In Person / Desa Van Laarhoven
October 21, 2010
By Sara Feijo
Marion Institute Executive Director Desa Van Laarhoven discovered her interest in ecological living as a child growing up on the family's small farm in Lakeville. Later, she began to understand the relationship between the actions she takes and their effects on animals, other humans and the natural habitat. That interest helped steer her to study environmental science and biology at Stonehill College.
During her junior year, Van Laarhoven studied in Australia and was impressed with the country's advances in sustainable living. In her daily life, she tries to be more sustainable - gardening, canning, hanging clothes instead of using the drier, and using refillable containers. She also organizes the yearly Bioneers by the Bay / Connecting for Change conference in New Bedford, where some of the brightest professional minds in the field of sustainability and ecological living gather for lectures, teaching and interaction.
Q: How much time do you spend organizing the conference?
A: I probably spend approximately 25 percent of my time per year. Basically we have seven programs and the conference is only one of seven programs. We have 13 projects. So, I would say it's the one that devotes most of my time. As far as the rest of the team, we have two employees in particular that split their time, so 50 percent of their time goes to the conference all year long. The rest (of the employees) just pitch in the last month of the conference ... It's very, very gratifying, but it's really stressful because there are so many details with 100 workshops and presenters. One hundred people that we have to organize. When are they going to speak? When are they going to deliver their book signing? ... We're expecting this year approximately 2,000 attendees.
Q: How has the conference grown?
A: I would say it's grown very organically, meaning that it really had a steady growth and not just a boom. We basically outgrew the space at UMass Dartmouth. We were originally at UMass Dartmouth, from 2005, for three years. And then in 2008 ... we moved to New Bedford. Now, we're at a point that we're meeting maxim capacity for the Zeiterion Theatre. One of the things we really strive to do is to not have any economic barriers. People want to get to the conference; we want to get them there. So, we've made a lot of free and open-to-the-public events, as portions of the conference.
Q: What is the most important aspect of the conference?
A: I think it's a solutions-based conference and I think that's the most important thing. We try not to just talk about the issues without giving a solution. We try to provide solutions and avenues people can go and apply it to their own self and their own life. The part of this conference that is really important is that it is really diverse and it shows the connections and that we are all connected. I think depicting the connections between different facets of society, as well as humanity and nature, as well as health and healing, is connected to green business ... You can't take one of those things ... out of the equation and not affect the rest of them. Diversity is so important and is the key to life and the key to success.
Q: What is your vision of the world?
A: I have a lot of hope. I'm very idealistic. I feel as though we are at a very critical juncture and that we each have to take personal responsibility and accountability for our lives. We have to, as individuals, understand that we are truly connected to each other, and so my actions affect my neighbors. I think that the world wants to know that and there's so many amazing people out there; they just feel really overwhelmed. I'm excited. I think we're going to move to a really great place in the world. There's so much to learn from each other. Once we just put our egos in check, that we don't have all the right answers, but that we're open and we want to have a more just, love-filled world. It's a work in progress, continuing to put the positive energy out there. Our country has come a long way with a lot of beautiful things and it's really exciting. It's an exiting time to live.
Q: How do you relate these ideas to New Bedford?
A: New Bedford is the perfect place. It's so culturally rich. We try to make sure that New Bedford has a voice in the conference as well and make sure that New Bedford is part of the showcase as well as there to learn. I think that New Bedford has so much to give and so much for people to learn from. It's a really wonderful place. I've grown to love New Bedford so much more than I would ever imagined.
Van Laarhoven became executive director of the institute in 2007. The Marion Institute is member based and non-for-profit. It seeks solutions to root-cause issues, social justice and sustainability. The Bioneers by the Bay conference is Oct. 22-24. For information, visit www.marioninstitute.org.
Desa Van Laarhoven graduated from Stonehill in 2004. She was a Biology major and an Environmental Studies minor.
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