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LETTER: Speaking up for sustainability

To the Mayor and Councillors:

I am extremely disappointed to learn of the recommended cuts to the Sustainability Commission, and strongly urge you to revise your budget plans for 2013.

The Sustainability Commission is the hub of several community groups in Rossland, and is integral to the vision so many of us have of Rossland as a community leading the way in innovation and environmental stewardship.

I’d like to address Councillor Blomme’s statement that “volunteerism is a dying culture” in Rossland by sharing with you the story of Greener Footprints successes (and my own failures) with regards to volunteerism.

As many of you may remember, I started Greener Footprints in 2007 to reduce plastic bag use in Rossland.

Following my initial proposal that Rossland should become the first plastic bag free town in Canada, the local and national media attention that this proposal garnered meant that my humble idea all of a sudden grew out of control. Nearly overnight, it seemed, I was managing over a hundred volunteers in Rossland, as we worked to create an Earth Day event; engage the community through presentations and surveys; forge partnerships between government, local businesses, the community, and schools; create education materials (posters, handouts etc.); field media enquiries; source sponsorship; and deliver a free reusable bag to every home in Rossland.

I was blown away by the response and eagerness of Rosslanders to get involved, and incredibly fortunate that several of the volunteers were so very skilled at organizing and managing large numbers of volunteers. I had never done anything like this before, and was very obviously in over my head. That said, I was also incredibly excited about the possibility of doing something good, and I’ve always loved a challenge.

In a very short space of time I was working with volunteers from 16 communities across BC and Alberta. Things grew exponentially, and I was struggling to find enough time in the day to work and manage the hundreds of emails and phone calls I received every week. So I quit my job: I was fortunate to have enough savings to allow me to do that, and my partner agreed to help support me for a while as well.

This was my big mistake.

For the first year (2007), I worked away happily, despite dealing with serious health issues caused in part by this new volunteer role I had taken on. I didn’t want to get paid, happy in the thought that I was making a difference in this world. That was enough for me.

In the second year (2008), as our savings started to run out, I recognized that this wasn’t sustainable, and that it was okay to get paid for what I was doing. I started searching for funding, and trying to figure out how I could get paid. Unfortunately many of the communities that were ever so keen to work with me wanted me to work for free.

In the third year (2009), with very minimal funding (<6K), I ran the same bag reduction campaign in Squamish, working with 50+ local retailers and businesses; presenting to 30+ classrooms and community groups; delivering a free reusable bag to over 7000 homes; and coordinating over 200 volunteers. In just the two weeks leading up to the launch, I worked 187 hours. That’s over a month’s worth of full-time work, in two weeks. In total I worked 550 just on the Squamish campaign earning a little over $10 an hour, not to mention the 608 hours I worked for free coordinating continuing campaigns in Rossland, Trail, Nelson, Revelstoke, and other towns, searching for funding, answering email enquiries, coordinating the society, creating a volunteer package, updating the website, plus research, travel, admin, and responding to media enquiries.

I burned out. Volunteers burn out. This is a very simple truth - there are limits to volunteerism.

I couldn’t work for 6 months as I struggled with severe depression, something that I learned is common to volunteers. In 2010, I started accepting small contracts with the University of Maryland again, where I’ve been working since 2002 to communicate science to the government, managers, stakeholders, and the general public using my unique background as a scientist and graphic designer. Three years later I’m working full-time again, but it’s been quite a journey to get to the point where I was healthy enough to do so.

People often ask me what happened to Greener Footprints, and bemoan the fact that we’re not doing anything in Rossland at the moment, or that the number of plastic bags being used at Ferraro’s has visibly increased. Well, now you know why. There’s only so much that can be done without a paid manager to keep everything running smoothly, and one that is adequately compensated for their time and skillset.

Greener Footprints has had a huge number of successes, and I can honestly say that Rossland helped to kickstart the grassroots movement to reduce plastic bag use across Canada. How’s that for visionary?

Would I do it all again? Yes, but I would do it differently, and I would search for funding to pay myself from the beginning.

Rossland can be a leader in innovation and sustainability. The world is changing rapidly, and it’s exciting to see what Rossland and the Sustainability Commission is doing to reduce our energy footprint, and guide the town towards a sustainable future while proving an example and an inspiration to other communities.

Is this likely to continue if city staff take over the multiple roles of the current SC manager? Based on the reluctance of the Mayor to allow staff to be questioned on their availability to take over the role of the SC manager, it seems safe to assume that city staff DON’T have the time necessary to fulfill this role.

Please reconsider your recommendations to cut funding to the Sustainability Commission. Have a little vision for our future, instead of our past.

Sincerely,

Tracey Saxby
Co-Founder
Greener Footprints Society
W: www.greenerfootprints.com