David R. McCain
Candidate for Sustainable Communities MA Program
Northern Arizona University

I am very excited to present myself as a candidate for the Sustainable Communities MA Program (SUS) at Northern Arizona University.  This excitement stems from two places.  One is my desire to contribute my time and energy toward helping create a sustainable world (I affirm the definition for sustainability created by the Brundtland Commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”).  The second, related source is a longing for mentorship, learning, and support to help me enhance my ability to influence the world as I would like.    After spending many years of work supporting people and organizations, I’m ready to take a step into a new phase of my journey.  As Einstein implored, I endeavor to “widen

[my] circles of compassion” to include all life including that of future generations.  Graduating from the SUS Program, with a deeper knowledge of sustainability, will allow me to do this more effectively.

I grew up on the Plains of Colorado in a farming community near Denver.  Each day when I walked down the hill to my elementary school, I encountered the white-capped Rocky Mountains on the horizon.  At my family cabin in those mountains, I spent countless weekends exploring the rocky, forested terrain and observing the life it fostered.  In retrospect, these experiences helped me develop a reverence for the natural world.

After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Colorado at Boulder.   After a semester in the Engineering Department, I decided to major in psychology to cultivate my interest in human behavior.   While at the university, I nurtured my affinity for nature by exploring the numerous hiking trials in and around Boulder.

I was introduced to the concepts of global warming and sustainability in an Introduction to Sociology course during my first semester.  During this course, I read An Inquiry into the Human Prospect by Robert Heilbroner. I was touched and inspired by both his perspective on the challenges facing our world and his discussion of world citizen’s willingness (or lack thereof) to act in ways that allow future generations the ability to enjoy the lifestyle that we currently have.  My interest in conservation led me to Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature, which added greater clarity to my exploration of the human impact on the planet and raised the question of how we can best respond to ecological challenges.  These questions stayed on my mind through my coursework in Human Ecology, Social Psychology, Decision-Making, and Anthropology.

I continued my studies in Psychology and completed a senior thesis in Cognitive Psychology.  I enjoyed developing my topic, working with my advisor (Dr. Alice Healy), analyzing experimental data, and writing the final paper.  As a result of this thesis and a strong academic record, I graduated Summa Cum Laude and was honored as the Outstanding Graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences.

After graduating, I moved into the work world to support people as they navigated through life.  As a mentorship program coordinator at the University of California-San Diego through the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Program, I developed my skills in volunteer recruitment and management.  Working at the Fair Housing Council of San Diego, I further refined my skills managing volunteers and began advocating for clients with claims of discrimination in the housing market.  I then worked as a community organizer with Mid-City CAN in a very diverse, low-income neighborhood, through which I learned about the challenges and opportunities incumbent in social change work.  My most recent employment by others was as Community Justice Program Coordinator with the San Diego Mediation Center (now the National Center for the Resolution of Conflict).  In this job, I worked with volunteers, mediated small claims court cases, and organized mediations between conflicting parties.

During this period I volunteered with a number of organizations.  I coordinated the Youth Arm of the San Diego Coalition for Equality which formed after the Rodney King riots to prevent a similar occurrence in San Diego.  I also spent three years as a mediator and chair of the board with the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of San Diego (now the Restorative Justice Mediation Program).  In 1996 I joined the Sierra Club and participated as a volunteer on a number of their campaigns.  From 2002 to 2012, I belonged to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego where I participated in several social justice activities, including being chair of the Community-Building Committee. These placements gave me experience working with and leading organizations trying to improve our world.

In 2000 I began studying a communication model called Nonviolent (or Compassionate) Communication (NVC). NVC provides a learnable framework for developing and deepening relationships and dealing with difference.  It is the most effective tool I have found to help individuals stay present to their values, listen deeply to others, speak their truth clearly, and move effectively in the world.  I obtained over 400 hours of training in NVC, learning how it applied to personal growth, parenting, conflict resolution, social change, and organizational development.  Excited to employ these skills, I started my own business (named Communicating with Heart) teaching NVC, providing life-coaching services to individuals, consulting with businesses, and mediating disputes.  Through my life-coaching work I developed a Well-Being Program that invited clients to assess and improve their holistic health.

As I worked with clients using this Program, I became increasingly aware of the corrosive power of the culture-at-large to keep people from experiencing well-being.  Due in large part to cultural forces, many clients did not have the necessary support to sustain the changes they desired to make in their lives.  It seemed that the cultural inertia of American society — where separation trumps connection, consumption trumps relationships, rugged individualism trumps collaborative action, and where domination of the natural world trumps reverence for nature — made it very difficult to support alternative ways of being.  It became clear to me that individuals needed strong community support to develop and maintain their well-being, and that, without strong communities that value the natural world, the ecological challenges we face would only magnify.  I was unsure how these communities would look and I hoped that models existed that would guide the shift to a new world.

