What is EcoDistricts Thinking? A Lay Person’s Guide

Every year, on December 26, my wife’s side of the family gets together to celebrate Christmas. Like most families, ours has created its own set of traditions and expectations around the holidays. In our case, one of those annual traditions is watching the cult classic, A Christmas Story. In case you are not familiar, this is the story of a nine-year-old boy named Ralphie who, more than anything in the world, wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas. The film weaves through a number of events in the boy’s life, all focused on the lead up to Christmas morning, with numerous adults warning him that he will shoot his eye out if he is given such a toy.

At one point in the narrative, Ralphie’s mother casually asks what he wants for Christmas. Unable to control himself, Ralphie blurts out his desire for a BB gun and, not surprisingly, is quickly warned yet again that he will shoot his eye out. In a desperate bid to change the subject, Ralphie offers some nonsensical story to draw his mother’s attention away from the dangers of his most desired gift. Reflecting on Ralphie’s gibberish, the narrator proclaims: “They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears!” The point, of course, is that what Ralphie was saying made little sense and seemed very much out of the ordinary. 

I share this bit of background, because it aptly describes how people looked at me two years ago when I first started to talk about EcoDistricts. Although people were generally kind and even inquisitive, I often felt like I was speaking a language that they had not yet learned, and that I was not particularly skilled at speaking. They would nod, smile, and mostly get on board with my planning and thinking. But, all the while, I could not shake the sense that they did not know quite what I was talking about. Thinking back, I can actually remember watching people respond to me while I was talking about EcoDistricts and hearing the line from A Christmas Story in my mind: “They looked at me like I had lobsters coming out of my ears!”

In retrospect, I can now see that there are at least two good reasons why I was met with this kind of reaction. Part of the problem had to do with me. If I am honest and appropriately self-reflective, I must admit that I had yet to internalize the language of EcoDistrict formation. As a result, I was often parroting back someone else’s way of describing things, yet without having slogged through the hard work of making those descriptions my own. Audiences are particularly adept at sniffing out such limited authenticity, and those around me were no different. 

The other reason for the reactions I received had a bit more to do with my audience. By way of context, I live and work in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. We are a county of roughly 165,000 residents, spread out over 54 different municipalities. Although the county line is only 15 miles or so north of Pittsburgh, Beaver County is not what anyone from here would characterize as particularly urban. Neither would we be characterized as particularly progressive. We are resilient people who, like many rust belt communities, were decimated by the demise of the steel industry. We have persevered, but along the way have learned to be wary of those who claim to know how to rebuild and resurrect what many in our community have been desperately holding together for generations. Maybe the best way to put it is like this: residents of my community are rightly skeptical about any purported solutions that feel foreign to their experience. 

Fortunately, I work with kind and patient people. And, we had done the hard work of developing relationships beforehand. This, more than anything, allowed us enough time and leeway to work through some of this ambiguity together. Thankfully, those around me hung with me because we knew there was a benefit in working toward EcoDistricts thinking, even if we were still on our way to understanding more clearly what that benefit was. We had observed others, whom we trusted, that had benefited from the model. And, slowly, I got better at translating things in a way that made sense for our local vernacular. 

Reflecting upon that journey of growing in understanding, what follows is what I wish I would have said about EcoDistricts thinking two years ago when I first started using this language to explain what we were trying to do in our communities. What I propose here is likely not the most orthodox description of EcoDistricts concepts. These eight ways of describing things may never appear in the Protocol, I am well aware. What I offer below is a set of illustrative tools that have become increasingly helpful to me as I work to explain what lies at the heart of EcoDistricts thinking to my colleagues in southwestern Pennsylvania. It is what I refer to as “A Lay Person’s Guide,” a way of talking in everyday language about the commitments, the processes, and the intended outcomes at the heart of EcoDistricts thinking. I like to think that if I had been more attuned to these kinds of illustrations and explanations, I might have avoided getting looked at like I had lobsters coming out of my ears. 

