RSF Culture

Coming to Terms: Money & Biography Workshop

January 15, 2014

March 14-16
Sequoia Retreat Center, Ben Lomond, CA

 

Money plays an important part in our lives, and yet we rarely examine our relationship to it, or how our attitudes and behaviors around it are entwined with our biographies. Throughout our formative years, we are exposed to money and identity messages, through our family, the media, and our culture in general. As we come to understand our selves, our values, and our destinies more deeply over time, we rarely take the time to also explore the assumptions we live with around money and finance.

This workshop, co-led by Leah Walker of the Center for Biography and Social Arts, and John Bloom, Senior Director of Organizational Culture, RSF Social Finance, will be an opportunity to begin or further the exploration of money and biography through reflection, artistic exercises, and shared experiences in a safe environment.

This workshop is intended for anyone, regardless of financial circumstances. The purpose of the workshop is to support each participant in connecting her or his biographical and money threads and to help integrate espoused and practiced values. Our hope is that participants leave with a sense of how money can serve their life purposes.

sequoiaRegistration Information

In the spirit of gift economy, we will be asking participants to contribute to cover the costs for the weekend to the extent possible, including housing, meals, and leadership. Space is limited to 22 participants with an estimated cost per person of $750.

Registration will be on a first come, first served basis, and we are asking for an early contribution to hold a space.

Please contact Val Esway at RSF [val.esway@rsfsocialfinance.org] with questions or to register.

Download a event flyer here

RSF Pricing Meeting: Resetting Rates, Recognizing Interdependence

July 8, 2013

by Jillian McCoy

Inspiration

For many years, we based our investors’ return rate on the 13-week U.S. Treasury Bill.  Each quarter we recalibrated the rate based on this well-publicized benchmark.  In 2006, we shifted to a different benchmark – LIBOR, or the London Interbank Offered Rate – which at the time represented the most commonly accepted barometer for short-term interest rates worldwide.

In 2009, well before the now notorious LIBOR scandal, RSF staff knew that a seemingly arbitrary rate, disconnected from the needs and activities of our community, was not a right fit. During a staff study group of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on economics, we realized that the community of participants in the RSF Social Investment Fund were best suited to accurately determine a price that meets the needs of all parties.

Innovation

As of October 1, 2009, RSF adopted a community determined rate recommended each quarter through collaborative conversation with representatives of all three stakeholders in the RSF Social Investment Fund – investors, borrowers, and RSF staff.  A 4% spread (used to fund RSF’s operations) is then added to this customized SIF rate to determine RSF Prime, the base rate for borrowers in our Social Enterprise Lending program.

This collaborative process begins at each of our quarterly Pricing Meetings where stakeholders gather to meet one another face-to-face, discuss their needs and intentions, and share how an increase or decrease in the rate might impact them.

To date, we remain the first and only lending institution that has facilitated meetings between investors and borrowers to determine loan pricing.  With RSF staff at the table facilitating the conversations, all three stakeholders are reminded of the impact of their financial decisions. In this environment of direct engagement, the conversation is elevated beyond efforts to pay as little as possible or earn as much as possible. Instead, the stakeholders seek to achieve a balance between the financial and impact needs of everyone present.

Over 100 guests joined us for a community reception following our most recent pricing meeting in San Francisco.

Over 100 guests joined us for a community reception following our most recent pricing meeting in San Francisco.

Impact

In 2012, RSF Prime decreased by 0.25% to 4.75%. This was the first decrease since RSF Prime was first established. Since 2012, the rate has dropped an additional 0.25%. The driver behind the decrease was to ease some of the financial burden of existing borrowers and increase RSF’s ability to attract new borrowers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, at our most recent pricing meeting in San Francisco, there were requests from the investor community to increase the rate. However, over the course of the evening, their understanding of the impact of the interest rate shifted from their natural self-interest to an understanding of the whole system.

As one RSF staff member who attended the meeting commented, “One of the significant moments came when one of the borrowers talked exactly about how an increase in the interest rate would affect her company financially, and prohibit them from making a key hire at a time when her company needs additional staff to support growth. Investors could see in no uncertain terms the consequences of their stated need for a higher return. The resulting recognition of how their interest was directly connected to the borrowers was a transformative moment.”

In fact, although most of the investors noted that they would like an increase in the interest rate, they decided not to recommend an increase after learning how it would negatively impact the borrowers. At one point, one investor became emotional while expressing just how much it meant to her to be a part of this community, and learn more about how each borrower is having a positive impact in the world.

The borrowers were also touched by the conversation. One participant reflected, “It is thrilling to be a participant in the avant-garde of social finance. The current system is broken and we applaud this process where a more sensible and holistic paradigm can be practiced.”

