Sustain-A-Raisers - Applying a Barn Raising Approach to Community Sustainability Projects
When Joshua Arnold was preparing to lead his community group, Global Awareness Local Action (G.A.L.A.), in restoring a grange hall to create a community space for Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, he learned about barn raising, an event in which an entire community gathers to help build one household’s barn. “I had heard about it before—it’s always been in my cultural memory—but as I read more, I really became fascinated by how barn raising built a way of life centered on reciprocity,” Arnold said.
“While barns were essential to rural living, they were physically impossible to erect alone.”
A SustainARaiser work party hosted as part of a 10/10/10 event
Traditionally, each community member would bring a unique skill or resource to the work of barn raising—such as expertise in nail making or wood joinery. Women supplied food and water and typically cooked a large communal meal each night to celebrate the work that was accomplished during the day. The work was a practical necessity as well as a social event.
A powerful symbol of the independence of farmers and their simultaneous interdependence within their communities, barn raising became Arnold’s inspiration for another G.A.L.A. community project. He decided to start Sustain-A-Raisers, a program that enlists volunteers, primarily high school students, to come together and help other community members erect sustainability setups like clothes lines, compost bins, and rain barrels.
Through its “work parties,” Sustain-A-Raisers is able to energize its volunteers and turn the completion of a task into a celebratory community event. “We really try to maintain the barn raising model’s spirit of celebration,” Arnold said.
[Left: a Sustain-A-Raisers clothesline work party]
“Even if we’re completing a small project with only 3 volunteers, we seek to celebrate what we can accomplish together, what we wouldn’t be able to accomplish alone. Everybody brings something to the table—it might be hot cider, a ladder, a skill or even just an energy.”
Arnold discovered the tradition of barn raising while he was researching the history of the old grange hall that G.A.L.A. was preparing to revitalize. In the early 1900s, the grange hall was where local farmers came together to discuss growing techniques or to pool their resources to purchase supplies in bulk. It had also been the venue for gatherings like town feasts and holiday pageants.
“It was a community building and a center of celebration,” said Arnold, who was reminded of the fact that while farmers may have valued their independence, they were actually highly interdependent. The group’s barn raising inspired culture is also a key component of Sustain-A-Raiser’s goal of changing common perceptions about sustainable living requiring too much work or being too costly. Because the projects are led and executed by youth in the community, people are beginning to see them as worthwhile and manageable.
“The response has been really positive so far,” Arnold said. “We customize a solution for each person, and we try to address any of the physical, financial, or convenience barriers that prevent people from adopting more sustainable living.”
In addition to delivering positive environmental and cost-saving benefits, Sustain-A-Raisers is strengthening the Wolfeboro and Ossipee communities by tapping into a critical cultural memory of positive interdependence. “A culture of reciprocity builds resilience in a community,” Arnold said.
“When each person is looking out for the other, tight threads are woven within the community, and we are all stronger as a result. Barn raising had this effect back then, and I think we are in a day and age when we need to build more resilient communities.
“Looking at the coming impact of things like climate change, the economic crisis, and the energy crisis, we want to be able to weather these challenges, to adapt, and to thrive through them.” Sustain-A-Raisers was recently recognized as one of the winning entries of the Changemakers and CommunityMatters Strong Communities competition. Arnold attended the CommunityMatters ’10 conference in Denver, CO where he met with eight other competition finalists.
“It was a wonderful and enriching experience,” Arnold said. “We all had similar goals but very different approaches. There was a lot of cross-pollination that took place.” After meeting with another Strong Communities competition finalist, Gulfsouth Youth Biodiesel, a youth-led enterprise in New Orleans that reclaims used cooking oil for conversion into biofuel, Arnold became inspired to convert one of Sustain-A-Raiser’s work trucks into one that ran on waste vegetable oil.
“I’m just grateful that the Changemakers competitions are available,” Arnold said. “I see a lot of power in storytelling and in people sharing their solutions and ideas. Changemakers creates a vehicle to do that.”
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