(This article was produced in partnership with the Energy News Network, a nonprofit news site that covers the transition to a clean energy economy from state and regional perspectives.)
A pioneering local climate group that put Maine’s Mount Desert Island on a path to energy independence is now trying to help other citizen-led groups achieve their clean energy and climate resilience goals.
A Climate to Thrive (ACTT) recently launched a series of monthly Zoom meetings aimed at mentoring activists from across the state and providing a forum for exchanging ideas, strategies, and expertise.
“If we only do this [work] for our island,” said Johannah Blackman, ACTT’s executive director, “it doesn’t help that much to address climate change — unless we actively share what we learn with others.”
Founded in 2015, ACTT sought from the outset to be a catalyst for broader climate action. A meeting the group hosted in 2018 helped prompt Gov. Janet Mills to establish the Maine Climate Council, which oversaw a participatory process to create the state’s climate action plan.
ACTT also helped found a statewide coalition of groups that advocate for broad-level policy change and regulatory reform. In Maine, a state renowned for its strong home-rule tradition, change often comes from the ground up.
On Mount Desert Island, ACTT facilitated a five-fold increase in solar generation, installed a network of electric vehicle chargers, helped establish municipal and community solar arrays, and worked with food businesses to reduce single-use plastics and greenhouse gas emissions.
Even during its early years as an all-volunteer group, ACTT became “pretty well recognized as the first and foremost citizens’ group in the state,” said Mac McAbee, a volunteer with York Ready for Climate Action. Now, its three full-time staff members are “all at capacity all of the time,” Blackman said.
Local groups around the state routinely seek advice from ACTT, and while Blackman values giving that support, she began pondering how to provide it most effectively. In a single week last October, she fielded calls from eight different groups. The time had come, she realized, to offer more formalized mentoring.
‘Open and participatory’
With backing from her board, Blackman launched “Local Leads the Way” in January, offering monthly sessions for community activists to discuss topics of shared interest, take virtual community tours, and hear presentations by expert leaders. Blackman expected about 10 people to enroll. In fact, 30 people attended the first session.
Blackman co-facilitates the meetings with Ania Wright, a climate organizer for the Sierra Club’s Maine chapter. Participants collectively decide on session topics. Upcoming subjects include equity in climate action, differences among community solar models, collaborating with local businesses, and coordinating multi-household weatherization or solarization campaigns.
Local activists have already “found a lot of success piggy-backing off other groups,” Wright said, and now they can “bounce more ideas off each other.” With concern over climate impacts growing, she added, “there’s so much energy around wanting to do something and not always a clear vision for what that is.”
ACTT was fortunate early on to engage residents who already had relevant expertise. For groups that lack local people with the necessary knowledge, the network offers access to experts from other communities.
‘Connecting across boundaries is a good thing’
Local Leads the Way is already providing a welcome sense of solidarity and a valuable sounding board, said Mary Blackstone, a participant representing Green Ellsworth. “It’s been really interesting for people to share their experiences and to see that we have this number of enthusiastic colleagues.”
The recently completed Ellsworth Green Plan recommended a stronger county-wide network of sustainability groups. Having those alliances extend statewide is even better, Blackstone said: “Connecting across boundaries is a good thing.”
Scott Vlaun, executive director of the Center for an Ecology-based Economy in Norway, Maine, is delighted that ACTT is taking on this coaching role. The larger group “will be really useful and regional networks are likely to form as well,” he said, noting that groups like his in less affluent and more politically conservative parts of the state face different issues than some of the coastal communities.
Participants are already considering a buddy system that would pair up members facing similar local dynamics, Blackman said. Many communities in the network span a wide political and economic spectrum, including Mount Desert Island, despite perceptions that all of its residents are progressive and affluent.
Groups often work to bridge partisan divides with projects such as tree planting, weatherization and solar energy installations. “It’s important not to think about polarity but to think about the common denominator of place and community,” Blackstone said.
‘From the community up’
The launch of Local Leads the Way coincides with Maine’s new Community Resilience Partnership grant program, which offers municipalities and regional service providers funding to help advance the state’s climate goals. More experienced groups like the Center for an Ecology-based Economy can now help smaller communities while broadening their outreach through efforts like the center’s annual clean energy expo and a weekend-long climate convergence held around Earth Day.
The two initiatives complement one another, but Local Leads the Way operates from a different premise, Blackman said. “While the partnership [grant program] is conceived of by the state and handed down to communities, this work is from the community level upward. I find it more informed by the specific needs communities face and how to address those needs.”
ACTT and other groups often work in close partnership with local municipalities on projects, but being independent allows them to advocate for stronger municipal action. In York, McAbee noted, more than 50 volunteers showed up at a select board meeting to pressure the town to join the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.
Municipalities tend to prioritize the mechanics of climate adaptation whereas local activists may be more motivated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Residents often focus on the crisis aspect of the problem, and that takes a degree of boldness that some towns and cities shy away from,” said Beverly Roxby, a member of the city of Belfast’s Climate Crisis Committee.
Many activists see the new mentoring network as a way to reduce the risk of burnout. Having done community-scale climate work for nine years, Vlaun said, it’s frustrating to witness the lack of progress nationally and internationally. But in Maine, he’s excited to have the state now a constructive partner and to see stronger mutual support among activists: “There was just none of that when we started.”
Groups are becoming more aware of the need to “maintain ourselves as activists, trying to keep the momentum going,” Vlaun added. Local Leads the Way holds promise to reinvigorate those already active in climate work while drawing the circle wider. In his view, “there’s no way we win unless we build a diverse, deep and broad movement.”