Button Up!: Fran Putnam and the Power of Community Organizing

My name is Jaden Hill and I am a sophomore at Middlebury College. The school recently announced Energy2028, an innovative approach to the climate crisis. This plan involves a transition to 100% renewable energy, a 25% reduction in campus heating and electric consumption, financial divestment from fossil fuels, and integration into student learning and experiences. From this campaign, I was inspired to explore and celebrate the creative responses to climate change ongoing in the larger community. Please enjoy the first individual's story below.

Fran Putnam is a Weybridge community member, former teacher, and climate activist. She represents an admirable example of a citizen activist working on personal and political climate initiatives.

Please click here to listen to Fran's interview.

The garage door is open when I pull into Fran Putnam’s driveway. She is unloading shopping bags from the backseat of her electric car; the license plate reads, “SUNPWR.” I rush to help her with the items as she thanks me for my patience delaying our meeting so she could stop by the grocery store to save herself a later trip into town. We enter through a side door into the house. The interior is cozy and well-lit. The south-facing wall is primarily formed of windows that allow the morning light to enter into the living room. Various plants happily populate this sun-filled region. Fran enters the kitchen and puts on the kettle for tea. We each pour into local co-op mugs and settle on the couch to begin conversing.

Fran Putnam is a seventy-two-year-old resident of Weybridge, Vermont, a small village neighboring the college town of Middlebury. According to Fran, she has been concerned about climate change for a long time, but never took action until the birth of her grandchildren in the mid-2000s.

I had this crushing feeling that those children were innocent but were going to be affected deeply in their lives by what my generation has left behind.

Fran grew up on a farm in North Carolina. She recalls taking this time and place for granted, not realizing the magic of spending entire days in the woods exploring her natural surroundings. She then moved to Vermont and became an elementary school teacher. She has since always worked with children, first as an instructor and then as a preschool director. She identifies children as the main motivator for her action, driven by the hope of offering them a future similar to the childhood experienced by her and her kids.

What I love about [children] is they do not worry about the future; they live every day in the present.

Since moving to Vermont, Fran maintains her attachment to the natural world through hiking, skiing, and, especially, gardening. It is in the garden she most understands the impact of climate change. It began when she observed winters without snow; now she has to raise her garden beds and plant later to prepare for increased rain.

I started out my concern about climate through thinking about people, but through various other experiences I have had, I am much more attuned to what it is doing to the oceans, to our forests, to our plants.

The same connection Fran fosters with the earth through gardening, she creates within sustainable community initiatives. Eleven years ago, she and her husband, Spence, built a net-zero energy home and opened the space for community tours to encourage and empower people to see the success of green living. Fran recalls them welcoming several hundred people within the first year and recognizes their project inspired many others to construct or upgrade to net-zero households. The building is designed relying on passive and active solar technologies and a geothermal pump. It utilizes many south-facing windows and a low overhanging roof to work with the natural elements to keep the house warm in the winter and cool during summer months. Even a decade since construction, Fran proudly shares their home is still functioning within its original energy parameters and, by now, the extra investment in renewable heating and power provides a financial net gain in their pocketbooks.

You can only have influence over your own actions, and then maybe sometimes people will notice.

Fran recognizes her work cannot just be personal, but also has to be political. In 2011, she started the Weybridge Energy Committee with several other community members to support a state-wide weatherization campaign. She accelerated the waitlist period for assisted weatherization of low-income homes and remains passionate about making sustainability accessible for all individuals. Fran is also involved with the Vermont Natural Resource Commission and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group focusing on state-level issues. She can frequently be found traveling to Montpelier, participating in rallies, collaborating with local college students, and working with faith communities through the Interfaith Climate Action Network. As a member of the Addison County Democratic Committee, she also seeks to support policymakers taking appropriate action on climate change. Through this group’s dedicated efforts, Vermont has swung from mostly Republican legislators to a predominantly democratic government. During our conversation, Fran makes the explicit distinction between policy and partisan politics. Not only does she work to get certain candidates elected, but, once they take office, she ensures their lawmaking aligns with environmental goals. Currently, she is very interested in the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of congresspeople advocating for the passage of a Global Warming Solutions Act. She is dedicating most of her time to support this initiative.

I am retired, you know. I do not have to be doing this, but I do not think I could live with myself if I were just recreating and playing golf and getting in airplanes and going to exotic locations.

I would be more patient about this and understand that it is a process if this were not a time crisis.

Presently, Fran is most concerned about the public disconnect: people talk about climate change, but their actions fail to reflect these concerns. She believes we have to push back against capitalism and consumption. In conversation, she cites a recent poll of Vermonters in which seventy-six percent stated they are concerned about the changing climate. This slow transition in attitude and the recent rise in activism, especially by youth, are, in Fran’s opinion, making an incredible difference in the movement and giving her a great deal of hope. She recognizes there is hardly a day that goes by without mention of the climate crisis in news and media reports. It has been most rewarding for her to see this issue slowly, but surely coming to a place of local and global priority. In the meantime, she recognizes we have to continue to push and move steadily ahead.

With the strides that have been made as far as educating people and getting people concerned, if it continues at this rate, I think we are going to get more action. That makes me feel somewhat hopeful.

Please click here to listen to an unedited version of our conversation.