Before the close of any quarter the RSF Pricing Committee, an internal RSF team, meets to discuss and reset the interest rate. The committee considers the input from the Pricing Meeting attendees in addition to reviewing macroeconomic conditions and the competitive market. The committee determined that the interest rate will remain the same for Q3 2013 – 4.5% for RSF Prime and 0.50% for investors.

Jillian McCoy is Senior Associate, Communications at RSF Social Finance. 

A Brief Call for Transformation

May 15, 2013

Callby John Bloom

In a world in which we have commodified labor, land, and all natural resources, and now capital as well, why should we be surprised that democracy is also for sale? Citizens United has proven this point in the extreme. What has been less noticed or documented is a long-standing stealth campaign to commoditize human identity—the human ego is in many ways the last frontier of commerce. Anyone who doubts this intention should be aware of the following clarion call from the Art Directors Club Annual No. 34 of 1955: “It is now the business of advertising to manufacture customers in the comfort of their own homes.”

We cannot seek the antidote to this invasion in social isolation. Self-reflection is an important tool of self-knowledge, but self-knowledge is meaningless without the reciprocal knowledge reflected back to each of us from the world. In some ways we serve each other as awakeners and sanity checkers, and hold each other to accounts so to speak. Another way of looking at this would be that each of us needs to be free in determining a destiny path and vocation, and at the same time find meaningful work in serving others’ material needs. The world of rights and agreements mediates this intersection of the individual and material world, and the collective activity itself is what we call economics—or how we meet human materials needs out of compassionate interdependence. I might venture to say that understanding and transforming how we work in the world economy, even in its most local or regional expression, is itself a threshold to restoring, preserving, or furthering the development of consciousness.

The experience of this transformation acts as preventive counterpoint to what is a kind of virtual identity theft. Money, with all its attendant issues, is nothing more than the barometric instrument of the collective we call world economy. Understand money and the current condition of humanity, and our ability to know ourselves and care for each other is visible in it, for better or worse. Truth is, unless one hews to and hides behind a protected right of privilege, the picture demands profound transformation that centers on the intersection of money and spirit. This is work that no one other than each of us can do for ourselves, and even better to be done in community so that we can support others as they support us. If we do not rise to this challenge, we risk the human birthright and inner work of spiritual freedom and step instead onto a path of slow tyranny.

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

A Healthy Stream of Capital

April 25, 2013

by Tammy Childers

Originally published in the Spring 2013 RSF Quarterly.

RSF’s purpose is “to transform the way the world works with money,” but what exactly does that mean? In pondering this question, I recalled time spent outdoors exploring a particular creek. I realized there was a metaphor in the story of that creek for a transformed financial system.

Last summer, with my family, I visited Filigreen Farm, a diverse Demeter certified Biodynamic fruit farm in Mendocino County. One morning, my mother-in-law, Joellen, and I set out to tromp through the creek that bisects the farm. This creek, the Anderson Creek, is a major tributary feeding into the Navarro River and to the Pacific Ocean twenty miles away.

In the year that had passed since my last visit, the creek had changed. The water was deeper in some places, but there were also more sandbars. Standing up to our knees in cool, clear and slow moving water we marveled at dark pools of circling fry, audible frogs, and lush vegetation. We lingered in shallow water searching for captivating treasures.

By the time the sun was directly over our heads, we were ready to head back to the cool shade of the house, but with willows, shrubs, and grasses crowding the creek banks and islands, we could see no obvious path to the farm on the other side.

When we finally emerged, we ran into Stephanie Tebbutt, one of Filigreen’s managers. We thanked our host, and Joellen commented on what great fun she had in the creek. This creek, Joellen said, struck her as particularly beautiful; she had not seen a stream as clear as this one since she was a child on her family’s farm in Nebraska.

When Stephanie and her husband Chris, both landscape designers, first came to Anderson Valley in 1982, “the stream looked nothing like its present self: curving, clear, and about twenty feet further back from its former location,” Stephanie said. “It looked like others up and down the Anderson Valley: straight, denuded of vegetation. The landowner at that time had bulldozed the creek each autumn to straighten it, clearing any vegetation brave enough to rear its head along the way. What little survived was grazed down by the cattle.” The practice had eroded the farm land, sending topsoil down to the sea, creating a steep cut bank, and facilitating spring flooding.

Lush landscape and Filigreen Fram

Lush landscape and Filigreen Fram

Together the Tebbutts set out to stabilize the creek bank. Bringing the natural rhythm and energy back to the water would be the key to the riparian restoration. “Water is not meant to flow in a straight line,” Stephanie said. “There are unintentional consequences to forcing water in that way: flooding, bank erosion, and a wider, shallower summer creek bed with higher water temperatures unsuitable for nurturing new life.”

