The Oberlin Project will close its central office this summer, eight years after its founding.
While to many the closing may seem an occasion marked with sadness, it’s anything but for those involved with the organization.
“More to the contrary, it’s a celebration,” said founder David Orr. “We accomplished a huge amount in a relatively short amount of time.”
From its inception, the Oberlin Project was meant to be a temporary organization that would help the city of Oberlin and Oberlin College collaborate to build a resilient and sustainable economy, respond to looming challenges in rapid climate change, and advance the cause of justice for which the community is known.
Originally, it was to have a lifespan of four to six years. Now past that mark, it’s ready for the next step.
“I’m glad we kept it going because some of the things we could not have imagined until the (Hotel at Oberlin) was finished,” Orr said. “We couldn’t have imagined this as being a venue for national events, or the buying power the hotel exerts in the local economy. We couldn’t have, probably even two years ago, started a housing initiative here, but we can now.
“This is a celebration. It’s a transition. It’s like your kid’s grown up and you’re marrying them to someone else. Now you have a son-in-law, or daughter-in-law, instead of just a son or daughter.”
The Oberlin Project began in the spring of 2009 and its central office opened in 2010.
Over the past eight years, it has helped start programs to grow the local food and farm economy, improve local housing, especially for low and moderate income families, and create an environmentally-educated public.
It has helped develop the city’s Climate Action Plan and played a role in Oberlin’s selection as a White House Climate Action Champion city. It was also a collaborator on major projects such as the 11-acre solar array and the building of the Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center.
It also helped introduce sustainability into the local public schools’ curriculum and was a driving force behind the Oberlin Environmental Dashboard.
“When you look back at the amount of change that has happened since the Oberlin Project began, it’s remarkable how much has changed in the community,” executive director Sean Hayes said.
Every initiative the Oberlin Project took on included a community partner.
“In the beginning, we worried about being in no man’s land between the city, the college, and the community, where everybody could shoot at you,” Orr said. “That didn’t really happen; I think we got a lot of cooperation. We changed the way people talked about life in Oberlin.”
Hayes agreed: “What we’ve accomplished, to date, shows what’s possible if a motivated, engaged, community takes the onus upon itself and wants to demonstrate change from within,” he said. “I think that is going to be more important over the next four years.”
The timing of the closure of the organization’s central office may make some wonder whether it’s in any way connected with the current White House administration. President Donald Trump has said he doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change, and has appointed Scott Pruitt — also a climate-change denier — as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hayes said politics didn’t motivate the closure.
“Despite what I think he expects, not everything that happens in the country is a result of Donald Trump,” he said. “This is based on the timelines and the objectives we set eight years ago when the project was conceived.”
“Trump doesn’t have anything to do with any decisions we make — neither does Marvin Krislov’s departure (as the president of Oberlin College) in June,” Orr said. “It just happens to be the timing of when we thought we could get certain objectives done. We over-performed and got a lot more done that I ever thought we could, but it took us eight years to do it.”
The Trump administration’s stance on environmental issues is troubling for many. Some may believe that now is the worst time to close the office of an organization like the Oberlin Project.
Hayes feels confident in the decision, though.
“I think this work is more relevant today than it was the entire time (Barack) Obama was president,” Hayes said. “One of the amazing things about the Oberlin Project is we built it as a ground-up local set of solutions. This is what’s going to have traction for the foreseeable political future. This is where we can make things happen. This is where deep change takes root.
“If I didn’t have complete trust Oberlin as a community would carry out this mission, I would seriously reconsider the decision that was made.”
Orr sees similar changes in philosophy across the nation.
“Across the country there are unbelievable amounts of activity at the grassroots level,” he said. “The sustainability movement is really booming. Some of it is being driven by technology, but a lot of it is people realizing that we’re blocked up here at the federal level, but the creativity at the local level can accomplish so much.”
The Oberlin Project’s office is staffed by four people, including Hayes. The closing of the office means those people will lose their jobs, which was a difficult part of the decision for Hayes.
“It was not a hard decision from the standpoint of the organization’s mission. The part that is most difficult is when you have an organization, there are people involved in that organization,” Hayes said. “That’s where you want to be sensitive and understanding. We’re very lucky that we have great people who work here. What the staff reminded me of is that when we all signed up for this, we knew this day was going to come.”
Once the Oberlin Project closes its office, what will become of the organization? That’s still being discussed.
Orr said he’d like to see a community sustainability council, which doesn’t need a central office. “We have a lot of smart people in town. It would include some of our board members and people who are presently unaffiliated but that care about the issues.”
Both Orr and Hayes believe the Oberlin Project will live on through the organizations it has help create, those it has helped fund, and those it has worked with.
“The goal was not that we were going to do four to six years of work here in the city and just walk away. The goal was to devolve into other activities and organizations,” Orr said. “As we devolve from a centralized organization, we are helping to start a food hub here in the city. We’re helping to get the funding to launch a housing initiative on the 14-acre children’s home site. We were also behind the solar co-op here in the city. The Oberlin Project was also the galvanizing agent on the fall conference we had (at the Gateway Center and across the city).
“The point is, the Oberlin Project doesn’t stop; it keeps going on.”
Orr said he’s proud of what has been accomplished by the organization over the past eight years and sees even greater things on the horizon for the Oberlin community.
“I think we helped change the way people see the future of the city. I think we held out the possibility of real collaboration between the college, the city, and the larger community,” he said. “I think we’re poised for real greatness to become an even more remarkable and amazing city that leads. Is there more work to do? Sure, there always will be, but I think we helped to launch a revolution.”
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.