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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Below is a guest post from NWEI Board Member Eric Park – in honor of NWEI’s forthcoming 20th Anniversary and the launch of our new website and online platform next week. Enjoy!

This quote is often a source of inspiration for organizations like NWEI, committed to working towards creating positive change in the world. However, while this quote is inspiring, it doesn’t offer any insight into how to “spark” this change.

NWEI has spent the last twenty years, working to spark change. As we move forward into our twenty-first year, we will be launching a new online platform to extend the reach of the organization. But more importantly, we will move forward with a deeper understanding of the importance of mastering the art of the “aha” moment in order to accelerate the pace of change towards a more sustainable future.

We believe the key spark for behavior change is the “aha!” moment. We’ve all experienced “aha!” moments, from eyebrow raising to life-changing; moments when we discover something new about the world or ourselves that inspire us to make a change. NWEI has worked to understand the conditions necessary for individuals and small groups to have “aha!” moments, knowing that this is the spark for individual and collective change.

But sparking these “Aha” moments isn’t easy. When is the last time you actually changed your mind about something, or resolved yourself to make a small or significant change in the way you were doing things? Turns out for many, this doesn’t happen very often.

What we do know, is that most people who participate in an NWEI discussion courses or our annual Ecochallenge event do make a change. And we believe it’s because these activities engage people in a social process of learning, action, or story-telling that creates the conditions for them to have “Aha” moments.

As we launch our new on-line platform, we hope to encourage more people to participate in activities that trigger more personal “Aha” moments, because while we know change is hard, we also know that change is inevitable. And we’re committed to accelerating this change by becoming masters of art the “Aha” moment.

With our on-line platform, we hope it will be easier for you to share your “aha” moments and make it easier for you and others to create the conditions for your circle of family, friend, or co-workers to have theirs.

La Crosse, Wisconsin - Bridge crossing the Mississippi River

La Crosse, Wisconsin – Bridge crossing the Mississippi River

Northwest Earth Institute is happy to announce that registration is now open for our 2013 Biannual Conference: Cultivating A Community of Leaders, to be held at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Please visit our conference site by clicking here to get more information about the event, and to get your early bird discount on registration. Conference highlights include workshops on leadership, leadership skill development, community organizing, land ethics and more.

We hope to see you there July 18-21st! This will be a terrific opportunity to gather with other NWEI course participants, community organizers, volunteers and community leaders in the spirit of sustainability leadership and change for good. We will also celebrate NWEI’s 20th birthday! If you have any additional questions please do not hesitate to contact us directly at (503) 227-2807.

This month in the Sequim Gazette (Washington), columnist Beverly Hoffman posed a challenge about shifting our thinking and educating ourselves in order to create the changes we wish to see. She reminds us that Fall and Winter are times to come inside, slow down and gather with friends, family and co-workers in the spirit of educating ourselves more deeply as times change. We hope you’ll host others for an NWEI course this season, too! Read Beverly’s article below:

As I talk with my friends, it seems that many of us have shifted our thinking toward a greater consciousness. Like the Joads in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” who, in the Great Depression, had to leave their Dust Bowl Oklahoma land and drive to California in hopes for something better, we know things are changing. And how we respond to those changes might define us, as individuals as well as a country.

At least three ideas seem to be intersecting right now — a sluggish economy with food prices getting higher, a wish to eat healthy food and a growing sense of the need to reduce our carbon footprint on earth. Many of us are thinking about a first-time garden or how to increase the size or productivity of existing gardens. I was at a friend’s house the other day and she was showing me how they planned to change a perennial bed into a raised bed where they could grow vegetables and include a hot frame. Another friend is experimenting with hydroponic (no soil) production. I also saw a class on hydroponics recently advertised. Another friend showed me a small second-year garden where she or her husband gather vegetables each evening for a stir-fry.

