Autonomy Through Community: Santropol Roulant

At the end of June, I went to Montreal for a conference on Studies in Co-operation and Co-operative Education, and was so fortunate to squeeze in some visits to food organizations in the city.  Loaded down with overnight bag and conference presentation materials, I headed on foot from the train station directly to Santropol Roulant, a 17-year-old meals-on-wheels service located in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal.

What makes Santropol Roulant unique is their massive and well-coordinated volunteer force, which cooks up healthful meals on a daily basis, as well as their delivery method – their primary wheels are bicycles!  In a volunteer-run bike shop in the back of the building, bicycles and bike trailers are maintained and serviced for the many trips around town that connect folks living with a ‘loss of autonomy’ (at any age) with good, healthy, affordable hot meals.

In the organization’s commitment to self-sufficiency, their site boasts an impressive rooftop garden, making use of all of greenest methodologies to produce food in an urban environment.  As you can see here, there is rainwater harvesting, a greenhouse the organization built itself,and even two boxes of bees, which help pollinate the rooftop plants, but also produce some delicious honey.

Certainly the building itself needed many structural reinforcements to support the weight of so much soil and water on its top storey, but the expense and time spent seems well worth the end result of a functioning demonstration site for polyculture and urban agriculture.  One of the most fascinating tools I learned about on this trip is the wicking technology employed both in the planter boxes below, and in the mat that underlies the soil in the uppermost rooftop plots.  By simply watering down the tube in the boxes, or by turning on the faucet in one corner of the plot, the gardens can essentially water themselves over an extended period of time, as water seeps to all parts of the soil and is soaked up from below by the thirsty plant roots.  Brilliant!

Above, “les boys” maintain the planters and the greenhouse, while below, our lovely tour guide shows us the basement’s livestock: worms!!  All of the kitchen’s scraps are processed by these beautiful red wigglers back into healthful soil that is used to fertilize the rooftop gardens, creating a closed loop system within the organization.

The organization really impressed me with its thoughtfulness and intentions, and I’ll share below the 9 core principles pulled from their website.

1 People as gifts – Each person who comes in contact with Santropol Roulant is seen as a whole person with many dimensions that, when given space to flourish, feed the organization’s vibrancy, capacity to innovate, and overall effectiveness.

2 Relational productivity – Creating the space and skills for healthy interpersonal and group communication are essential and highly productive aspects of organizational life.

3 Comfort with change – We embrace change and uncertainty as opportunities to learn and evolve. For a youth-run organization such as Santropol Roulant, staff and volunteer turnover are necessary and positive elements of our organizational rhythm.

4 Cultivating individual learning and organizational creativity – We value personal growth, curiosity and play as essential to Santropol Roulant’s dynamism and productivity.

5 Collaborative leadership – We strive to be deeply participatory, sharing decision-making and leadership in a way that contributes to everyone’s learning and growth while we deliver on our mission.

6 The importance of space – We pay attention to the state and arrangement of the physical space as it affects the way people relate to the organization and to each other.

7 Gravitational structuring – We invite people to involve themselves in the tasks, projects, conversations, and decisions that they are drawn to based on their own interests and curiosities.

8 Coherence – We aim to live our deepest values in all our relationships: with clients, staff, board members, volunteers, funders, partners, neighbours, etc.

9 Community building – We strive to become a living expression of the change we want to see in the world, rather than simply an instrument for that change.

And if I needed any trouble drawing the connections between all of Santropol Roulant’s great work into a peace and food framework, this graffiti hit me over the head coming and going from the well-decorated building.

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