Nothing Wasted

Volunteerism

Photo by Lori Cain.

Editors’ note: After Beth Casper wrote this piece, the Salem Saturday Market board updated its vendors in the January newsletter about the status of the Zero Waste Zone program for the upcoming season. The board will reduce the number of Zero Waste stations from three to one, and place regular garbage and recycling containers at other locations. They will not require hot food vendors to use compostable or recyclable items, although they will provide them with stainless silverware. Download the newsletter as a pdf.

I used to love the Salem Saturday Market.

A trip there meant quesadillas and organic peaches and berry lemonade. Promising and then picking up free balloons for my two boys, and dancing to fiddle music with my youngest. It meant entering a safe place where I would see dozens of friends and laugh and hug and point out the stands with the most beautiful heads of lettuce. It was a space for finding the perfect Mother’s Day gift or flowers to bring to the potluck or vegetable starts for the garden.

Now, my stomach sinks when I think about the farmers market.

The place that brought my family such bliss just reminds me of the continued frustrations I’ve had in trying to improve the market, bring more people there, create more joy. After four years and close to 500 hours of volunteering, my relationship with the market is now nonexistent.

I resigned my volunteer position as Zero Waste Zone consultant in August after it became clear to me that, even in its third year, the program did not have the support of the Salem Saturday Market board.

In my frustration, I made my resignation public, pointing out the painful problems with a board I felt was not fully behind a plan for recycling, composting and providing reusable silverware at the market.

I was disheartened that so many volunteer hours, grant dollars and hours of public education had not resulted in an established program. I felt blind-sided and angry.

But even more baffling to me, I felt drained of the passion that first brought me to the market. It wasn’t as if the tap had been turned off; it was as if the entire plumbing system had been ripped out.

I stopped going to the farmers market after my resignation. When I thought about the market, my shoulders tightened and my mouth straightened. The pit in my stomach grew hard and big. That made sense to me: I didn’t want to buy from the vendor who continued to bring the non-compostable cups long after she knew she wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t want to give my money to the vendor who refused to use the metal utensils. I didn’t want to see market board members.

What didn’t make sense was my lack of passion for other worthy projects. When three separate friends asked me to volunteer with their organizations, I said, “I need a break, but I will get back to you in a few months.” When those months passed, I still didn’t have the energy.

I needed to know I wasn’t the only volunteer to go through this. But I also needed to know that the passion that had given me so much energy for almost three full years hadn’t disappeared forever.

***

Volunteerism

Barbara Palermo with Fiona, one of her five chickens. Photo by Lori Cain.

I emailed Salem’s “chicken lady,” Barbara Palermo, someone I knew had spent years and countless hours fighting for something she believed in: the right to raise hens in her yard.

In early September, we sat together and watched five hens peck for insects in her West Salem backyard. She leaned back on her outdoor chair, comfortably listening to the clucking chickens and even laughing if they got loud.

“I hope they annoy the neighbor,” she said, smiling. “He’s the one who called code enforcement on me.”

When she first brought chickens to her yard in 2008, she did not know what a ruckus they would cause. She just wanted some eggs for breakfast.

She hadn’t found anything in Salem’s city code explicitly prohibiting hens, but she had found an ordinance that allowed for residents to have a pot-bellied pig. The city couldn’t possibly care about some chickens, she thought.

The neighbor’s call to code enforcement set off a tumultuous battle for the right to raise egg-laying hens within city limits. Dozens of city council meetings, hundreds of gatherings with supporters, a front-page Wall Street Journal story and an award-winning documentary about the fight mean that people now recognize Palermo on the streets of Salem.

“I became an accidental revolutionary leader,” she said. “I didn’t set out to change the law; it just happened.”

She was never comfortable with the role.

“It turned into such a public thing, and I am a shy introvert,” she said. “Many times I wanted to quit, but my personality is that if it is right, I want to fight for it.”

She can’t count the number of late nights she spent researching other cities’ laws about chickens, information on property values in places with hens and complaints about noise or odor.

In the end, after a two-year fight, she won. Salemites enjoy the freedom to have pecking hens laying eggs in their backyards.

But the sleepless nights, the anxiety and the arguments with her husband took their toll. Palermo ran out of energy.

“It’s all you think about day and night,” she said.

And then, with a firmness in her voice, she says something I completely understand: “I am never going to fight another political fight again.”

When asked to help create a similar law for Marion County residents, she declined. She’s happy to give people the 60-plus-page document containing everything they could possibly need to know about backyard chickens. But her personal energy is off limits.

She got to keep her hens. But Palermo — and the community — lost something, too.

***

Volunteerism

Beth Casper with some of the Zero Waste Zone signs previously used at the Salem Saturday Market. Photo by Lori Cain.

Like Palermo, I wasn’t a natural community activist. Having worked for newspapers since graduating from college, I rarely got involved in the projects most important to me because those were the same issues I covered as a reporter.