They began by planting willows and cottonwoods along the banks, and over a period of 18 years, experimented with an array of engineering techniques to stabilize what was considered one of the worst erosion problems in the county. Many of those early efforts failed, but eventually, Chris came up with a system to build jetties, or “nick points” to slow the creek in flood. The jetties were planted in fast-growing riparian trees and formed the basis for what would eventually become the flowform structure that enabled meander to return to the creek. Now the water would hit a berm, follow the curve, hit another berm, and follow the curve, depositing silt and topsoil from upstream at the back of the jetties, and scouring out deep pools in front, effectively changing the flow of the water back to that of a healthy creek.

In time, silt and soil built up along the banks and native weeds and woody plants moved in to capitalize on the new territory, thus providing habitat for the life we witnessed. Now this half-mile stretch of Anderson Creek is monitored by county and state agencies for its remarkable come-back.

As Stephanie explained this, I exclaimed “That’s what RSF is trying to do with money! We are trying to change the flow of capital so that it flows to the businesses and organizations that are creating a deep, positive social impact.”

With our current financial system, if we speak of the flow of water as the flow of capital, we could say the flow has been interrupted; it has been bulldozed and channeled straight. As a result, the flow is muddy and opaque and the wealth is removed from its origins and deposited far downstream.  When bad news hits, businesses lacking deep roots in the community are wiped out in a flash flood. As aggradation, or the displacement of sediments caused by repeat floods, alters geography resulting in shallow and dispersed water flow, a financial crisis erodes capital from communities and displaces it to far off investors resulting in less capital for local initiatives.

A healthy financial system can be seen as a healthy stream with its meander restored by the actions of the social finance community. Through direct lending, investing, and giving, RSF can contribute to restoring the natural flow of capital to businesses and organizations that encourage a healthy economy, environment, and people.

With a transformed financial system, we will directly invest in businesses and organizations with deep social impacts that encourage and support their communities. There will be diversity among these businesses and they will add value to their community by investing in people and practices that are good for society and the planet. The flow of capital will be patient and will settle into areas suitable for sparking new opportunities that, in turn, contribute back to the greater flow. More people will have access to and benefit from this flow, increasing the diversity of businesses and organizations. When bad news hits, it will not be a tragedy because our businesses and organizations will have established deep, healthy, community-based roots.

Now I ask you to ponder: What does it mean to you to transform the way the world works with money? How would that world be different than it is today? What needs to happen to make that change? And what can you do to contribute to it?

Tammy Childers is Loan Servicing Manager at RSF Social Finance.

Community-based Approaches to Food and Finance

December 26, 2012

Dear Friends,

As we enjoy time to reflect on the year past, it has been an honor to share inspiring stories with you, like those of Viva Farms and Hawthorne Valley, and to announce some of the new work in food and agriculture that our community is financing — including Organic Trade Association, Common Market Philadelphia and Farmigo. These organizations exemplify the link between agriculture and community. They also make clear how important long-term access to land is for fulfilling their intentions.

Fortunately many people are waking up to the importance of organic food—not just because it may be better for them to eat, but also for the healing benefit it brings to farmers and the environment. However, less than 4% of all sales of food and beverage products in the U.S. are certified organic and less than 1% of all land used for crops and livestock in the U.S. is certified organic. This represents a tremendous opportunity and challenge in the coming decades. Imagine when each of these numbers reaches 25%, or 50%!

photo courtesy Common Market

 

The most powerful shift will occur when we go “beyond organic”—Local, Biodynamic. These are the keywords for a truly community-based approach to food. We know that organic can be done at industrial scale, which carries with it many of the same economic problems we see in other large-scale or globalized businesses.

Instead, we think we’ll see tens of thousands of small, diversified farms sprout up over the next 10-20 years whether motivated by community resilience or business innovation. And we are aware of at least one new program, the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley that calls into question the dominant paradigm of 20th century agricultural development with an approach to diversification on the farm that can be the key to feeding the world and practicing ecological stewardship.

So how does a diversified approach to farming connect with money and finance? Just as we’ve seen big developments in how people think about their food, we are also beginning to witness a huge parallel shift in how people think about their money. There has been significant growth in sustainable and responsible investments (SRI) over the past 30 years. 12% of all assets in the U.S. ($3 trillion out of $25 trillion total) are invested in SRI funds. Imagine when this percentage goes to 25%, or 50%!

photo courtesy Viva Farms

Even more encouraging is that the fastest growing segment of SRI is Community Investing, defined as funds “that serve communities overlooked by traditional lenders.” Over the past three years, Community Investing has grown over 60%, from $25.0 billion to $41.7 billion in assets, and local food systems are a part of it.

