The Sustainable Watchdogs of Arlington
Four-pound Sweetie Pie eyes me suspiciously from Gail McCormick’s arms. We’ve already made nice, but I’m warned against sudden moves- wispy hair and a homemade body warmer can't disguise the fierce heart of a watchdog. Her master, too, is a guardian, one of the first sustainability activists in the country. As Chairwoman of Sustainable Arlington her grassroots ripples have swelled into sweeping change across the entire Commonwealth. From recycling to rooftops, her handiwork is everywhere in town, and I’ve come here to ask Arlington's environmental icon what makes the place special.
“This is one of the more progressive towns in the Commonwealth,” she says with pride. “If the volunteers all went on strike, the town would shut down.” She gets nods around her parlor from two friends that would know. Charlotte Milan is the Recycling Coordinator for Arlington’s Public Works, and Brucie Moulton Co-Chairs both Sustainable Arlington and the Vision 2020 standing committee. The mission of Vision 2020 she explains, is “to foster personal lives that contribute to greater quality of life and cohesion of the community.” They work in groups to focus on town goals, and the Environmental Task Group focuses its efforts on the natural environment through Sustainable Arlington.
In short, they make changes happen. When the group turned its attention to alternative energy, their initiatives on solar panels caught fire in Arlington, and sparked legislature for the whole state. “We got the industry into Massachusetts. Solarize Mass residential solar initiative, through Deval Patrick, jump started the adaptation to renewable energy.”
Ahead of the curve, Solarize Mass predated power purchase agreements, lowering the cost and risk of initial solar investment. In 2012, Arlington boasted a Commonwealth-high 157 individual contracts for solar panels, a sign of the popularity and ease of the switch to alternative energy. One of Sustainable Arlington's weapons is its network of experts, such as Carl Elkin. This Boston-based volunteer brought some clout from his experience working on Google’s Project Sunroof, “mapping the planet’s solar energy potential, one rooftop at a time.” Elkin mapped the roofs of Boston, the Bay Area and Fresno and will be the guest speaker at Sustainable Arlington’s February 18th event.
In this age of uphill bureaucracy, a clear road through red tape seems like a magic trick, so like a child I ask how they did it. “Sustainable Arlington has two homes: the town and the Commonwealth. Working up the chain of command, and with proper channels, local decisions and habits tie into the bigger picture at the state level.” When I poked around for any stories of political friction, McCormick assured me, “There are no push-backs!”
While McCormick’s sunny living room looked out across Spy Pond, the Arlington trio telescoped in on local politics, pride seeping into the details. “Arlington was one of the earliest adopters of the 2008 Green Community Act; we set goals, reduced emissions. We created an Energy Manager position, and met and exceeded their goals.” This led to writing and winning grants, one of the earliest of which was for LED street lights that saved the town an alleged $14 million.
When I’m surprised at that number they smile at my innocence, then fill in my spotty local knowledge with more details about the kind of town I’m in. There’s an Arlington chapter of Mothers out Front, “mobilizing for a livable climate.” There is an NEA grant awarded to Sustainable Arlington partner True Story Theater so that their storytelling (through improv) can elicit emotion, explain their mission, and get new volunteers to further community activism in Arlington. The Climate Change News blog has some great content, as does Your Arlington. They asked if Workbar had been in touch with Ben Barkin, of Home Harvest edible gardening, to put an herb or vegetable garden in the new space. When they saw me writing these names down, they insisted I get one thing right.
“Don’t forget Eco Fest!” Moulton warned, pitching the town’s popular environmental celebration in March. Unstoppable, they dovetail into a plug for Town Day in September, which draws tens of thousands. I start to see how sustainability has spilled over into so many aspects of community life, and suspect the architects of that cross-pollination are sitting right here.
Something about the way McCormick, Moulton and Milan have confronted the potential trainwreck of climate change seems to derail its inevitability. Hope and solar panels have leaped from local Arlington politics across the state, largely on the backs of guileless grassroots activists. Lest I think her influence stopped at the borders of her home state, McCormick tells me about her trip to Earth Summit in Rio. I jump up from my seat to see a framed collage, but a growl from Sweetie Pie puts me back in my place, a friendly reminder about taking care of our homes.
About the Author: Dave Gentry is a fan of progress and recess. He believes in Olde English, new fortune cookies, and he answers to #davertido.