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A Different Kind of CSA: Community Supported Activism

November 3, 2015

Lynnwood, Wash. -- Carlo Voli moves through the crowd of protesters outside a recent public hearing in Washington. He pauses to talk to a woman holding a cardboard cutout of an oil train and directs her over to where a group holding similar train car posters is lining up to complete the phrase “No More Exploding Oil Trains.” One by one, as the crowd grows, local politicians, tribal members and activists take the microphone to urge opposition to a proposal to bring oil by rail to Shell’s refinery in northern Puget Sound.

Voli is a full-time organizer and perhaps the only "community supported activist" in the country. He was the lead organizer of this rally, and has been involved in many others with the financial support of a network of donors in the region. They chip in some money each month, just like with the better-known type of CSA, which most people associate with "community supported agriculture." But instead of fresh veggies, Voli's supporters get a serving of local activism.

“What Carlo’s doing is brand new," said Ryan Provonsha, a local IT network administrator who signed up for the activism CSA.

"It just shows the willingness of people to make due and come up with new approaches to problem solving,” Provonsha said, noting some people have more money than time to participate in on-the-ground activism.

Voli wasn’t always a full-time community-supported activist. He once held a corporate job selling marine equipment in Latin America to commercial fishing boats and mega yachts. In his spare time he’d organize local solar power groups and other low-carbon lifestyle efforts. But one day, back in 2011, he read an article by Bill McKibben about an upcoming mass protest in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“Something took over me and that same night I decided I had to be there. And I bought a ticket to DC,” Voli said.  

Voli said he’s been arrested five times and detained four times since then, joining "kayaktivists" to protest Shell’s drill rig in Seattle and blockading train tracks in protest of coal and oil trains, among other acts of civil disobedience and protest.

He lived off his retirement accounts until those ran out. Then, he turned to his network of connections and sent out a call for support to continue his work.

“I had a good response, and for over a year now I’ve continued to do full time activism and been supported by my community, so it’s a great thing,” Voli said. “It was a complete leap of faith.”

Voli has 26 supporters who give him between $10 and $150 each month, including Provonsha, the IT worker who contributes $75 a month.

Provonsha said his income affords him some “wiggle room” and he’s been happy to support Voli since they met at a rally in Seattle a few years ago.

“I’m glad to have the income that I do... to help with these kinds of things, knowing that there are other people that are helping to carry it with you, that you’re able to make it happen,” Provonsha said.  

The greenie Northwest may be the only place in the country where a guy like Carlo Voli can make a living as a community supported activist, but for now, it seems to be working. Voli's supporters have kicked in enough money for him to go to Paris for the international climate talks later this fall.

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Carlo Voli quit his corporate job a few years ago to become a full time Community Supported Activist. He's been fighting fossil fuels and climate change ever since.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix