Sebastopol Toxics Education Program (STEP)

Investigating The Next STEP Mystery

By Patricia Dines
Published in the May 2013 Sonoma County Gazette

It comes disguised as a modest newsletter, slipped inside Sebastopol's bimonthly water bills. For over 12 years now, its double-sided page has offered useful information about how folks can avoid our culture's common everyday toxics and choose healthier options instead. It seems innocent enough.

But lurking beneath the exterior of "The Next STEP" newsletter (aka TNS) is a deeper motive. The masthead offers a clue, saying that STEP stands for "Sebastopol Toxics Education Program." The Editor unwittingly reveals that it's an "innovative City-community collaborative project." It's devised, she says, not just to benefit individuals, but also to help residents work together in creating a healthier and safer town.

Aha, now we're on the trail. Apparently, this story starts with the City of Sebastopol's May 2000 resolution declaring Sebastopol a Voluntary Toxics-Free Zone. With this, the City Council committed to avoid using toxic pesticides on City-owned property, and to help residents voluntarily reduce their use of toxics. The Council's goal was for current and future generations to have air safe to breathe, and water safe to drink. OK, well, that actually sounds good.

Oh, except the City didn't have the funds or in-house knowledge to do this public outreach, so it asked the community to help. Luckily, a professional freelance writer with toxics as one of her specialties, Patricia Dines, agreed to be Editor, without pay, because she loved the vision, opportunity, and challenge of this project. Other folks volunteered to write articles and stuff newsletters.

Thus TNS was born. Over the years, these volunteers, City staff, the City Council, and readers have collaborated in shaping the project specifics. Still, it's always been the volunteer editorial team that creates each edition -- researching toxics issues, distilling key facts, and writing accessible articles, with citations, that describe actions folks can take at both the individual and community levels. The team even lays out the newsletter and delivers it final to the City, ready to be copied in-house and put in the water bills, with no added postage expense.

OK, so the City benefits from this innovative project, with very little cost or effort for them. And the readers do like it, consistently giving TNS an 85 to 90% approval rating in its annual survey. Plus 65 to 75% of them say that TNS has helped them reduce or avoid toxics use and exposure. Some folks even express warm feelings towards the City and volunteers for contributing to the community's well-being.

And thus the mystery is solved. This newsletter is a plot for our shared benefit. How dare they! Well, or how wonderful.

You can read more at [That's this page!]

Patricia Dines is an eco-writer and Editor of The Next STEP newsletter. She clearly was in a playful mood when she wrote this.

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* For more about the history and design of The Next STEP newsletter, see

* You can read recent issues of the newsletter on the Recent Issues page.

* If you want to get announcements when each STEP newsletter is put online, I invite you to sign up on my very low email list at You don't have to live in Sebastopol to receive these!

Also, I have an option there for you to sign up for a STEP priority action alerts list, so you be informed if there any future developments in this process or STEP in general.

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