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

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…

Shmita, chametz, and sustainability

The terms shmita and chametz were foreign concepts to me – until last year when I learned from a Jewish greening initiative what these concepts meant to their community in terms of environmental and spiritual sustainability.  

Last year, I was invited by a colleague to speak on community-based social marketing at the UJA-Federation of New York.  This organization, the largest local philanthropic foundation in the world, supports the work and service of Jewish synagogues in the NY area and a program called the Greening Fellowship to build leadership capacity and sustainability initiatives within several of their organizations.  This program has grown into a very successful movement within their community!

What I enjoyed so much about working with this group is that their sustainability work is boldly embedded in their culture and values.  As they described their efforts, I also got to learn about some of the Hebrew terms/concepts they seek to live by.  (Below is my humble attempt to describe these concepts.  Please explore the links for a fuller and more accurate description!)

Wheat fields by rafale tovar (flickr)

Wheat fields by rafale tovar (flickr)

Shmita: As one example, my colleague and host, Mirele, described shmita to me, which represents the 7th year of a cycle during which the fields rest – this time represents a sabbatical year or a release.  She spoke of the connection between shmita and learning about our food systems and economic resiliency – that honoring shmita means building sustainable food systems and communal resources so that the community can take that “7th year” to rest, recoup, and celebrate” – something that all communities should have time and resources to do.

Chametz: Another wonderful example of this is in their latest newsletter of Hazon, which works with Jewish greening efforts across the nation.  Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, writes about the transition, in mind, spirit, and body, to prepare for the seder and the freedom it represents in their community.  Part of the tradition and holidays leading up to seder call for removing fermented products (chametz) from their home.  (Read more: Purim, Household Junk, and the Journey to Freedom.)

Clean table by Derek K. Miller (flickr)

Clean table by Derek K. Miller (flickr)

In today’s world, the concept of chametz can be expanded to material and spiritual aspects that get in the way of one’s freedom.  As such, Hazon encourages its community to get rid of unnecessary items (and not accumulate them in the first place), giving generously to charity and friends, and removing material barriers to spiritually-led acts of generosity, charity, and leadership.

In this short letter, the Jewish Greening Fellowship’s and Hazon’s efforts demonstrate and call for their community to recognize that sustainability is synonymous with spiritual growth. Other communities, religions, and cultures have strong ties to sustainability.  Whether a responsibility to care for creation, a recognition of the inter-dependent relationship between humans and nature and the need to think seven generations out, or recognizing the role of mindfulness in changing consumption and societal values (Zen and the Art of Protecting the Planet).

Perhaps we need to think of sustainability beyond the environmental, societal, and economic benefits and see sustainability as a common language shared among diverse communities of religion, origin, and culture.  When we can see an act of sustainability from several angles, we may find how these actions are not superfluous, but inherent to our identity, values, and beliefs.

The places I’ve been…

I know this blog has gone dark over the last year, but I promise I have been busy.  I hope to do better at sharing my learnings and experiences here once again, because while the last couple years have been intensely valuable, they have also been difficult, but I can now see how they have led me to where I am today.

Where am I today, you ask?  Well, I am at Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection, serving as their Senior Energy Planner.  (Montgomery County is part of the Washington metropolitan region, sharing its southern border with DC and its western border with VA.)

If you’re a planner, what do you do?  It means that I have the honor of serving as the county’s resourcmygreenmgrye on energy efficiency and renewable energy, as it pertains to programs and policies.  I’m currently working on implementing their benchmarking bill for commercial buildings and look forward to contributing to an up-and-coming commercial property-assessed clean energy (PACE) program and other initiatives.  

How does this fit in with community-based social marketing, energy, community, and leadership – the mixed bag of topics this blog tends to represent?  Montgomery County is an incredibly forward thinking community – they are a leader in sustainability and are working to implement innovative programs to advance clean energy.  They also have a very engaged community and host of organizations that support the county’s energy work.  To that end, they expect nothing short of effective and engaging programs that result in measurable outcomes and cultural change towards sustainability.  My training with the Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and MN CERTs are a core inspiration as I go about my work.  If you want to learn more about Montgomery and my work, you can start with the blog I wrote when I started with them: Joining DEP: Finding an Energized Community

What places have you been and how do they fit with what you’re doing now?  For this opportunity, I need to thank Montgomery County DEP for entrusting me to this incredible opportunity and responsibility.  I also must also acknowledge the important lessons, perspective, and experience gained at ACEEE and Loudoun County.  At the former, I gained a very important perspective on all the resources available nationwide and the role of our federal level agencies and organizations to help compile these lessons.  Loudoun County provided a deep-dive orientation into the ins and outs of local government, the crucial role they play in our communities, and what it means to work with others across topics, departments, and priorities.  And yet another special thank you to the organizations that have called on me as a consultant and researcher, which taught me new ways to value myself as a professional and stand on my own two legs.  Lastly, but never least, I owe my community, those back in MN (CERTs, Pirate Kickball, etc.) and those here who have always rooted for me, supported me, and cheered me on.  Thank you to all those who contributed to these valuable experiences!


Over the last four weeks, I’ve really taken a leap in terms of talking about community-based social marketing and how this framework can help our organizations meet robust and real outcomes.  I am talking with organizations, practitioners, and community members about how community-based work can help us change our behaviors and lifestyles.  I’ve done presentations in the past, but the nature and content of this type of presentation also makes it a valuable and interactive experience for me. Continue reading