Eight Ways to Think About EcoDistricts: A Lay Person’s Guide

  1. Committing to EcoDistricts thinking is sort of like taking a vow. When you take a vow, you agree to uphold certain standards and view the world in ways that align with that view of things. As you proclaim your vow, you are publicly declaring your commitment to acting and being a certain kind of way. When you commit to a vow, it should guide how you see things, how you act in the future, and what you decide to prioritize. Committing to EcoDistricts thinking is sort of like that. It is a commitment that is made by a group of similarly motivated people, all of whom are resolved that equity, resilience, and climate protection are important enough priorities to guide future community action.
  2. EcoDistricts thinking requires seeing your community as an ecosystem. An ecosystem is a living, breathing, interconnected collection of parts. They are inescapably wedded to one another and rely on each other for their own health. As an example, think of a healthy forest and the way the trees provide shade, the rain provides water, the bees pollinate, the bugs create more soil, the animals eat the plants, and so on. What happens to one part of the system influences the whole. Our communities are like this too; we cannot truly fix any one part in isolation from the other parts of the system, and any attempt to do so is shortsighted and doomed to lack balance.
  3. EcoDistricts thinking is preoccupied with relationships. Because EcoDistricts thinking prioritizes the entire system that supports a healthy community, this kind of thinking spends an unusual amount of time talking about relationships. This includes relationships between people, power, resources, consequences of action, representation, decision making, and much more. Very often, communities do not work well because the relationships that characterize the community are strained at best, broken at worst. Ecodistrict thinking recognizes that to get much else right, you must start with the relationships that, taken together, comprise the broader whole.
  4. EcoDistricts thinking involves describing a community in ways that go beyond economics. Very often, when stakeholders work toward community development, they do so primarily—if not exclusively—through the lens of economics. They talk about attracting new business or industry, they work toward revitalizing their historic downtown, or they worry about getting more jobs. None of these is wrong, and they are certainly critical to the creation of a thriving community. But, if you buy the notion that a thriving community requires a healthy system of interconnected parts, then you quickly realize that merely economic models will always remain shortsighted and insufficient for creating vibrant and equitable communities. 
  5. EcoDistricts thinking is a little bit like making a lifestyle change. Often, when people make a change in their lifestyle it is because they have endured more than a bit of discomfort and have come to recognize that what they are doing is not really working. Whether it is quitting smoking, going on a diet, exercising, or something else, the process can feel alternately overwhelming and exhilarating. It requires rethinking one’s priorities, developing new habits, and sometimes even forming new relationships. The reason that enduring lifestyle change is so hard is that it forces you to contend with firmly entrenched habits that have long provided some kind of benefit, even if such benefit is ultimately unbalanced and unhealthy. Thinking about the health of a community can feel remarkably similar, requiring a recalibration of the collective priorities that have become familiar and even comfortable.
  6. Being part of an EcoDistrict feels like being part of a successful sports team. Playing on a successful team is an exhilarating way of participating in community life. Good teams know the value and feeling of success. But they also sometimes feel the sting of defeat. On a team, there are seasons of intense training, followed by downtime. On the most successful teams, everyone knows their role and recognizes what they are and are not expected to contribute to the overall effort. On a thriving sports team, there is a strong sense of discipline, purpose, and camaraderie, all focused on a common goal. At its best, being part of an EcoDistrict team has many of these same characteristics.
  7. Growing an EcoDistrict is a bit like building an airplane that has already taken flight. None of us come to the work of community building with a blank slate. Most of us are negotiating a long history of norms, expectations, and written and unwritten protocols dictating what can and cannot happen in our communities. Given this, we must often work in less than ideal conditions. And sometimes this means getting going before we are fully aware of what we are doing. To put the matter just a bit differently: sometimes the pace of our learning gets out of sync with the pace of our doing, and vice versa. Leading an EcoDistrict team therefore often involves appropriately setting expectations, working to keep everyone on the same page, and regrouping and reflecting along the way as often as possible. Figuring out how to keep all this in sync is a delicate and ever-shifting balancing act, never accomplished perfectly, but critical at every step of the way.
  8. Nurturing an EcoDistrict is more about the journey than a predetermined outcome. Some things in life are way less about the outcome, and way more about the process that gets you there. Education, at its best, should be this kind of thing. Fitness is like that. Growing in virtue is often less about acting perfectly, and more about becoming the kind of person who labors toward moral perfection. Sure, for each of these examples, there are times when the outcome is critically important. Graduating from college, winning a championship, or passing a moral test—each of these punctuated moments in time has their own value. But, more important than any of these individual moments is the process that made them possible in the first place. Being part of an EcoDistrict team regularly feels like this. Our efforts are less about a single success and more about the ongoing process of living and working together well. If and as we can get that right, so many other health outcomes will follow. Increasingly, this is our goal as an EcoDistrict team: healthy process not predetermined outcomes. 

There you have it. Eight less than orthodox ways to think about what it means to apply EcoDistricts thinking to your community. Sure, there is lots more to be said. But, for me and my team, I am finding that the more I can connect the language of EcoDistricts thinking to everyday, well-understood experiences of being human, the more buy-in I get and the better able we are to communicate about where we are headed together.

So, what about you? How do you describe EcoDistrict thinking in your community? What strategies do you employ when those whom you lead start to look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears? In what ways have you connected the commitments embedded in EcoDistricts thinking to everyday experiences of those with whom you work and whom you serve? 

I am eager to learn more and to hear about your stories of success. 

*****

Daniel Rossi-Keen, PhD, is the Executive Director of RiverWise, a nonprofit employing EcoDistricts thinking to create a regional identity around the rivers of Beaver County, PA. You can learn more about RiverWise’s EcoDistrict work here. To learn more about those communities committed to working with RiverWise, check out the extensive catalog of stories on our YouTube channel. Daniel lives in Aliquippa with his wife, Pamela, and his four children. You can reach him at daniel@getriverwise.com.

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