This school is creating a more beautiful world, one relationship at a time
Meet the man behind Transition Lab, which Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and Beyond Civilization, called "an enterprise of brilliant design that promises to achieve remarkable results on a wide front."
While many organizations, companies, and individuals are focused on developing new technologies to help address climate change, such as cleaner power or higher energy efficiencies or reduced waste in our systems, a much smaller contingent of people are working to make positive changes in the world at a more fundamental level - their own lives, and the lives of those they interact with.
One of those people is Russell Evans, founder of Transition Lab, an innovative school in Montrose, CO, that focuses on teaching skills across five core areas: local food, affordable housing, entrepreneurship, community, and knowledge of self. Transition Lab was selected as both the judges and popular choice winner for "Best Local Solution" for addressing climate change in the 2013 MIT Climate CoLab competition, as a "replicable grassroots education teaching the skills and mindset for local resilience, powered by new and viable economic models."
"Transition Lab is a school that teaches people to meet their basic needs through relationship. Our students learn how to grow their own food, create affordable housing, develop small businesses, and live in community. The result is a living Laboratory where graduates are empowered to discover what they love, develop their gifts, and Transition our future for the better. Transition Lab is an opportunity to make fundamentally different choices in our lives so that we can create the more beautiful world that we've dreamed of."
I'm always intrigued by projects such as this, which are working from the ground up to create sustainable change instead of trying to find new ways of reverse engineering sustainability into the status quo, so I reached out to Russell and asked him some questions about Transition Lab. I originally thought of his program as being a gap year type of endeavor, an interesting learning experience for those who were between schools or jobs (which it kind of is, or could be for some), but after hearing Russell's insightful answers, I can see now how Daniel Quinn would say that Transition Lab is "something rare and unique" that gives him hope for the future.
Q: What was it that drove you to create Transition Lab? Was there a specific 'aha' moment for you?
Russell Evans: There were a couple moments that led to Transition Lab's birth. The first was when my friend Evan was trying to make a living as an organic chef and gardener, but couldn't find work that paid well enough to meet his basic needs. Meanwhile my wife and I wanted to build a permaculture garden but didn't have the time because we were working to pay off our own debt. The three of us came up with a simple solution: We would exchange rent in our home if Evan would garden and cook for us. 7 months later, Evan had converted 3000 square feet of lawn into garden and got to cook meals the way he loved. We got an incredible garden without having to pay for it, while Evan saved over $4000 to pay off debt.
Around the same time, I had been deeply involved with 350.org and got to sit down with Bill McKibben for an hour to talk about the future of the movement. He was saying how we need to "Build a movement big enough to address the climate crisis" and I agreed. However, my point was unless we create an economic model that supports people in this movement, then the movement will never be powerful enough. From that moment, it was clear that developing this model was the missing piece.
From that point, I've been working to teach people how to have relationships like I had with Evan. We addressed so many of the problems we face at once and I saw it as a vehicle for building a more beautiful world. Our model lowered everybody's debt, built relationship, nurtured local resilience, and essentially put in motion all the projects that every household should be doing right now to avert the worst of climate change.
My conversation with Bill was back in 2010, and while I'm proud of what has been accomplished with the People's Climate March, arrests at the White House, and delays in the KXL pipeline, the truth is we haven't managed to slow down emissions, much less change our fundamental lifestyle.
That's what makes Transition Lab so radical: Instead of just coming up with creative ways of organizing, we have been able to give people fundamentally different choices about what kind of life they want to live. In the design of our current economic system, we compete in the global economy just to survive, and if we have extra time or energy, we might be able to contribute what we have left over to a non-profit like 350.org. But in this model we will never win because at it's core there is still a dependency on participating in the anthropocene just to make money. The game is rigged.
Conversely, if we create ways to meet all of our basic needs through relationship, then we intrinsically end up collaborating with our neighbors because relationship is the one thing that you can never outsource in the global economy. Each graduate and student we've had exchanges rent in vacant guest bedrooms for 10-15 hours of work on projects like building community gardens, or working to change things politically. This way they do what they love to meet their basic needs while drastically reducing their dependence on the global economy (some down to $50 a month). Plus, each one cuts their carbon footprint in half because they are sharing resources while building the kind of grassroots resilience that our future so desperately needs.
