Re-introducing Common Spark*: New topics, new purpose

Michelle's Wordle

Words from my Bush Fellowship Plan (2011)

Today, I re-introduce Common Spark* as a blog that explores community as the place, world, people that feed us, that give us energy, or that “spark”.  This blog will still cover energy and behavior change, but will also explore energy, what drives us, motivates us, and inspires us and our community.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little blog here – for your hardy readers out there, still sticking with me…  I’ve been wondering how to keep something that began in 2011 relevant today after so many changes, turns, and new adventures!

In looking forward, it is always helpful to look backward too, so here I share some of my reflections of this blog and where we’re going next!

Why “Common Spark*“?  The “commons” are a symbol of community, shared identities, resources, and values.  “Spark” is a nice reference to energy.

Why I started Common Spark*:  In 2011, I was honored by being named a Bush Fellow of the Bush Foundation’s Leadership Fellowship program.  Through this fellowship, I endeavored to dig deeper into issues that are vital to MN communities and that are deeply important to me: energy and community, hence the name, Common Spark*.

Through this fellowship, I researched, provided trainings, and developed skills to promote and expand the use of community-based social marketing, as a way to leverage existing local resources to produces broad and lasting change in communities.

This blog was originally created to cover topics such as community-based social marketing, community, leadership, energy issues, and professional development.

In 2012, I moved out to the DC area and continued my journey into behavior change and energy issues, and in 2014, I even began consulting more formally on these topics.  It has been a truly rich and adventurous journey, and I thank the Bush Foundation and my supportive community (namely, MN CERTs) for the opportunity to grow in so many ways!

What is Common Spark* today?  My journey has taken some new turns since I began this blog.  While I still work in energy, and I’m even a stronger believer in community-led action for a more sustainable future, my work is now a blend of behavior change, policy development and implementation, management, and new energy issues, such as financing.  I’ve also developed (per recommendation of my Bush Fellowship) a strong wellness habit with running, yoga, and nutrition, and I see this directly impacting my leadership practice.  Lastly, I’ve enjoyed several work and leadership opportunities in the DC area since 2015 and have been challenged in new ways and learned so much about myself and my work.

A new mix of words, meaning, and ideas!

A new mix of words, meaning, and ideas!

I’m proposing that Common Spark* is now a venue for a broader range of topics that reflect a new scope of interests, activities, learning, and experience.  It is and will continue to be about community and how I want to continue to live and work in that context.  And it will still be about energy, in terms of energy issues (policy, infrastructure, behavior change), but also the things that energize…that which motivates, moves, inspires, and sustains.  Thanks for sticking with me as I “let loose” and unfold this new chapter!

– Michelle Vigen, July 2015

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Stories: The fibers that show our sustainability future is happening now

Storytelling is an important part of my work as a sustainability professional.  Stories inspire, move, connect, and engage.  And I think the reason why is that for all the talk about what we should or need to do for the future, stories illustrate that we’re already able to and are doing the right things for our future.

Telling the energy stories of Montgomery County

UntitledLast November, as part of an effort to illustrate all the good energy work I saw happening in Montgomery County, we started a storytelling effort.  Inspired by CERT’s Energy Stories, I made a goal of publishing a new energy case study each month.

To add a little pressure, I set up the Montgomery County Energy News, a monthly e-newsletter that provides important updates about the County’s energy policies and programs, and also includes the monthly energy case study.

With the help of a writer, we’ve covered a restaurant, a homeowner’s lighting and another’s solar project, a mall’s lighting project, and even work of our County.

Kitchen-lighting-1024x682

Laytonsville home updates their lighting

fedrIn addition to the case studies, we’ve launched a series called “BENCHMARKED” which features an interview of a building owner/manager who’s benchmarked their building in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager – which certain buildings are mandated to do starting next year.

Here we feature some companies that are leading in energy performance, our public schools and college, and (soon) our Early Bird Benchmarkers!

