October 16, 2008 at 6:20 PM
Stephanie Fleming’s Equilibrium Project seeks balance in everyday decisions

Ever thought do-gooders roiled with such existential angst and real-world cluelessness that they rarely found the clarity to make a difference?

Amy Pearl believes she can help.

She spends her time teaching dreamers to keep their feet on the ground and to get going on their innovative, sustainable ideas.

Pearl offers guidance through Local Agenda, a rigorous program intent on producing socially responsible, grassroots, financially solid endeavors.

“We enable people to solve local challenges with sustainable, innovative solutions, and we provide pathways for others to support those innovations,” reads the mission statement of Springboard Innovation, the Portland-based nonprofit that developed the program.

It may sound wonky and abstract, especially the sustainable part. But, social entrepreneurs aren’t worth their bleeding hearts unless they can create ventures that pay their own way, without reliance on donations, the breath and bane of charities, says Pearl, Springboard’s executive director.

“We’re trying to create a new breed of change organization,” says Pearl, a Type A with a glass-definitely-half-full attitude.

Hear are some examples of people who have taken Local Agenda’s 12-week course and are trying to put their ideas into practice.

–Gail Kinsey Hill; [email protected]

Stephanie Fleming

Stephanie Fleming, 42, wants to get inside the heads of those trying to cultivate their social goodness.

She plans to do it with an online tool that measures how sustainable the consequences of a particular decision may — or may not — be. A series of questions will guide participants through the process, leading to an evaluations of the environmental, societal and economic effects of the action.

The intent, says Fleming, is to help people “shift toward a more balanced way of thinking and acting.”

When Fleming signed up for Local Agenda, she was fresh off a year-long trip through India and Southeast Asia. She had some big-sweep idea about helping third-world communities set up socially responsible cooperatives.

It was ridiculous, she says. “How can I presume to know what’s needed in a country and market I’m not even a part of?”

So, she got personal. Told to pick something she really cared about, she settled on sustainability. Directed to give her concept definition, she dug into research papers and United Nation’s documents.

She realized that sustainability was much more than a fight against proliferating plastics and bulldozed rainforests.

“The environment was obvious to me,” says the lanky brunette. “But I’d never thought about sustainability in terms of society and nature before.”

That’s when her idea took hold. “Why not make individual decisions in the same three-pronged way?”

Her online program will cover a wide range of practices, from shopping to vacationing to commuting. She’ll give participants a score — positive, negative or neutral — and she’ll offer advice on how to make improvements.

“If they’re out of balance, there will be suggestions on how to get in balance,” she says.

She calls her venture Project Equilibrium.

Fleming moved to Portland from the East Coast in 2004. She lives in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood with her husband, two cats and three chickens.

She has years of experience in marketing and will draw on her professional skills to attract advertisers to the site. She also plans to create another revenue stream with an online directory that will link viewers to sustainable businesses — a sustainable Yellow Pages of sorts.

Project Equilibrium is modeled in part on online calculators that measure your “carbon footprint” — the amount of the climate-changing carbon dioxide associated with a particular activity.

Fleming says her calculator will provide a broader measure. And, she will design it to be polite: educational but not judgmental.

“People need to be thinking about these things,” she says.

Paul Osterlund wants to help farmers grow their way out of poverty

Paul Osterlund

The granules look like Grape Nuts cereal.

Best not to ingest, however. They act like a super-sponge, capable of absorbing 500 times their mass in water.

Better to use for their intended purpose — as a soil amendment.

And, as far as Paul Osterlund is concerned, better still to work them into the dirt of drought-stricken countries, where they can do some real good, soaking up the rain and gradually releasing the moisture to the roots of potatoes, corn and the like.

“I want to bring it to the poor farmer,” he says. “We’re talking about the person with the shovel and shank. .. We’re talking about survival.”

Osterlund, 59, left Intel Corp. last year after more than 20 years with the company, eager to try something new, something he believed would help right a social injustice.

“I knew there was an opportunity for goodness in the world,” says Osterlund, whose neatly trimmed beard and brisk mannerisms give him the air of an amped-up professor.

He saw his chance in a product developed by Absorbent Technologies Inc., a Beaverton company in which he was an early investor. The soil enhancer, a starch-based, biodegradable material called Zeba, is marketed to large farming operations, landscapers and gardeners and is touted for its ability to produce bigger and better plants.

Osterlund forged an agreement with the company to distribute Zeba to as-yet untapped territory — small farms in Africa, India and South America where prolonged droughts and the effects of global warming have created some of the harshest growing conditions in the world.

“I saw a huge problem,” says Osterlund. The goal of his venture, Abundance Farming Project: to “enable 1 million subsistence farming households to grow their way out of poverty in three years.”

Osterlund has spent about $10,000 of his own money in research and travel, using, in part, earnings from a company that sells green automotive products, such as a biodegradable lubricants.

The key, he says, is to interest private international aid groups, particularly those tied to the United Nations and the World Bank, in the product. He hopes these non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, will help subsidize and distribute Zeba.

Without the subsidies, farmers couldn’t afford the product, which costs about $50 per acre on retail markets.

“They don’t have $50 dollars, or even 50 cents,” Osterlund says.

Osterlund believes farmers could eventually turn a profit, then pay for the product on their own.

Osterlund remains committed, despite the challenges.

“It’s about being engaged in an action that gets you up in the morning,” he says.

Claire Simons hopes to turn leftovers into sustenance for the hungry

Claire Simons

Claire Simons wants to help the state’s hungry.

She hasn’t worked out all the details. But whatever she does, she wants to get to quickly.

“You’ve got to stop grappling with your existential angst and just do it,” says Simons, a high-cheek-boned, silver-haired woman, who once shaved her head in a symbolic slap to pretense.

She doesn’t want to replicate the services already in place. She has found that numerous agencies and nonprofits offer food aid, but few deliver directly to the hungry. Instead, they rely on distribution centers or food warehouses, and, often, layers of management.

“I want to feed people in the easiest, simplest way I can,” says Simons, who lives in a tidy Hillsdale condo where Buddhist prayer flags flap out front. “I want it to be immediate, and I want it to be personal.”

So far, her venture looks like this: she’ll collect leftovers from restaurants, caterers and cafeterias, load the food into a van and take it straight to the streets or to gathering spots, such as agencies and shelters. She’ll serve meals to anyone who asks, no questions, no judgments.

She hasn’t yet figured out how to address a plethora of health and safety regulations or how to pay for adequate insurance coverage.

And, she will have to buy a van, which could cost in excess of $100,000.

“To get started, I need major money,” she admits.

To finance the operation once it’s up and running, she hopes to convince restaurants and the like to pay her for pickup of the leftovers (they pay garbage haulers, don’t they?). She also plans to set up an accompanying consulting business and, perhaps, turn her idea into a franchise network that would stretch through the northern Willamette Valley.

She’s already learned a few lessons. Last Mothers Day, she arranged to take the remains of a brunch at the DoubleTree Hotel. At 3 o’clock on that May afternoon, she and her husband loaded 150 pounds of food into their car and headed for the Blanchett House, a Northwest Portland nonprofit that provides aid programs for the homeless. The doors were locked and no one around to let them in.

“Rule No. 1,” says Simons: “Make sure you cover both pickup and delivery.”

Not to spoil it — but there was a happy ending.

They rushed home, crammed the food into coolers and the next day set out for City Hall where a group of homeless had camped out to protest police plans for an encampment sweep.

“We went blanket by blanket. We asked them if they’d like some salmon risotto, chicken breasts … Szechuan noodles.

“Most said yes.”