There’s much eco-happening in the environs of Phoenixville, PA. The Altair Ecovillage project is making strides toward establishing a cohousing community in nearby Kimberton. And the Transition Towns initiative has really taken root . . .
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Phoenixville Area Transition: What We Do and How We Do It
By Jane Dugdale
(this article appears in the current [Fall 2021] issue of Green Horizon Magazine)
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is located 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia. I’m a resident, and I’ve been working with Phoenixville Area Transition (PAT) since its initiation in 2018.
PAT is inspired by the international Transition movement, which began in 2005 in Totnes, England, and has since spread to over 1,200 communities in 50 countries around the world. Transition is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges we face by starting at the local level. In Phoenixville we’ve noticed that more and more people have become convinced that the toxic global industrial growth society based on petroleum is not sustainable. Many agree with Transition that we need to encourage localization and work with, not against, nature.
We Transitioners feel that we’re on a mission to build resilience in the local community by encouraging interdependence between people and groups and nature. Our own group has operated mostly on the philosophy that Rob Hopkins, the founder of International Transition Towns, articulated: “Whoever shows up are the right people.” Rather than adhering to a pre-set agenda, we’ve done a lot of “going where the energy takes us” … as long as a project seems to fit the overall mission.
We gradually arrived at our current operating structure of a Core Group made up of representatives from various Working Groups. The Films Working Group was the first. In December 2017, before we formally aligned with the Transition Network, they brought the documentary film Tomorrow to the local Colonial Theatre, the iconic center of our gentrifying former steel town. Seeing that film is what fired me up, personally, to get the Transition initiative underway. I then sat down with the organizers of the screening and we brainstormed a list of groups and people who might be interested. We were pleased to have 22 people show up at our first meeting in May 2018.
During the next couple of meetings we brainstormed a Vision Statement. After that we met monthly until the pandemic, with attendance holding at around 20. We established a web site (https://www.pat.community) which highlights the activities of our Working Groups: Living Landscapes, Films, Inner Transition, Community-supported Food, and Reduce/Reuse/Recycle Plastics.
BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE
An example of an early successful initiative was our Community Supported Lunches at Sol Kitchen. Until the pandemic intervened, this tiny restaurant had become a magnet for all sectors of the community, from the mayor to the unhoused, to stop by for home-cooked lunches twice a week paid for by in-kind donations.
We soon realized we needed an Inner Transition Working Group in order to animate the Gandhian directive to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Some members put together a series of monthly Reflections of the Spirit community gatherings. The same group offers free qigong classes, organized a pre-pandemic Summer Solstice event (in a local park, with music, dancing, displays, yoga, bubbles, and kombucha), a Winter Solstice celebration, and vigils in support of Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, we recognized that Phoenixville already has numerous groups accomplishing goals congruent with our own mission: legacy environmental and diversity groups (the Green Team and Diversity In Action); an existing community garden; social service non-profits; a beloved community cinema; and a well-established Time Bank. Our sense was that the various groups didn’t necessarily know about each other and may not have been aware of the potential for synergistic efforts. We realized that our mission could include educating about the interconnectedness of all their activities. So we decided to proactively but informally work with these groups in order to establish channels for getting to know one another. Some of our more successful collaborations with other community organizations have been:
* Reservoir Community Garden: Transitioners formed a team for one of the beds called the “Giving Garden,” which delivered more than 120 pounds of produce to food pantries in 2020 and more in 2021. Local students helped clean and plant. They enhanced the whole community garden by painting the water barrels. This work inspired us to create our Living Landscapes Working Group, whose purpose is to expand gardening all around the town. An herbalist-knowledgeable professor taught Living Landscapes volunteers how to make tea bags of dried Tulsi she had harvested from the herb garden. The tea bags went to food pantries. Another project was the result of our learning that there had been an effort to build a “Wellness Garden” at the low-income retirement home; Living Landscapes volunteers swooped in and made it happen! We also helped renew the community garden of Steel Town Village, an affordable housing complex. Early in the pandemic one of our members had the idea to promote sales of “Victory Gardening in a pot,” with help from a local farmer and nursery; we sold 30 pots! This season we’ve started promoting neighborhood gardening, or “Block Gardens.”
* Educational initiatives via Communities That Care (CTC), the library, and colleges: At the suggestion of our local library director, who is on the CTC Board, Transitioners helped produce a ten-month series called “Gardening Around the Village” for the Library’s Online Adult series. The library has said this series and its recordings are its most popular viewings. Collaboration with the library has raised our profile and sparked new ideas for educational ventures. One was a program called “The Paradox of Plastics.” Other educational outreach is done through our quasi-fortnight newsletter, Resilience Report. Additionally, we’ve addressed college classes and collaborated with the local Penn State University branch to produce a “Northern Chester County Earth Day Events” flyer.
* Diversity in Action (DIA): One of our town’s legacy groups, DIA stepped up during the Summer of George Floyd and now produces, in partnership with the African American led Black Light Projects, ongoing twice-monthly Vigils supporting Black Lives Matter, one virtual and one live. Our Inner Transition group produced two of the virtual vigils. In addition, one of our members is on the DIA task force to renew the town’s Civil War Centennial Memorial, with the intention of re-envisioning its mural to celebrate our multicultural history.
* Time Bank: PAT is an organizational member of Phoenixville Area Time Bank, and we can give “time dollars” to Time Bank members who work on our projects. One of the connections we made through Time Bank was to help the local Repair Café find a home.
* Green Team: A key legacy group from the town, Green Team is now a partner with PAT in a joint working group on Plastics. As part of Green Team’s 2021 Green Earth Festival, we brought the film The Story of Plastic to the local cinema followed by a panel of leaders of successful plastic bans to tell us how they did it.
* Phoenixville Borough: Several of our core members have served on the Borough’s Beautification Advisory Commission. Being in an official capacity has helped us figure out how the Borough process works in order to promote projects we most care about.
WE ARE IN IT TOGETHER
If this all sounds improvisational, that’s the right image. Rather than going through the hassles of becoming a non-profit, rather than stressing about Boards and By-Laws, we’ve been able to pour our energy into projects that need doing. Funding, of course, is an issue. We’ll be looking for grant money for the Civil War Centennial Memorial renewal. DIA is a nonprofit and we can apply through them. The community garden needs a grant for a redesign and a deer fence. That was applied for through the Borough. The point is that a small group of local activists can get going without feeling intimidated by the prospect of facing legalities and formalities at the outset. If the future calls for us to become an incorporated nonprofit, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it!
Here’s how one of our members, Maria Galarza, has described her ongoing commitment to our initiative:
When I heard about Transition it intrigued me enough to look at its presence in Phoenixville. Transition from fossil fuel to sustainable energy — got it! Transition from a global economy based on corporations and stripping the earth of its natural resources for wealth — got it! Transition from mass produced food to locally grown and pesticide-free produce and edible — got it! Transition back to working together in neighborhoods and getting to know and help each other — got it, know it, let’s do it!
I liked the idea of having working groups and so I joined the Living Landscapes Working Group and engaged with others who understand we must value our earth. I connected to sources of information in areas I knew little about, learned more about what I already had some knowledge of, enjoyed watching movies that I would not have seen on my own, and attended workshops to further my knowledge about gardening, recycling, reusing, re-purposing and repairing. Now I’m teaching my grandchildren and their friends. There is so much to learn!
I am now on the Core Group and engaging in connecting others to our work and our experiences, especially within the Latino/a community. What excites me is the opportunity to get others involved and see what arises from their involvement. What I love about Transition is that any person can find what they are passionate about and start a constructive working group.
We truly are in it together.