So in 2009, after I dropped to part-time at the local paper and it was clear that I wouldn’t be writing about the same topics, I jumped at the chance to join a brand-new nonprofit focused on enhancing a community place I love.

I was one of the original board members of the Friends of Salem Saturday Market, started to encourage community support of local, sustainable agriculture, educate the public about locally produced food and goods, and enhance the market.

We were nonprofit amateurs — people with high hopes for improving such an iconic place, but without much experience in the logistics of fundraising and volunteer organizing. While we received market board approval for our activities, we worked separately from the board to plan those programs and the logistics for making them happen.

Our idealism brought wonderful intangibles to the market: a valet service in which cyclists could entrust a volunteer to watch their bikes while they shopped for produce, ate lunch and listened to music; food preservation classes; cooking demonstrations; waste-reduction talks; farm tours; and a place to buy books about raising bees, growing vegetables and homesteading.

For two seasons, we created a more diverse, interesting community gathering place.

None of those programs remain, the result of highly energetic volunteers who took on too much of the burden for enhancing the market with too little support.

But in my stubbornness, I wanted to keep one program going: the Zero Waste Zone. The place where people could compost all of their food, recycle their pop cans and know that in patronizing a place that supports farmers, even their waste was going to generate some good. It was a big change for the market, where garbage cans overflowing with food, paper and easily recyclable aluminum cans littered every food aisle.

We started with almost 10 people who worked hundreds of hours to get the program off the ground. But the long hours, emergency meetings and constant negotiations with vendors, market staff and board members ensured that each of the volunteers stepped aside, still passionate about the work but unable to give any more energy.

I wanted to keep one program going: the Zero Waste Zone. The place where people could compost all of their food, recycle their pop cans and know that in patronizing a place that supports farmers, even their waste was going to generate some good.

I was the last holdout, probably for no other reason than my second son was born in the midst of the project’s launch and I got a mandatory break from the stress. As soon as his colic passed, my work on Zero Waste continued.

When I returned, I was virtually alone.

New Friends board members had replaced the original ones, and the group had a new mission. One original and one new board member offered to help me with Zero Waste when I was out of town, but the project was an old one, meant to have already been handed over to the Salem Saturday Market board.

So in the summer of 2011, I coordinated volunteers to man the three stations, covering the many — oh so many — shifts when volunteers didn’t show. I’d stand at a booth for five hours in a row to make sure that customers knew their plates were compostable. And yes, food, too. That water bottle is recyclable. Yes, soda cans have a bottle deposit. Did you know that you can throw dairy waste in your residential green bin?

My mind would be fuzzy at the end of those days, tired from the questions and the constant barrage of food waste coming to the station. This bin? No, this one? Wait, argh, that was compostable. My legs ached and my eyes burned from the sun. But in the end, I felt good about my time there. I was teaching the community about waste reduction and composting and recycling.

This past summer was different. The market board changed the rules, requiring vendors to purchase only compostable items — a change that should have made it easier for the public to sort their waste, but only if the stations had new signs. Instead, the old signs remained and market board members asked me to solicit more volunteers for the stations. I did, but I was unable to commit the hours I had put in the year before. So even with the help of a dedicated husband and wife, volunteer shifts went unfilled every week.

In July, I urged the board to get new signs. They had replaced the old ones with simple “compost,” “recycle” and “garbage” signs that didn’t explain which items fit into each category. At the end of every Saturday, inappropriate items contaminated the bins.

With the help of a volunteer graphic designer, I made new, clear signs for the board’s consideration. I hoped that, with the board’s approval, I could approach sponsors about paying for the new signs.

Instead, I received an email from the board stating that the directors had agreed “to cease all expenditures on this program.” They explained that they were reviewing the cost of the project, and “the membership of our market needs to determine to what extent it wishes to continue the program.” (Read the full email as a pdf.)

To me, the intent was clear: kill the project and blame it on expense.

Trapped, I could see only one way to save the project: public pressure. It’s not a new tactic in the world of community activism, but it was my first experience using it.

When I emailed my resignation to the market board, I copied market-goers, friends, former board members and Marion County employees who gave us the original Zero Waste Zone grant. (Read the email as a pdf.) Many of them, along with other energetic folks who worked on the project from the get-go, wrote letters, made Facebook posts and called the newspaper with the same message: We love the Zero Waste stations. Keep them.

My excitement at all the support only turned again to frustration when market board members wrote a public letter that made it seem like I was misinformed — that they had, in fact, been working to make the project sustainable for years to come.

***

Volunteerism

Curt Fisher enjoys bike-riding with his children: Myles, 9, and Maisy, 6. Photo by Lori Cain.

I recently told this story to Curt Fisher as we sat outside the Beanery coffee shop, and he nodded in recognition. The Vermont transplant has only been in Salem two years, but already he has devoted countless hours to making Salem a more bike-friendly community — and he’s run into similar problems.

He took over organizing Kidical Mass, a monthly family ride event along bike-friendly routes. He planned rides to a farm stand, a downtown sweets shop and along a creek.

“It had me energized for what this could be,” he said. “I had dreams of this becoming a Salem institution.”