Storytelling is a way for us to recognize residents and businesses doing the right thing and demonstrating what our Department of Environmental Protection is trying to promote.

Storytelling also benefits these members of the Montgomery County community – especially businesses that are interested in garnering recognition for their hard work.  It’s one way in which we can and like to partner with our community organizations, friends, and businesses!

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
– Unknown

Using Storytelling to make an issue Our-Size

In the sustainability field, so many of us are still relying on the rational argument to make our case: how many pounds of carbon we can reduce from changing our lights, how many leaves to rake to reduce phosphorus, how many miles we should bike instead of drive to improve air quality.  But climate change, no matter what the numbers, is possibly too big for our brains to actually capture and comprehend (Gilbert).

So how do we take the big problem and make it real at our level?  I would argue that storytelling does that.  Storytelling can simultaneously convey a message, connect others to another, and also establish norms that can compel action.

SolarJoy

Poolesville home goes solar with electric vehicles

Sole & Wilson (2002) identify the role of storytelling as follows:

  • Share norms and values: Stories act as a medium for passing on values and creating vision.
  • Develop trust and commitment: Personal stories can communicate one’s own ability and commitment, as well as conveying openness by sharing something personal. Organizational stories influence the perceived trustworthiness of the firm and its management (either positively or negatively).
  • Share tacit knowledge: Enables the users to articulate tacit knowledge and communicate with feeling, which helps them convey more than they realize that they know (Weaver 2005 in Bali et al 2009).
  • Facilitate unlearning: Unlearning often requires more than rational arguments. It needs an intuitive and emotional anchor, which stories can provide.
  • Generate emotional connection: We connect with stories emotionally and a story that has had an impact on us will be easily recalled long into the future.

From: http://www.knowledge-management-tools.net/storytelling.html#ixzz3dX5hziIO

We’ll continue to collect our stories, slowly but surely building our library of stories to showcase all the different ways in which Montgomery County is living up to its name as a progressive, green, and sustainable County!

Chesapeake Environmental Leadership Fellowship: Let the journey continue…

A little history about this blog: I started writing this blog, when I received my Archibald Bush Leadership Fellowship back in 2011.  We were asked to report amongst our peers and larger network in some mode, and I chose a monthly blog.

A quick browse through my posts will reveal a mixture of writings about leadership development, building self-awareness, notes on self-care and balance, as well as articles I’ve written about community-based social marketing and understanding behavioral nudges in order to advance sustainability.

Looking back, it was all pretty abstract to me.  I understood the concepts of effective leadership, I could explain how different strategies and practices might work and why they were effective, but I did not know them myself.

photoToday marks 3 years since I arrived in Washington, D.C.  I can’t say it’s been the easiest experience.  These last three years have challenged me in ways I could not have expected – some of my experiences out here in DC have left me deeply disappointed, and even hurt.  I’ve questioned my own abilities (and had them questioned publicly), I’ve had to re-affirm my interests and passions, and more than once, I’ve put myself out there only to be beaten back.  I wouldn’t wish these experiences on anyone else, but they have made me stronger and I have grown in unexpected ways from them.

Today, I am challenged, inspired, and feel supported in so many ways.  Montgomery County is such a wonderful place to be working in energy policy. My current work moves rapidly, is evolving every week – it seems a new challenge and opportunity presents itself on a monthly basis, requiring me to re-calibrate my expectations of my time, my abilities, and my goals.  It is both exciting and exhausting.  I also have the pleasure of working with very talented and passionate colleagues and am blessed to have the time and flexibility to also focus on my own health

The lessons I learned through my mentors and my Bush Fellowship have given me tools  to survive (when the challenge is threatening), thrive, navigate, and dig deep.   I have come to know and understand that leadership is indeed a practice and it is one meant to sustain the work, grow the work by engaging others, and take care of myself for that work.  

My MoCo teammates and me at a tree planting

My MoCo teammates and me at a tree planting

Out of these last three years, in both the inspiring and challenging times, I’ve experienced great reward and richness. I’ve met amazing friends, inspiring mentors, found new things to love, ended up at an amazing job, and learned so much about myself and what I am capable of adapting to. I must say, I am GRATEFUL for it all.