Just as local has gathered as much interest as organic, we are seeing direct community investments capturing people’s imagination in a way that socially screened mutual funds do not. People are no longer satisfied with cutting out what’s bad; they want to invest in what’s good.

As always, we hope that you will enjoy these thoughts and stories, and we also hope that you will think about how your money is working to bring about change in our food systems, whether that is buying organic or biodynamic food at the farmer’s market, joining CSAs, investing in organizations that support diversification in food production, or supporting social enterprises such as Viva Farms. It will take investing, lending and giving in concert to bring about the change we want to see. Please consider RSF as your partner in this effort.

All my best,
Don

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance.

Impact Investing for All

December 4, 2012

Earlier this year, Mark Finser, RSF Board Chair, had a lively conversation with Chris Mann, Guayaki CEO, and Matt Reynolds, Indigenous Designs President. Matt and Chris were energized about the RSF pricing meeting in which they had just participated and were enthused by the community spirit. They started asking several questions including: How can RSF borrowers better acknowledge their relationship with RSF? In what ways can the borrowers cross-promote their brands and support one another? How can the borrowers leverage their communities to raise more awareness about RSF and the Social Investment Fund, which allows individuals to make a return on their investment while providing loan funds to phenomenal social enterprises?

Chris and Matt’s spirited energy is something we always see following the RSF quarterly pricing meetings and community receptions.

There’s no question that RSF’s pricing meetings are unique. The three stakeholder groups in the RSF Social Investment Fund—investors, borrowers and RSF staff—come together to discuss the interest rate for the upcoming calendar quarter. As far as we know, this process is unprecedented in the world of financial services. What bank is out there asking investors what rate they should receive or inquiring of borrowers what a fair loan rate would be? But, it’s not just the discussion of price that makes the pricing meetings so revolutionary. It’s what happens during the meetings while the participants are sharing their needs and motivations. It’s the stories they tell about what led them to become an RSF investor or, as a borrower, what the RSF loan has allowed their social enterprise to accomplish. It’s community building around financial transactions. Through our expanding and engaged community, amplified by the impact of our borrowers, we’re building the next economy—one that considers everyone’s needs and restores trust in financial relationships.

After several discussions and brainstorms following up on Mark, Chris, and Matt’s enthusiastic conversation, we launched a Facebook campaign: Impact Investing for All. Along with Guayaki and Indigenous Designs, we’ve been joined by additional RSF borrowers: gDiapers, Happy Family, Late July, Mary’s Gone Crackers, and Nutiva.

Impact Investing for All highlights the RSF Social Investment Fund (SIF), in which anyone can become an impact investor with a minimum of $1000. All of the money in SIF is loaned to path-breaking social enterprises. If you open an account, you know where your money is working while you receive a financial return! (And, you’ll be invited to participate in the quarterly pricing meetings.) For the duration of the campaign, the borrowers will be promoting each other and highlighting this incredible community of social enterprises.

These participating social enterprises are passionate, inspiring, dedicated, and making a world of difference. We are honored to have them as part of our borrower community and we are all lucky to have such committed, mission-driven businesses in the marketplace.

Wondering if you should participate in the Impact Investing for All campaign by opening an SIF account?

Are you a mom or dad in love with the Happy Family lines which offer delicious and nutritious food for your kids? Or, are you a gMum or gDad, committed to your baby’s comfort and a healthier environment by going with disposable gDiapers?

Perhaps you’re gluten free and can’t get enough of Mary’s Gone Crackers? Or are superfoods your thing and Nutiva products a dietary staple? Do you appreciate delicious organic snacks and reach for Late July when you need a treat?

Maybe you’re a Guayaki yerba mate aficionado (we have a few on staff!)?

Is fair trade fashion a passion and Indigenous Designs a trusted purveyor?

Or are there other borrowers in our community you know and love?

If you’re interested in participating in building the next economy and know that direct, transparent and personal transactions are necessary for a resilient financial system, become an investor at RSF. All of the participating borrowers have offered generous discounts, so we have gift packages for those who open a Social Investment Fund account before Dec 31, 2012. The gift includes a $50 Indigenous Designs gift card, a $25 Happy Family basket, and much more! The gifts are limited – get yours today!

To learn more about the participating borrowers, check out the campaign page: here

To open an account, contact Mark Herrera at Mark.Herrera@RSFsocialfinance.org or 415.561.6160.

 

From Fragile to Resilient: Libor to RSF Prime

November 28, 2012

by Don Shaffer

Let’s recognize the historic opportunity we have to change the current culture of money!