When he started the rides a year ago, he took over the Facebook page and all of the promotion. He set aside monthly Sunday afternoons to lead the rides. He had ideas to involve more Salem businesses and bring people on bikes downtown more. He wanted to show merchants that bikes could generate business.

And he hoped that some of the riders who joined Kidical Mass would help him organize future rides.

“I was thinking people would step up in ways I didn’t even know,” he said. “It just didn’t happen that way.”

At the same time, Fisher was working to gain support for Salem’s Bike-Walk Plan, support that would show city councilors that residents demand better services for biking and walking. He attended meetings, dissected the plan and outlined comments for the city council hearing.

The surge of support that Fisher hoped would overwhelm the council didn’t materialize. Folks he thought would show up at the meeting never appeared.

At the same time, a Kidical Mass ride in August failed to draw any riders.

That’s when he “hit a wall.”

“This town deserves what it gets,” he thought.

His anger has since subsided, but his approach to volunteering has changed.

“It makes me more hesitant to take the wheel and drive the effort,” he said. “I wasn’t going to put myself out there anymore if no one was standing behind me.”

When the U.S. Green Building Council initiated an event in September that involved a bike ride between local schools, Fisher took a good, hard look around at the other Salem folks helping with the planning. Only when he saw that others stepped up to do some of the work did he agree to volunteer.

Now he focuses on occasional projects that draw more people instead of regular events like Kidical Mass. He’s working on a Salem Sunday Streets event for September which would close off a route through the city to motorized traffic for the day.

***

I wish I had Fisher’s energy. He’s continuing to work on the causes he is most passionate about.

If I am honest with myself, I know that it has been awfully hard to give up my voice for change at the farmers market. In Palermo’s backyard, she urged me to keep fighting.

“Finish it,” she said. “It’s clear you are passionate about it. Work on it until you win.”

But unlike Palermo, I didn’t have hundreds of supporters in a Yahoo group, ready for another meeting or an email barrage to councilors.

For all of Palermo’s inexperience taking on a cause like hers, she still started with the right stuff: research and a call to others who are passionate about the same cause.

I learned from her and Fisher that instead of spending my time filling volunteer shifts at the market, I should have been attending market board meetings to convince board members of the importance of the project. I could have been applying for grant money or writing a convincing research paper about zero waste zones.

I got so caught up in the week-to-week operations of the project that I couldn’t step back and focus on the big picture. And I didn’t want all the hours we had poured into the project to be for naught.

If I am honest with myself, I know that it has been awfully hard to give up my voice for change at the farmers market.

So it was a difficult — but calculated — decision when I sent my public resignation to the Salem Saturday Market board. My intention was not to leave in a quiet huff; my intention was to leave my mark, even though I would no longer work on the project.

It remains to be seen what happens with the Zero Waste Zone next season. The market board said it would form a committee to review the program this winter.

It could be that market-goers’ emails made a difference, forcing board members to see how much the community values the program. Or Zero Waste could just go away, a victim of the belief that there’s not enough money to support something like this.

It’s a shame, though, that the process had to wear out dozens of volunteers. And teach those volunteers that even projects that are good and right and sound are going to break you down, keep you up at night worrying, leave a pit of anxiety in your stomach and make you dislike a place or a mission you used to love.

***

In early December, I discovered that the passion I have for making this place better is not gone. I haven’t exactly found it, but I know it hasn’t disappeared.

I was grocery shopping in a fury, anxious to get home to two hungry boys. As I raced past the bulk section, a woman caught my eye. Her lips turned up slightly, and I paused. Did she know me?

“You work with the Saturday Market group, right?” she said.

Quick to distance myself from the pain of the experience, I said, “Um, well, I used to.”

She didn’t notice.

“Oh, I just love the market,” she said. “And I just loved everything you and the group did for it.”

We chatted for a few minutes, and then I ran through the aisles. Later, I recalled the way the woman’s eyes shone. She remained enthusiastic about the market, eagerly awaited its opening and looked forward to farm tours to her favorite vendors.

It reminded me of a friend of mine’s words — even if the project fails, she wrote to me, you impacted people.

My friend was right. People left the Zero Waste Zone knowing the terms “zero waste” and “compost.”  They learned that you can buy compostable straws, you can get a compost bin at home and that it’s possible to have an entire market be garbage-free (even if the Salem market wasn’t quite there yet). Market-goers also saw dozens of high school and college students volunteering at the stations, proving that the next generation of adults cares about waste and what happens to it.

My resignation, even the failure of the Zero Waste Zone, won’t ever change any of that.

And that’s how I know my discouragement won’t last forever. I will volunteer again in this community, working to make the place where I choose to raise my kids better.

My passion will return. And with it, a renewed sense of commitment to Salem.

When she is not playing dinosaur and firefighters with her sons, Beth Casper recycles, composts and writes about businesses going green.

Having left journalism for a career in teaching, photographer Lori Cain juggles her time between her husband, son and 120-plus students.