In June of 1990, after Governor Madeleine Kunin had announced that she did not plan to run for re-election, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) invited Gov. Kunin to co-lead a delegation with the President of Iceland to observe the elections in Bulgaria. Gov. Kunin invited me to go along, and we went to Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. We were impressed with the passion for change and the role that the environmental movement played in motivating the political opposition to totalitarianism in Bulgaria.
In Bulgaria, the opposition movement was lead by Ecoglasnost (“environmental openness.”) It was a student movement that formed to demand accountability and transparency after it was discovered that the government was covering up the pollution of water supplies by toxic waste spilling from state-owned factories. When the students took action, they were beaten by police – which galvanized the opposition and led to political changes. Another priority for countries in Eastern Europe was decentralized decision-making – it was clear that people wanted more control over their lives. And it was clear to Gov. Kunin and myself that there was an opportunity to catalyze some meaningful change. We decided we should try to do something to help the countries of this region.
A few months later, NDI invited me to go to Hungary to provide advice on setting up a policy/planning office for the Hungarian Parliament. In Budapest, I met with several environmental leaders, and started gaining a deeper understanding of their challenges and concerns.
In the fall of 1990, Gov. Kunin and I met with Vermont experts to get advice about the best ways to help support effective change in Eastern Europe. Jonathan Lash and Doug Costle were particularly influential. We decided to form an organization that focused on sustainable development, environmental health, resource efficiency, decentralized decision-making, and community building. Our core theory was that the most healthy and prosperous communities integrate economic, social and environmental solutions through meaningful partnerships and active citizen engagement.
The idea grew quickly. Our first working title was Institute for Sustainable Development, until we met with a UVM professor who suggested that the title should more directly reflect our interest in strengthening communities. Costle offered us free office space at Vermont Law School. And ISC was registered as an independent nonprofit organization on February 5, 1991, just one month after the Governor left office.