Congregational Church. I’m here with WindowDressers, a Rockland-based nonprofit that works with volunteers to construct insulating window inserts for Maine communities. Though the front hall and chapel are deserted, familiar strains of folk music filter up the basement steps. I’m in the right place.
Today’s “community build” was organized by Zak Kendall ’17, my friend and bandmate in the folk group GoldenOak, and Tony St. Denis, a local boatbuilder who represents WindowDressers in Bar Harbor. The three of us first met at a GoldenOak show and then again at the Common Ground Fair, which is where Tony enlisted us as volunteers.
Walking down the hall, I find our album playing on the boombox and Tony in deep contemplation of a roll of plastic wrap. Also in the room are Pastor Rob Benson and two eighth graders from the Conners Emerson School. The brightly lit room is a jumble of wooden frames and boxes, with five folding tables piled high with sealing tape and heat-shrink plastic. Tony greets me enthusiastically and then, gesturing to the workstation in front of him, asks, “What do you think about the size of this sheeting?” I agree that it’s probably big enough for the large frame that he has propped against the side of the table. I hope so, anyway—I’ve never done this before.
After the formalities, I’m handed a roll of packing tape and a pair of scissors, and instructed to seal the edges of the window insert before a final layer of padding is added. As the afternoon darkens to evening, people filter in and out of the church basement, greeting each other and diving into the work. Another COA volunteer, energy work-study student Kali Lamont ’18, joins my station. I show her how to finish the seal by sliding a finger along the window’s edge before heading on to discover what comes next. The room moves in a rhythm: Learn one, make one, teach one. Pass it on.
While I work, I notice that each window insert is labeled with the name and address of its recipient. Some are people I know from around the island, and I find myself thinking of them as I put the finishing touches on each frame. The short-term solution is the product we’re making: reusable inserts that significantly reduce heat loss through older windows. But the long-term solution is the process: building our relationships with each other and responding to the needs of the community. We are not exactly experts; we are just people who happen to live here, learning to live together.
At the dinner break, Rob orders a pizza and we clear a space by the kitchen to sit and talk. I ask Zak how he came to organize this event with Tony. Their connection formed through his position as an energy fellow at COA’s Community Energy Center, he says. The CEC was created to connect COA’s sustainability and renewable energy efforts to our surrounding communities, and to ensure the continuation of these efforts from one class, independent study, or internship to another, “with the implication that we could work with the community and aid them in their projects,” says Zak. For students, the CEC can serve as laboratory, sounding board, and classroom. In exchange, student enthusiasm is channeled into ongoing initiatives from which the community benefits. The event with WindowDressers, Zak continues, is a perfect example of the reciprocal relationships the CEC hopes to facilitate. And on campus, some COA students are now working with B&G carpenter John Barnes to build reusable window inserts for COA’s draftier buildings.
Founded in 2016, the CEC is currently managed by Andrea Russell, MPhil ’17. After spending a term with COA faculty and students on the energy-independent island of Samsø, Denmark, Andrea returned to secure home energy audits for six MDI residents. “Having been a part of the MDI community since 2001, doing this community work was like a homecoming for me,” Andrea says. “Localism is very strong here. People whose families are from MDI hold a unique sway over the community at large. If we can get them excited about local renewable energy, we have a chance to truly change the energy infrastructure on the island as a whole. Their pride in MDI can be the driving force.” Andrea’s perspective demonstrates a fundamental premise behind the CEC’s work: it’s essential that solutions be both envisioned and carried out from within a community.
COA’s work with the community is also an extension of the effort to navigate between the college’s role as a leader in sustainable strategies and its responsibilities as a functioning institution with consumptive habits. “Other schools are getting close to complete dependence on renewable resources. That’s a huge feat because colleges are incredibly visible,” notes Zak. But, he adds, “they’re buying it from elsewhere, like wind farms,” or investing in renewable projects to earn carbon offsets—as COA once did. Additionally, many other schools have hired external consultants to research and advise their decisions, whereas COA is committed to integrating our sustainable efforts with our education so that student-led initiatives and class projects are the driving force behind these changes.
