Trathen Heckman – The Power of Small for Big Transformations
In a world on fire with multiple, epochal crises, how do we nurture hope, build power and contribute meaningfully? How do we catalyze and sustain the personal and collective transformations this immense planetary challenge calls for? Though the problems seem larger than life, our greatest power may in fact lie in our closest communities, in small daily acts of courage and conviction, in small groups of unstoppable world-changers, and small gardens that revitalize communities and reconnect us to nature’s operating instructions.
Trathen Heckman delivered this talk at the 2020 Bioneers Conference, introduced by Kenny Ausubel.
Good morning, Bioneers!
It’s easy to get overtaken by the power of Big these days. With so much that feels crushing in this time, we lose sight of the power of our small daily actions. But can small make a big enough difference in this time?
Around 25 years ago, I began to wake up to the painful state of people and the planet we share. The people i’ve met who felt the hurt the most were somehow more alive than just tapped into that pain. They were developing regenerative farms, protecting forests, and establishing gardens. When I attended my first Bioneers conference I got my heart, mind, and paradigm cracked open being with thousands of world-changers.
It was a tragedy that transformed my experience in meeting these people into my own initiative when I lost my mother after 9/11. These painful experiences and their innovative power inspired me to start Daily Acts. I started Daily Acts around the idea that we could change the world in a garden by reclaiming the power of our daily actions. Despite a large amount of hurt in our lives and our world, there are amazing spaces all around us where things we nourish will grow.
Daily Acts started with sustainability tours to expose people to the many facets of a better world being born. These tours led us to do skill-building workshops with greywater, where we installed the first permitted household greywater system in our community. This greywater project paved the way for California’s state graywater policy.
Next, we partnered with the City of Petaluma to plant a garden. At that time, the best practice for municipal water conservation was to tear up thousands of years of topsoil and take it to a landfill where it emits greenhouse gases. Instead of doing that, we suggested we plant a food forest.
A food forest is an edible ecosystem that saves water, harvests rain, builds soil, sequesters carbon, grows food, and has many other benefits. We got the approval to move forward with the project and it led to planting another public food forest in a different city. We started working on civic incentive programs to spread these landscapes through numerous communities. Within a couple of months, 350.org had its first day of global climate action, and Daily Acts helped mobilize hundreds of volunteers. We transformed the city hall landscape in a day, moving mountains of mulch, and saved a million gallons of water.
As the climate crisis continued to grow, we realized that we use our gardening initiative to call attention to climate change and community-based solutions. In partnership with dozens of agencies, businesses and organizations, the community we were organizing rose to the challenge and planted 628 gardens in a single day.
The power of our small community scale efforts began to culminate into institutional change that began when we got the water department thinking about food and community engagement and the health department thinking about climate, water, and the local economy.
At this point, Daily Acts had been an organization for about a decade. As a result of the power of community, we are primarily volunteer-powered with two-three staff. When small groups think and act like a garden, or an ecosystem, they can engage a wide range of stakeholders towards a larger goal.
Daily Acts keep evolving our efforts in education, collaborative action, community mobilizations all through tapping into nature’s most common pattern that Bioneers knows so well: nurturing community through networks. We started getting engaged in coalitions and utilizing another systems change strategy of working at a range of scales, and we were working from local to international with grassroots groups.
Daily Acts leadership institute was brought into existence through fostering collaborative partnerships with local, grassroots, national, and international groups. We refused to lose sight of leadership in our community and led a 500-persons fellows’ network.
In 2017, my wife and I woke up to the news of the North Bay fires which devastated Northern California. We jumped into action, and we immediately started convening and connecting with dozens of organizations, businesses, and agency partners. Within a couple of weeks, we’d helped launch three new initiatives: protect watersheds, bring community voice and equity to the forefront of the recovery conversation, and launch a grassroots fund with half a dozen partner organization to raise and distribute over $300,000 to undocumented workers, family farms, and grassroots organizations. The government is often siloed and unprepared for such devastation. Our job was to connect community members, agencies, and departments as part of our philosophy of thinking and acting like a garden ecosystem.
On the one-year anniversary of the North Bay fires, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped its most alarming report yet as the global youth climate movement rapidly emerges and demonstrates the power of small. Locally, Daily Acts helped launch Climate Action Petaluma to work with our city and our community to prioritize equitable climate action. In working with the city, Petaluma became the first city in Sonoma county to declare a climate emergency. The declarations of climate emergencies spread rapidly through most of the other cities in the county. Within six months, we helped create the first county climate action policy commission at the city scale. A third of the commission came to be led by women of color including our vice-chair/ friend/ ally, Black First Nations Climate Justice organizer, Kailea Frederick.
Daily Acts, along with dozens of volunteers, worked with our climate action commission in Petaluma and created a bold draft climate emergency framework. We are lucky to have climate champions on the council, including our vice mayor who is a former Daily Acts staff. This work is about understanding the urgency of climate truth, the needs of the current moment––especially those on the frontlines. We must get better at pulling our levers together to affect more significant change because this is the most significant decade that humanity has faced.
We come together to nourish, connect, and uplevel. Early next year, Daily Acts is launching a funding campaign to finish a book we are writing on these solutions. We will be expanding our leadership institute to partner with groups like Bioneers to support and train more leaders, organizations, and communities. We need to help them be as transformative as possible to partner widely and push for more bold climate action and policy.
It’s vital to know that nonprofits play an essential role in the transformation required because significant social change happens through collaborative action. I have two calls to action for you all: to take this Bioneers moment and spread this inspiration with others. Secondly, join us and help spread and support significant transformations through small solutions by going to Daily Acts website and staying in contact with us.
In a dark and stormy world, we need good companions and a good compass. These are the incredible Daily Actors I feel blessed to work with the most amazing women. Our compass starts with our heart because this is how we find the bright beacons to guide us. In reclaiming the only power we have––that of our daily actions––we nurture community because these are nature’s operating instructions.
When we do these things consistently, we can build the resilience of remaking our lives and the world through an infinite procession of small actions and efforts because the power of small is much more immense than you think. However, we have to believe, and we have to invest, and we have to keep leaning in. Daily Acts exists in part because of the Bioneers’ community of changemakers’.
The last thing I want to say is thank you all so much, Bioneers, for inspiring us to continue to step into the moment. Take heart, take part, and take action!
Trathen Heckman is the founder/Director of Daily Acts Organization, a non-profit dedicated to “transformative action that creates connected, equitable, climate resilient communities.” He also serves on the convening committee for Localizing California Waters and the advisory board of Norcal Resilience Network, and he has helped initiate and lead numerous coalitions and networks including Climate Action Petaluma. Trathen lives in the Petaluma River Watershed where he grows food, medicine and wonder while composting apathy and lack.
With climate-driven disasters becoming the new normal, building resilience is the grail. Communities around the world are developing models created out of practical necessity. In this Bioneers pocast, we hear on-the-ground stories from two different communities building resilience in the wake of serial disasters.
Daily Acts inspires individuals to reclaim the power of their every daily action to create a regenerative, resilient and just world. Visit dailyacts.org to access DIY resources, webinars, and more.