We know, for example, that big banks like Barclays pushed the adoption of Libor over another benchmark—a comparatively simple cost-of-funds index that many observers now say was better for borrowers and much less volatile. The switch was made for one reason: to increase short-term profits for the banks. The foundation of trust in Wall Street has been completely undermined as a result of this and other recent scandals.

Based on our core principles, RSF is taking small steps to create a fundamental transformation in the way the world works with money. A great example is RSF Prime. We developed RSF Prime to create community among the participants in our flagship loan fund, the RSF Social Investment Fund.

For many years, we based our investors’ return rate on the 13-week U.S. Treasury Bill. Each quarter we recalibrated the rate based on this well-publicized benchmark. In 2006, we shifted to Libor because it represented the most commonly accepted barometer for short-term interest rates worldwide.

But as the first wave of the financial crisis unfolded in 2008, we became increasingly uncomfortable with this approach. We realized that pricing to meet the needs of our stakeholders could most productively be determined by the community of stakeholders itself. So we began hosting face-to-face meetings at our offices in San Francisco with representatives of the three stakeholder groups of our RSF Social Investment Fund: investors, borrowers and RSF staff. In October 2009, we adopted a customized interest rate collaboratively recommended by these stakeholders each quarter. We dubbed this new base rate for borrowers “RSF Prime”.

We believe this is the first time that a lending institution has facilitated meetings between investors and borrowers to determine loan pricing. With RSF staff at the table facilitating the conversations, all three stakeholders are visible to each other and engage in a direct and transparent exchange to understand intentions, motivations, and needs. We feel that other financial institutions such as community banks and credit unions have similar stakeholder groups that could be engaged in this way.

The loan-pricing meeting is one step towards modeling a more resilient financial system. At its heart is building community, which RSF also holds in how it works with borrowers by bringing them together to share wisdom and resources, and in its innovative grantmaking through Shared Gifting. A web of trusting relationships and a spirit of collaboration are foundational to a resilient economy. We have observed that by bringing all the stakeholders together, there is more engagement, fulfillment, and accountability.

Just as an organic or biodynamic farm relies on far fewer external inputs than a conventional farm, we are eliminating our reliance on Wall Street rate-setting, going “off-the-grid” as much as possible, so that we can be more resilient based on the strength of our investor-borrower community.

We invite you to share other ideas with us—either suggestions for what we can do at RSF, or ways you think other institutions can change to make our financial system more transparent and trustworthy. You can ask your bank about how they set their interest rates, for example.

Ultimately, we have to “be the change”, as Gandhi said. In our view, energy spent modeling a new way of working with money will have much more positive, transformative, and long-term effects than trying to change the existing system from within through regulation.

Let us know what you think!

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance.

Soil, Soul, and Society

October 25, 2012

By Martin Ping

“What we are founding here is a seed—the seed of a living organism. The organism is essentially threefold—pedagogical, artistic, and agricultural—as reflections of thought, feeling and will. Each needs the others if the whole is to flourish. All are interrelated… for young and old alike, this work together will create a place in which to become, in the true sense, a full human being.”

~Karl Ege, Hawthorne Valley Founder

On July 30, 2012, Hawthorne Valley Association marked the 40th anniversary of working the soil of agri-culture on its land in the Hudson Valley of New York.  In all that time it has been Hawthorne Valley’s mission to inspire by example social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture, and the arts.  The significance of place and the ability to connect intimately to and through place provide compelling evidence as to why our localized agriculture can be understood as a foundational activity upon which all humanity depends—not just for producing food.

Hawthorne Valley does produce its share of food.  Situated on 400 acres and leasing another 400 from neighboring landowners, Hawthorne Valley Farm is a diversified biodynamic farm with dairy herd, on-site dairy processing and creamery, 14-acres of vegetables, four CSA groups, five Greenmarkets, an organic bakery, a vegetable processing kitchen, and the Farm Store, which is a full-line organic grocery store featuring Hawthorne Valley products along with many local and regional artisanal food and value-added offerings.

Acknowledging the challenges facing small independent farms in the late 1960s and early 70s, a group of pioneering biodynamic farmers in the U.S. were looking for a viable way to keep land in agriculture without having to rely on family succession as the sole alternative to a monolithic agri-business model.  Valuing land as more than commodity and de-coupling it from market forces that clamor for “best use” (i.e. most profitable) was viewed as a healthy and necessary step towards reshaping the future of farming.

Fortunately, a group of Waldorf teachers spent summer vacations on one of these biodynamic farms. They were concerned about children’s meaningful interaction

with the natural world.  As the forces of materialism, mechanization, and technology infiltrated childhood at increasingly earlier stages of development, they wanted to be sure the possibility would remain for these young people to form a living connection to the earth they would one day be called upon to steward.

