registrant, Frankie…to see all her pictures come in and people gathering using local ingredients for food, and not giving gifts but time, etc….to see the first pictures of how this tool is used and making an impact–bringing joy to someone’s life– is really exciting!
These examples are opposite ends of the spectrum, showing how widely the tool can be used, and what happiness can mean. There are now almost 4000 registries and over 10,000 gift givers, so that’s been really great!
What is most alive in your work right now?
Building out our Collaborative Communities program, and the Get2Together program – the way we’re taking the online energy and excitement we have for New Dreamers across the country and having them apply it in their local communities. So we’re taking the online off-line and helping them build out their communities and projects.
Specifically within that, there’s the Neighborhood Challenge. Last year we were able to award several $2000 grants for community projects – seed libraries, tool libraries, etc. and this year we’re going to be able to double or even triple the number of grants we’re going to be able to give out. Seeing them be excited and engaged about that makes me feel super alive, seeing tangible "hands-in-the-dirt" results.
One leader last year – Tom in Asheville NC – he wanted to start a tool library there. Now he’s not only started and flourished with the tool library, but is largely responsible for much of the new economy movement work happening in general. He works with Shareable, and is helping plan Sharefest this week. He’s really latched on. It’s so exciting to see him do that and have this avenue to go deeper, get inspired and go to the next level.
Another example is here in New Orleans where I’m based. The New Orleans Timebank – through the Neighborhood Challenge – was able to bring more people on board, get the tools and resources necessary to make that happen, and was even able to help deliver a baby through the timebank! A guy called and said they needed a ride to the hospital because [his wife was in labor and] they didn’t have a car, and some people took them to the hospital.
It’s really cool to see that these projects we support can have that kind of impact, go that deep, and touch so many people.
So there were two programs you mentioned: Collaborative Communities and Get2gether…
Yes. Get2gether is underneath Collaborative Communities, which is the umbrella for that initiative. CC is also doing other things, such as "community share workshops," where we’re working libraries and the USDN to really bring people together around how to build out seed libraries, going out to communities and taking a hands-on approach. We also have "community action kit" guides on "going local," sharing," and one coming out very soon on "going green." So it’s been an exciting time with all that.
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?
We really have seen that, through New Dream’s efforts, people are taking serious steps to reduce their consumption and shift their consumption patterns toward more sustainable ways of living. We have hubs in thousands of communities across the country.
People have been inspired by our work on commercialism. Grassroots teams in local communities are working to enact change on a daily basis. We’ve had a heavy influence on how people are thinking about the way they interact with the world, how their celebrations interact with the world, and how their actions impact the larger global community.
We have bans on bottled water in at least five cities across the country that didn’t have them before. We have hundreds of thousands of people who have shifted their patterns of consumption through our programs. They use that to make simplifying changes through the entire year, and then tell their friends and family. We’ve built out community groups and support systems so people doing this work feel happy and supported. Get2gether teams in hundreds of communities developed seed and tool libraries, etc.
We’ve seen major on the ground impacts in Beyond Consumerism and Collaborative Communities to make the New Dream a reality. There’s been a real shift in how people think about the American dream and what that actually means.
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.
We really took the silos off the work that we were doing in the New Economy. We asked, "How can we all hold hands and run towards the same goal?" It was about being collaborative. We saw that with the NEC communications working group. NEC in 2014 provided a solid foundation for the movement to take off and explode in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if people were all working separately in silos.
One of our biggest things was the ShareFest week – Shareable and New Dream came together with a bunch of organizations and shone a spotlight with a large degree of reach on the sharing economy.
Going forward, we have people coming together around consumerism–writing blogs, sharing and promoting one another, really moving the movement forward.
Marissa: I also work with Transition US–we’re thinking about how to effectively organize on the ground. So one piece is to understand the distinct differences between our work and where there is synergy with others. Working with Shareable, did you find ways to support each other’s grass roots networks? How can the national orgs collaborate and have impact at the grass roots level?
We’ve seen that our teams can come together and join forces, moving forward together, especially with Sharefest. Also, we have different "toolkits" we provide, and different backgrounds and resources, and those have crossed over and been shared between the two groups pretty well.
Do you find that it’s the same kinds of people that are involved in Shareable’s Sharing Cities Network and CNAD’s Collaborative Communities, or are they distinctly different groups?
I think they’re definitely different. There are some similarities and overlap, of course, but I think New Dream is more family oriented, older folks, more rural areas and smaller towns, whereas Shareable demographic is younger, more entrepreneurial, and more urban, so it’s been a good way to blend those two groups together.
Ben: Demographics are a key opportunity for collaboration–different groups appeal to different demographics, and know how to speak to them. What if we mapped that to see who was being effective at reaching whom?
We should really think long and hard – all of our staff are pretty small. More collaboration would be better. If our staffs were bigger, what if each team had one person whose job it was to facilitate those connections?
Ben: What do you think of a shared pool of staff providing several key functions to multiple organizations?
I think that’s a good idea, but would be more excited about a dedicated staff person who could become an expert on the messaging and subject matter of that specific organization. It’s a lower bar.
Also, we have to figure out how to move beyond grants. Maybe we become B-corps, or L3C’s rather than going back to the grant pool. You could figure out revenue streams that are aligned with your mission. It also depends on each organization’s needs. We have to get strategic about what that looks like. Get collaborative on grant-making, instead of one group competing with another. We did that recently with a grant for a poll.
I really believe wholeheartedly that the South is the untapped market for building out these collaborative community programs, and really building out the New Economy. It’s kind of like the unsung place that no one’s touched yet, and so it’s super ripe for that. There’s a lot of activity in Asheville and New Orleans – people are just hungry for community for the South, and to be connecting and sharing with each other. Ever since 2009 it’s been hard, and the South has been hit particularly hard.
Ben: Maybe there’s something about the social fabric of the South, the valuing of tradition and social fabric and civility. Something in the core of southern culture that could allow people to get the New Economy deeply and lead us out of the old one. [Thinking about Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior].
There are few places in the world where people value their families and communities as strongly as the South. Community is a cultural value, not a political value.