For us, it's a no brainer. Would we rather compete in the global economy, so that we could give a fraction of our earnings to non-profits, who will organize groups of us to commit a sliver of our time to an tiny event to try to save the world? Or would we rather work in relationship to get 100's of times more work done right now?
I hope I'm not being redundant, but most people who hear about Transition Lab don't understand this difference. There are now 1.5 million non-profits in the U.S. and each time one of these groups wants to double the size of their eco-village, or raise more awareness, they need to first acquire twice as much money, staff, and resources. There simply are not the resources for this. At Transition Lab, since our model is designed to use existing resources like guest bedrooms to power the movement, the number of people offering to host students keeps growing because these are resources which are renewable, easily offered, and essentially unlimited. Sure, we still use cash to pay for our phone bills and the internet, but our primary economic driver is collaborative relationships.
Q: How did you come to enter the MIT Climate CoLab contest, and how has winning that influenced your work going forward, if at all?
RE: The MIT contest was an adventure for all sorts of reasons. We heard about it through the TransitionUS.org website, and thought, "Wow, MIT is going to crowdsource out-of-the-box grassroots ideas for addressing climate change, and give the winner $10,000. Let's go for it."
The good news was that we won both the judges and popular choice award for "Best Local Solution" which is a huge honor and lent us a lot of credibility. At the same time, when we presented at MIT, we were surprised by how much the CoLab still adhered to the status quo. Most of the other winning proposals focused on new kinds of technologies. As soon as we started talking about how our model could change our economic and political system, the judges eyes glazed over. They ended up giving the grand prize to a group that already had a budget of $4 million a year, which flies planes with infrared sensors over houses and then tells those homeowners that they could use more insulation. It may reduce some emissions, but we were really disappointed.
It was funny to go to one of the most prestigious and progressive college in the U.S. when it comes to innovation, and realize that their support of truly out of the box thinking was limited. In a way it was also freeing because it was just another affirmation that if anything is going to change, we will have to do it ourselves.
Q: Who is your ideal applicant?
RE: We are looking for people of all types and any age who want to build a more beautiful world. There are only three requirements to get involved with Transition Lab. First, you have to be totally disillusioned with the direction of our culture but, second, you also still have to believe that you can make a difference. Finally, our students need to be courageous people with an incredible amount of integrity.
We've learned that the last part is the most essential because our curriculum creates the conditions where in the words of King, we are "Judged by the content of our character." Think about it: If we are meeting all our needs through collaborative relationship, then those who succeed are the ones with solid character. Charm, money, and other forms of entitlement just crumble when the garlic field needs to be weeded or the dishes need to be washed. When we can no longer use money to buy ourselves privilege, or run away to Burning Man, we discover who we really are and what is in our hearts.
And that's the point. Change happens when we deliberately unearth who we truly are in all situations, in all our enlightenment and insanity. It is not surprising to see activists who are unable to ask one another to do the dishes without immense conflict, also demand things like carbon taxes unsuccessfully. We need to learn to skillfully ask for and create what we want in the world in all aspects of our lives.
I think that it's also important to mention that nearly half the students at Transition Lab have been diagnosed with serious mental illness like bi-polar disorder and depression either before or during their time with us. Those are huge obstacles, but the truth is that we are all damaged goods. These were people who were willing to work with both their gifts and challenges with a sense of openness and honesty- so we accepted them into the program. The gift is that when we practice looking at ourselves like this, we discover just how powerful and creative we are.
But all of that is the hard part. The best part is that everyday we have class, I am surrounded by some of the most courageous and creative people I have ever met. I'm also giving them a chance to develop their deepest gifts with an economic model that can empower these gifts indefinitely. That is an incredible opportunity and it makes all the hard work worth it.
Q: What has been your greatest success with Transition Lab so far?
The biggest successes at Transition Lab mirror the biggest challenges. Because everything is based on collaborative relationships, we have been able to accomplish all kinds of things that other groups could only dream of. We are completely integrated in one of the most conservative towns in the U.S., we have created affordable housing arrangements, turned several organic farms around, built permaculture gardens in people's yards, talked to Tea Party members about overturning the Citizen's United Decision, and paid for it all with a sliding scale of tuition fee and exchanges through our Timebank and the Gift Economy. One of our graduates is even getting paid now by Fraternities at Dartmouth to build edible permaculture landscapes in their lawns. We can only leverage this kind of change if we are living in and amongst members of a community.
