The “Top of the World” in the Tahoe National Forest
As anyone connected to me on social media knows too well, Earth Day is every day for me. A statistical analysis of my typical Facebook posts, tweets and LinkedIn updates likely would find a strong correlation between it being a day of the week and me posting some kind of sustainability-focused update.
In 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denis Hayes, who served as national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and currently leads the Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on advancing the next generation of sustainable buildings.
As a sustainability communicator, I make my living helping to tell the sustainability stories of others. While that’s wonderful, Earth Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our own personal sustainability stories.
Today, I’d like to reflect on mine — where it began, how I got to where I am today and where it may lead in the future.
A nature-filled childhood
Growing up in beautiful California, I gained an appreciation of nature and the environment at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are visiting brisk beaches near San Francisco and spending summers in the tantalizing Tahoe National Forest.
Little me (on the left) with my big brother in the Tahoe Forest.
I also have been storytelling since shortly after I first learned how to write. Throughout elementary, middle and high school, I wrote short stories for fun and as an outlet for getting me through those often awkward adolescent years.
The first time I realized that I was capable of writing things that others actually would want to read occurred during my freshman year of high school when I won a creative writing contest for a story I wrote about a family camping trip to Lake Shasta gone awry. The story was published in the local newspaper, The San Mateo County Times.
As I entered college, I became more and more interested in politics, and wondered if I might be able to use my writing and storytelling abilities to advance the causes I cared about. During my senior year of college, I became an opinion columnist for the university’s student newspaper, which gave me a platform to write about everything from politics to social issues.
Intro to sustainable business
While I always had considered myself to be an environmentalist, it wasn’t until my first job out of college at a San Francisco communications firm that I became aware of the concept of corporate sustainability. Working with renewable energy and energy efficiency companies to help tell their stories, I realized that helping to reconcile business with social and environmental issues was what I wanted to do with my life.
But I also knew that I needed to acquire a global perspective if I truly wanted to be an effective communicator of the social, environmental, and economic complexities that constitute sustainability.
And so I left my cubicle, packed my bags, and moved to Bogotá, Colombia to spend a year volunteering teaching English in a disadvantaged community in the city’s southern sprawl. As someone who grew up relatively privileged in a suburb of San Francisco, it was a truly transformative year. The world no longer seemed so small, and I became a hardened citizen of the world comfortable traveling anywhere with nothing more than a travel pack.
Urban development in Bogotá
While living in Bogotá, I became fascinated by urban sustainability, learning about the city’s efforts to deal with air quality, water, energy and planning problems. As an Andean metropolis thousands of miles above sea level, Bogotá’s already thin air is worsened by smog. Bogotá suffers the same problems as many other cities in the global South — as droves of people come to the big cities to escape poverty, war and climate change-induced problems, the urban environments swell, compounding social and environmental problems.
Teaching English in Bogota.
In other words: Bogotá is a city designed for maybe a million people, which now has a population of close to 9 million. That’s a lot of people trying to get around, looking for jobs, needing children educated, and everything else associated with living life.
A few years before I arrived in Bogotá, the city opened the TransMilenio rapid bus transit system. Designed like a light rail system with dedicated lanes and stations for transferring, TransMilenio has been touted as a golden solution to urban transit in developing cities. While the system works well enough, it still isn’t capable of meeting the demands of the city’s growing population.
If you ever want to know what it feels like to be a sardine in a can, try riding TransMilenio at rush hour.
But strained as the system is, it still is a major step up from the previous chaotic system of private colectivo buses, which still operate but have become less necessary in certain parts of town.
Disappearing islands in the Caribbean
During my year in Latin America, I had the opportunity to travel to Panama and spend some time on the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean. These islands are some of the most pristine, beautiful geography I have ever laid eyes on. Virgin beaches transport you back to another time, and you wonder if you wouldn’t be happy spending the rest of your days out there away from the toils of reality.
Visiting a Kuna community in San Blas.
Unfortunately for the Kuna, the indigenous people who inhabit many of the San Blas Islands, their days of living such a life are numbered. While these resilient people survived Christopher Columbus, they will not endure climate change.
