How Transition Palo Alto Brings Sharing and Community to Silicon Valley

Transition Palo Alto is part of the worldwide Transition network working to build local resilience and connections. Based in Silicon Valley, the community is a great example of a growing, engaged and active Transition project.

With a focus on “bringing people together to build a more sane and sustainable world,” Transition Palo Alto hosts hundreds of events and get-togethers every year, including film series, garden shares, book discussion groups, reskilling and skillshare events, guest speakers and panels, craft groups, classes and Share Faires.

Shareable connected with Peter Ruddock from the Transition Palo Alto steering committee to talk about what makes a successful Transition group, how the groups hosts so many events, and how sharing is at the heart of their community. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Shareable: For people who may not be familiar with the Transition movement, how do you describe it?

Peter Ruddock: Transition is a worldwide movement that comes out of concerns about climate change but addresses that by the lens of the local economy by saying, if we can relocalize, then, among other things, we need a lot less fossil fuel than we’re currently using, which isn’t the only solution but it’s a big part of the solution. We believe that relocalizing has a lot of other benefits by making the communities stronger and more resilient in any number of other ways.

Transition Palo Alto hosts 200 events every year, including six Share Faires

What’s the big picture focus for Transition Palo Alto and what does that look like on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?

We create opportunities to connect. Transition Palo Alto hosts approximately 200 opportunities to connect every year—four a week, every week. I talk to other people who have events as part of their activities, and their eyes just bug out that we do four a week, but many of the events are small and regular.

When people think of events—putting 100 or 150 people together—now that takes work, and often money because you need permits or structure. A lot of our events give 10 people a chance to come together. They’re strengthening and building that community fire.

When we have our bigger, public events, such as our film and lecture series and our Share Faires that attract 100 or more people, those do take energy and they aren’t as regular. We do 18 of those per year. Our Share Faires are bimonthly and our film and lecture series is monthly.

Some of the events are inward facing. The ones that are 10-12 people are mostly, if not entirely, already Transition community members. Some are outward facing, where we aim for 50-100 people attending… [T]hese are geared at bringing new people into the community. Even if you get 50 people, 40 of them are going to already know each other, so there is a strengthening of the community, but the intention of having the outward face, and welcoming in new people, is really important.

Many of the Transition Palo Alto events are small gatherings to bring people together to share skills and ideas.

Transition Palo Alto is held up as a successful Transition project. What do you think contributes to your success and how would you advise other Transition projects that may be struggling to get traction or sustain their momentum?

There are two things that happen. One is building your core team that likes and trusts each other. Eat together. Have your meetings start with a potluck. Start getting to know each other

Second is to build a core community of people. There are always people who are going to do a little more work, who are a little more bought in. Get them to form a strong community and like each other, share food, and talk general before they talk business.

Working with Slow Food, I’ve seen a couple of chapters do that well, and others who don’t. It seems that the ones who are willing to put in that extra time to eat together and get to know each other form better communities. When they get down to the nuts and bolts of, how do we work on a project, how do we throw an event, how do we make a newsletter, there’s already that background trust.

When you’re doing something, I believe in consistency, continuity, regularity. Something may not work. You can’t beat a dead horse forever. You may have to say, this isn’t working, but things take time to get off the ground.

I know one person in Transition who will say, I’m going to run one, two, or three series of events and see if people like it and it will either live or it won’t. She’s a serial starter and most things she’s started don’t exist. There’s no leader, she hasn’t cultivated it for the long-term and created the crowd.

When you’re looking at a project you have to say, I want somebody bought-in to see that this is indefinite and that when they have to bow out, there’s going to be a team and another leader. You have to think in the long term. Unless you get definite feedback that no one is interested in it, give it a number of shots and work through whatever it takes to get the crowd there.

Our first garden shares in 2010, some of them only attracted three or four people. Now, each of the four of them all have 65 or 70 people on the mailing list, even though only 10 or 12 will show up at a time. It took months to build the first one up and to show the concept, but the second, third and fourth ones popped up because people came into Palo Alto and said, I want this, and I can do it closer to home.

Transition Palo Alto encourages community members to share their skills with each other

How large and engaged is the community around Transition Palo Alto?

It’s very engaged. We have quite a number of regulars who show up and who volunteer. We try to do one-off work projects, especially with some of our local farm and garden projects and usually 10 or 12 show up for those.

We have 400 people on our mailing list. We’ve had a couple of very large events for the film series and share fairs, where we’re attracting people outside of our mailing list.

I think concentric rings describes a lot of things very well. From the core group of people, to the mailing list, to the larger community who at least knows we’re there and shows up periodically, it’s pretty robust.

The city of Palo Alto has reached out to us in a number of ways, and the Zero Waste office is a good friend of ours and sponsors of our Share Faires. We’re proud of our partnerships with the city and with other nonprofits. We don’t have to bring them under our umbrella. They know we’re there and we can work together periodically.

