G.A.L.A. is a small non-profit organization based in Wolfeboro, NH. whose mission is to provide a networking and resource hub that facilitates the learning and practice of sustainability in the lakes region of NH and in adjoining communities. The letters of its name stand for Global Awareness, Local Action.
I first encountered G.A.L.A. when my friend David asked me if I would be interested in joining a discussion course on voluntary simplicity that would be meeting weekly in the Wolfeboro area for about two months. Curious to learn what others interested in the subject would have to say, I agreed. The course, developed by Northwest Earth Institute, proved to be thought provoking. The discussions were informative and worthwhile. This was just one of G.A.L.A.’s educational outreach efforts and, I thought, a good one. Therefore I wanted to learn more about the organization. G.A.L.A. activist Josh Arnold agreed to talk with me.
Pat: Can you tell me what G.A.L.A. is all about?
Josh: Basically G.A.L.A. is an organization that started with a potluck, almost two years ago. I invited a few community members, family and friends to a potluck so we could talk about some of the changes we would like to see in the world and how we might be able to be a part of that.
Community organizing and activism has always been a passion of mine. In school I did a lot of campus organizing. When I got home, I wanted to apply that same passion in my community. And this (G.A.L.A.) is what happened! It’s been an amazing process. I definitely spearheaded it, but what it is now is reflective of a lot of different peoples’ contributions and ideas.
Pat: You had that initial potluck and then, roughly sequentially, what happened?
Josh: It just so happened that the town was dealing with a milfoil issue in the lake and there was pressure to apply a chemical called 2-4-D to control it. This is a known, very toxic carcinogen whose use has actually been banned in some Canadian towns. G.A.L.A. called out to its network of people. We were very loosely knit at this point. We put together information about the chemical and wrote a stream of editorials to the paper and attended planning board meetings that were addressing the milfoil issue. We stirred up the issue in town quite a bit. The town ended up not applying the chemical. I don’t know if it was completely because of our campaign, there were weather issues as well, rain that raised the water level to a point which made it even more unsafe to apply the chemical. But it was really exciting. We got together, raised awareness about an issue, and then saw results.
Pat: At that point, how many of you were there?
Josh: About ten people.
Pat: So ten people can change the course of events if they work at it right.
Josh: Right. I really think one person can change the course of events. Yet (in this case) we needed a collective response. And it was great.
Pat: Did you have an alternative to offer in place of the chemical?
Josh: We researched alternatives. One of the big problems was nobody had addressed the fact that the nitrogen fertilizers that were being used on lake front properties were (washing into the lake) making the milfoil flourish. So we saw an obvious thing that could be addressed. We volunteered to do hand pulling. There is a particular turtle that feeds on milfoil. So we raised that issue too. We not only offered alternatives, we volunteered to do some of the work.
There is still pressure to apply the chemical. Once this becomes a hot enough issue again, I think we will need to re-energize the group.
From there we thought we would do simple things. We started a film series at the library to create a venue for people to learn about social and environmental issues in an entertaining way, and to have a place to discuss the issues in a semi-facilitated space where there were some rules of respect. We get films from a company called Bull Frog Productions. They have a list of films that are educationally oriented. You can purchase the screening rights for a relatively small cost. If you were to purchase screening rights for Lord of the Rings, it would be a huge amount. For these, it’s say, $40. We use the films as an educational device. It’s also for outreach. On our website, we offer to show the films in other communities as long as they are relatively nearby. We will come with the film and facilitate a dialog in that community. This makes it easier for community leaders in another place. All they have to do is provide a venue and promote the event using their local community networks.
Pat: Where did the start-up money for G.A.L.A. come from?
Josh: In the beginning after we generated a solid group of committed people who were invested in seeing our ideas come to fruition, we all chipped in some money. But then, for about the past year and a half, I’ve been writing grants relentlessly. We got one from New England Grass Roots Environmental Fund, $1,500 seed money. That helped us with our non-profit application, our films and materials for displays. We also did a big feedback survey. At this point we had about 100 people on our e-mail list, so we did a feedback mailing. We used some of the money for that. We got a grant from a group called New American Dream to publish a Buy Wisely Locally Guide to help area residents align their consumer choices with their environmental and social values. There were also donations.
At all the films we have a donation basket. Between 10 and 30 people might come to a film. The off-season population of Wolfeboro is about 6,000. But we get people from Conway and Barnstead. People have come from Portsmouth. That’s with only advertising in Wolfeboro. We haven’t developed enough to advertise further than that. But I think eventually we will and we might bring in larger crowds. Good as this is, my goal is to empower community leaders to host events in their own communities, and have us bring the events to them.
We also have study circles. This (voluntary simplicity) is the second one we’ve done. I think it’s good to have people come together and talk about issues in a supportive and inquisitive atmosphere.
We do theme potlucks. Our last one was a clothes swap.
Pat: So you are actively doing some of the sustainable actions you are promoting?
Josh: Right. The potlucks are informal gatherings, but with something fun like the clothes swap, or a recipe exchange, some kind of resource sharing. It’s a time to share food and resources.
