Becoming a Democratically Managed Organization

By Elena Karoulina & Allison Nagel, Co-Executive Directors

People often think “sustainability” means renewable energy or control of carbon emissions. While it can mean those things (and more, as defined in many Climate Action and Sustainability plans around the globe), we believe that sustainability begins in our hearts and resides in our ability to live well together in harmony with each other and our planet. At Sustainable Solano, we operate within these global frameworks of carbon sequestration and resource conservation, yet we consider creation of healthy social forms our main goal.

We bring people together for immediate and personal cooperation, for working together towards something that is bigger than each of us individually — for the good of the whole. Our public events strive to give participants the experience of a healthy social life, of seeing and valuing each other and our unique contribution to the world as part of an experience that helps us connect with ourselves, each other and the Earth.

The SuSol team and board members (present and past) at a May gathering to recognize founding Executive Director Elena Karoulina’s leadership as we grow as a democratically managed organization

Our team at Sustainable Solano is also a unique social organism, a living and breathing being that requires our attention and care. For a few years now we’ve been engaged in inquiry around what it means to uphold a healthy organization that is effective and impactful for the outside world, while supporting our personal and professional growth and development, respecting our authentic expression, and valuing our individual contributions.

During the pandemic, we began learning about Teal organizations, a growing trend in the business and nonprofit world of creating self-managing organizations. We were intrigued by this holistic and empowering approach, yet we felt we did not have enough tools and resources to fully embrace it at the time.

Last year, a few of our team members joined the Collaborate to Co-Liberate training from the Nonprofit Democracy Network and it finally clicked! In the network, we met many fellow nonprofits following the same path towards democratically managed organizations and learned many tools to manifest this vision. The generous long-term capacity-building support of the Magic Cabinet Foundation made it possible to try this approach for our organization.

Our professional world is largely hierarchical: the direction is given from the top of the organization and doing is at the bottom. The nonprofit sector, built on the corporate model (which, in turn, was built on the military model) is no different: the boards set the course, put things in motion, and hire an executive director to watch over the staff and report back to the board. This picture is no longer serving our evolving collective consciousness and the needs of our shared humanity.

Sustainable Solano has always been different: it’s a collegial, non-hierarchical, positive organization where the board and team work closely together and major decisions have always been made collectively. We are now deepening, defining and codifying this approach.

Our work is arranged around three major areas: Green Infrastructure, Local Food and Community Resiliency. Each area (we call them “guilds” to reflect their organic nature and our roots in permaculture) selects their Guild Leads, who for a limited time (18-24 months) become members of the Leadership Circle and assume a leadership role within their guilds. The Leadership Circle together with the Board of Directors is responsible for all key decisions for the organization (strategic direction, funding, compensation, key partnerships). These decisions are not done in isolation behind closed doors: they are brought to each Guild for discussion, and the feedback comes back to the Leadership Circle. A circular, non-hierarchical, fluid and transparent decision-making structure is one of the key features of our vision.

The second important feature is distribution of the key business functions across the organization. In a traditional model everything is fragmented and often disconnected: people doing the organization’s public-facing work have very little understanding or say in the matters of HR, finance, legal or infrastructure. In democratically managed organizations, these functions are assumed by the team members as an integral part of their core responsibilities, with added compensation to reflect that work. We call these four key areas of operation “hubs.” Our team members have an option to chose one of those as an added responsibility and assume an active role in the operations of their hub and key decisions there.

This approach does not lend itself to a traditional role of a “CEO on top of the C-Suite” either. To recognize the nature of the distributed leadership model and to support professional growth of our team members, we’ve also transitioned Sustainable Solano to a co-executive director model. We strongly believe that leading an organization like Sustainable Solano requires “home-grown” leaders who have worked on the ground, understand the organization, its mission and its culture, have received support and professional development from the organization and are ready to take on extra responsibilities. Co-executive directors will step up from the Leadership Circle; the position is also rotational, requiring a 3-4 year commitment.

We are thrilled to introduce our first co-executive director, Allison Nagel, who will join our long-term founding Executive Director Elena Karoulina in this role. With this transition, Elena’s title is now also co-executive director. Under this model, we hope to share the responsibilities and accountability held as co-executive directors, while retaining a firm footing in the community-based programs that are the vital core of Sustainable Solano’s work.

We hope our example will inspire other nonprofits and businesses in Solano County to follow. Please let us know if you have questions or comments — we would love to be in communication with organizations walking this path.