My search for new cultural models led to an “aha” moment when I learned about the Transition Movement through their website and introductory video.  I was inspired by the Movement’s blending of a positive vision for a sustainable future with practical tools to bring the vision to life.  My research into the Transition Movement led me to read broadly on the issues of peak oil, climate change, and sustainability in addition to joining a Transition San Diego List serve.

Since early 2011, I have read over 80 books related to sustainability.  I especially enjoyed:  The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg; A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright; The Transition Handbook and The Transition Companion by Rob Hopkins; and Principles and Pathways to Sustainability by David Mollison.  The readings gave me greater clarity on the multiple, interrelated factors that contribute to our current plight and some insight on what we can do to right our course as a culture and world.

This research reignited my passion to contribute to the creation of a sustainable world.  The concepts of re-localization, local food/money, resilience, and community–building further sparked my interest in being part of a Transition Community and supporting others in doing so.  To develop my own resilience, I became certified in First Aid/CPR, completed a 12-day Permaculture Design Course, volunteered weekly doing construction work at the Peace Resource Center of San Diego, and connected with others interested in sustainability in San Diego. Vocationally, I considered how I could fit “Transitions” work into my life-coaching/consulting business.

Though I enjoyed my self-directed learning process, I felt strongly that I would benefit from a more rigorous study of elements of sustainability, mentors to help guide this study, and a community of like-minded folks to aid in my learning.  As an extravert, I find that some of my best thinking happens when I engage in constructive dialogue with others.

Later in the year, my girlfriend and I decided that I would move to Flagstaff to live with her.  While preparing for my move, I had another “aha” moment when I found the SUS Program on the NAU website. It appeared to offer what I was looking for:  a space for deeper consideration of the issues surrounding sustainability in a stimulating, rigorous learning environment.

Since arriving in Flagstaff on February 1, I have researched the program by reviewing the Graduate Student Handbook for Sustainable Communities, talking to Dr. Kimberley Curtis, attending a session of SUS 602, conversing with current SUS students, and reading a book on Suburban Sprawl in Phoenix by Janine Schipper, a professor who teaches in the SUS Department.  The Graduate Handbook gave me an understanding of the mission, principles, and structure of the program.  My dialogue with Dr. Curtis gave me a personal perspective on the program including its history and growing edges. Janine Schipper’s book opened my eyes to the sort of scholarship that professors engage in at NAU, and gave me a view of the challenges that bear on efforts for sustainable development in Arizona.  To cap off my research, I participated in a Campus Tour/Information Session through the Graduate College, which included time with a research librarian at Cline Library and a trip to the Hot Spot for lunch (It was tasty!).

I am convinced that this program is a good fit for me.  I will benefit greatly from participating and contributing my gifts to the program and its participants.  As a non-traditional student with 20 years of experience in the work-world, I believe that the perspectives and skills I will bring to the program are unique and valuable.

Regarding a potential focus for my work in the department under the banner of “Visions of Good and Sustainable Societies/Communities”, I want to hold lightly to the topics that currently have life for me, knowing that my participation in the program will help shape the course of study I will pursue. That said, I feel strongly that one lynchpin of sustainable communities, on a micro level, is the quality of members’ relationships with one another.  These relationships can enable or hinder effective collaborative decision-making, community-building, and conflict resolution.  Research questions that come to mind are:

  • What tools (including Nonviolent Communication) can help communities resolve conflict in ways that strengthen, rather than weaken, them?
  • What elements best contribute to the development of connections between people in sustainable communities?

On a macro level, I am intrigued by the practical realities of the coming shift to a lower-energy, no-growth economy.  I’m curious about the variables that will influence this shift and about processes, models, and guides that have the potential to ease the transition.  Specific questions that interest me include:

  • What models present a guide to create sustainable communities?  Which seem most effective?
  • The Transition Movement:  How are “Transition Towns” impacting the image of sustainability in their home countries and in the world in general?  What is the current status and possible future of the Transition Movement in Flagstaff?

As an educated, heterosexual man of European descent, I am aware of the unearned privileges afforded me in this culture.  With this awareness, no matter the content of my studies, I long to explore how communities of the future can fully include all people regardless of the labels of difference they wear.  The best way I know to do this is to seek out resources to educate me on perspectives different from my own, to embrace learning opportunities with intention and presence, and to approach interactions as open spaces where I am willing to be changed.

My passion for a sustainable world, my history of academic excellence, and my professional background show that I would be a productive contributor to the Sustainable Communities Master’s Program.  I would enjoy the opportunity to continue learning how best I can contribute to a sustainable future through the program.  I look forward to meeting you and engaging in work and learning together as part of the SUS Program at NAU.

This application marks a big turning point in my life!  I’m excited to see how Communicating with Heart and Sustainability fit together and help me contribute to a better world!