Hawthorne Valley came into being as a response to these emerging issues. By purchasing property with the intention of making it a viable, working biodynamic farm providing hands-on, practical learning opportunities for children and adults, the founders of Hawthorne Valley set the stage for what would develop over the next forty years, touching the lives of thousands along the way.

The natural landscape at Hawthorne Valley has provided a living classroom for the numerous agricultural, educational, and cultural offerings that take place on the farm. The Farm Learning Center administers training and education for biodynamic farmers, including a two week biodynamic intensive and an apprenticeship program. Just across the road, in the heart of Harlemville, sits Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, an independent day school serving students from pre-K through Grade 12. The Alkion Center for Adult Education provides Foundation Studies in Anthroposophy, Waldorf Teacher Training, and intensives in the arts. It is the integration of these initiatives (and more) under one umbrella that contributes to the vitality of the Association. The humble seed planted 40 years ago has now grown to 160 co-workers manifesting a common vision through this variety of activities.

Hawthorne Valley Association’s service is to a broader constituency than local residents. Visitors come from across the region to experience Hawthorne Valley Farm. In the fall of 1972, the first group of visiting students came from the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.  Since then, over 600 children each year have spent a week or more on the farm as visiting students or summer campers.  Comments like “Wow, food comes out of the ground?!” are not uncommon when children set to work in the fields.  The joy and satisfaction with which a nine-year old mucks out a cow stall is always gratifying to witness.  And, to see the reverence with which a child carries a warm egg in the palm of their hand, as if they had just wrested the golden egg from the giant’s goose, is telling of the deep resonance we can all feel when connecting with the source of life.

This connecting, or re-membering, is at the heart and soul of Hawthorne Valley’s work.  Restoring the possibility of nourishing relationships is essential to our mission of social and cultural renewal.  By engaging with the natural environment and all that it provides, students, co-workers, and visitors can explore critical pathways toward connecting with each other in new social forms, and at the same time for each one to sense her or his own purpose and highest sense of self.  Through direct experience with nature we are given an open invitation to reclaiming our full humanity.  The resulting wholeness is the foundation of health, both individually and societally.  By honoring the interdependence of all, we build the bridge to a consciousness which includes the well-being of everyone.

With many activities and initiatives, Hawthorne Valley Association is a constant work in progress as it responds to the needs of the community and region. What began with a gift from three individuals to purchase the land has grown into an economic enterprise rooted in place. From the beginning, as cows were introduced and milk began to flow, the possibility was there for economic relationships to develop—one could ladle milk into one’s own bottle or slice off a piece of cheese. Direct sales and on-farm value-added processing immediately emerged as the center of Hawthorne Valley’s financial stability. Since the early days, the farm and the Association have largely operated on an earned income model. This has made it possible for the delivery of goods, education, and other cultural experiences to grow with the broader community.

The surrounding area of Columbia County, which was once one of the poorest in New York State, is growing into a vibrant local living economy. Most notably, a number of the 60 new farms that have started up in the county in the last decade can trace their lineage to Hawthorne Valley, along with cultural initiatives like the Nature Institute.  Although tucked away in a little hamlet in upstate New York, Hawthorne Valley recognizes its work in a larger context and is connected to many individuals and organizations nationally and globally.  We feel an especially deep affinity for RSF Social finance, which was housed on the northern edge of Hawthorne Valley Farm until 1998. While the focus of our work may be local, the consequences of our actions can be global.

Hawthorne Valley is called an Association because of the intention to consciously weave the very distinct yet integral parts of agriculture, education, and the arts into a holistic thriving organism. This means that a governing board of trustees stays in close touch with the varying needs of each of the Association member organizations as well as understands what and how each participant contributes to the health of the others. From an operational standpoint for example, a transactional value chain is created as the farm sells fresh milk to creamery for processing. Through a number of other transfers, the cheese arrives at the Farm Store, to be purchased by the local community or denizens of New York City in the case of the Greenmarkets. This creates one beneficial financial cycle that supports the larger associative economy.

Through this diversity of activities, and through conscious collaboration with the wider community, Hawthorne Valley hopes to expand its contribution as a farm and food hub, and generative cultural engine, towards co-creating a resilient, local living economy.  Though it can often be a challenge to balance the more commercially-oriented production enterprises with the learning and research programming, this inherent tension zone, when navigated gracefully and with good will, provides the creative spark that enlivens the being of Hawthorne Valley and spawns the experiences that comprise her rich biography.