Elena Karoulina
Co-Executive Director

Allison Nagel
Co-Executive Director

2023 Vacaville Demonstration Food Forest Tour: Featured Gardens

Scroll through the list below to read about the Vacaville gardens that are featured on this year’s Demonstration Food Forest Tour!

Gardens will be open from 10 am-1 pm Saturday, June 3. You can pick up your itinerary for this self-guided tour at the Vacaville Farmers Market from 9-11 am.

Register for the June 3 tour here!

Vacaville Demonstration Food Forest Gardens

Blooming Beneficial Biome

This Food Forest Keeper was inspired to transform her lawn into a garden full of healthy soil with microbial diversity, having installed a swale and berm and started the transformation when SuSol selected the site for a demonstration food forest. The garden thrives with a diversity of plants that support one another and manure, worm castings and compost inoculation to nurture the soil, without additional amendments and inputs.

Plants share nutrients courtesy of the underworld super highway delivery system of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi. Plants feed microorganisms excess simple sugars in this interdependent environment, who then co-labor to source and deliver what each plant requires. Each row has a diversity of vegetables and beneficials that serve to confuse bugs and disease. It should not be necessary to adopt a rigid practice of crop rotation with this integrated method of planting.

See amaranth, asparagus, beets, blueberries, bok choy, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, lettuce, parsnips, Swiss chard, spinach, strawberries, peach, apple, pear, cherry, nectaplum, apple, microclover, blooming beneficials and more on less than a tenth of an acre. The Food Forest Keeper has before and after posters and a reference binder of almost every plant.

Learn more

Healthy Futures

This garden has eight thriving fruit trees in a small front yard, as well as a plethora of herbaceous and shrub plants. The vegetation is watered through a combination of swales that collect rainwater, greywater from the laundry, and (rarely utilized) drip irrigation. The yard has, like any good forest should, taken on a life and energy of its own, constantly changing and morphing year over year, but never failing to provide the residents, neighbors, and several local food banks with fruits and vegetables.

Learn more

Vacaville’s Westgate Wonderland Neighborhood

(These next three gardens are within walking distance of each other)


This four-year-old front yard garden welcomes the neighborhood to pick as they please. The yard extends to the backyard with pollinator plants intermixed with edibles, chickens, repurposed items, a native sedge field and so much more. This yard integrates systems to benefit the whole property.


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Our Shepherd’s Heart

This front yard garden was installed in May 2021 with the focus on growing food and a desire to share with neighbors. A large swale in the front wraps around the yard and supports fruit trees and pollinators.

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Orchid Lily

This small, beautiful, low maintenance front yard garden offers easy access to culinary herbs and three fruit tree guilds supported with yarrow, comfrey and borage.

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Inspired Garden

Homeowners Mike and Sherry participated in SuSol’s DIY Sustainable Design course after working with SuSol to create a demonstration food forest garden and laundry-to-landscape greywater system at the family home that has housed four generations (Healthy Futures, also on this year’s tour). With that inspriation and guidance, Mike and Sherry now have converted their front and back yards, turning lawn into an edible garden filled with pollinator plants that includes swales to capture rainwater, an herb spiral, espalied apple and pear trees and drip irrigation. The garden now yields enough fruit and vegetables to share with neighbors.

Tour their yard to see how you can apply these principles at home!

We are incredibly grateful for the generous support of our funders. The Solano County Water Agency continues to support the Sustainable Backyard Program throughout the county. Solano Sustainable Backyard Program short videos: Waterwise and Building Gardens and Community. Occasionally we combine funding from other programs to make larger projects possible.

SuSol Seeks to Engage Indigenous Voices in Our Work

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano works with local communities here in Solano County and honors the lands that we are lucky to do that work on. As this land originally belongs to the Patwin, Miwok, Karkin, Muwekma, Confederated Villages of Lisjan, and Ohlone peoples, these indigenous communities continue to hold and steward this land as they have for time immemorial. We thank the original peoples of this land with the utmost gratitude for their stewardship of this beautiful Earth and their resistance to its destruction past, present, and future. Because it is our mission to nurture initiatives for the good of the whole, we recognize that true equity arises when we intentionally engage and empower communities who historically have been mistreated by the systems in place.

It is our intention to get our resources into communities that are not regularly afforded access to these resources, but we have realized that we have not been making enough effort to invite indigenous people to the table. As an organization we seek to counter the harm these systems perpetuate with action, one way being through opening up our platform to directly uplift indigenous voices.

