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Cheryl King Fischer on the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund

The health of the environment is a significant concern today, where global policy change might seem like the only road to a solution.

But Cheryl King Fischer, Executive Director of the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund (NEGEF), knows that individuals are an important key to improving the environment. In the 14 years that NEGEF has supported grassroots groups in a six state area in New England, she’s witnessed the strength of citizens when they come together around environmental issues.

A funder/activist collaborative, NEGEF’s mission is to “ensure civic engagement in community projects that build and maintain healthy, safe, and environmentally sustainable communities,” says King Fischer. Grassroots grants of up to $2500 are awarded to both formal and informal groups in focus areas including environmental health and toxics, energy and climate action, sustainable agriculture and food systems, smart growth/land use/natural resource management, water in the public trust, and consumption and sustainable behavior.

In 1995, four New England environmental funders came together for a series of conversations. They wanted to learn if the environmental movement was at a crossroads, and what the perceived needs of the environmental community were at all levels of activity. What they realized from this process was that community-based, environmental work was both under-valued and under-resourced.

NEGEF was then created to support the work of locally focused, largely volunteer driven, and often informal groups of citizens that typically could not gain grant funding through a traditional funder. Says King Fischer, “Part of our theory is that when individuals come together, they cluster around an issue and solve it – this is civic engagement at its best.”

Today most of the groups that NEGEF supports have no staff and spend less than $10,000 a year. While a few grow, incorporate, and become small non-profit organizations, she’s convinced that just as much relevant power rests in the informal grassroots. “We don’t require that the groups go on some growth path,” says King Fischer. “And we know that some of the best public policy and practice around the environment really comes from the ground up.”

Energy is an area where NEGEF has witnessed a significant impact through local efforts. Numerous citizen committees may begin with simple campaigns like promoting a residential switch from incandescent light bulbs to fluorescents, and many move on to challenge local governments to green buildings, organize community home energy audit campaigns, and develop locally generated renewable sources of energy.

King Fischer says impacts of this kind can’t be replicated by “watching ads on TV,” because their effectiveness only comes from the kind of personal persuasion of a neighbor or friend. “It’s a little friendly peer pressure,” she says. “But when people see that their utility bill can go down, they realize that single actions are part of a larger solution.”

NEGEF has also been an active supporter of community gardens, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture programs, gleaning projects, and “localvore” (eat only locally grown food) challenges – all parts of the new 21st century healthy food system. Today local food production in New England is thriving as a result, and more households are buying from local producers. The localvore movement is one that King Fischer says has evolved from “the broken state of our global food system,” and a growing realization that an economically efficient and nutritious system “can be rebuilt on a local unit.”

New England, even with its challenging climate, has the land resources to produce perhaps as much as 75% of their food it needs. Agriculture and family farms still dot the New England countryside, but it will take a great deal to build that new food system. As a result, NEGEF is currently focusing much of its grassroots grant making on the promotion of local food production.

King Fischer says that the success of projects like these, and the knowledge that NEGEF has gained over the years, has moved their work into a next phase.  On September 23rd, NEGEF, in conjunction with Grassroots Grantmakers, will host a funders briefing to show the impact of grassroots grant making on a “healthy local food system.” The briefing is part of a long-term plan to share strategies and approaches with funders on the potential of grassroots civic engagement.

It’s the broad strategies as well as the individual outcomes that she wants funders to learn more about. “About 1/3 of our group participants say that when they receive a grant, it’s one of the first times they’ve been involved in the community,” she says. One of the outcomes of their involvement, King Fischer says, is that many “become community leaders or sit on the state legislature.”

“Supporting these groups becomes like a feeder system for civic engagement that leads to significant community change,” she says. “It’s important for people who have never been in the public realm to know that they can do more than cast a vote.”

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