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

Saving Energy is Good for the Soul

Reposted from where you can learn about green living in Montgomery County and read stories of local resident doing more to use less and protect our community’s environment!

Hello! It’s your friendly County energy adviser, Michelle, here to help ring in the New Year with a blog post.

Let me start by saying: I promise I’m not going to challenge you to turn off lights or get an energy audit. I’m not even going to offer you tips on making your resolutions SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound). You can read about energy goals, SMART goals, and other behavior-changing tips elsewhere.

Instead, I offer this resolution: Do more healthful and meaningful activities this year.

Making 2015 meaningful and healthful

To prove I’m serious, here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Get a good night’s sleep as many nights a week as you can. Re-discover what 8 hours of sleep can do for you, even if it’s just on the weekend.

Sleeping kitten. Photo courtesy of Moyan Breen, via Flickr

  • Invite friends and family over for dinner, hang out, and socialize. Cook and watch a movie, play games, visit and catch-up over a cup of cocoa.
  • Go for a walk in your neighborhood and stop to smell the, err…native and stormwater-friendly species in yours and your neighbors’ yards. Maybe, even say “hello”!
  • Plant something, like a pot of flowers or a tree.

Child playing in a garden. Photo courtesy of Jessica Lucia, via Flickr

  • Volunteer at your favorite local charity, or better yet, help out a neighbor with a project that could use an extra pair of hands. Have you gotten to know your local Greens (Bethesda, Poolesville, Silver Spring, Wheaton)?

What do these things all have in common?

Well, first of all, they are good and healthy fun. These activities make us smile, and feel better about yourself, your family, your friends, and your community. These activities make us happy, grateful, and appreciative of what’s around us.

Secondly, they also have a low energy impact. A recent study featured in the Washington Post by Joseph Kantenbacher, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, showed us “The surprising link between things that make us happy and things that save energy”.  Kantenbacher found:

“A number of the least energy intensive activities that I found — sleeping, socializing, hobbies, and so forth — are enriching personally.  So they make people happy to do them, but they also are relatively low consuming activities.”

Make this year one of good, healthy fun, and maybe you’ll find that your energy bill drops a bit – or maybe a bit more if you turn off the lights or get that audit – but regardless of how much energy you save this year, you’ll be a happier, healthier person.

A family cooking together. Photo courtesy of Nestle, via Flickr.

Original post by the friendly folks at Montgomery County DEP:


Finding Home (posted August 22)

Somehow I made my flight, the last connection out of Dallas to DC.  I never should have made it by the laws of time and airport scheduling.  As I sat on the plane, grateful that my day-long journey from the west coast would indeed remain a single day long, I reflected on the week I had spent at ACEEE Summer Study.  Hours later, even in the darkness, the lights of the DC metro area came into view, and the blank darkness of the Potomac River came into view.  For the first time since I moved out here, I recognized this new city as a home. 

Fountain and patios on my route to the metro

This new Virginian…Over the last three months, since my last blog post, I have been joined by Chris, and have found and settled into an apartment in Ballston Arlington, VA.  I have a pleasant 8-minute walk through inter-high rise gardens to the metro station, and am a short walk or drive to beautiful trails and bike paths.  I joined a Bocce league, with which I’m somewhat consistent, and have registered myself and my car at the DMV.  On paper, I’m Virginian.

I have also settled into my position at ACEEE.  I have begun to learn how to translate my experience and knowledge from my work in MN and CERTs to new audiences and a new scale, though not without the help of friends and colleagues from back home (MN).  I have grieved my departure from the hyper-creative and social office on the Saint Paul Campus, and made peace with my more private cubby space.  And I’m learning how to navigate an organization with a rich history and even richer set of talent.  With my feet finally underneath me, I’m enjoying the chance to write, organize, and advocate for behavior approaches in energy efficiency.

Asilomar State Park Beach on the edge of the conference center; ACEEE Summer Study 2012

Energy Efficiency Immersion…Summer Study for Buildings, a biannual conference held at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, CA was a deep dive into the larger community in which ACEEE works.  In a laid-back environment and via a rigorous schedule of paper presentations, I met leaders of the energy efficiency industry and field, engaged in deeply detailed and high level discussions around behavior and technology.  I saw the expansive diversity of the field, and took special note of the community-based efforts happening around the country.  (More photos from the week here: ACEEE’s Flickr.)

What makes me most excited about getting past the initial shock of the move and transition is that I’m beginning to see the hills, mountains, lakes (of course), and horizons of this new chapter in my life.  There is so much to learn and that I want to learn.  And I’m finding, albeit slowly, that there is a sense of community here, in VA, DC, at ACEEE, and in the larger efficiency field.

Maybe that’s how I’ve found Home.

BECC Day One: Game on! A lesson in gamification

Hello from Washington, DC!  I am at the end of my first evening at the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference.  I think I’ve died and gone to heaven–there are so many incredible people here, with so much experience, and who truly understand the task of changing culture and behavior to meet important environmental and community outcomes.

In the opening evening of the conference, early-arrivals gathered for a social desserts-only networking event.  I’ve already run into several individuals I only hoped to meet and have time to chat with here, and had a wonderful discussion with Cool Choices (see previous post) and a programmer from University of Hawaii about “gamification” for energy savings.

For our networking activities, we played different games, including “two truths and a lie” and even Charades.  As Kathy Kundt from Cool Choices pointed out in her opening talk, games are fun.  “Fun” isn’t necessarily how we’ve branded energy efficiency.  But games can bring that element to the work we value. Continue reading

“Efficiency is a machine. Conservation is action.”: Culture and Behavior

Behavior change is a function of a number of things, including but not limited to, information and understanding, a motivation, resources to act, perceptions of efficacy, social environment, and also…culture, the topic of this post.

I mentioned culture in my post on social norming as something that can affect the strength of social norms in a community.  Culture also plays a role on its own on how we perceive, create value, and act.  It is more pervasive that social influences.  Culture encompasses our history, what we value, and how we create meaning in our lives.  It is what we believe and how we express our beliefs (definition).

“Culture is about shared meanings.  …Meanings can only be shared through our common access to language. So language is central to meaning and culture and has always been regarded as the key repository of cultural values and meanings.“ – Stuart Hall, cultural theorist

To understand the cultural aspects of energy use, Opinion Dynamics conducted an ethnographic study that involved 136 in-depth interviews in homes across California.  The goal was to identify the drivers and barriers to positive energy behavior by looking at language use, behavioral choice, and physical and social environment.

Continue reading