In Port Townsend this past month, the Northwest Earth Institute sponsored a weekend conference with Will Allen as the keynote speaker. Allen, the son of sharecroppers, who became a professional basketball player and later worked for Proctor and Gamble, shared hundreds of slides of how he has transformed cultivation practices, using raised beds, composting, aquaculture and vermiculture (composting utilizing worms). He is undeterred about his vision and feels he’s in the infancy stage of his wish for the entire world to have access to good food. He composts on a huge scale to create a rich soil — his answer to growing healthy crops. Then he transforms any offered space — asphalt-covered parking lots or an area where there is infertile soil — by heaping his composted soil on top. He teaches people how and when to plant, how to harvest and how to sell at local farmers markets or to restaurants and school cafeterias. He constantly is learning and experimenting. One idea I loved was his wish to build a five-story structured greenhouse of sorts with an institutional kitchen inside where people could learn to can, dehydrate and freeze crops.

On another weekend I again went to Port Townsend for its Film Festival and saw two movies on alternative gardening. One was about a man who created a garden in the back of his truck, adding a vapor barrier and rich soil. He literally was a gardener on the move, selling his herbs and produce around the city. Another film showed a gardener who was growing rows of produce atop New York buildings. He had to have an engineer figure out the amount of stress a roof with wet soil could handle and then with that knowledge, he laid out beds and was able to produce an abundance of food. Another lady, who lived in a city high-rise with lots of windows in the foyer, experimented with hanging gardens made of suspended plastic gallon bottles tied together and attached to a horizontal PVC pipe with holes punched in the bottom, that was the water source trough. Below the hanging plastic bottles tied to one another, another PVC collected the dripping water and pumped it back up to the feeder pipe.

People are thinking. And creating. And experimenting. And are problem solving. Like the Christ-figure Jim Casy in “The Grapes of Wrath,” many are recognizing that “we” is far more important than “I” and are trying to build communities where people work together and where Mother Earth is protected and honored. Recently I was at a lovely apple orchard party where the hostess invited her guests to pick apples to take home. She also had a cider press where guests filled containers with fresh apple juice. Even the pulp was saved … for a lady to take home to her chickens. While there, I went into the greenhouse and tasted tomatoes right off the vine. So sweet. So juicy. The entire afternoon was a celebration of the harvest and of good friends taking the time to be together sharing a potluck meal.

Times are changing. We might want to visit the Northwest Earth Institute website ( and look at the courses they offer. During this fall and winter, as our lives slow down a bit, we might want to host a group of like-minded friends to study one of their books, such as “Voluntary Simplicity,” “Menu for the Future,” “Healthy Child, Healthy Planet,” etc. Each book is about $21. At the talk by Will Allen, we all were encouraged to find a way to plant something to eat in our surrounding gardens around our homes. We were challenged to educate ourselves more deeply as times are changing.

I pass on the challenge to you.

For the full article, click here.

As of Saturday October 1st, NWEI’s EcoChallenge is underway! Here is one EcoChallenger, Courtney Carver, who blogs at Be More With Less, on A Reason for Change – and how her challenge, and commitment to living simply, is shaping her.

I am not the same person I was 5 years ago. I changed my life and life changed me right back. I am more attentive, rested, hopeful and more fun to be around. I care about completly different things than I used to, and want a different future than I had planned. I don’t say any of this to brag, only to demonstrate that slow, deliberate change may start on the outside, but it works it’s way into your heart and soul. Before you know it, you haven’t just changed a habit, but your life as well.

I didn’t wake up one morning and think, “I want to lead a simpler life.” I didn’t jump out of bed, cancel my cable television, quit my job and throw all my stuff in a dumpster. I didn’t change because I listened to the voice in my head that was screaming at me to slow down and take care. In fact, I didn’t have time to hear that that voice at all.

I made a change because I was sick and tired and scared. I made a change because my doctor said, “You have Multiple Sclerosis”. One small change led to another, but the common thread through every change that I’ve made over the past 5 years has been simplicity.

