James S. Gruber is never, it seems, at rest. He talks fast, his hands darting about to emphasize points. He walks at a brisk clip and his face lights up with enthusiasm as he speaks about his work and family. His stories flutter from one topic to the next in the blink of an eye.
At 58, Gruber appears to have the energy of a 20-year-old.
And over the past two decades, Gruber has channeled that abundance of energy into community service projects and teaching in the Monadnock Region and beyond.
After stepping down last year as executive director of the Antioch New England Institute to focus on teaching and community projects, Gruber is now working as a project manager at the institute on half a dozen projects in the Monadnock Region and around New England.
He also teaches graduate courses in the university’s environmental studies department and is completing a doctoral degree through a Croatian university where he has also been a professor.
Last year, Gruber was honored by Antioch University New England officials for performing 130,000 hours of community service since co-founding the institute, a community outreach and consulting department of the university, in 1994.
“All of my work, my whole philosophy is based on a book by one of my professors at the Kennedy School called ‘Leadership Without Easy Answers,'” Gruber says, twisting in his chair and searching for the book through dozens of volumes on environmental policy, solid waste management and community leadership lining the wall of his small cubicle at Antioch.
If there’s one thing Gruber has found in his line of work, it is that there are no easy answers for bringing people to meet a common goal.
“The whole idea is that leadership is not getting people to follow you, but helping people face problems and helping them do their work,” Gruber said. “It sounds simple, but people knock you off for that because they don’t like to face problems.”
For Gruber, a licensed civil engineer, one of the most important issues communities face is finding a way for community growth to go hand-in-hand with environmental awareness.
A passion is born at an early age in California
Gruber’s passion for the environment and community service was sparked 50 years ago, as a 3rd-grader on a Southern California playground.
“When I was 8 years old in Duarte, California, they had a program called ‘Don’t be a Litterbug,'” Gruber said. “They gave us paper bags and sent us out to fill (them) with trash from the playground.”
That day, the students took a pledge not to be a litterbug. Gruber said he took that pledge and ran with it.
As a kid growing up near the smoggy foothills of the Angeles Crest National Forest in Glendale, Calif., Gruber watched the effects of pollution on people in a community firsthand.
“After school, they’d cancel sports many days because they didn’t want you to breathe hard because you’d cough,” Gruber said.
Those experiences led Gruber to study civil engineering at San Diego State University and go on to get a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After graduating from MIT, Gruber was working as a town engineer in Massachusetts when he spent a day visiting his cousin Tedd Benson, an Alstead carpenter, and fell in love with the area.
In 1978, he built his own house and co-wrote a book with Benson, a founder of Bensonwood, a timber-frame building company, called “Building the Timberframe House.” He also worked for an environmental action firm in Keene that was researching passive solar energy and was involved in a federal solar energy bank project started by President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
A couple of years later, President Ronald Reagan cut the project and Gruber decided to go back to school for another master’s degree, this time in public administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“It was a rather depressing time,” Gruber said. “I decided to go back to school … because I realized what bad policy could do.”
While studying at Harvard, Gruber met his wife, Patience Stoddard, a student at the university’s divinity school. She is now a minister and they have two children, Daniel, 20, and Allison, 17.
Gruber’s career in local government began in 1985, as an assistant town manager in Hartford, Vt. Five years later, as town manager, Gruber helped organize more than 1,500 community members from five towns to raise $1.5 million and open a community recycling center at the site of a closed town dump.
“Everyone owned that center and people were recycling, things were going well,” Gruber said. “So we said, ‘That’s a good model. Give up control and get everyone involved in the process.'”
The success of the project inspired the idea, and gave Gruber the experience, to start the institute at Antioch with Delia Clark, with whom he had worked on the Hartford community recycling center.
Gruber and Clark worked out of their basements for a year, writing grants and landing contracts on small community projects, before the institute got off the ground.
The first year the organization received less than $50,000 in funding. Last year, its budget was $1,563,741, with all the funds coming from private donations, state and federal grants and contracts.
The institute has been the first home to several community projects that spun off into separate organizations.
The Monadnock Pathways and Trails Initiative, which put miles of bike and walking paths on area rail lines, and Giving Monadnock, a community-based organization that offers fundraising resources and support for local nonprofits, both got their start with the institute. Vital Communities of the Upper Valley, a Vermont-based organization, also got its start with the institute.
