Friday, October 17, 2008

The Power of Grassroots

Environmental education has been my passion for many reasons, but I’ll admit I focused on animals because I’ve been cynical about humans, feeling they have few redeeming qualities any more. But, over the past few years I’ve begun to have hope in humanity again. I see the extraordinary things a small group of people can accomplish when they forget their differences and come together for the good of their community. It’s called Grassroots, and it’s sweeping the nation. Perhaps one of the best examples of a Grassroots movement started with the band Donna the Buffalo and their eclectic “Herd” of followers.

If you have not heard Donna the Buffalo’s funky mix of purely danceable music, you should go to and give them a listen. Make sure you pay attention to the lyrics along with the superb music to get a sense of the positive messages of talented songwriters Jeb Puryear and Terra Nevins. They find a way to mix deep emotional topics like social and political justice and environmental awareness with a sound and rhythm that stimulates movement and an overwhelming sense of joy in their listeners. To really understand their feel good vibe, you must experience them at a live performance, preferably bouncing up and down with the rest of the Herd near the stage. This diverse group of fans are loving people spanning all races, ages, and backgrounds, and are always ready with a smile and a hug, not only for friends, but also for every new face that taps a toe with them.

But, what can a band "on the funky side" and a motley group of hippies really do to make a difference? Well, here’s where you’d be surprised. This particular Grassroots movement started very small, with one show in Ithaca, New York to raise money for local AIDS organizations. Members of the band were excited by the success of the show and decided they wanted to continue the fundraising effort for other worthy causes. They created the Grassroots Music Festival every July in Trumansburg, New York. Eventually, the Herd grew until they added a second bi-annual festival called Shakori Hills in Silk Hope, North Carolina every April and October. Since then, they have expanded into a nationally recognized effort that also promotes other Grassroots festivals all over the country. They have raised funds for disaster relief and others in need of assistance, social justice, political activism, environmental conservation, and green living, to name a few. They have accomplished all of this while at the same time providing exposure to local, regional, national, and international cultures through music and the arts. In short, they offer a great time, a way to relax and enjoy living, while you learn and grow.

My first exposure to Donna the Buffalo was at a small club called Ziggy’s in Winston Salem. I was instantly addicted to the sound and bought every CD I could get my hand on, and I’ve attended every Shakori Hills Music Festival. My favorite aspect of Shakori Hills is, of course, their campaign for green living. They offer recycling and composting and teach attendees about proper recycling methods. They provide a bio-diesel shuttle bus to the festival from a number of local towns and cities, and promote car pooling by offering any car arriving with four or more passengers free parking. Areas of the large property have been designated “Natural Preserves” where no camping is allowed. Festival organizers regularly announce ways everyone can pitch in to help the local environment.

Rather than selling bottled water for a profit, Shakori Hills offers a large filtering truck to refill and reuse bottles for an honorary donation. Food vendors offer organic and healthy food choices and serve on recyclable materials as much as possible. It is not uncommon to hear adults remind their children to take only one napkin rather than a handful from the food stands or to see children picking up trash and recyclables around the park. The festival even provides a Sustainability Fair throughout the weekend with environmental education talks and activities, and a number of healing arts providers are on hand to teach all manner of exercise and healthy living techniques.

The latest project this wonderful group of people has started is the Solarize Shakori Hills Project, a fundraising campaign to purchase solar panels for the festival. At $10.00 per cell, they have already sold $3000 last weekend alone and by next year the festival will be a solar powered event. (For information on how you can help, email )Even some of the other regular performers are promoting sustainability. Grammy Award Nominees The Duhks announced that their latest CD is packaged with recycled materials and soy based inks.

The Herd doesn’t stop their charitable giving at the festivals alone, however. They have created their own “Side to Side Charities” and have raised tens of thousands of dollars for community services to feed the hungry, house the homeless, empower women, end racism, serve children in need and with special needs, save homeless pets, and provide goods and services to low income families. They will literally give you the shirts off their backs. A large collection of donated clothing can be found at every festival and is free to anyone who needs them.

How are they inspired? By listening to the music of Donna the Buffalo, and by watching the band and their fellow Herders walk the walk and talk the talk for change. Now, we finally begin to see Grassroots movements taking center stage with the largest effort of its kind entering our political realm this Presidential election, and it’s about time. Although I’ve been an advocate for environmental change for as long as I can remember, the Herd has taught me to give back to my community in other ways, as well. I now volunteer for local arts organizations, give time and money to The Campaign for Change, and work with organizations like the YWCA YGyrl leaders teaching girls about Leadership and Community Services.

I attend every Donna the Buffalo show I can afford. Why? Because I come away refreshed, renewed, and reminded that humans are a wonderful species capable of great kindness, giving, and love, and an inherent goodness. I am reminded that there is a great power in every small community, and every grassroots effort, no matter how small, has the potential to change the world.