Collective Conscience

Kirk Lumpkin, special events coordinator for the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, began working at the
Ecology Center as the farmers’ market co-manager in 1991. He has the longest tenure of the Ecology Center’s current cohort of employees, and he came in on a wave of change for both market and organization.

“I’d been selling at the market for a number of years,” he says, selling raisins, grapes, and organic dates. A people person, Lumpkin helped other vendors and volunteered for organizational duties. In the mid-’80s, the vendor-operated market ran out of steam and went on a couple-year hiatus. During that time, Lumpkin and Biz Marcus, who picked up leftover produce from farmers for the nonprofit agency Daily Bread, worked to restart the market. When the Ecology Center took over market administration in July 1987 and started the market back up again, Lumpkin joined the farmers’ market committee (now called the community advisory board) and soon stepped into the co-manager spot.

During that time, the Ecology Center, which had been run as a collective requiring consensus for decisionmaking, also went through a transformation. Each program had a manager, as it does now, but there was no overall administration. “There was an office manager,” explains Lumpkin, “but that person was more about communicating between people. Everyone had his or her own program, and no one took care of organization-wide business. People made sacrifices of time and energy to
keep the collective functioning. We talked it around and around and a lot of us, including myself, didn’t want to go that direction. I really liked the collective model; I don’t like to have bosses, but on the other hand, we needed someone to take care of stuff. Things were falling through the cracks.” After talking it around and around over a period of weeks, Lumpkin says it became obvious that the collective had to give way to a top-down management process, and recycling manager Kathy Hutton
became the first executive director of the Ecology Center.

Even with a management structure, running a center divided into separate programs can be challenging: how is it determined what work gets done and how that work is supported? “It’s hard to prioritize in that kind of model,” Lumpkin says. “I was thinking back to one change that cut two ways. When we had [information manager and board member] Karen Pickett, we had someone very
involved in forest and wilderness issues. She brought that expertise to the information department, connected us to Headwaters and Earth First!. Since she left, we’re not so connected to those things anymore. But Karen’s program, Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, became our first fiscally sponsored project, and now we umbrella all these other organizations. We’re able to help make them happen without having to staff them.”

Lumpkin feels that the Ecology Center’s strength today lies in its broad-based, nonpartisan focus. “We’re not in such a tight niche,” he says. “We do our specific hands-on programs, and those things set us apart. Mainstream environmental organizations aren’t there to answer people’s questions on a variety of issues, and we are. And we’re also there to demonstrate with programs, especially recycling and the farmers’ market, an environmental model.”

The center has enough flexibility to try new ideas. As the special events coordinator, Lumpkin schedules and oversees events connected with the market, such as the holiday crafts fair and the string band contest. “What you see now are the things that worked, like the fiddle contest,” he says. “I tried to start a bunch of different things that didn’t continue because they didn’t get enough attendance. I had a vision of an ecological culture that I wanted to have an influence on, and I wanted
us to help grow that. The Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival is rooted in an environmental set of values, and it remains the closest to my vision. I wanted to celebrate the seasons, do equinox and solstice events, but I could never make them work. I had to go with what worked rather than
be driven by my personal vision.” Last year’s festival, held at the end of September, was the fourteenth annual meet.

The farmers’ market still invigorates Lumpkin. “It’s one of the sweetest places on earth you can spend your time,” he says. “When I’m up at the market, many people I know not by name but by face smile at me just because I’ve been associated with the market for so long. Between selling and managing and doing the special events, it’s been over 25 years. I don’t have that anywhere else. It’s just a feel-good thing.”

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