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!

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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.

Success! Factors behind my new composting and health habits

Those that have witnessed one of my CBSM presentations (or read last week’s post) have heard my sustainable behavior change failure story (Failure stories are fun, right?  Read mine here.)

But this post isn’t about my failure…it’s about my recent SUCCESS!  

Four months ago, I started a new job.  This new job meant a longer commute (15-45 minutes longer each way), and longer hours (an extra hour 4 days a week to allow one day off every other week).  But it also meant I’d be surrounded by sustainably-minded colleagues again, and I was looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the new position.  So, on one hand, I had greater limitations on my time and energy, but on the other hand, I could start with a clean slate and perhaps have the support of my new work environment.

What’s the result?  Two distinct changes that demonstrate the behaviors many of us strive for in our own lives, or to promote in others’.

  • IMG_2140

    The worm bin!

    I’ve been successfully maintaining a healthy and thriving vermiculture  compost for the last 4 months.  Barriers?  …See my failure story.

  • I’ve been exercising regularly and adopted other healthy habits for the last 4.5 months.  Barrier #1: I decided morning was the most fool-proof plan to integrate physical activity into my schedule.  But getting up at 6am is a whole 1.5 hours earlier than I typically was getting up…”Uff da”!  Barrier #2: I hated running…and really exercise in general.

If my story of failure demonstrated the challenge of behavior change, I hope my success story can begin to uncover the multiple and layered factors that make up a new behavior and habit.  (Hint: Note the theme of community and social support throughout these factors…)

Change #1: Composting with Worms!

  • Clean Slate (new job) Composting perhaps seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the new job and commemorate a return to sustainability, plus summer was upon us in June – a good time to turn a new leaf
  • Cognitive Dissonance (aligning identities) I felt like I had abandoned my sustainable self back at CERTs where I felt the gentle and positive pressure to put forth a little bit more effort to be a bit more gentle on the earth.  Further, I was getting tired of telling my failure story over and over for the last several years.  In my new work place, the Dept of Environmental Protection, I felt it was time to invite my earth-friendly values to manifest.
  • Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Infrastructure (patio) We finally had a patio and we made plans to stay in this apartment for awhile.

  • Social Norm (descriptive) At my new job, I met a colleague whocomposts at home.  Iwas referred to her, she beingsomeone that “walks the talk” and Susanne gave me great composting advice and confirmed for me that this is something my new colleagues do and support.In July, my worms arrived and the rest is history.  I’m pretty sure I’ve doubled my worm population and am now looking for solutions to insulate them from the cold this winter!

IMG_1961    IMG_2137

Change #2: Exercising and other healthy stuff!
This one baffles me.  Why would I decide to add exercise to my routine when my commute time is doubling and I’m working longer days?  Plus, I had this aversion to sweating and running…

  • Social Diffusion (example of a colleague)  I thought of my friend and colleague who juggled a family, managed a rapidly growing nonprofit, and yet her morning run was (or seemed to be) one of the most consistent parts of her life.  I’ve looked to her as a mentor for many things, and her running routine wasn’t lost on me.
  • Clean Slate (new job and routine)  Despite the new time costs of the new job, at the beginning of the summer, I was excited, refreshed, and had the morning sun to my advantage.  I think I was also cognizant of the new responsibilities of the job and felt exercise would be an important part of me being able to handle it.  HBR talks about how exercise is an important part one’s mental and emotional (and of course, physical health)…and self-care is an important aspect of a leadership practice.
  • Post-run stretching spot

    Post-run stretching spot

    Self-Perception (changed by action) …since my work colleagues never knew the me-that-didn’t-exercise, all they know is me with my new habit.  This has done a number on my self-perception: my physical activity is a big part of who I consider myself to be now.

  • Convenience (trail out back, good weather) I’ve got a beautiful trail in my backyard for running (I can see it from my patio) – it skips over beautiful creeks, I witness fox and deer on a regular basis, and this summer wasn’t so painfully hot and humid as the previous ones. On that same token, my gym is near work, and when I go to the gym early, I beat traffic and save 15 minutes or so off my commute.
  • IMG_2221Prompts (reminders)  For my other health-oriented habits, like drinking more water, getting enough fruit, and heading to bed on time, I knew that these wouldn’t take much time at all, but I needed to do them throughout the day – not all at once.  I’m using an app called Balanced, which provides a nice reminder based on frequency (not time of day) to have that glass of water, get up and take a walk, be grateful, water my plants, and get 8+ hours of sleep most nights.

