For Professor Betsy Watson, a sociologist at Humboldt State, building sustainable communities is as much about transportation planning and buying local food as it is about effective communication.
Watson, who has taught in the Sociology Department at HSU for 20 years, examines how communities interact and how they resolve disputes, especially those concerning natural resource issues. Much of her work incorporates the notion of social capital or connections within and between social networks that enhance community cohesion.
"To have a sustainable community you need to increase social capital," Watson explains. "It's about building trust and relationships; those values are needed to build sustainable communities."
Watson is familiar with resolving disputes and improving communication through her work with the Institute for the Study of Alternative Dispute Resolution or ISADR. Started with grant funds 15 years ago, Watson heads the Institute on the HSU campus that conducts workshops concerning environmental disputes, family and interpersonal disputes and workplace disputes. Members of local city councils, government agency employees and many others make use of the services ISADR offers.
One of ISADR's biggest accomplishments, Watson says, concerned implementing the federal Clean Water Act. Although it became law in 1972, California had never implemented the Clean Water Act, but, in the mid-1990s, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board released rules for implementing the law in the state. Lawsuits followed and the courts eventually told the Board to hire a mediator to resolve the dispute. Watson was contacted and after 14 months of hard work, consensus was finally reached and a resolution "everyone could live with" was achieved.
"It's about perspective," Watson says. "To improve our communities and the way we communicate as a society, we need people to have a shift in perspective. We need a new way to communicate and the first thing we need to learn is how to listen."