Living on islands not much bigger than a couple of football fields and maybe a meter or two above sea level, rising sea levels will soon force the Kuna to evacuate their entire society to the mainland. I had the privilege of visiting one of the Kuna communities, which informed me on the human cost of climate change.
Entering the corporate sustainability world
In January 2012, I returned to the United States utterly transformed by my year in Latin America, and armed with a new sense of urgency to do whatever I could to help turn the tide against climate change. I soon became involved with Sustainable Brands, helping to tell the stories of corporate sustainability. For a while, I also wrote for Triple Pundit, another media outlet focused on corporate sustainability. And then I became a senior writer for GreenBiz.
Conducting an interview at GreenBiz VERGE.
Two years after returning from Latin America, my experiences drew the attention of a professor at George Washington University, who offered me an opportunity to continue my education at the graduate level. The program, Media & Strategic Communication, is essentially a masters in data-driven storytelling.
Recognizing the importance of data in corporate sustainability communication, I accepted the offer and once again packed my bags to move across the country to Washington, D.C.
More global perspectives
Over the past two years of graduate school, I have continued to write for Greenbiz and Sustainable Brands, interviewing movers and shakers in the corporate sustainability world and writing stories about every imaginable sustainability issue — including energy, water, waste, supply chains, cities… you name it.
In November 2014, I traveled with my GW professor to Nairobi, Kenya where we met with an information technology NGO working to improve governance capacity in the city’s slums. Mathare Valley is a slum overflowing with climate change refugees — largely smallholder farmers driven out of the nearby Rift Valley from a years-long megadrought.
We met with local community organizers working to improve conditions that the government has been happy to ignore. In an area where garbage removal doesn’t exist, we saw trash heaps two stories high. We met human beings living in conditions most Americans wouldn’t tolerate even temporarily.
With local children in Mathare Valley, Nairobi.
In April 2015, I was invited by the Rainforest Alliance to participate in a media tour to the rainforests of Guatemala, where the nonprofit is working with local communities to sustainably harvest forests. Through this experience, I witnessed the power of sustainable business in earnest — increasing demand for sustainably sourced wood is creating markets for local communities to make a living while protecting their quickly disappearing forests.
Reporting on sustainable forestry in Guatemala.
While historically, Guatemala’s government has favored corporate interests over local ones, as part of an effort to make reparations after its tragic genocide the government created the 5 million acre Maya Biosphere Reserve. The difference in the protected and unprotected regions is staggering — in order to reach the MBR, we passed through unprotected forests, which were being burned even as we passed to make room for cattle farming.
Becoming a Climate Corps fellow
Last summer, I was accepted into the elite EDF Climate Corps fellowship program, which recruits and trains graduate students and embeds them in organizations to provide hands-on support for energy management initiatives. Assigned to PG&E Corporation back home in San Francisco, I spent the summer working on marketing communications and engagement strategy for an energy finance initiative aimed at helping mid- to low-income homeowners pay for energy upgrades.
Presenting my final deliverable my EDF Climate Corps fellowship with PG&E.
While energy always has been my “first love” as far as sustainability goes, my experience as a Climate Corps fellow buttressed my belief that energy is where I want to focus my storytelling skills on. Energy is the foundation of a modern economy, and without developing a more sustainable, smarter and low-carbon grid, it will be difficult to address the multifarious other sustainability challenges across the world.
What happens next
I recently successfully defended my master’s thesis on extreme weather events, information technology, and policy change. I have solidified my understanding of strategic communication, and boosted it with data analysis and data visualization skills.
In a matter of weeks I will earn my masters, and plan to return to California to pursue the next stage of my sustainability storytelling career. I plan to continue my efforts as a strategic communicator and writer telling stories about companies and organizations around the world working to fight climate change and promote a better future.
But I’m also ready to take all that I have learned — from corporate board rooms to disappearing islands to crumbling slums — and focus it on helping to push the needle on energy innovation in California and beyond.
Today is Earth Day, but so is tomorrow and the day after that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s time to get to it.