Which is why I’m very excited to announce the next iteration in my leadership path: I’ve been accepted into the Chesapeake Regional Environmental Leadership Program.  Over the next 7 months, I’ll be working with 19 others in small groups, meeting over the course of 3 retreats, to strengthen and hone my skills, vision, and path as a leader (in my own small way) to advance sustainability and environmental issues.  I am excited to have this unique opportunity to learn and (hopefully) grow in new ways, to find new connections in my work and how I conduct my work.

elplogoAnd I am especially excited to take another step to further integrate myself in my new home.  The mid-atlantic/Chesapeake Bay region is still a strange place to me, but I’m looking forward to learning more about the larger environmental community that is at work here, and to learn from them about their vision, and how I might fit into it all.

Thank you to Montgomery County DEP for providing me this opportunity, to my chief/supervisor for his support in this and daily endeavors, to my Bush Fellowship cohort members and mentors, and my Minnesota colleagues (CERTSies!), and family for inspiring, supporting, and still cheering me on.

Like with my Bush Fellowship, I will endeavor to post some updates about my experience.

Let the journey continue…

The power of a sticker…

As the research around behavior change has shown, we humans often do the things we do, not for the benefits explicitly inherent in the activity itself, but for some other outside and still rational reasons.

We turn off the lights when we leave the room because it’s the norm or habit… “that’s what we do around home” – not because we calculate the energy savings as we contemplate leaving the room.  We run in races to set and meet a goal, be with friends, and maybe get a cool t-shirt (Maggie, I’m thinking of you!), not just because that’s the only opportunity to time ourselves and run a measured course.  And, as an anecdote from many years ago (still searching for documentation) – we recycle our old refrigerators, not for a $50 rebate but in exchange for a $10 gift card to the local ice cream shop.

Kids enjoying ice cream truck

Photo courtesy of kazzpoint0 via Flickr

Norms, habits, perceptions, goals, aspirations, and social pressure all contribute to us doing certain behaviors.  A new case in point from my own life:

For the past 7 days, I’ve done more yoga than I typically do in a single month.  You see…there’s a Spring Yoga Challenge going on at my studio (25 practices in 30 days), and I decided to take the challenge and devote myself to my yoga practice for the next month.

The thing is, I have to be honest.  When I think hard about it:

I’m doing it for the stickers.

There’s this sticker board, you see…  And maybe it’s like being a kid and flossing my teeth (I’m thinking of you, Mom…), but we get a sticker after every practice.  And the JOY, of peeling off the sticker from the paper, and putting it by your name is CRAZY REWARDING.

The positively colorful and compelling STICKER BOARD!

The positively colorful and compelling STICKER BOARD!

I didn’t even know until my 4th practice that there are RAFFLE PRIZES for those that complete the challenge.  Really…the stickers do it for me.

Maybe it’s the stickers, but behavior change research shows there’s probably more to this than a happy sticker board.  The Spring Challenge incorporates several “nudges” that research has shown help us change our behavior.

  • The sticker board  is a public and durable commitment – my name is listed along with several others, and our progress is marked next to our name.  It’s much harder to back down when you’ve made the commitment loud, clear, and visible.
  • There’s some social diffusion going on here.  Yoga instructor and my pal, Jonathan, gave me the necessary (even if silly) encouragement to sign up.  I’ve trusted him to lead me into new and strange poses and postures…so it makes sense I would trust him when he says I could/should try this yoga challenge.
  • Timing is not a motivator, but it didn’t stand in the way as a barrier.  Convenient, the Challenge started up right after my last running race, so I wouldn’t be disrupting any training schedule, and I usually turn to more yoga during a recovery period anyway.  (Just to note that timing can matter!)
  • Assisted handstand

    Individually strong… Collectively stronger!