A great example is our relationship with the local Rotary Club. Rotarians tend to be successful beneficiaries of the status-quo, and therefore have no reason to join an eco-village on the outskirts of town. However, we have housed our students with folks who are dentists and lawyers, built gardens in their yards, and every night there are conversations on how we are working to build a more beautiful world. Change happens when people from totally different backgrounds cook meals together and talk. Then those people tell their influential friends about their experience and it just spreads. It's far more effective than a once a month, (or year) awareness building campaign, or having a farm outside of town.
But with this blessing also comes a great challenge. It means if we do something well, everybody will hear about it. It also means that if a student fucks up, everybody will hear about it. So the effect of what we do sends much bigger ripples through the community than when a Wwoofer does something good or bad on a farm out in the country. Last year we had to expel a student from the program because they did not keep their word with their host. It was one of the most difficult things I have done because the level of reconciliation extended not just to our direct student body, but to everybody else in the community who was wondering what we were up to.
The other big obstacle is to convince people to spend money to attend our program. I don't think that this is so much our fault as it is the limitations of our economy. Many of the folks who would benefit the most from our program already own a lot of money in college debt so the last thing they want to do is go into more debt. We have raised a lot of money this winter for scholarships to address this. I think that as our reputation grows and there are more success stories, people will start coming to Transition Lab instead of attending college in the first place. I'd also like to see more folks of all ages to come to the program. We want a range of wisdom and experience in our student body.
Q: How would you describe what you do to someone considering attending Transition Lab?
RE: Transition Lab is the best way I can think of to leave the traditional economy behind in a way that is both practical and radical. We do what we love. We develop our gifts. We train in all the skills necessary to build a more resilient future. We get by in creative ways and participate in the global economy as much or as little as we want. It's like we've given ourselves the freedom to finally be creative humans. After graduation, our students have gone on to do whatever serves them most for the rest of their lives. In the case of Evan our first student, his primary goal was to get out of debt. Since he had all his needs meet with 15 hours a week, he earned money the rest of the week and nearly all that money when to getting debt free. Other students who already are debt free get to do what they want without ever having to worry about basic survival or moving back in with their parents. So they build tiny houses, start their own small businesses, or do whatever makes them happy.
What college used to be is a place that taught people skills to be successful so that they could do useful things for the rest of their lives. Now college has become a place that produces graduates who rarely use their degrees and because they are burdened by so much debt, never get to do what they love.
Transition Lab helps people reclaim the most important aspects of one's life. We discover what we are passionate about and how to make it all work.
Q: What's your vision for the near future for Transition Lab? How about the long term?
I would really love to replicate nationally as soon as possible, but have also realized that it takes a really special person to hold something like Transition Lab together. We'll see how and when that actually happens because it depends on what kinds of students we get. One of our graduates wanted to replicate the program in Salt Lake City but after co-teaching with me last year, he realized that taking on that level of responsibility was too much for him. Now he is starting a permaculture business. To me that's still a success story because we want people to do not only what they love but what they are good at. Something so intimately personal as one's destiny needs to stay in their hands. My job is just to facilitate people getting there.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to bring their own vision to life, as you have with this program?
RE: I've thought a lot about vision recently and I think it comes down to listening to your heart. I know this sounds like a hallmark card, so here's what I mean when I describe that: Throughout my life there have been moments when I feel a deep longing to do certain things. I also feel that if I don't do them, I will be betraying my soul. For better or worse, this has lead me to attempt almost everything that I've dreamed of. Some of the time it works out, but what mostly happens is that I realize my longings and projected vision had nothing to do with reality and the situation changes. But that is the only process I know of where wisdom is born and where our paths in life are laid clear. True vision comes from that place because the ups and downs of our experience tear us apart and teach us what choices truly serve ourselves and the world. Then we find ourselves naturally walking into our highest selves.
So my advice is to not only feel the discomfort in one's heart, but to listen to it and follow it. It is there for a reason. And like all things in life, the only way we get better is to practice. After all, a path with heart is the only one worth walking in this precious life.