In 2007, COA made a global splash by becoming the first carbon-neutral college in the nation, reducing and avoiding the emissions it could, and purchasing offsets for the rest. But by 2013, COA had a new plan. “We had bought carbon offsets and divested from fossil fuels, but we didn’t actually change things on campus, we just changed who we invested our money in,” says Zak. Rather than buying offsets, which helps the global market through sustainable investments, COA altered its approach to achieving energy independence, “veering more toward the idea of producing all of our energy on campus, whether in the form of electrons or wood pellets or heat pumps to heat our spaces.”
In 2013, COA’s All College Meeting ratified the energy framework created by the Campus Committee for Sustainability. The framework foregrounds education as a means to both improve school-wide environmental literacy and facilitate the essential planning, implementation, and analysis of the college’s efforts to be free from fossil fuels by 2030. Under these guidelines, says Zak, “The most important part of developing any kind of project is student input, education, and involvement. We hold classes to identify issues, come up with projects, and develop solutions that fit our systems.” As a result, students learn through experience to think practically and to see obstacles as resources. Lisa Bjerke ’13, MPhil ’17, whose focus has been on encouraging others to view waste as “discarded resources,” adds that “COA can’t buy itself out of this situation, just like the world can’t buy itself out of this situation.” The college’s new framework, she says, is grounded in the conviction that “students have to first learn about the process of change-making before they can go out into the world and create more change.” By placing projects in the hands of students, COA puts human ecology to task—and demonstrates our trust that the learning process is the living process.
“We’re going to come up with rough solutions first,” continues Lisa, “and through that process learn how to come up with better ones.” In COA’s new strategy, process is essential.
Former CEC energy fellow Spencer Gray ’17 has focused on rooftop solar and electric vehicles. He finds that classes in this vein, “are almost treated like a business, and you have to bring a proposal to the people who will be funding it. When I’m working with businesses in town, and providing counseling for them, it’s a practical application.” Students actualize their education through application; in turn, islanders benefit from the students’ work. The CEC creates the framework for this authentic and reciprocal learning process: helping community members transition toward renewable energy sources while aiding organizations like the CEC in developing statewide energy solutions.
Real people; Real issues
Zak recently completed his internship with MDI Clean Energy Partners (MDI CEP), a local nonprofit founded by William Osborn and Steve Katona, former COA president. Willy and Steve collaborated with Anna Demeo, COA lecturer and director of energy education and management, to launch the CEC, which is funded by grants, including one from the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America program. One of Zak’s internship responsibilities at MDI CEP was to research community solar models—cooperatively owned solar arrays—tailor them to fit Maine policies, and publish his findings online for others to access. For Mainers who don’t own their homes, community solar makes the conversion to renewable energy sources more cost-effective and thus attainable, building networks within communities, since consumers don’t necessarily need to be located where the energy is generated.
During his internship, Spencer worked on a proposal to construct a community solar array at Beech Hill Farm. When asked about the challenges to the project, which is still in the planning stages, he talked about land-use policies: “It all depends on how the holder of the easement interprets the language. Putting solar panels in a field is not like digging a new oil well, but depending on how you read the language, is it utilizing a resource, or building a new building?” Other factors include “zoning setbacks, local infrastructure—whether the utility system can handle the electricity—and neighbors.” Zak and Spencer both emphasize that developing the models isn’t just about crunching numbers; you have to be able to relate to individual stakeholders and to anticipate their needs and concerns.
Beyond technology and technique, students are learning to navigate the human side of sustainability. When you’re working “with real people and real issues,” as Zak says, the stakes are higher. These risks, however, are the conditions through which the community itself becomes a classroom.
The connections built through the CEC will enable us to re-envision what’s possible and not possible for the community as a whole. And in the process, we become empowered within a situation that can otherwise feel largely out of our control. For more, visit coa.edu/cec.
Eloise Schultz ’16 recently completed her teaching certification in English language arts. She plays trumpet in the band GoldenOak and is the oral history and youth outreach intern at the MDI Historical Society.