Bottoms Up!

Sustainable Fairfax a role model for bottom-up activism


T he Sustainability Center of Fairfax is a beautiful example of a bottom-up system that is flourishing. Located in downtown Fairfax, the Sustainability Center is an extension of the nonprofit Sustainable Fairfax, formed by grassroots activists Rebekah Collins and Odessa Wolfe in 1999 with the intentions of promoting the ecology, local economy and community of their town. The Sustainability Center, which opened its doors in October of 2007, is an opportunity for this inspiring organization to offer a tangible example of the best living practices for the community and the environment.

I speak with Pam Herrero, who has been the center’s executive director since 2004, about the center’s many projects and endeavors. What she goes on to describe makes me think a little bit harder about what it means to be part of a bottom-up movement. Running a successful grassroots effort, where the decisions are made by a group of people working together to create change, takes an incredible amount of time and dedication. Once again I find myself awed by the fact that there are so many people willing to sacrifice their free time and their money to make something like this possible. Instead of working on their own personal post-ecological disaster bunkers, should the environmental movement fail in its directive to save us from extinction, they are putting their efforts into making the community of Fairfax a safer place for everyone.

The Sustainability Center has a permaculture demonstration in the backyard that features flood mitigation and water reclamation for the home user. The garden space is open to the public anytime, and is the home for various events throughout the year. Inside the center, a volunteer is available to answer questions, give tours of the facility and act as a resource for people coming in off the streets with burning questions about saving the earth. If they don’t know the answer, Herrero tells me, they will find out. There is a library available with books on a wide variety of sustainability issues, as well as interactive displays that focus on such issues as electricity, water and the three e’s of sustainability—environment, ecology and equity.

The center also serves as an information holding place for other nonprofits, many of which do not have a public facility where they can display their brochures and materials. Herrero says the center considers itself a resource not just for community members, but also for other grassroots organizations. Part of the Sustainable Fairfax mission is to lend its support to other groups engaging in projects and activities that will lead to bigger and better things for the environment.

With the help of a supportive city government, as well as other local activists, Sustainable Fairfax has been successful in installing recycling bins downtown, setting up a battery-recycling program, instituting a pesticide ban and making additional bike racks available at the local farmer’s market. Herrero tells me of one recent effort where Sustainable Fairfax combined its talents with another grassroots organization, the Inconvenient Group.

Together, they purchased bio-bags to hand out at the local farmers market. In just one night, 1,200 bags were used by shoppers, in place of the usual plastic disposables, numbers which prompted the activists involved to contact the much larger Marin Farmer’s Market and encourage it to institute a disposable-bag ban of its own. Currently, Sustainable Fairfax is working on a controversial plastic-bag ban in all of Fairfax, as well as creating an ordinance for zero waste in the downtown area.

In addition to its community endeavors, the center also offers monthly education events as a way of promoting ideas and creating a space for people with similar concerns to come together and pool their enthusiasm and varied talents. Past workshops have included the 100-mile holiday food event, sustainable seafood, what to drive (if you must), local birdsong talk and the highly recommended fungi forage.

Herrero attributes part of the nonprofit’s success to the dedicated board members, each of whom heads a separate committee that focuses on one aspect of the organization. By creating separate committees, they have been able to delegate the work, thereby keeping the program focused and running effectively. The center is always looking for volunteers and offers a two-day training for those wishing to staff the center during open hours. While bottom-up endeavors of this sort are indisputably a hell of a lot of work, the benefits to the community as a whole are clear. Sustainable Fairfax has helped to create a place where we all should be lucky enough to live.

The Fairfax Sustainability Center, 611 Bolinas Road, Fairfax. Open to the public, Friday&–Saturday, 10am to 6pm. 415.455.9114.

Sonoma County Library