It is a high honor and privilege to walk to work each morning to a learning community that is committed to creating a place in which it is possible to become, in a true sense, a full human being.  Where people heal through the experience of working with land and each other, working with animals, preparing meals together, hearing the joyful noise of a thriving school community, all in this very special place. That is the primary intention of the Hawthorne Valley Association—to participate in the birth of a new consciousness story, one that tells the human story and the earth’s story in a way that strives to set an example of some of the highest ideals of community.

Martin Ping is the Executive Director of Hawthorne Valley Association and has been there for than 20 years.  During that time he has taught practical arts in the High School served as director of facilities at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, and served as project manager on several million dollars of new construction projects.  For the past nine years as Executive Director, he has focused his attention on developing the working relationships amongst the Association’s diverse enterprises, the 160 co-workers, and the broader community in the Upper Hudson/Berkshire region. He has been instrumental in initiating several new programs at Hawthorne Valley and supporting similar initiatives nationally and globally.

 This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 RSF Quarterly.

Strong Vision Helps Pine Hill Waldorf School Persevere and Lead

September 24, 2012

Building the Next Economy

Fire is a defining element for Pine Hill Waldorf School—as both metaphor and history. In a sense that’s true for RSF as well.

The old New Hampshire farmhouse the school had occupied since shortly after its founding in 1972 burned to the ground in 1983. Determined to rebuild, the school formed a fundraising team. Among those they approached was Siegfried Finser, who at that moment was reviving the Rudolf Steiner Foundation (now RSF Social Finance) as a social investment vehicle.

“Our situation ignited the rebirth of RSF,” says Arthur Auer, then a Pine Hill teacher and now director of the Antioch Waldorf Teacher Training program, located during the summer on Pine Hill grounds. “Forces and people coalesced and created a comprehensive school master plan and one of the most striking examples of Waldorf school architecture in the U.S.”

INSPIRATION

“I saw an education for children where their whole beings were tended to and cared for—bodies, minds, spirits—and people coming together who all wanted that,” recalls Sherry Jennings, who has been a Pine Hill teacher from the beginning. “I was very inspired to tend that flame.”

She notes that Pine Hill was at the forefront of a surge of interest in Waldorf schools, which numbered only about a dozen at the time, most of them started in the 1940s. “Parents were looking for a new kind of school community, where they could be part of it and have connections with other adults who shared similar values.”

A similar “hunger” arising again today gives the school fresh inspiration, she says. “We’re coming full circle, in a way. I see that parents are really longing for deep connections.”

INNOVATION

That intense parent connection to the school was an important aspect of an innovative $1.1 million rebuilding package that included $500,000 in pledge loans and loan guarantees through the newly minted RSF and an innovative parent bond program. To spread costs, parents of new students were required to purchase a $1,000 bond that could be redeemed upon graduation; at that point many opted to donate their bond to the school, producing an ongoing asset-building stream.

With Pine Hill as a model, RSF has continued to support Waldorf schools, not only by providing capital but also by helping them to build communities willing to commit financial and other resources to a project’s success.

At Pine Hill, the school community also was integral to designing the new building. The architect interviewed teachers, friends, parents and children, and the children drew pictures of what they thought the building should look like. The result was a building that appears to emerge from the land itself.

“We wanted the building to arise out of a sense of place in the forest, on that granite hilltop,” Auer says, “and we wanted it to be not just environmentally friendly but also to fit into the environment. Its main gesture is a big heart of an auditorium in the center and two classroom wings embracing the children as they stream into the building.”

The auditorium was completed several years later in a second building phase, and unbelievably, a second fire struck as the last coat of finish on the stage was drying. It destroyed the auditorium and damaged both classroom wings. Insurance covered the cost of rebuilding, but “that fire was extremely painful,” says Auer. “That building was built with love by a whole team of parents.”

Now Pine Hill is building again, and again with help from RSF. The Children’s Village, an early childhood education center that fulfills the school’s master plan, is taking shape next to a biodynamic community farm. “We’re really excited about The Children’s Village,” says Jennings. “This is a space where we can protect and honor the needs of the really young child. We’re also doing publicly accessible parent education, which is a way to contribute to the whole community.”

Pine Hill child care center

IMPACT

“Without RSF we would not have been able to develop as full a master plan and model school,” says Auer, adding that the impact is not just local: The Children’s Village speaks to other Waldorf schools about the value of establishing their own early childhood education centers.

“One could become very anxious about taking such a risk in a recession,” Auer says. “But I think The Children’s Village is the right decision, to have the courage to go outward and serve the community. Others might say this is not the time to do it, but we are not doubting. Having gone through two fires has proven that Pine Hill has a strong body of life forces. I always have had confidence that those forces will prevail and bring us through to another new phase.”

