Environmental & Community Call to Action: A Conversation with Dan Levinson
Mar 25, 2011 04:05PM
Dan Levinson is the leader and financial benefactor of Green Village Initative (GVI), which he funds through his private equity firm, Main Street Resources. He co-founded the organization in 2008 to provide funding and support to individuals and organizations passionate about creating local environmental and community change in Fairfield County. It’s an ever expanding work in progress, but by all accounts he is succeeding in that mission and the results are impressive. Yet it’s the personal rewards that have gone far beyond anything he or his members could have imagined, that make this organization so compelling – and effective.
What were the major influences in your life that led up to establishing Green Village Initiative (GVI)?
I was lucky to have several powerful influences when younger – it just took me 40+ years to integrate them! My grandfather was an immigrant businessman and my grandmother was a creative philanthropist – both extremely successful, self-made and highly regarded. My mom took their success and spent her life helping others – she had us marching on everything in NYC in the 60s. Two of my siblings, older than me, had a rough time in the 60s and my dad, a psychiatrist, did his best to hold it all together. I went to an experimental school in NYC thru 8th grade that was highly integrated based on the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and it had a farm in the Catskills where I spent 3 to 4 weeks a year. Somehow I always knew I would spend the first half of my life living up to my grandparents and the second doing something that really matters. It feels soooooo good to be doing what I’m doing now.
Why Fairfield County, and how has GVI evolved since its inception?
The formation of GVI was inspired by the September 2008 Westport Bag Ban, a local ordinance banning the use of plastic bags for retail checkout of purchased goods, which overnight caused us to think that maybe this area might be getting back to its historical liberal leadership roots and might become a model. Central to our model is local action, which I learned a lot about from Susan Witt, Director of the E. F. Schumacher Society in the Berkshires (now called New Economics Institute). Since inception, we have been on fire – gaining members, completing projects and including other towns at a rate far in excess of what anyone expected.
GVI has produced great results to date. How do you account for that?
There are several things core to our strategy that I think have contributed: (1) we are a good mix of business resources and skills, and literally “saints”, who have been doing nonprofit work in this region for decades; (2) we are project and action-oriented, which attracts great people who want to cause real change; (3) we focus on community-building across many issues rather than just one (such as water protection or energy reduction or local food) which brings more people to the process; (4) we are consensus-builders and problem-solvers here for the long term and treat everyone with respect and appreciation; and (5) we are a real community and people who spend time with us become friends and family and learn and grow from the experience – and many people are hungry for that.
What criteria do you use in selecting your projects?
We like to take on local, tangible, specific projects related to environmental and community building. The key is for projects to start with a knowledgeable/passionate project leader. It’s easy to get a great idea – but it takes real commitment to accomplish things. We value these project leaders above all else – because they bring the energy and personal commitment - and the whole organization rallies around them bringing whatever help and support we can to them and each project.
What are GVI’s key projects currently underway?
- We started Wakeman Town Farm & Sustainability Center about a year ago. After renovating the buildings and bringing in Mike Aitkendhead, Staples High School Environmental Teacher who now lives on and oversees the farm, we are launching programming next month including homesteading classes, and CSA/RSA offerings.
- We have brought together the many water protection organizations in the region and have launched a huge ten-year project to clean up Westport harbor. Eco-Fest occurs annually in the Spring which features 5+ high school bands at the Levitt Pavilion to raise environmental awareness.
- We will employ 30+ interns this summer between the farm and Sherwood Island Nature Center for quality job/study opportunities.
- We have an ongoing educational film and lecture series (we’re bringing Anna Lappe, founder of Small Planet Institute, to Westport to speak in April) and are helping to create a summer program at the Westport Art Center entitled The Artist and His Environment plus a show at the Westport Historical Society on farming called Back to Our Roots.
On and on – too many to mention here - our website GoGVI.org has a complete and ever growing list.
What are you doing in Bridgeport?
I’m glad you asked that. Our model calls for “activating” a few wealthy, creative towns and then turning their awesome people and resources on a neighboring, more needy town – in this case bringing Westport, Weston, Ridgefield, Fairfield, etc. – to focus on Bridgeport. We have committed to installing edible gardens in each of the 30 public schools in Bridgeport and we hope to do the first half in the next two to three months. Meanwhile we are assembling a group of local CEOs with the goal of starting and supporting worker and community-owned businesses. Our efforts have been led by Karen Sussman who brings incredible local knowledge, energy, tremendous humor and a no BS approach. We have found working in Bridgeport to be faster and easier than expected – and we are thrilled to be doing something that might help there.