What I changed and simplified

  • § Food. I stopped eating meat. It took me 3 months to drop meat that came from cows and pigs and another 3 to walk away from poultry. 2 Years later I stopped eating fish & seafood and could finally say that I don’t eat anything with a mother. While I changed my diet for health reasons, it is sustained by compassion. I read books like Eating Animals and Skinny Bitch and realized that not eating animals was good for my heart in more ways than one.
  • § Money. I changed my relationship with money. I think I used to be mad at money. I had to work so hard to get it and then everyone wanted a piece of it. I spent more money than I had because I thought I deserved to. I didn’t know I was punishing myself. Now money is a tool, and not tied to an emotion. With the exception of a house payment, I don’t owe anyone any money and don’t believe that I am owed anything by money.
  • § Stuff. I used to think that stuff made me happy. A new pair of boots or beautiful dining room table brought a smile to my face. Today, I own 50% less than I did 5 years ago and am still letting go of stuff. When I moved from New Hampshire to Utah, I drove a u-haul across the country full of my treasures, my stuff. I only remember 1 item that was in that packed trailer. It was a distressed coffee table/trunk. I loved it because I could put stuff in it and on it. I sold it this weekend. I used to play the “what would you take with you if there was a fire” game, and now I know that there is nothing worth running into a burning building for besides the people and pets that I love.

While summed up in 3 paragraphs, those 3 changes came from several shifts and none of them happened overnight. They each resulted in an opportunity for me to be healthier and happier. Each change gave me a chance to redefine the way I view the world and live my life.

Don’t change to find yourself. Change to know yourself.

While I didn’t plan to completely overhaul my life, over 5 years, that is exactly what I did. If you are thinking about a change, start small. Don’t wait until you have to change.

The most surprising thing about simplicity is that when you clear the clutter from your home and your brain, you have the time and attention to hear that voice inside your head and your heart. By reducing stress, you can have the claritiy and confidence to trust that you know what is best for you and to make the necessary changes.

I needed a reason to change, but realize that if I had changed sooner, I wouldn’t have had to go through the sick, tired, scared part. Knowing that one change will lead to another, where do you want to start? If you could change one thing, what would it be? 

In the spirit of change, I joined the 2011 EcoChallenge 2011. For the first 2 weeks of October, I’ve committed to changing my habits and not using paper towels, plastic bags, plastic bottles or any packaged food. Join the Be More with Less Team and come together to do something nice for the planet (and it’s people). Here is the sign up information: 

NWEI just found out that Governor John Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes will ditch disposables for the 2011 EcoChallenge, beginning tomorrow, October 1st. Kitzhaber and Hayes have pledged to use only reusable shopping bags, water bottles and coffee cups during the challenge. “All of us can make small changes in our lives that add up to a big impact,” said Governor Kitzhaber. “We hope Oregonians around the state will join us in their own EcoChallenge to change a habit and make a difference.”

Governor Kitzhaber and Hayes will post photos and updates during the two‐week challenge on the Governor’s Facebook page and the EcoChallenge website. Visit
to view their EcoChallenge profile page.

NWEI started the EcoChallenge in 2009, and approximately 500 people participated in the first two years of the challenge. To date, 150 teams and a total of 943 individuals have registered for 2011. “The EcoChallenge is all about making change more fun, more possible and more permanent – and the Governor and First Lady are proving by example that we can all make our day‐to‐day lives more sustainable,” said NWEI Executive Director Mike Mercer. “After two weeks, most EcoChallengers find they’ve changed their habits—and reduced their impact—for good.”

You can still join us! Sign up at

In just over a month, our cadre of EcoChallengers will set out to save water, conserve energy, reduce the waste that ends up in our landfills, prove that car-free transportation is a viable option, and eat more sustainably–and we hope to count you among our 2011 EcoChallengers.

There are a few ways to participate–by starting your own team (and inviting your community to join the ranks), by joining the NWEI Community Team, or by signing up as an EcoChallenge fundraiser.

If you need inspiration to start a team, just check out the list of teams who have signed up so far–the list includes large companies like The Standard, community groups like the Unitarian-Universalist Church Of Belfast and even an extended family taking on the EcoChallenge together, the Alex. T Jones Family Reunion team.  We’d love to have your neighborhood, business, family or congregation join us too, so consider starting a team.