We are actively looking to engage with more indigenous community members in our work. SuSol team members have been in communication with representatives from local tribal communities, and we want to see how we can support the identified desires of indigenous groups and individuals in ways that intersect with our mission.

As a part of many of our programs, we are always seeking people to teach classes to the wider community. This is paid work, where we look to bring people together in gardens and beyond to learn more about permaculture, sustainability, resilience, waterwise gardening, farm-to-table cooking, and connecting with love for and solidarity with our Mother Earth. We acknowledge that we have a responsibility to make these jobs especially accessible to indigenous communities, whose knowledge is the foundation for so many permaculture practices and ways of connecting with the Earth, our non-human relations and each other.

This is a starting point for working together. If you are an indigenous community member and are interested in partnering with us, please contact 

Our goal is to open up a space to share your knowledge, foster community connections, and to come together to support increasing access to land. We wish to uplift our communities by prioritizing connections based on equity and decentralization, while learning together how to live in harmony with our neighbors of all species.

Gnocchi with Vegetables in Lemon Primavera Sauce

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Recipes from Chef Laura Doyle of Lavender Bergamot Kitchen for potato gnocchi and spring vegetables in a lemon primavera sauce.



2 lbs whole russet potatoes (3-4)
2 beaten egg yolks
1 1/2 cups flour
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 400°. Cut the potatoes in half and rub all over with salt and olive oil. Place cut side down on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 30-40 minutes or until soft.

While the potatoes cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. You want the potatoes to still be pretty hot when you work with them but you don’t want to burn your hands. I find it easiest to hold the potato half in a tea towel and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. You also want to process the potatoes while hot so the most water will escape as steam.

Scoop the potato from the skin and mash very well. The best tool for this is a ricer or a food mill but a fork will work just fine. Try and make sure there are as few lumps as possible.

Sprinkle the counter with flour and spread the hot potato out. Pour over the egg yolks and sprinkle on the salt and 1 cup of the flour. Use a pastry cutter to cut the flour and egg into the potato without developing any gluten. Once the dough is more or less uniform, switch to a bench scraper and use that to gather the dough into a loose pile. Use your hands to gently fold and press the dough, incorporating the last of the flour, until soft and supple. Try not to over mix or knead.

When the dough feels like it is holding together, pat it into a log, dusting it well all over with flour. Let it rest for five minutes.

Break off a small piece and drop it in the boiling water. Let it cook until it rises to the surface, pull it out and eat it. It should be fluffy and a little bit chewy. If it is very dense, you have added too much flour. If it is mealy or has fallen apart in the water, you need to add more. It is really all up to your taste, some people really love the softest, fluffy gnocchi you can make, some love a bit of a chew.

Once the gnocchi tastes right to you, divide the dough into 4 pieces. One at a time, roll the pieces out into long snakes about an inch in diameter. Try not to press too hard, guide the dough rather than shaping. Cut off ½ – 1 inch pieces and toss with flour so they don’t stick together. If you want to give them ridges, roll each gnocchi down the back of a fork. You can also just use your finger to poke a divot in the center of each one. The point is to create surface texture that the sauce can sit in. If you are going to be freezing these for later use, spread out on a parchment-lined sheet pan and freeze through. Transfer to a ziplock bag for storage.

Place about a quarter of the gnocchi at a time into the boiling water and let cook until they start to float. Once they have all risen to the surface, wait about 20 more seconds and carefully scoop them out with a slotted spoon. Transfer them directly to the sauce.

Lemon Primavera Sauce


¼ pound sugar snap peas, stems trimmed
½ pound asparagus, ends snapped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
¾ cup fresh English peas
¼ cup thinly sliced spring onion,
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (if you can find spring garlic, use that here)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed
Black pepper, more as needed
½ cup crème fraîche or whole milk Greek yogurt, at room temperature
1 tsp lemon zest
⅔ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano,
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add snap peas, asparagus, English peas and onion. Cook until vegetables are barely tender (but not too soft or mushy), 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more.

When the gnocchi is done cooking, scoop out 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Stir the crème fraîche into the vegetables, along with ½ cup pasta cooking liquid, and lemon zest and bring to a simmer.

Add the gnocchi to the pan and toss well, adding more cooking liquid if the pan seems too dry. Right before removing from the heat, stir in the cheese, lemon juice and fresh herbs. Serve immediately.

Download a printable version of the recipe here.