We also have a sustainability workshop series. This is a practical hands-on series, wine making, how to make food out of acorns, sourdough baking, composting basics. These are homesteading skills that don’t use a lot of materials. They’re cheap and they’re fun. They empower people to be more locally self-sufficient or self-reliant in some way.
Ideally what I’d like to do is have the film series, the workshops; maybe even the potlucks blend with a (particular) theme. So for example in, say, December, we might show a movie about water rights. Then that month’s workshop would also be about water, for example ways of doing water filtration, so there is consistency in all the projects. That’s where we’re going. We’re not quite there yet.
Pat: This is a solid beginning. Tell me about the belief system that got it all started.
Josh: Why are we doing what we’re doing? There is a quote that resonates with me, something about “Don’t ask what you think the world needs, but do what makes you come alive, for that is what the world needs, more people who have come alive.” That really works for me. Cultivating community and sustainable relationships between people, ecology and economy really excites me. I get up early and stay up late, working and writing grants, but it’s not burdensome. Actually it’s almost like a spiritual practice in that I’m consistently trying to articulate my vision for a better world or a better future. That is very nourishing to my soul.
Pat: With the understanding that visions can grow and change, what is your vision?
Josh: My vision for the future would be a world that is environmentally sustainable, socially just, and also spiritually fulfilling, (in which) people have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Having that sense of purpose is one of the things that makes us more fully human.
That’s huge, that’s everything! There is another quote I like from David Korten’s The Great Turning. Some people think because he is trying to change everything he’s unrealistic. Korten suggests that maybe they aren’t really getting the point. The fact is everything is going to change, and he would like to play a role in crafting those changes. That makes sense to me. The science is out, our current lifestyle is unsustainable. This ever-expanding accumulation of more and more goods physically cannot last. So things are going to change. Being a part of crafting the change is exciting!
Another huge influence came from a realization I had traveling with my parents when I was in high school, going to different parts of the world for their business and from my education in college. I learned my context as a white male in the United States. I learned the privilege that comes with that context, the historical baggage, and the dark history. We built up this privilege on the backs of slaves and exploiting, raping and pillaging the land. Being in this point of privilege, I feel absolutely obligated to dedicate my life to restoring more wholesome relationships. There’s a sense of obligation that came from that realization.
Pat: Where did you go to college?
Josh: Wheaton in Norton, Massachusetts. It was there that I decided to design my own independent major called “global sustainability.” It really made sense to me, even then, that sustainability wasn’t about just environmental science, environmental policy, or politics, or even just culture, but it was about the relationships between these things. I really had started to look at things in terms of systems or webs. So I wanted an integral approach to sustainability. That was the basis for my applying to do an independent major. It included a semester at Naropa Institute in Boulder because it was important to include a spiritual or contemplative element in the major and that wasn’t really offered at Wheaton.
So I did do that. It was an incredible experience. I did the Shambhala practicum. I began to explore the idea of engaged Buddhism. Some say Buddhism has always been engaged. I think that’s true to a degree, but (I was exploring) the idea of weaving one’s spiritual practice into one’s activism and not having them be separate. That’s one of the things that keeps me from getting burned out.
Pat: Josh, as you’ve been working with this process and G.A.L.A. for the past couple of years, what have you found have been your most useful tools?
Josh: Food! People love to come together around food. The potlucks have been great. Historically it’s such a common thing. It’s been so central to communities for so long to come together around food. And writing, learning to be an effective writer, articulating a vision clearly so that it’s meaningful to people. Another tool would be the Internet; the web site (www.galacommunity.org) and e-mail have allowed me to communicate easily with people.
The Internet is an amazing tool. We are at a time, for the first time in human history, when we are confronted with a challenge that demands collective global action, and the Internet has emerged as a tool that can make this possible. The Internet has made it possible to expose injustice more (quickly and easily) than ever before, and disparities of wealth and poverty. It’s quick. Like any tool it can get abused, and it does. But it can open doors, and we need this.
Pat: In closing, is there anything in particular you’d like to add to what we’ve talked about?
Josh: I do want to get back to that first quote about doing what makes you come alive (because that is what the world needs). There is another very literal sense of that quote I’ve been toying with. It has a bit of evolutionary flavor. I’m reading a book called Animate Earth by Stephan Harding. It has to do with the idea we are the earth, very literally. We are made up of many of the same types of atoms and particles. The way cells and atoms organize reflects the same webs and networks that we develop and are a part of in our communities. The way they relate to each other reflects a drive toward sustainability. It is a cell’s destiny to be sustainable and an ecosystem’s destiny to be sustainable. So our work is not as much imposing sustainability, as it is harmonizing with our surrounding’s natural tendency toward sustainability, so together we can live our fullest potential. There is so much intrinsic wisdom in nature that we can learn from. I think trying to align our actions with this natural evolutionary tendency toward sustainability is very literally what makes us come alive.
There is another saying, that in this work it is important to be humble because we are of the earth and noble because we are of the stars.
Pat: Thank you, Josh.
G.A.L.A.; www.galacommunity.org, Northwest Earth Institute; www.nwei.org, (503) 227-2807, www.millenniumassessment.org, Animate Earth, Science, Intuition and Gaia by Stephan Harding, The Great Turning, From Empire to Earth Community by David Korten, Limits to Growth, The 30-Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows
© Pat Foley 2007