We’re also welcoming participants on the NWEI Community Team. The more the merrier and everyone is welcome! For details on how to join the NWEI Community Team visit the team page on the EcoChallenge site.  You’ll join Sarah Crump, our fabulous EcoChallenge intern, who’s taking on a no-trash challenge (and any trash she does generate during the EcoChallenge she’s pledged to carry around with her, as a visual of what can’t be recycled, composted or otherwise diverted from the landfill), and Sky Trombly who is undertaking a human-powered transportation challenge.

If you’re feeling inspired, you are also invited to take on the EcoChallenge as an EcoChallenge Fundraiser. Our team of EcoChallenge Fundraisers will set out to raise $25,000 in pledges during the EcoChallenge–by collecting pledges from friends and family to support their EcoChallenge.  Raise $50 as an EcoChallenge Fundraiser and you’ll also be eligible to win some great prizes.  You’ll be in good company as an EcoChallenge Fundraiser- the entire staff and board of NWEI are participating as fundraisers again this year, and you’ll join other NWEI supporters like Erin Simons and Tami Boardman.

Registration is underway, and we look forward to hearing what your EcoChallenge will be this year!

As many of you know, we are gearing up for NWEI’s North American Gathering, a conference on sustainable food and community – to be held in a few short weeks in Port Townsend, Washington (September 15-18th).  One of the co-hosts of this conference is Judy Alexander who serves on the NWEI Port Townsend Steering Committee.  She recently wrote an article for her local paper, entitled Feed your Desire for Change; Join Conference, Conversation.  Enjoy!  And, if you are in the area (or beyond!) and would like to join us, please do!  For more information visit

How does one “do the right thing” when it is so darn easy to behave in ways that we know are not good for our world? Eating non-nutritious junk food. Spending money on non-essential things. Using resources wastefully. Flying on airplanes. Driving unnecessarily.   You know what I mean. The temptations abound.

I am practicing living with a paradigm shift made clear to me by taking courses from the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI).  NWEI is a nonprofit organization founded in Portland in 1993 that has since been replicated more than 20 times across the U.S. and Canada.  What helped me is to find others who were equally interested in changing. Back in 2005 I invited 12 of my friends to take several of the NWEI courses with me to create a support system for living differently, specifically because I knew support for making changes would be necessary for me to succeed.  To this day, many of us are close friends, almost like family, knowing we share core values that we clarified taking NWEI courses together.

Learning to step outside my previously held views was one of the most potent things I could do. What a concept!

The way NWEI courses work is this: You buy a book for a little over $20, books are available online at
Any group can self-organize, neighbors, church members, people at work on their lunch hour. There is no group leader and there’s no teacher. It’s like a book discussion group and it meets weekly for six to eight sessions. But rather than just discussing “concepts” from the reading, what happens is you explore how you feel about what was read based on your life experiences. You also explore possibilities for changed behavior, and launch yourself, step by step, as you desire, if you desire, into a new way of living. If you choose to change, it’s from the inside – not from outside pressure.

For the past decade, NWEI courses have been alive and well in Jefferson County.  10 courses are available including: Voluntary Simplicity; Healthy Children, Healthy Planet; Just Below the Surface: Perspectives on the Gulf Coast Oil Spill; Choices for Sustainable Living, Menu for the Future; and many more. Another course that deepens the dialogue about food is being launched mid-September. It has to do with ethical eating.

More than 1,100 people in Jefferson County have taken one or more of the courses. More than 25 groups discussed the Menu for the Future course on food, locally, in the past three years alone. Each group had a farmer or food producer as a participant, often motivating people to directly support their local farmers with their food dollars.

This September, Fort Worden is hosting a NWEI conference titled “If Not Me,Then Who? Building Healthy Communities and Local Food Systems One Conversation at a Time.”  By attending this conference, just as my personal group of friends did for me, we can inspire each other with healthy behavior change around food choices and other habits. With this conference right in our backyard, the opportunity is at our fingertips.

Keep in mind that your decision to attend this conference won’t just inspire you.
It will feed our collective local enthusiasm for change.

Judith Alexander is a long-time Port Townsend resident, private practice therapist, and enthusiastic volunteer for a sustainable world.

This week NWEI’s Executive Director, Mike Mercer, shares his reflections on what it takes to act on what you care about.  Let us know what you think!