Learn about this recipe by watching the cooking class below

2023 Fairfield & Suisun City Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour & Healthy Local Food Showcase is May 6!

Join us for the Fairfield-Suisun City Demonstration Food Forest Tour and Celebrating Healthy Local Food: A Culinary and Garden Showcase on Saturday, May 6!

Sustainable Solano’s self-guided tour of vibrant, waterwise gardens in Fairfield and Suisun City will start with check-in from 9-11 am at Jardin de Esperanza, the garden on Armijo High School’s campus. Park and follow the signs to the garden, where you will be able to sign in and receive an itinerary of gardens to visit. Then tour Jardin de Esperanza and visit the Showcase in the Armijo High School library before heading out to tour the other gardens between 10 am-1 pm!

The tour highlights private and community gardens that use sustainable, waterwise practices to create spaces that provide food, habitat and beauty while capturing rainwater and, in some cases, reusing laundry water in the landscape. Some gardens also show how to make chickens part of a backyard ecosystem. Register here.

In the Showcase, students who participated in the Armijo Healthy Local Food program will share multimedia projects that highlight the importance of growing, cooking and eating healthy food and the importance of local food. Students in the Healthy Local Food program spent weeks learning about the importance of healthy, seasonal, local food by learning culinary skills and how to cook with local produce and meeting in the school garden to connect with growing and understanding our relationship to food. They used their experiences to create multimedia campaigns that include videos, interviews, podcasts, blogs and more!

Explore the multimedia campaigns at your own pace while talking with the students about their work and the program.

We hope to see you there!

Scroll through the list below to read about the Fairfield and Suisun City gardens that are featured on this year’s Demonstration Food Forest Tour!

Gardens will be open from 10 am-1 pm Saturday, May 6. You can pick up your itinerary for this self-guided tour at the Armijo High School “Jardin de Esperanza” from 9-11 am.

Register for the tour here!

Fairfield Demonstration Food Forest Gardens

Magical Garden

This garden was a front lawn conversion in 2019. It is filled with vegetables, fruits, herbs and more, building healthy soil and harvesting water from the roof.

Home to hummingbirds, bees, ladybugs and other beneficial insects, the garden sparks conversation with the neighbors and offers bountiful produce to share.

Learn more

Mom’s Delight

Installed in 2017, this backyard food forest has 21 fruit trees pruned annually to 5 feet, making it easier to access the fruit. The majority of the trees are watered by rain funneled into a swale, while others are watered from the laundry-to-landscape greywater system. An automatic drip system is used during the dry periods. All the fruits are shared with neighbors, friends and family. Additional plantings of salvia and calendula draw in honey bees and hummingbirds.

Laundry-to-Landscape greywater & backyard chickens

Learn more

West Winds

This garden was just planted in January 2023 as a collaborative project between Sustainable Solano and Solano 4-H. Youth members learned about permaculture and designing within the homeowners’ needs, then applied their new knowledge to a plan that includes fruit trees, pollinators and edible annuals. This site is especially susceptible to the western winds, which have annual summer gusts up to 40 mph. The garden is a work in progress as a learning space for 4-Hers for years to come.

Backyard chickens

Learn more

Suisun City Demonstration Food Forest Gardens

Caisteal Termonn

This garden is a demonstration in community and environmental resilience. Homeowners Heidi and Mitch had dealt with a wildfire taking their home in 2020. The garden was designed around a large maple tree, the only thing that survived the fire, and was named in Gaelic to harken back to Mitch’s native Scottish roots. It was installed December 2022.

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El Bosquecito

Installed in 2021 to mitigate the effects of flooding, this food forest garden is complete with chickens and a laundry-to-landscape greywater system. This yard has multiple fruit trees and pollinator plants.

Laundry-to-Landscape greywater & backyard chickens


Learn more

We are incredibly grateful for the generous support of our funders. The Solano County Water Agency continues to support the Sustainable Backyard Program throughout the county. Solano Sustainable Backyard Program short videos: Waterwise and Building Gardens and Community.

Armijo High’s garden is supported through our Solano Gardens program and by Innovative Health Solutions. 

The Healthy Local Food Program is run through Sustainable Solano, with funding from Solano Public Health and a CA Department of Food and Agriculture grant. Innovative Health Solutions is also a partner that supports the program and receives funding through the CalFresh Healthy Living Program administered through the Nutrition Services Bureau of Solano Public Health. The program is in partnership with Armijo High School and the school’s Multimedia Academy and Garden Club.