Jim Gruber, PE, PhD, MS, MPADirector, RMC and SDCC Concentrations
Helping Communities Help Themselves
When Jim Gruber was the town engineer in Swansea, Massachusetts, he held a meeting to spark interest in a bike path. Two people out of a town of 15,000 showed up.
A decade later, as a town administrator in Hartford, Vermont, Gruber welcomed 1,500 residents who came to open the town’s new recycling and waste management facility. In the intervening years, he had learned a lesson that has served as philosophical bedrock through his varied career: Don’t tell people what to do. Help them see the problem clearly, then help them find their own solution.
“The goal is to get yourself out of it, or you disempower people,” said Gruber, now a core faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE).
Toilets and Melons: A Lesson
Gruber had absorbed that precept in a course called Adaptive Leadership, while earning a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A trip to Bulgaria, recently emerged from Communist rule, reinforced it for him. Huge piles of watermelons sat for sale on a street in Sofia beside giant stacks of toilets. “The toilets were selling as fast as the watermelons,” Gruber said. “The Bulgarian toilets didn’t flush-[the government] had designed one kind of toilet for everyone. So when the expert-driven society was over, everyone wanted toilets that worked.” What had the experts missed? An essential feedback loop to tell them how their system was working.
Gruber, who is the director of the Resource Management and Conservation (RMC) program and the Sustainable Development and Climate Change (SDCC) concentration, has brought that wisdom to his teaching and consulting. He works in communities, helping them learn how to sustainably manage “the commons”-collectively owned natural resources. The work is more important now than ever, he said, in a world where governments hire large corporations to exploit resources, spending their countries’ natural capital and impoverishing indigenous peoples.
“For example, when the price of ethanol was subsidized, national governments in poor countries cashed in by growing fuel rather than food, leaving people without food. So the price of food is rising, and that’s why there’s unrest now. Food prices are as high as they have ever been,” Gruber said.
Building advocates for the real economy
AUNE is just the place to engage in the global struggle. “Environmental studies at AUNE are grounded in helping the real economy, rather than a short-term, profit-motivated, unsustainable economy,” Gruber said.
The SDCC concentration was started in 2010; the RMC degree program began in 1978. The revised RMC program is a thirty-credit, weekend program meant to upgrade the environmental science and management skills of working professionals.
SDCC is a forty-two-credit program aimed at students who don’t have that work experience and need a broader grounding in science and tools such as GIS, climate change and resource management.
Gruber’s teaching guidelines call for students to work in teams. “In the nonacademic world, people who work together are usually more effective,” he wrote. RMC students share courses with doctoral students for the first time. The cohorts form strong communities and get together frequently outside class. “They’re all learning together, not just students by themselves,” Gruber said. “They’re building a life-long community. That fits in with Antioch’s philosophy.”
His teaching philosophy also asks students to go out into the world to work on “real and current issues that matter.” And they do. His students are involved in a wide range of world-changing activities. One works with the White House Office of Environmental Quality; another is undertaking an analysis of greenhouse gases for the City of Keene. One student is studying how Tajikistan can recover an agricultural ecological system after years of devastating centralized rule. Still another wrote a business plan for a company that helps Professional Golf Association (PGA) tournaments use environmentally sustainable practices. “And they are doing it,” Gruber said. “So we are infiltrating society.”
An early avocation
The grandson of Chinese missionaries who were exchanged for Japanese prisoners after being captured by Japan in World War II, Gruber grew up in southern California. He likes to tell the story of how he pledged to “not be a litterbug” as a third-grader, and so embarked on a career as junior environmentalist.
After graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Swansea job, Gruber moved to Alstead, New Hampshire, to collaborate on a book, Building The Timberframe House, with his cousin Tedd Benson, founder of Bensonwood Homes. He soon landed a job with Total Environmental Action in Harrisville, New Hampshire, a leading think tank in passive-solar technology, and worked on a national solar energy code during the Carter administration.
After government support for renewable energy went south, Gruber went on to the Kennedy School of Government and received a master’s in public administration. In 1993, with Delia Clark, he founded the Antioch New England Institute (ANEI), which engaged faculty and graduate students in work on sustainability projects in communities locally and around the globe, with a focus on Eastern Europe.
Four years ago, Gruber returned to grad school-this time to the University of Zagreb in Croatia, where, in 2009, he earned a PhD in environmental management and has worked extensively in Eastern Europe.
Focus on communities: from local to global
Gruber brings his national and international experience to his teaching. He belongs to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, and the International Association for the Study of Commons, founded by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom.
He has presented his research and consulting work to colleagues in the United States and other countries, including as Japan, Macedonia, Mexico, the Netherlands and England, and at a World Bank Conference in Washington, D.C.
He and AUNE grad students were major participants in the I-93 Community Technical Assistance Program (CTAP). Funded by a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, CTAP helped twenty-six southern New Hampshire communities plan for growth prior to a planned major expansion of Interstate 93. CTAP was meant to be a model for involving communities in transportation and land-use issues that affect them. Gruber had been there before.
“We said, ‘Sit down with communities, nonprofits, agencies, businesses. Get everyone at the table and establish what they want for their future and make a plan.’ ” Gruber said. “Our goal was to take their vision and put it in a work plan.” CTAP engaged the community leaders of those twenty-six towns and helped them form a concrete idea of their future. The plan was completed in 2008. Four regional planning agencies are now putting the plan into practice.
Gruber has also worked on a project to prepare the Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, watershed for climate change.
“All our work is about adaptive leadership-helping societies face daunting problems and then helping them do the work that deep down they know they have to do,” Gruber said.