Who lives around me? What makes them amazing? How could knowing that be useful?
This is what I'll be exploring in a new series of blogs called “Amazing Neighbors.” My first interview is with someone I’ve admired since we first talked years ago: Don Hall, founder and Executive Director of Transition Sarasota, who lives about five blocks from my house off the edge of beautiful Gillespie Park.
Don is a friendly guy about my age with bright blue eyes, sandy hair, and a wide smile. We met several years ago when he called me at my former job at SCOPE to share his idea for a local organization based upon a model known internationally as Transition. “Transition Sarasota” would build local resilience and sustainable, community-based solutions to issues such as peak oil and climate change. Don’s clarity of vision and story of successes in his previous work in Colorado impressed me deeply.
Since then, I’ve watched his vision blossom into a vibrant hub of local energy and on-the-ground innovation. It’s brought local people and resources together in focused action, producing things like the Suncoast Gleaning Project, Eat Local Guide, and the Common Wealth Time Bank, a local barter system which will launch publicly at Transition’s Economics of Happiness Summit next Monday.
It has often struck me how silly it is that Don and I never see each other, since our work and passions are so closely aligned, and our houses so nearby.
So last Saturday I decided to end that silliness and walked the five scenic blocks over to Don’s house to interview him as my first “Amazing Neighbor.” It was a fine excuse to have that conversation I’ve been wanting to have and to answer a question I realized had bugged me for a while: Who is Don Hall, as a person---beyond what I already know about him as the hardworking, articulate, unstoppable leader of Transition Sarasota?
I learned a ton---about Transition, Don and our common interests.We both love writing, literature, music, cooking and this neighborhood. Something else hit me too: the fact that this “do-good” activity of getting to know my neighbors is not just fun and interesting---it also helps me achieve my own goals by connecting me with immensely valuable resources and opportunities that I can use.
So without further adieu, I give you "Don the Unstoppable," my amazing neighbor:
* * *
April: Where are you from?
Don: I'm originally from Massachusetts--Wellesley, a suburb just west of Boston.
I grew up there ‘til I was 14, then went away to prep school in Southborough, Massachusetts. Then I came down here and went to the Out-of-Door Academy. I went to NYU for college, [majoring in] American Literature with minors in Creative Writing and Education. I was going to be a writer with teaching literature as a fall-back. When I graduated, I totally took a right turn and worked with Outward Bound, working with at-risk and adjudicated youth in Florida, taking trips into Georgia and South Carolina. Eventually, I quit doing that and I came back here to Sarasota.
During that time, I was also volunteering for the Sarasota Network for Climate Action (SNCA). At NYU, I ran Students for a Free Tibet in the university. Working for SNCA was a continuation of that and stoked my passion to get back into action, particularly around climate change. So, I applied to Naropa University and did a master's in Environmental Leadership.
Instead of a thesis, we had an applied leadership project. I worked with a local organization called Boulder County Going Local which was right at the point of affiliating themselves with Transition. In 2008, they became the first official Transition Initiative in North America. My position grew to be managing the great re-skilling program which was DIY workshops, and also being a liaison with the Initiative Leader around the state of Colorado.
What I really wanted to be was a Transition trainer, which I am now, who goes out to different communities throughout the country and teaches them how to do [Transition]. But I knew without actively doing this and building something from the ground up, I couldn't teach it.
Right around that time (2009), I had come to visit my mom and had a few meetings with people. I had put some money away and it was enough for a car and start-up funds for Transition. So, I made my move. In April, I decided I needed to go full-time if I was going to make this work. I had to do all my own fundraising. It was difficult for a while... I blew all of my own savings.
What is Transition about?
It is about building a more resilient and self-reliant local community at its core.
The key areas we focus on are local food, which is producing more of our own food locally; local economy, which is about circulating wealth more within local community [and] being more self-reliant in our economics; local energy; and local community. It comes from the recognition that, over the course of the industrial revolution, we've moved in an unprecedented way toward the global, these very long and complex supply chains. And it's made possible because of cheap oil---and, as oil peaks, we'll have to provision for alternative ways of getting energy. Or, it will make more economic sense to do so, and so we want to get ahead of the curve.