VITALS

Organization name Pine Hill Waldorf School
Impact area Education & the Arts
RSF relationship Loan recipient, RSF investor
HQ Wilton, New Hampshire
Annual budget About $2 million
Employees 20+
Students 180 children, 125 teacher trainees (summer campus)
Communities served Local area and Waldorf education nationally

 

Fourth Conversation on Money, Race, & Class

August 2, 2012

By John Bloom

Conversation is powerful technology. It can be used to build community, engender trust, transform people, and renew what it means to be human. Such communication can invite a sense of the sacred by the very willingness of participants to delve into deep and complicated topics out of interest in each other, and an openness to be in the tender condition of vulnerability. If successful, one leaves the gathering as a different person, a keeper of others’ stories. When the stories focus on the entwined realities of money, race, and class, and are shared in a group that is cross-class and race, the conversation brings forth extraordinary challenges. The genius is in both acknowledging those challenges and making the safe space to work through them.

On December 9, 2010, RSF hosted the fourth Conversation on Money, Race, and Class. This full-day gathering, brought together a diverse group of fifteen community leaders from the Bay Area. Each responded to the invitation out of an interest in the topics, and opportunity to explore them in an unhurried collaborative environment. Further, each participant agreed to recording the conversation, so that it could have lasting value. Click here to download the full transcript. Each of the participants has reviewed the transcript and has released it to be published. We have tried to create a collectively held copyright in that each participant maintains the right of use, while RSF holds a general copyright for any inquiries.

It is fair to ask why RSF Social Finance, with my leadership, would invite such a gathering. The answer is quite simple. We need to get past not talking if we want to bring about change. Money and the effects of the financial system touch everyone. If we are striving to transform how we work money and how it works on us, then we are called to learn how to have conversations that may be uncomfortable, challenging, sometimes confrontational, inspirational, and include often unheard voices at the table. The stories can be painful, sometimes celebratory—to tell and hear. Imagine someone saying how painful it is to talk about race, but it is a good change from the pain of not talking about it. Imagine, from a position of privilege, absorbing someone speaking of the legacy of shame due to poverty. Or, to be able to own and share a prejudice against people with wealth even as some of those present are wealthy. These are transformative moments, certainly moments of deep learning for me, borne of a willingness to listen deeply, and to being present with each other. Understanding the complexity of human issues working in our economic life is useless without understanding how those issues feel to and directly affect each participant day-to-day.

Patricia St. Onge, our facilitator, helped us set the tone of inquiry and the basic ground rules for the day. She led the first experience, Conocimiento, for which each of us was given a large sheet of paper and a choice of drawing and coloring media. The “task” was to create a picture based on the following: my name and (if there is one) the story behind it; I am from… ; my people are… ; a childhood memory of understanding money and/or family dynamics about money… ; an early experience of economic injustice… ; tracking the changes in my attitudes about money; and, today, money holds meaning for me in these ways….. Following the completion of these works, we did a gallery tour in which each person told the story of their drawing and was then acknowledged by the whole group. What a beautiful beginning way to get to know each other’s story. The thoughts and feelings spoken during this session continued to reverberate through the day.

The Conocimiento was followed by launching into the first conversation question: What is the connection between who we are and what our experience is of wealth, economic need and prosperity—for ourselves and in our community? This question and the issues that emerged through asking it engaged us for the better part of the day. For the latter portion of the meeting, we drew questions from the group, and spoke to them until it was time to close for the day. We closed with a brief sharing of insights from the day, a wish for the group, and a wish for the world.

Following the gathering, we asked for reflections. In response to the question: How were you affected by the conversation? One participant wrote:

“It is so rare to have the opportunity to sit and think and talk about the important issues of our contemporary lives. To have the luxury of time. To have the luxury of a safe space. To have the luxury of both familiar and unfamiliar faces, all of whom are compassionate warriors in the struggle for making the world a better, saner, safer, more loving place to live and grow. The day fed my mind, soul, heart, and body. What a blessing. I’d like everyone on the entire planet to have a day like this. I, who live a privileged (though not wealthy!) life, find this experience so healing. How many millions of people on this planet (whatever their socio-economic status may be) may not even know that being this way is possible? Maybe that’s the transformative moment—to have the lived experience, that this being this way, in conversation, open and thoughtful and compassionate, is possible.”

It is with humility and an awareness of others’ realties that RSF convened this conversation on money, race, and class in collaboration. It is our hope that the wisdom and insights shared in these collected conversations serve anyone wishing to transform themselves and their communities. We are currently editing the fifth conversation held in January of 2012, and are looking forward to planning the next.

Click here to download the 2010 Money, Race, and Class Transcript

To learn more about this event and review past transcripts visit http://rsfsocialfinance.org/impact/reimagining-money/

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

RSF Culture

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