What does it mean to be a good citizen?
It’s a tough question. To most people, it means generally not breaking the law, voting and paying taxes.
But to Russell Evans, director of Transition Lab, a living laboratory in Montrose, it means doing all those things and solving social problems, from affordable housing to sustainable food production.
Alongside courses that teach average people about permaculture and organic farming, the Lab teaches “advanced democratic citizenship,” “direct civic engagement” and CPR/first aid.
Evans will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Homegrown Food Retreat sponsored by Growing Partners of Southwest Colorado. His address Friday evening will serve as a nighttime baptism for Saturday’s busy schedule of workshops about local food issues from seed saving to herbicides to distribution.
Event coordinator Celeste Greene said Growing Partners chose Evans because of his organization’s track record in devising new answers to complicated problems. For its innovative approach to food and community, Transition Lab was recognized with a Local Solutions Award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate CoLab.
“I think that the local food system is really challenging, especially in our area,” Greene said. “We have all these amazing growers and amazing restaurants. But they are both pretty difficult businesses to run.”
Greene said her organization had been drawn to Evans because “he is doing something that is actually applicable to our situation to create change.”
Evans said he was excited to address the crowd of 230 growers at Fort Lewis College this week.
He said, too often, communities hesitate in solving the big problems because they believe they lack the resources.
“I’d really like some people to be able to have some tools for being able to problem-solve in fundamentally different ways,” he said.
One way local food marketplaces are expanding is through food hubs, which typically serve as a drop-off point for farmers and a pick-up point for distributors and customers.
“There’s a lot of talk about food hubs in Durango, and there’s no shortage of great ideas for projects that would really benefit a community. What there is too little of is the resource to really be able to make that happen: money – from grant packages, stimulus money or a donation from a wealthy millionaire,” Greene said.
But Evans said he thought Durango could get a food hub going in the next year if locals shifted their focus away from money.
He pointed to the Lab’s success in creating affordable housing.
“Right now, more people in their 20s live with their parents than with roommates, because there aren’t enough jobs, and they can’t afford it,” he said.
In response, the Transition Lab worked out a system whereby people in their 20s rented spare bedrooms from landlords with 10 to 15 hours of free labor in lieu of rent money.
He said the arrangement does more than give 20-somethings their independence. The method of payment – labor – means that new projects that couldn’t otherwise be completed can be accomplished, such as building a backyard garden.
“Once you create a scenario where people are able to meet their basic needs in a very uncertain economy, you have the freedom to engage in a political campaign that you wouldn’t be able to do,” he said.
“We’re creating conditions for people to be better citizens.”