    And, as I mentioned before in a previous post, IPY has a community that encourages certain norms…like doing the Challenge.  My other friends are doing it: Tariq, Monica, Rebecca, Gretchen, Michelle, Jessica…(just to name those I’ve seen most recently) …  And when you show up at Inner Power Yoga, you are always greeted with a smile, a name, some cozy fun chat, and a feeling that you really belong.

There’s community at IPY.  My name on that sticker board reminds me that I’m part of this community.  And in this community we (a bunch of us) are working towards practicing yoga 25 times in the next 30 days.  Pretty powerful stuff, huh?

Crow and extended crow pose

(Yea, this lasted about 3 seconds…)

I’ll keep you posted about my progress, but I have a feeling that even if I don’t complete the 25 practices, I still will have spent valuable time on the mat, deepened my practice, and gained all the benefits that come from a consistent yoga practice…  And maybe the stickers will end up in the recycling bin (however, remembered eternally by my camera phone), but the benefits will last far beyond this 30 days.

You see, it doesn’t matter if it’s stickers or almond butter, endorphins, feeling more confident about yourself, or just showing up because you want to see your friends…what matters is what we end up doing…the benefits will follow regardless.

Lesson: Don’t take for granted what will motivate and compel sustainable or other healthy (even if upside-down and extended) actions and behavior!

Note: Often folks learn about behavior change tools and strategies and they feel that their experience is therefore inauthentic or gamed.  I would argue that these types of structures and strategies are pervasive throughout our day, and we should be so lucky if they are part of and support healthy sustainable activity.  I am grateful for Ursula and the community she has created at IPY, and she created this fun game and challenge which just happens to nudge me (and probably several others) to deepen our yoga practices and dedicate some time to the mat.  There is nothing wrong with this, and I look forward to the fall challenge and many more after that!

Energy efficiency and behavior change struggle on…

For several years, I’ve been writing about, working in, or incorporating behavior change methods to encourage energy conserving behavior.

And I guess this post is to say: Don’t let up.  We haven’t gotten there yet…perhaps not by a long shot.

In our bag of goodies, we have new arsenal: thermostats that beg us to interact (such as Google’s Nest), smart meter interval data available at our finger tips (see Pepco’s My Account), home displays that happen on our phone (see the latest example in the news), and games among games to play with our family and community to encourage reducing energy.

A survey from KSVC, a marketing firm that appreciates the challenge of this task, has revealed that we’re not too far from where we were back in 2012.  Essentially they found:

“…higher utility bill is easier to cope with than the price of a solution.”

In other words, we haven’t made it harder to cope with a higher utility bill than implementing a solution (whether technological or behavioral).  “Energy efficiency” in the home is still a technology, not a state or category of behavior.

Still need time to turn this ship around... (by james_wheeler via flickr)

Still need time to turn this ship around… (by james_wheeler via flickr)

What energy efficiency means to us is:

  • 53% – Energy Efficiency means efficient products and/or technology.
  • 20% – Energy Efficiency means an expensive investment.
  • 16% – Energy Efficiency means conservation.
  • 10% – Energy Efficiency means not measurable savings.

Maybe it’s still about the words we use (as I noted from Dougherty’s work several years ago).  KSVC tried using the term “energy saving solution” and apparently we found that to mean something different:

  • 35% – Energy Savings Solutions means easy-to-implement, DIY tips.
  • 32% – Energy Savings Solutions means financial savings.
  • 23% – Energy Savings Solutions means conservation.
  • 8% – Energy Savings Solutions means immediate savings.

What does this mean for those trying to nudge greater energy savings out of our community?  We need to continue to find the most salient ways to approach the concept of conservation, find ways to ingrain behavior into habits, and continue to build the social norm by making the invisible visible and sharing stories about one another.  In other words, it’s back to the basics of community based social marketing.

Keep on, keeping on….

Read more about KSVC’s survey and their work at: http://www.ksvc.com/blog/2015/3/5/customer-perceptions-of-energy-efficiency-may-surprise-you