By Olivia Box, a member of 350VT’s Writing for Climate Justice group
I went to Building Ground because I had been feeling like I wasn’t doing enough—but I didn’t know what enough was.
Was it enough to cut down my plastic usage? To rely on my bike instead of a car?
I deeply believe individual actions matter, but in many ways, I wasn’t sure what the next steps were. I was flooded with bad news every day: from the devastating 12-year warnings on climate change to the International Panel on Climate Change to the floods in the Midwest and the lack of media coverage on minority communities that followed.
Tired from the semester and from reading news, I needed to re-energize. And that’s what I found at Building Ground. Building Ground is a 2-day leadership retreat organized by 350VT for climate justice activists.
The idea of “doing enough” was explored formally and informally throughout the weekend, where 14 activists based in Vermont gathered at Knoll Farm. Knoll Farm was the perfect setting for these conversations to begin. Sitting high in the Mad River Valley with “rich history on rich soil”, the farm has acted as a refuge for activists, writers, thinkers, and farmers. It felt like the area we were visiting was pre-seasoned with ideas, conversations, and deep work.
The most meaningful exercise for me was thinking about 350VT’s theory of change as a way to frame how we wanted to be activists – what were we already doing, and what did we want to do more of?
Co-facilitated by Sonia and Abby, the activity had us move around a circle tent, with stations representing 350VT’s theory of change:
Reform– working within the system; regaining just legislative power
Resist – resisting the system; protests, boycotts, strikes
Recreate – seeking and building solutions, alternatives, and transitions
Reimagine – reimagine the world we want, shifting consciousness
The first prompt was to place ourselves where we currently were doing the most work, and the second activity was to place ourselves where we wanted to be working.
This was my first introduction to this structure and a new way to think about action; the theory of change operates more like a recycle sign than a stagnant list. Each element cannot exist without the other.
I thought back to my introduction to activism, protesting pipeline extensions and unjust development near my hometown in eastern Massachusetts; The climate march in New York City and several Women’s Marches; Developing divestment plans and letters at my undergraduate institution. Before, I had seen so much of these actions as separate, but during Building Ground they felt more connected.
As we began the exercise, people moved around the tent. The theory of change was literally working all around me as my peers – people I hadn’t known at all before this weekend – put themselves into the areas they were acting most in and where they wanted to be.
It was like visibly seeing the work ongoing across Vermont. From the group at Middlebury who made divestment happen through resistance and reimagining, to hearing from several people’s experiences at Standing Rock, experiences of resistance and demands for reform. From those who participated in the Next Steps Climate walk, or the die-in in Brattleboro.
The list goes on and on, with some activists with over sixty years of activism and some who were just getting started.
Throughout the weekend, we kept coming back to the theory of change as we discussed campaign strategy, the story of self, and emergent strategy. I began to feel that activism is more of a process than anything else. Actions of resistance no longer felt separate for me.
Back in Burlington, my life has slipped back into busy-ness but this time in a better way. When I think about what was missing in my ideas of “doing enough,” it wasn’t individual action. What I was missing was building community. Working more together than alone to make big things happen, across the state of Vermont and beyond.
This summer, I’m excited for critical mass bike rides, for group projects in the writing for climate justice group, for upcoming actions. I’m excited to take the theory of change further, together.