“It’s like a social incubator,” Gruber said. “Everyone involved had to do the work of raising the funds and carrying a workload and then when they can stand on their own we back off and it’s theirs.”
It’s Gruber’s hands-off philosophy that has made him so good at what he does, according to Dixie Tease, who has worked on projects with Gruber since 2001.
“Jim’s theory is you’ve got to be an entrepreneurial spirit to flourish at the institute,” Tease said. “His vision and wisdom was that people needed a lot of room to do that, but he would be very careful to help you when you needed it, too.”
Tease began working with Gruber on Giving Monadnock and is now working with him on a project helping five local communities decide on conservation goals and plans for future development.
“He has a lot of energy and enthusiasm and he has great vision, too,” Tease said. “There are some people who are great at details and some who are great at the big picture and grand visions, but Jim has a really unique combination of both.”
Gruber is also working on a program helping 26 communities along Interstate 93 plan for growth and development after the highway is widened. He co-founded and directs the New Hampshire Selectperson Institute, which provides training and leadership workshops for selectmen to better work with community members and he is working on a recycling and solid waste management project in Sullivan County.
Helping communities abroad help themselves
After opening the institute, Gruber’s work with local community projects soon expanded to Eastern European countries that were grappling with issues they’d never had to deal with under the Soviet Union.
He has worked with governments in the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to create community foundations that foster local projects, and in 1994 the fledgling Bulgarian government asked for help to creating a national solid waste disposal program.
Working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, Gruber brought national and local government officials together with community members to address the issues they faced and lay out plans for the project.
Community members talked about the harmful health effects of burning trash, such as asthma, and offered suggestions for alternatives.
“We simply organized forums,” Gruber said. “We brought people together and what happened was really remarkable.”
Six months after the national assembly passed legislation creating a national solid waste policy, 125 communities had implemented it. The goal had been 25.
“They had 125 communities because the people owned it,” Gruber said. “It was their effort, they recognized the need, and they followed through with it.”
And when the University of Zagreb in Croatia wanted to start an environmental studies program, they invited Gruber to teach.
“After teaching this graduate course in environmental management I liked their international perspective so I enrolled as a student,” Gruber said.
The focus of his thesis is community-based natural resource management programs around the world.
He hopes by studying programs in Bolivia, Mexico, Romania and Randolph, N.H., where a group of residents created a nature reserve in a 10,000-acre forest, he will be able to write a do-it-yourself guide for communities considering similar programs.
But even with all his work helping communities around the world find answers to tough questions, Gruber seems uncomfortable taking credit for his work.
“It’s all about helping people help themselves,” Gruber said. “You bring people together. You say, ‘Here are the resources, here’s the information,’ you help them find start-up funds and then you step back and let them own it.”
Name: James S. Gruber
Family: Wife, Patience Stoddard; daughter, Allison, 17, and son, Daniel, 20.
Raised in: Glendale, Calif.
Current Residence: Alstead.
Education: Bachelor of science in civil engineering, San Diego State University, 1973. Master’s degree from the engineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1975. Master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, 1985. Candidate for Ph.D. in environmental management at the University of Zagreb, Croatia.
Occupation: Project director, Antioch New England Institute. Professor in the environmental studies department, Antioch University New England.
Experience: Co-founder and executive director, Antioch New England Institute 1993-2007. Licensed civil engineer.
Hobbies: Timberframe building and woodworking, maple sugaring, horse riding and contra dancing.
Why did you decide to start the Antioch New England Institute?
Answer: “We came because we wanted to apply a concept of leadership which was simply getting people to face the problems they have and helping them do the work they need to do. Not telling them what to do. Giving them the support to do it on their own.”
After you graduated from the Kennedy School of Government, you began working as a town manager. What led you to focus your work on environmental issues?
Answer: “I realized when you do municipal management, half of the work is environmental, the rest is keeping the budget down. So when we had to close a couple of dumps, we decided to build a community center for recycling, waste management, composting and household toxins. We wanted to do it with the community driving the process.”
How did you get involved in doing community development work in the Baltics?
Answer: “I first went to Latvia in an environmental exchange program with another American just after it opened up. The kids set up a concert for us. They were playing Beatles songs on the violin and it was great. But they were also able to sing national hymns they had been forced to sing secretly for 50 years. I fell in love with a community who was trying to regain who they were. So then, when I had an opportunity to do some work there again and serve as a catalyst it was just too exciting.”
by Casey Farrar
used by permission of The Keene Sentinel