For both behaviors, ACCOUNTABILITY by COMMUNITY played a significant role.  My community – as an example, as a support, and as a positive reward – plays a central role.  At work, I have found a community that supports and congratulates a composting habit, among other sustainable practices.  My partner at home, trainer at the gym, and yoga instructors and fellow yogis provide a supportive community for my new healthy habits.  Community can be the tipping point: A friend, who has really picked up running, said that she had tried to “be a runner” for the last 10 years, and finally felt like she was one now that she was doing Team in Training and has a community to run with.

For all the research studies and linear processes of community-based social marketing, it is important to remember that behind the “social norms” and other tools, it is community that is truly still the most potent lever and key to persistent change.  Actions not supported by a community will not last.

Build a community that (at least looks like it) supports a certain behavior, and we can begin to unlock that composter, energy conservationist, garden grower, yogi or runner in each of us!

My sustainability failure story, and why to tell yours

Working on behavior change is hard – “yada yada yada”, we’ve all heard this before.  But how hard?  Do you even know?  Before trying to find stats on last years’ resolution-makers, check in with your own life.

There’s something so captivating about failure – more than just the bloopers of a feature film, stories of what didn’t work maybe engage us at our most core selves.  Failure conveys vulnerability, weakness, some inherent hypocrisy, but most importantly one’s humanity.  I guess this is why I was advised to begin any behavior change presentation with a story about a behavior that I had tried and failed.

It was an effective way to share something about myself – introduced the personal nature of behavior change, placed myself as a victim of the influences I was about to describe, and showing the magnitude of the challenge of what we, as practitioners, are trying to do.

I share the story on this blog now, because I’m simultaneously writing a story about some successful behavior changes (sustainable and healthy) I’ve recently made.  Here is my failure story – please enjoy, revel even…and consider sharing your own next time you want to convey the difficulty of realizing the behavior change you’re working toward:

When I worked at CERTs, we often had lunch together at a central table. A couple years ago, we were having one of these lunches and Katie, a new member to our team, interrupted us to ask, “Why don’t you compost? You’re all trying to be sustainable, right? You could be composting your lunch food waste.” We were confused – compost? Here? In our office? She said we could do vermiculture composting, to which we replied: Isn’t that worms? Since Katie was new, we told her “we simply don’t do that, it’s dirty, it could be smelly, it could be hard to maintain, the janitors wouldn’t understand, and it’s probably breaking some very important office hygiene rule” (I don’t remember all of the reasons we came up with, but the list became extensive). Katie was adamant that we tried it though and we gave in under the condition that she’d take full responsibility for it.
Soon after, Katie brought it a small red bin and placed it next to our garbage, and recycling, and instructed us to simply place our food waste on the top of the soil inside. For a month or two, Katie took care of the compost bin, and it didn’t create a stench or mess. Soon, I became curious and asked Katie to show me what she was doing to take care of the compost. We got down on our knees and Katie showed me how she buried the food with the big serving spoon we kept nearby, and she explained how turning it regulated the dryness or wetness of the compost bin. Soon after, I was taking care of the worms in our office.  Before I knew it, the worms were multiplying, and she invited me to take some worms home to begin composting on my own!
For months, even after Katie left for her Fulbright (this is how smart she is), our office and I continued composting. The CERTs office still composts (though they now can take advantage of organic collection on campus). I, on the other hand, have stopped. I moved to a new apartment, and maybe it was the stress of the move, the new roommate or the new kitchen, but I stopped and gave my worms away. I could have started composting outside at my new place – there was a patio and backyard, but didn’t know how and didn’t take the time to figure it out.
After all the work and support I had to compost, I failed to re-apply those lessons and knowledge to continue this sustainable practice. I stopped composting and haven’t started again. To the individual advocating for greater organic composting, I have failed.

At this point in the presentation, I switch modes to show how even the most curated behavior can still fail due to a number of unpredictable factors.  If I, someone motivated, knowledgeable, and even invested in sustainability professionally, can’t do it – think of the magnitude of the challenge for the average person.  This is why it’s important to tell your failure story.  

Behavior change isn’t a wand to wave over a problem, it’s something with which we all struggle…we’re all in it together.  Once we realize that, we can approach our initiatives with a fresh understanding of the challenge, open ourselves to any barriers that could exist, and practice the empathy that is necessary to design a program that reaches us where we need it.  Tell your story, realize that you’re part of it too…and you’ll find that’s precisely where you need to be to nudge that change.

Coming soon…my success story…!

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!