Rebecca Burgess is the Executive Director of Fibershed, a non-profit organization that develops regional fiber systems that build ecosystem and community health. Fibershed’s work expands opportunities to implement climate benefiting agriculture, rebuild regional manufacturing, and connect end-users to the source of our fiber through education.
Among Fibershed’s incredible community-based programs are the Fibershed Producer Program and the Fibershed Affiliate Network. The Fibershed Producer Program is a membership-based network of farmers, ranchers, designers, sewers, weavers, knitters, felters, spinners, mill owners, and natural dyers living and working within the North and Central regions of California. Through the Fibershed Affiliate Program, Fibershed has stretched beyond its California roots to bring its mission to communities worldwide. The Affiliate Program comprises 58 affiliates actively working in their home communities to create decentralized textile systems rooted in regeneration.
In this conversation, The Kassan Group founder Jenny Kassan chats with Rebecca about the work Fibershed is doing to develop regional fiber systems and drive the development of the regenerative economy.
Jenny Kassan: Regenerative economies must be innovative, agile, and meet the challenges of the day. In what way has Fibershed responded to a shifting landscape?
Rebecca Burgess: We’ve stayed true to our mission by localizing our primary work within 51 counties in California. Fibershed’s purpose is to build regional economies based on soil regeneration, and that unfolds in many forms as we continue to implement place-based work in our home community. By virtue of our geography, we stay grounded.
JK: Collaboration, knowledge-sharing, innovation, and cross-fertilization are essential components of the regenerative economy. Who are your mentors?
RB: I learn from many non-human mentors. I learn from grasslands; I learn from our pigment garden; I learn from the predators that are predating on things we try to grow; I learn from the weather patterns. My main mentor is the influences of the ecosystem. I extrapolate out and try to understand human nature as best I can through the lens of what’s natural and what’s the baseline for our psychological, physical, and spiritual situation. What has our evolution on this planet looked like? What has that brought forth? I try to understand the systems we’ve evolved in to give me an understanding of who we are and how to be in this world within a human network.
JK: As the Executive Director of Fibershed, how do you motivate policymakers and community members to be part of the change they want to see in our economy and society?
RB: We are always developing a set of public comments and documents to influence legislative decision-making at the state level. We also continuously support a framing conversation around international environmental footprinting by participating in coalitions such as Make the Label Count and the California Food and Farming network —both of which help advance our work, politically speaking.
I think the motivation for policymakers and community members comes through our communications platforms, thanks to Bark Media, who helps us get out inspiring stories about the producer community. We uplift their stories and collaborations in our newsletters, social media, and podcast to model what we want to see emulated.
JK: A regenerative economy fosters healthy and resilient communities and regions. As we collectively face challenges on a global scale, to what extent is your work “borderless”? To what extent is it hyper-localized?
RB: Our work is borderless in that we have 58 Fibershed Affiliate communities across the world operating at the grassroots level. Our work is reflective of what other communities are doing philosophically. And then, kind of didactically, it takes on a very placed-based form. So the work looks different depending on where you’re uplifting a regional fiber system.
The process is hyper-localized based on need. Let’s say the design community wants access to local cloth. You define how much local cloth production you can generate in an economically viable way by working with growers and asking very practical questions. How many growers are you going to need to make it through these mill minimums? What kind of textile constructions can you make from this supply? To navigate the process of making real cloth and connecting farmers and the design community demands a hyper-local perspective.
JK: How do you see the practices and core values of Fibershed as leading a new movement away from the “business as usual” status quo? How would you encourage other organizations to resist the pressure to “fit in” to the old economy paradigms?
RB: Most people are still going to a grocery store; they’re possibly using some form of transportation that utilizes fossilized carbon, or they’re relying on goods and services that are relying on fossilized carbon. We still have a racial wealth gap that’s very stark. We still have an underrepresentation of diverse cultural perspectives in many of our industries, if not all of them. So we’re all experiencing the old, but I think it’s critical to maintain an understanding of that framework for how we got here and what the future thinking looks like, and then find steps to actualize the new frameworks.
Getting excited about these new frameworks is the key to staying motivated. Begin by asking yourself, ‘What’s one thing I can do, what’s one thing my organization can do, to head in this direction?’ I’m a student of history, and I love listening to new economists. I really appreciate how we got here and that these are human-designed systems. We can absolutely redesign them because we’re the ones who got ourselves into this, and no one else is going to get us out.
JK: What lifestyle habits do you use to stay focused, healthy, and ready to take on the world? What would you recommend to others?
RB: Keep your hands in the soil, and learn the art of cultivation. Learn plant and animal names. Connect and be in relationship with ecosystems in a very hands-on way, because it rearranges one’s neurology. A lot of people are working on a computer all day. I think it’s important to break away from that and make sure we cultivate in soil, and we cultivate on Earth and in Earth Systems. That is the teacher, the mentor that will keep us grounded and making healthy decisions.
It’s also important to be in community in those spaces. How do we work together to connect and stay grounded to soil? How do we share in community meals? How do we share in community cloth making? I mend my clothes. I spend a lot of time with my hands in the soil when I’m not on a computer. Those are the lifestyle choices I’ve made to infuse my energy into the new paradigm; it’s repair, it’s cultivation, and it’s art practice.
About Rebecca Burgess
Rebecca Burgess is the Executive Director of Fibershed. She has two decades of experience working at the intersection of ecology, fiber systems, and regional economic development. Rebecca is the author of the best-selling book Harvesting Color, a bioregional look into the natural dye traditions of North America, and Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy. She has taught at Westminster College, Harvard University, and California College of the Arts. She also holds a board position at the Livestock Conservancy and serves on the leadership council of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at Chico State University.
Fibershed is a non-profit organization that develops regional fiber systems that build ecosystem and community health. Fibershed’s work expands opportunities to implement climate-benefiting agriculture, rebuild regional manufacturing, and connect end-users to the source of our fiber through education. Fibershed transforms the economic systems behind the production of material culture to mitigate climate change, improve health, and contribute to racial and economic equity.