As part of my #LocalYear life experiment, I got trained as a Cool Block leader in early February and started an official neighborhood group later that month. Cool Block is a community organizing program that brings neighbors together to make their neighborhood more safe, resilient, healthy, and climate-friendly.
September 30th marked the eighth and final meeting of the formal program. We met roughly once a month to report on our completed activities, troubleshoot challenges, and plan our next actions following the eight themed meetings of the Cool Block program.
And the results are in! The Cool Block dashboard shows that our group of nine households took a total of 159 actions reducing our carbon emissions by 44,148 pounds or an average of 18.3% per household.
While I’m really proud of my neighbors for achieving these numbers, they only tell a small fraction of the story. It’s a story of perseverance, kindness, and calm under pressure.
Born in crisis
My Cool Block group crystallized in the crucible of the pandemic. Cool Block was designed to be an in-person organizing program. In fact, face-to-face meetings are foundational to the practice of community organizing. Meeting in person is the best way to build trust, community, and commitment. That’s why when the pandemic hit, face-to-face meetings were out and no one including me or the Cool Block organization was sure of how to proceed.
I had just knocked on 57 doors, held a recruitment gathering for 16 households, and formed our group. We were ready to hold the first of eight organizing meetings. I didn’t want to stop, but I wondered if my neighbors were up to continuing given the added stress and demands of the pandemic. When I shared the dilemma with them, a consensus quickly emerged. We’d first attend to the immediate needs of our neighbors and then continue Cool Block virtually. When most other groups in our town paused, my neighbors calmly pressed on.
It was during this transition that a neighbor started a Slack group for our Cool Block. This catalyzed a wave of mutual aid. Instead of Cool Block becoming an additional burden during a trying time, it became a source of comfort, aid, and community. This is when the group crystallized. I had worried that our Cool Block would collapse, but instead, it blossomed. My neighbors truly saved the day. I’m so grateful.
Some of the highlights of that period include:
- Mutual aid. We organized three food drives for the local food bank, two drives for personal protective equipment for the local hospital, and one toiletry drive for vehicle dwellers in our town. I helped one Cool Block couple find homes for two almost new Public commuter bikes. With help from Reach Potential Movement, they made their way to two deserving folks. They were so grateful. One had been renting a bike every day to get to his restaurant job.
- Eldercare. The group checked in with all our neighbors, especially the elders in our community. A variety of care was given, though it mostly took the form of grocery runs.
- Tons of sharing. More goods were shared in three months than our 10+ years in the neighborhood. The flow was prodigious. It included tools, electronics, books, food, lots of food, and more. We were gifted chocolate banana bread, several loaves of sourdough bread, muffins, green salsa made with fresh tomatillos, a wine bottle opener, tools, and more. We gifted a Chromebook, masks, homemade bread, homegrown corn, watermelons, and more. Goods flowed every which way. It was helped along by our Slack group’s #goods-exchange channel, a spreadsheet-based tool library set up by fellow Cool Blockers, and socially distanced goods swap held outside in our common area.
- Grounds care. A subset of our Cool Block group began landscape and irrigation system maintenance work on our community’s five-acre property. At first, we focused on planting some edibles in common areas. Along the way, we learned that our irrigation system was in bad shape. We shifted our focus to address this more urgent problem. After months of work patching up our decades-old system, we’re on track to save 500,000 gallons in the next twelve months. This was a major undertaking. I’ll share more about it in another post.
- Neighborhood communication. Our Slack group has become the neighborhood’s water cooler. It has twelve channels on practical topics like Cool Block and gardening to fun stuff like board games and adorable animal pics. We already had a neighborhood Google group, but Slack has proved a more convivial way for neighbors to interact. Since we started it in March, over 4,400 messages have been exchanged. That’s by far the most communication between neighbors I’ve experienced.
Here’s the best part of this. You’d think me, the sharing guy, would be behind all of this sharing. The truth is I only initiated Cool Block. Everything else was started by my neighbors. I thought about doing much of it, but time and time again my neighbors beat me to it. I just fell in behind them and participated as much as I could in what they started.
If this experience taught me anything, it’s this — there’s a huge untapped demand for commoning. I knocked on a few doors to get people together for Cool Block, then the activity just gushed. Perhaps the pandemic helped, but this is an era of emergencies. People want to pull together even if they aren’t always quite sure how to.
As a result of my experience, I can’t recommend Cool Block or similar programs enough. What counts is the right kind of invitation and process to participate. It needs to be trusted, inclusive, flexible, and well structured. Cool Block offers that.
That said, I have to admit that at first I was scared to start Cool Block. However, after knocking on our neighborhood’s 57 doors, I wanted to knock on every door in town. I imagined millions of people like me knocking on doors all around the world — modern-day Paul Reveres not warning of danger, but inviting people to change their little corners of earth together.
It’s probably going to take that and more to tackle the big challenges of our day like climate change. Like most if not all momentous social change, it demands we enter the arena and put our bodies on the line. Maybe I’m getting a little carried away, but my Cool Block experience showed me the potential of local organizing.
Next steps for our Cool Block
It turns out I’ll be knocking on doors again, this time to deliver certificates of appreciation to my teammates from the mayor of Mountain View for being the first group in town to finish the Cool Block program. I couldn’t be more proud of my neighbors. The credit goes to them.
And we’ll be carrying on! We decided to meet quarterly to continue improving our neighborhood. One idea is to host a series of community events mixing sustainability-themed activities like clothing swaps with pure fun like concerts.
In addition, a small group of us are planning a big, complex landscape and irrigation conversion project that could save us another half-million gallons a year if we’re successful. It won’t be easy, but these last months were the perfect warm-up to take on such a challenging project.