Re-skilling and community building

By Christopher Peck

In previous newsletter articles I’ve made the case that excellent investment returns can be had by looking outside the limited scope of normal financial vehicles. Back in July and September 2008 I argued that new cargo transport bicycles, hyper-efficient chest refrigerators, and in-home power use monitors can save money, reduce carbon emissions, tone your legs, and generally make the world a better place. Lately I’ve been turning my investment advisor’s analytical eye even closer to home, at those investments that we can (and do) make of time and attention devoted to personal skills and community building. And I’m back to report on a couple of these ideas that I think have special return characteristics and benefits to our readers. 

Image Cx Transition bookWEBWhat does it mean to apply the investment advisor’s analytical eye to close-to-home investment possibilities? For one, it means doing the math: how much does it cost, either in time or cash, and what does it return, in money, or food, or an intangible value like goodwill or peace of mind. I’m regularly scanning for activities that require small investment but provide a big return; we call this “bang for the buck” in the investment world. We’re also always asking: what about risk? Could the investment go bad or be a waste of time, and if so, how bad would that be? Are there any obvious problems to be on the look out for? With this perspective fully intact I’d like to report on a few notable ReSkilling and Community Building strategies. 

Reskilling is an interesting term; in the corporate world it refers to training unemployed workers with new skills, equipping them with the ability to step up into a different line of work, from steel worker to computerized production line worker, for example. It appears that the sustainability world has co-opted the term, adding an emphasis on a return to old skills, reclaiming what all people used to know. Folks in Santa Cruz, CA are defining it as: “remembering, reclaiming, and revivifying of skills that were known fifty to seventy-five years ago.” Reskilling imbues the community with the wealth of shared local knowledge of how to do, make, and tend things oneself. 

At my house and homestead we’ve been playing with a host of fun skill developments, including knitting, growing potatoes, and preserving food. If you haven’t tried making sauerkraut yet, I highly recommend it.

It’s a high ROI skill – it’s fun, doesn’t cost much, and has added benefits like improved health and strengthening family bonds. And if you’ve been paying $8.50 for a small jar of crushed cabbage and salt, you realize this skill can save you money. 

For the stout hearted, the technique that’s actually saved me the most cold, hard cash: supplanting the trades in our kitchen remodel project. We installed gas and water lines ourselves (easy), and even did all of the permitted electrical work (precise but doable). If you have some DIY leanings, and perhaps a handy father, uncle, or friend, I heartily recommend it. Spending a combined 50 hours, we saved almost $10,000 in cash and gained a huge sense of empowerment. 

Community building, done right, is another area where a small investment of time and attention can pay big immediate benefits in well-being and peace of mind, and possible longer-term benefits of resilience in challenging times. I’ll profile three interesting programs already in place that you could join or replicate in your community: Transition Town, Community Emergency Response Teams (known as CERT), and the Sunset One Block Food Challenge. 

Transition is a permaculture inspired movement that originated in the UK and jumped the pond several years ago. According to the Transition US website, Transition is “comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis.” There are more than 117 official Transition Town initiatives in the United States, in 32 states, with more than 480 initiatives worldwide. In a fun loop within a loop, the one of the twelve Ingredients for Success identified by Transition US is “Facilitate the Great Reskilling.” Just this week I ran across a related network, Resilience Circles, that facilitates “mutual aid” groups of 10-20 people in local communities around the country. 

From a slightly different perspective, the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program “educates people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations.” Working primarily with existing fire departments and search and rescue teams, CERT members can assist in neighborhood or workplace emergency events. You might wonder why I think the return on investment for this strategy is high. In the recent Mexico City earthquake untrained, spontaneous volunteers saved more than 800 people, but 100 people lost their own lives trying to save others. That’s too great a cost, and training can make a big difference.  

There are currently over 1100 communities that have listed their program on CERT, and with funding from Congress (provided through the Citizen Corps program), the dollar cost is low, and the return in peace of mind, community resiliency, and all around well-being is high. 

CERT and Transition Town initiatives seem like a natural collaboration, a great way to bridge political and cultural gaps, and a way to bring the fire and emergency response community into closer contact with folks concerned about climate change. 

Not to end on too somber a note, one more fun and fascinating community collaborative effort that seems to have a big bang for the buck is Sunset Magazine’s “One Block Feast” contest, which brought together neighbors to create a meal all grown, harvested and prepared within one block. Check it out – what fun! 

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Christopher Peck

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