Orcas Island Philanthropy

I am constantly amazed by the lessons I learn on the road.

Case in point…I’m just finishing a 9 day run. I’ve been to the Aspen Institute’s annual Environmental Forum, which was co-sponsored by the National Geographic (where I saw my friend and DCCK Board member Barton Seaver get monster props for his work and amazing love for his new book, “For Cod and Country”, which I highly recommend if you want to eat seafood, yet respect and strengthen the ecosystem from which it comes). Then I rolled out to Seattle to give the commencement address at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, which is leading the pack of MBA programs that focus of sustainability.

In each of these settings, I was surrounded by smarties…I was literally bathing in brilliance…yet, it was on my final stop, way out on Orcas Island, that I witnessed some truly retro-revolutionary work.

First of all…I love to celebrate firsts. Even at age 52, it’s amazing how many things you do for the first time. My most recent first—I flew in a sea plane (a DHC-2 Beaver) from Seattle, out across the Puget Sound to West Harbor. Ever wonder what it’s like to take off on a sea plane? Check it OUT

There I met up with friend, former DC grrrrrrl and now Orcas Island Community Foundation ED, Hilary Canty. I love the Canty Clan. Her brothers Brendan and James are punk rock royalty…Big B played drums in Rites of Spring and Fugazi, while James bent the strings in Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up and now, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists…and her baby sister Siobhan (who ran DC Cares and who now works down in Miami at the Knight Foundation) is my double best-est buddy.

Anyway….Hilary invited me out to Orcas to lead a discussion on the power of food and community, which was held out at the local Odd Fellows Hall, which is where our story gets interesting.

By their very nature, islands are closed eco-systems. It’s virtually impossible to remain anonymous there, so service is almost required. They have over 100 nonprofits on the island, so Board membership alone demands true sweat equity from Orcas residents. Having a population of only a few thousand means that groups have be forced to collaborate more than mainland orgs, and that Hilary’s organization, along with the land trusts and other co-ops have had to be really innovative w/their economic resources.

Here, sustainability isn’t a theory; it’s practiced out of necessity.

One example is the Odd Fellows Hall, where about 50 folks came out on a particularly gorgeous Monday night to meet with me to discuss food, community and what comes next. They are already doing amazing work getting local produce into their school cafeteria, and they have brokered the line between classroom and what is being served for lunch like few communities I know. The Odd Fellows Hall also rents out its kitchen to different groups for pop-up restaurants, so almost everyday of the week, the sandwich boards go up inviting locals and tourists alike to come in, get their grub ON and support the local community w/ every bite.

But most of all….I was impressed with the high school class of 2011, all 60 something of them, who develop community projects of surprising depth.

Here’s just an example of two of the islands proud philanthropic progeny.

Call it quaint, call it simple….but color me impressed. Island living….well, isn’t for the faint hearted. It takes stamina and commitment. It also takes a keen respect for the resources you have, and how you can maximize their value.

Orcas Islanders know the true valuate of community.