Empowering environmentalists, one cocktail at a time
A new environmentalism is sprouting up in New York City, and Eugene Lee is at the center of it. Lee organizes a monthly bar gathering for environmentalists of all ages, a good 30 of whom came together on a recent November night in the basement of the Bar Reis in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. The crowd wore “Brooklyn Green Drinks” name tags colored with brown and green vegetable-based inks. The tags were donated by Lee’s eco-friendly printing company, Rolling Press, which belongs to the Sustainable Business Network of New York, which includes Green Edge Collaborative, where Lee volunteers. Green Edge uses Internet-based social networking to promote neighborhood supper clubs - what used to be called potlucks - and events that other environmental organizations host in the city.
That same night, 20 bike-riding minutes across the Manhattan Bridge to Tribeca, the new wooden floors in Green Spaces NYC gleamed with light cast by 100 percent wind-powered electricity. Up front, a person-sized sculpture of a raindrop made out of white wire hangers hung from the ceiling, looking down on the cars and taxis weaving along Broadway. A projector stood sentry at the opposite side of the loft for that night’s screening of “Here We Grow,” a foodie documentary about the evils of agribusiness and local people-powered solutions to our nutritional crisis.
Green Spaces had rented out the loft and kitchen for the night to Herman Mazard, who coordinates the monthly sessions of Feast Up which, Mazard says, is a group whose main purpose is to provoke thought, even though the thoughts of most of those attending the event seemed already to have been provoked.
“Green Spaces’ goals are consistent with what we’re trying to accomplish,” Herman explained, as he turned a corkscrew into a bottle of Merlot. Herman pulled out the cork and poured the wine into a plastic cup. He passed it to one of his friends as a thin woman with short grey hair, Alexia Dunay, stepped up to him and held out her hand.
“I’m Alexia,” she said from the other side of the table.
Smiling, Herman took her hand, and tilted his head to the side as if he were trying to remember where he’d met her before.
“From Facebook,” Alexia offered.
“Ahhh!” In two quick strides Herman was on the other side of the table, embracing
Alexia in a light hug.
Alexia discovered Feast Up from a post on Herman’s Facebook page. She found Herman through a mutual Facebook friend, whom Alexia met at a different sustainable food event. “Friends, food, connections, new people, new ideas,” Alexia listed off the reasons she liked to go to events like Feast Up.
Hiding at his desk near the raindrop and finishing up some last-minute e-mailing was Roberto Rhett, who runs Tribeca Green Spaces but started out as an intern at the first Green Spaces location in Brooklyn, not 10 biking minutes from Bar Reis.
“It’s not just shared office spaces,” he said. “We create a community. That’s where the value is.” The bonus for members of Green Spaces is that they get to tie into other environmental sub-communities.
Rhett went on, “One of the biggest obstacles of the environmental movement is that it’s so fractured. So many people are doing great things and they’re doing similar things.” Through having members who are a part of the green design, sustainable food, clean tech, and other environmental communities, and inviting all of their members to each event, Green Spaces is looking to tie together New York’s environmental movement through business networking and event planning.
Networking Over Drinks
In Bar Reis’ basement, the director of the Green Edge Collaborative, Judy Harper, sat at a table with volunteers and staff from other non-profits, discussing organic farming regulations. Through Green Edge, Harper hopes to engage non-environmentalists who are interested in a sustainable lifestyle.
“I hate to hear that people feel there’s a barrier to come to our events,” Harper said, as if such barriers were something she hears about often. “If people don’t know how to make something vegetarian or vegan, I just tell people to bring wine. You can never go wrong with wine.” One of the organizations she admires – and promotes – is Brooklyn Green Team, which also publicizes environmental happenings around the city.
Amanda Gentile is one of the Green Team’s founders.
“Our theme,” she said, “is that we’re green superheroes and we wear these green towels.” She was referring to the costumes that she and her teammates wear in the photos and video skits they post on their blog. The team’s main initiative is three-month challenges, for which they ask their supporters to do one environmental good, such as not using plastic bags.
Although habit change and environmental education are the main thrusts of most environmental outreach, the interaction of groups like Green Spaces, Green Edge Collaborative, and Brooklyn Green Team seems to signal the start of something more. Green Spaces is a for-profit business but, as Rhett explained, it also brings together groups that focus on different aspects of environmentalism. Green Edge has its supper parties to introduce newbies to an environmental lifestyle, but Harper says that an important purpose of the network is to promote the events of other like-minded groups, too.
Gentile of Brooklyn Green Team said, “There’s so many great organizations in New York City. So we want to highlight the work of other nonprofits who need funding. We try to get people more involved in other groups, instead of reinventing the wheel.”
And all of them, including Rhett, at least occasionally show up for Green Drinks.
Vanessa Knight is another figure at the center of New York environmentalism. Knight founded the Sustainable Business Network NYC three years ago, when she came upon the idea through the national organization Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).
What does the network actually do to help connect sustainable businesses? Knight says to think of it this way: If Eugene Lee needs recycled paper for his printing company, the network can connect him to a local sustainable paper supplier. Or if he needs financial advice, it can direct him to a financial adviser in the city with social justice ethics. If Rolling Press is looking to have an event on green advertising, then perhaps the network would direct it to Green Spaces NYC, which is also a member.
Knight mused about a future “where goods are exchanged fairly, where people are paid well, where money that is spent goes back into the community.” She continued, “It starts at a local level, you know, with the idea that it will add up to a sustainable global economy.”
Although Knight says that she hasn’t yet encountered many roadblocks in getting the network going, she does find it frustrating that many consumers don’t recognize the social contract they have with local small businesses. In Knight’s opinion, this is where organizations like Green Edge can have an impact. “It’s about creating a relationship between the businesses and the community,” she said. For example, if Green Edge has a supper club in Cobble Hill and one of the network’s businesses opens up there, then Green Edge can let its network know about this new business.
Without mentioning the Sustainable Business Network directly, Harper touched on the same idea.
“I’m very much a person who believes in voting with your pocketbook,” she said, “but a lot of people are confused about what is the best thing to do.” She believes that Green Edge can be the place where people go to find businesses they can trust.
Just two weeks after the November gathering at the Bar Reis, Brooklyn Green Drinks joined with Harper and a band of volunteers to celebrate Green Edge’s “3rd Birthday Bash!” They moved down the slope to Littlefield, a larger venue that provided enough space for an on-site art installation, live music, and short environmentally themed documentaries. Nonprofits and businesses from around the city set up tables near the entrance.
Amanda Gentile had shed her green towel for the night and chatted with another Green Team member at the bar, which served Crop organic vodka especially for the event. Judy Harper went from person to person, talking and smiling. The perfectly tailored Eugene Lee, in his business suit and neatly combed back hair, stayed toward the front, greeting guests. Carolyn Gilles, who founded Green Edge NYC and has recently moved back to her hometown to start Green Edge Kentucky, returned to the city for the event.
Gilles said of the Brooklyn Green Drinks organizers, “They were our friends at first.” The close relationship they now have was something that happened, well, organically.
As Lee put it, “We all have the same goal, really. The overall idea is that there’s something to be done, there’s an earth to save. So why don’t we all work together?”
Maggie Craig studies journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.