A lot of it is about low-tech solutions that people can do, that they can implement in their community now and not have to wait for local government. One example is the Gleaning Project. We donated over 75,000 pounds [of food] over two seasons. The Time Bank is another example.
It could also be bulk purchasing, car-sharing clubs, painting roofs white, etcetera. And then “Local Community” goes to building leadership in the community, getting people to realize what their real power is in terms of shaping the future.
What was it that drew you to step into action after studying for something so different like Literature and Education?
When I did Students for Free Tibet, it was about giving back. I felt I had been given so much. I was born into a middle-upper class family. I felt had to do something that wasn't just for myself. With environmental action, it was really learning about climate change. I realized “Wow, this is really one of the biggest issues on the planet and people are not talking about it much these days.”
I also did the political organizing and didn't feel that it was getting anywhere. In New York and London, I went to a lot of protests and got my fair share of tear-gas. It just didn't seem to change anything and it didn't feel authentic to me in any way.
With Transition, when I stumbled onto it, it was like, “Of course! This is it!” I had a "eureka" moment, and it feels like what I'm called to do, like where I feel I'm meant to be for whatever reason.
What's it been like to do this in Sarasota?
I like the size of Sarasota. It's not a small town but it's also not a big city like New York or even Boulder. The public officials, media and even business owners are more accessible. It’s easier to build a real sense of community here.
What's kept you in the game?
That this is where I feel I'm supposed to be. And I trust that feeling. That's primarily it.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing things actually making a difference, hearing stories from people about how this might have transformed their lives, but also the creative process. There's probably a link between my literature studies at NYU and this, that there's a real creative process here. My sensibility is that of an artist, maybe more than a community organizer, which may be one of my weaknesses in the job that I'm doing.
What are your gifts? What are you good at?
I understand the large-scale trends that are shaping our world now and will continue to shape our world for decades to come. I have done a lot of reading and research and talking to people about this stuff, and have tested these theories to see if they hold water and a lot of it is predictive.
I can share that vision in a way that isn't being conveyed in the mainstream media on both sides of the coin, for the most part.
I also play guitar---I’m not all that good. I play with a few fellow farmers. I garden, I like to ride my bike. I like to drink good beer. I like to cook.
How do you like this neighborhood?
I like it a lot. I think it's one of the more diverse neighborhoods in Sarasota. It’s affordable. It’s also kind of a little bit more funky than other neighborhoods---not all the houses look the same. There's actually kids playing out in the street. Nobody has a problem with me gardening in the front yard. The park is beautiful, fantastic---a real hidden gem of Sarasota. I also have great neighbors: Chris and Christine Alexander.
Can you tell me about the Economics of Happiness event you have coming up on Labor Day?
This is our first look at how we as a collective, as a community, could transform our local economy. There don't seem to be a lot of ideas on the table, just more of the same: “Let's bring in Walmart,” “Let’s try to get Jackson Labs here”---and these don't seem to be things that are helping the community. We are still higher than the national average in unemployment.
We’ll be talking about this and will show a film called The Economics of Happiness, which kind of explains the predicament right now and some of the most promising solutions, and then will have a discussion about what we might do here---how we might apply those ideas here in Sarasota---and will offer the Time Bank as something people can get involved in immediately to start changing.
There will be live music, a potluck---people can come at any time.
Come check it out. If this is something that you're really into, it's a place to connect with like-minded people who want to get started. If you're not really into this but might be curious about what other ideas are out there, just come with an open mind and take what you will.
* * *
Do you have amazing neighbors? How could knowing them, or knowing them better, add to your life?
What do you think about the Transition concept?
* * *
FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
Monday, Sept. 3, 1:00-7:00 pm
Fogartyville Community Media & Arts Center
525 Kumquat Ct., Sarasota FL
Transition Sarasota - www.transitionsarasota.org
Common Wealth Time Bank - www.manasota.timebanks.org