A few weeks back, I was at the Durham Social Entrepreneur’s Happy Hour hosted at our local start-up campus, American Underground. This local treasure is a networking event like no other - a monthly hive of crazed social entrepreneurs - action oriented dreamers, obsessed with their missions and the idea that a corner of the world can be made better with a little elbow grease and a lot of help. There are dozens, sometimes over a hundred people who are bursting with an intense energy for their endeavor. There I was, chewing everyone’s ear off about apparel, labor and green business models when Crystal came flying towards me, with all the energy that typifies this group.
Crystal is the chair of Don’t Waste Durham, a grassroots organization that spearheads local efforts aimed at reducing or eliminating waste. She told me about their latest push: green to-go containers in Durham. I latched onto the idea right away – piloting reusable containers for Durham, reducing our town’s trash production, with the eventual goal of eliminating styrofoam and plastic containers used for takeout. Crystal and a group of dedicated advocates were knee-deep in a Kickstarter Campaign, Durham GreenToGo. I am a little OCD about not wasting things because I have this sense that every little bit of waste sticks around on this planet somewhere with us. Styrofoam and plastic to-go containers keep me from doing takeout very often even from the cheaper taco trucks, because I get really freaked out about all the unrecyclable waste. And then Crystal starts telling me about the 200 or so letters she wrote to local restaurants about their use of styrofoam containers that preceded this campaign. And I thought, “Oh wow. Crystal is not your average Jane.”
So I went to her Don’t Waste Durham monthly community meeting to continue the party. And I was absolutely blown away. If Crystal were a superhero, she would throw beams or energy and ideas at you. And around the table sat an army waging a war on waste in all different aspects of Durham’s community: Green to-go’s, sustainable food truck certification program, aggressive internship program, eliminating styrofoam in schools, municipal water filling stations in Durham. And they are actually doing these things. Over coffee, she ran down the list and then said when they were done with all that they were going to tackle the Durham Bulls (baseball) Stadium and the Raleigh-Durham Airport and get everyone to use compostable containers. A picture flashed in my mind of Crystal coming after a hot dog vender at the Bull Stadium and I thought – man I wouldn’t want to get in this woman’s way.
So I was curious how this glorious energy and ferocity to get stuff done comes to be in a person. She shared a bit of her history with me. She is the daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant and a 1-man band. Her father was so dedicated to being a career musician that when his band mates moved on to “real jobs” he decided to just learn how to play all their parts and moved Crystal and the family from city to city to make this happen. So Crystal grew up in an environment where there was no obstacle too large to make your dreams happen.
Fast-forward a few decades and Crystal has established a track record of making awesome things happen. A few highlights: 1) While in Gabon, Central Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer she pioneered a health curriculum that could be attached to biology class so that the students could learned about science and personal health side-by-side. 2) After years of trying to have a baby and pursuing the adoption process, her and her husband took a much-needed break: they quit their jobs, rented out their house, sold their cars and belongings, and traveled for 6 months. When they returned to Durham, they moved into a place with no furniture and no dishes, and they were notified that a baby boy was going to be in their life in 4 days. True to form, Crystal put together a spreadsheet of the most basic things they would need (2 forks, 2 spoons, baby crib, table, chairs…) and sent it out to everyone she knew in the area with a request to leave whatever they could on Crystal’s porch within 48 hours. And in 48 hours it was all there. Her new neighbors even came over to help Crystal and her husband move it all in.
So when Crystal was asked to put together a policy brief for Durham’s City/County Environmental Affairs Board (EAB) to ban styrofoam and plastic bags she went to work combining the best elements of similar policies around the country. Then she learned of Dillon’s Rule in North Carolina– the abbreviated version of which is that local governments can take action only if it is specifically sanctioned by the state government (this article has a good explanation of the rule and what states it applies to). I.e. – if the state government doesn’t say you can ban harmful waste, you can’t ban it. So did Crystal just pack up her things and go home? I bet you can answer this one by now! No sir-y-bob. She decided to back burner the policy work until sufficient momentum was there and wage her war at the grassroots level. And so, Don’t Waste Durham was born. And they are winning.
So for all you local Durhamites, and those of you who are out-of-towners but just want to help your fellow American cities go green, please check out her Kickstarter, become a member or donate. Drew and I have a 2-box membership and are going to be “grassroots” prosthelytizers at our favorite Thai place, Twisted Noodle, that is not yet participating. Her campaign ends by December 6th. Please donate at www.DurhamGreenToGo.com if you are so moved and spread the word.
Also, come join the Pinhook-Push-Party this Wednesday, Nov 30th at the Pinhook in Durham from 6-9pm. (I know from personal experience that there is no such thing as being too supportive of a Kickstarter Campaign – they are super difficult.)
Thank you Crystal and Don’t Waste Durham for your inspirational work ceaselessly fighting the good fight to make the world better for us all.