“Those who know, care, and those who care, take action.”  I heard this recently from a young woman speaking before an audience of business professionals at a sustainability conference.  A short, sweet and valid point. Perfect! Problem solved– all we have to do to change any intractable problem is to shower people with information. If they would just listen!  However, with this cliche,  like many others, there is a bit more between the words that needs filling in. Let’s talk about “care” for a moment.

Do I care enough to change to more sustainable behaviors when I am crazy with work, or Need to get the kids fed and off to soccer practice, or I’ve got no milk for the morning cereal? For many perfectly sane, intelligent, caring people, the answer is “no”. Not an explicit no, but many people mean to make sustainable choices, but just don’t get around to it, or are too swamped with other responsibilities.

We all live with multiple priorities. I personally care about the atrocities occurring in Sudan and homelessness and the child prostitution occurring right in my home town.  While I don’t perpetuate these actions, do I take any direct steps to ameliorate them or give to these causes? No. And it is not because I am callous, lazy or even lack a few bucks to give. It’s because I am focused on taking action on my other priorities  – like a healthy planet that supports healthy people and helping my kids get through school and adolescence.

Changing behavior is one tough nut to crack, particularly when the existing behaviors feel like the norm. So, how do we get people to care enough to make the change?

  1. We need to feel empowered and that our behaviors do make a difference in the grand scheme of things. Use the power of story!  Stories paint a picture of hope.  I am inspired by the quote of Rainer Maria Rilke, “If I don’t manage to fly, someone else will. The spirit only wants that there be flying.”
  2. Most often, it’s not about doing more, but doing what we already do differently. Disarm the time concern. Most of us have too much on our plates already.  How can we tweak what we already do, without adding too many new “to do” items to our already long list?
  3. Tie changes to values many of us already hold and respond to – health, economic interests and wellbeing of ourselves and those closest to us. When we want to change draw on what most of us care for:  family and health, for starters.
  4. Use the power of social norming and support.  The single most predictable indicator of our behavior? Look and see what others in our network of friends are doing. Most of us don’t want to be outrageous or boring, we just want to fit in. Use messaging that creates a norm, like “75 percent of the employees in Jane’s department copy double-sided.”  Be authentic.  When we can point to what others are already doing, we can create momentum for positive change.
  5. Most of us don’t want to be judged on our current behaviors. If I am going to change, let me figure that out, but do provide me access to a variety of options that might fit my interests. We all start somewhere on the continuum of change. It does us well to be non-judgmental and an open minded!

Knowing and caring are not enough to elicit the change we desperately need to see.  Caring enough is!  What are our priorities?  What can we commit to starting or doing right now that will align our care with our actions?  Let’s do it!

Just in case you missed our big announcement, yesterday we launched EcoChallenge 2011.  The EcoChallenge will change your life. No, really! it will! My first EcoChallenge was to take on the hyperlocavore 100 mile diet, and since then I’ve thought about food, food transportation and the import/export systems nearly every time I grocery shop.  Last year I took on a no-plastics challenge, and attempted to live plastic free for the 2 weeks of the EcoChallenge.  Note that I said “attempted”. Lesson learned: plastic is everywhere. Since then, I’ve continued to eliminate as much single use plastic from my life and don’t think I’ll ever consider packaging and single-use items in the same light again.

This October we hope you will take on your own personal EcoChallenge and maybe you too will change for good.

We’re seeking participants who are interested in being EcoChallenge Bloggers.  The EcoChallenge always leads to great stories, fun anecdotes, and shared learning, and we want you to help us tell the fun, compelling, thought-provoking stories of making a positive impact through sustainable change. The EcoChallenge runs from October 1-15, and we’d love to find a few folks who will commit to blogging at least 2-3 times each week.

In exchange for your words, wisdom and tales of challenges and success, we will feature you here on our blog, on the EcoChallenge website, and in our social media posts during the EcoChallenge.  If you’re interested in blogging your adventures in changing for good email me at kerry at nwei dot org. If you’re already blogging elsewhere on the web, send me a link to your blog too.

If you’re up for the Challenge, we look forward to hearing from you!

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