I understand you have a sharing committee. Please tell me more about that.

There is a sharing committee, but I don’t think it needs to exist to make the other events have sharing as an aspect to them. Even for a movie, there are a few people who walk out as soon as it stops, but most people come to share the conversation. People tend to bring food to share and to bring other things to share.

The sharing committee gets together to talk about the events that are more explicitly dedicated to sharing, like our Share Faires, which are a combination of goods and skills. The group brainstorms variations on the theme, but it also has to work through the nuts and bolts of the event.

Venues can be challenging. We’d like to do more one-skill, in-depth skillshares. If you do them in a private house, you’re doing that inward-facing community-building, but getting a room for two hours for one skill can be a challenge.

We run on donations and explicit sharing events tend to have no admission [fee], they just have a donation bowl. The Share Faire gets a little bit subsidized. That and the donation bowl pay for the room, but the one-off events don’t seem to break even. We aren’t an official organization with a big budget, but even a small community group has to pass money through it, especially regarding venues.

"Sharing is an attitude...When you have a piece of information, you think about who else might want it." —Peter Ruddock

Are there things people can do to encourage more sharing within their Transition community?

There are a couple of ways to look at sharing. One is an attitude and it’s very informal. Rather than throw something out, you think about how your community can reuse it. When you have a piece of information, you think about who else might want it.

There’s a more formal aspect of it that often includes the internet or a structure like a seed library. As we’ve seen with Uber and the like, that tends to be abused—it becomes one-dimensional with sharing the resource, but somebody capturing, and not sharing, the profit.

Here we are, Transition Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, but our folks aren’t really interested in technology. We are interested in the seed libraries and tool libraries, but that’s sort of a lower tech formal sharing.

We’re not doing a lot of that sharing because we don’t have the people who want to do the formality. Maybe it’s a matter of time before they’ll show up and we’ll have people who might want to use the technology to do more of that formal sharing.

We’re pushing for seed libraries. We were one of the first to endorse the State Assembly bill 1810 which protects seed exchanges and seed libraries by defining them as a separate activity. We are hoping for the city of Palo Alto to kick off a seed library and offered to be a sponsor and help with that. That’s the extent of our formal sharing so far.

What are some of the most exciting projects Transition Palo Alto is working on and what are some of the challenges?

To start off with the challenges: As you grow to the level we’ve gotten to, it is the organization. While there are some things that will run autonomously, there does need to be quite a bit of coordination. We have a newsletter now, but it took a while. We need that infrastructure and getting volunteers to step forward to do organization and coordination is tough for any group. A lot of people would rather put their hands in the dirt in the garden.

We’ve gotten to the point where we need that second tier volunteer, the volunteer who coordinates the other volunteers. That’s always a tough position to get, but if you don’t have that, you plateau at what you can manage informally. That’s where we are, that’s what we’re working through, and we’re thinking about maybe creating more formality or structure, but we don’t want to be too formal. Here we are at 400 subscribers. When we get to 4,000, there’s another plateau. I don’t want to think about that yet.

The things that excite us: the fact that we have so many regular, excited attendees that we can run as many events as we want; and that we have a community that we can ask for things. To set up the garden for sheet mulching, I sent out an email that said, we have so much cardboard that we need a truck. Ten minutes later, I got a response from someone who could do it. That kind of response, the level of community, that fact that people want to buy in and can show up is exciting.

Sharing is a natural part of Transition Palo Alto.

You’ve been doing this since 2010. What kind of impact has Transition Palo Alto had in the community?

It’s mostly anecdotal. When you get to the 4,000 person level and you need formality, that puts you in grant writing, and grant writing requires you to collect stats.

We don’t collect statistics, in part because of the way we do things. At the sharing events, you put it on a table and people talk to each other. We don’t have stats but we direct thousands of pounds of food and stuff from the landfill.

We’ve got the attitude that people can and should learn from each other and that everybody has something to teach. In a number of ways, from the leaders of the small regular events, to the skillshare teachers, we’re building up those skills, which is a lot of what resilience is—to get people to consider being part of a community instead of going out and buying a service.

People start to think, can somebody do this for me? I don’t have to go to a formal business, especially a big box store, because maybe my neighbor can do it and I get the added benefit of strengthening the community. I see attitudes change and I see people who are not in the core group come to something and say, "You’re making me think about this community attitude, even if I’m not participating a lot."

How would you advise people who are interested in starting a Transition community in their town?

You need a base of local people. You do need a core of people who are willing to meet and think through the issues and invite everybody else in. If you don’t have it, maybe what you do is you start a project, and it doesn’t have to be part of the bigger Transition or Slow Food or Slow Money movement.

Celebrate that. Do the one thing, whatever you can do, that is aligned with the movement. Maybe the people who show up will say, we want to do a variety of different things, and then you will.

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Photos: Peter Ruddock. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

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