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A Vision of Sustainability Leadership

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Posted: 12:19PM November 8th, 2013 | Comments

 “A Vision of Sustainability Leadership for the Greater Madison Region”
Written and delivered by Jessie Lerner, Executive Director, Sustain Dane at Badger Bioneers 2013, November 5, 2013

Audio transcript provided by Kermit Hovey, WORT 89.9FM


A huge welcome from all of us at Sustain Dane.

And a big thank you to all that made today possible: The UW Office of Sustainability, our many sponsors, student facilitators, and especially you, for continually inspiring us, and giving us a reason to gather.

This fall Sustain Dane has unveiled a bold new vision for the future of our organization and our region. And that is to make the Greater Madison Region a national model for sustainability and sustainability innovation.

Madison can be the Copenhagen of the US. The Bogotá. The Tokyo. The Freiburg.

But how do we get there?

We need to make continual iterative improvements on every level and make a system-wide paradigm shift. This is difficult and intimidating but necessary and equally exciting at the same time.

My excitement, passion, and ability to hold something so complex in the same breath has increased every day for the seven years I’ve been part of Sustain Dane.

But it has not been easy, particularly during my transition from senior staffer to leader of Sustain Dane this summer. So, for help with this journey, I looked to my Grandpa Bernie.

Grandpa BernieHe is 87. With a white beard and a little mischief behind his eyes, Grandpa Bernie still goes to work every day. The packaging company he started in his garage celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It has grown to over 1,000 employees and reaches all corners of the globe.

So this summer, in my search for some advice and wisdom, I called my grandpa. During one call, when [Sustain Dane] was in the thick of our strategic planning, I asked him what to do when you have a really ambitious vision and there isn’t a clear path forward.

Like any great teacher, he didn’t answer my questions; he asked one of his own. He asked, “Do you see a next step that moves you closer to your vision?”

Yes, I did.

He then went on to tell me that most paths worth taking would not be clear. And, he shared how many times in his life he was actually creating the path as he was walking along it.

This energizes me because the possibilities are now boundless. They have to be. Our search for sustainability will draw upon the creativity of everyone in this room to create a future we cannot yet imagine.

I hope this energizes you. Sustainability is complex, and we have the awesome opportunity to be part of this journey. We may not “achieve” it in our lifetime. But if we can see one step forward, we must take it.

There’s something else about my grandpa. His story of starting with nothing and being able to provide a comfortable standard of living for his entire family - it was once a common occurrence in America, but is now rare.

Society is in a time of economic, social, and demographic transition. Our children’s scores on international assessments of competence in math and science and on measures of wellbeing are worse than they have ever been. Our country has more inequality. And inequality - as public health nurses know - leads to poorer health, more crime, and less trust.

And then there are the things we all know. The planet is heating up. We are running out of phosphorous. We flush our toilets with precious and limited drinking water.

America, in its current state, is unsustainable.

It’s time to redefine America. And I believe it’s our job to ensure sustainability is a core pillar of this new definition. But not sustainability in just “environmental terms.” We need to use a holistic definition of sustainability that includes economic and social outcomes, too.

Our board chair, Rebecca Ryan, calls this Capital “S” sustainability - using sustainability as a lens and as a question to drive discussions about the achievement gap, our use of resources, and ingrained patterns of behavior.

It’s time for Capital “S” Sustainability because we all know deep in our guts that if we continue along the current course, we will leave our kids and grandkids an unimaginable inheritance. And if we really dig deep in our guts, we know we are already experiencing the impacts of our unsustainable society.

The issues are large. They are complex. Yet, some solutions DO exist. Our challenge is to spread and scale these solutions and use them as a springboard to find even more.

We have the ingredients here to be a national, even international model. We have -

  • A population with a strong sense of place
  • A natural resource that is not politicized – our lakes
  • A world-renowned research university
  • Municipal governments that are putting resources towards making the sustainable option the default option
  • A business community willing to take the time to uncover the business case in sustainability
  • Leadership at the school district focusing on some of our largest local social injustices
  • More nonprofits per capita than any other region that are working from the grass roots to tackle societies complex challenges from many different angles, recognizing that there is no silver bullet solution

While we have a lot going for us, we are not there yet.

We need to do more and do it faster.

At Sustain Dane, we start by defining sustainability in environmental, social, and economic terms. We start with the belief that everyone has the potential to make a significant contribution to the vitality of our region. We believe that sustainability isn’t a “nice to have;” it’s a must have.
I look around this room and see all the positive impact that is happening because of you.

When the entire system seems screwed up, we have to come back to ourselves, what we have influence over, and know the impact we have continues way beyond the metrics we are capturing.

I look to the four Badger Bioneers we will honor later this evening and get chills trying to follow their ripples of influence.
I often quote author, entrepreneur, and environmentalist Paul Hawken when asked about the state of the world.

“If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.”

When I look around this room, my heart is big, and I am an optimist.

Together, we can lead the Greater Madison Region to become a national model for sustainability and sustainability innovation.
If we do our work right, we will be the most sustainable community in the country with a vibrant, healthy and just society.

  • Imagine that sustainability is Wisconsin’s principle industry, export and attraction.
  • Imagine not just a single living building in Madison, but an entire region of living buildings.
  • Imagine lakes we actually want to swim in, and eat fish from.
  • Imagine an outdoor classroom in every school, using systems thinking as a lens to problem solving.
  • Imagine a multimodal transportation system linking ALL of our neighborhoods so we can all have true freedom of choice in how we run errands and get to work.

“Capital S” Sustainability is integral to our redefinition, and to America’s.

We ask you to share this vision with us and help shape history.

We ask you to share this vision with us because we firmly believe that, in order to realize this vision, our best bet is you.
We recognize that it is the “sustainability champions” – people like you, who care about sustainability, and who are actively engaged in it – who can make the greatest impact within your homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, place of faith, schools and other communities you identify with.

In this effort, we take a four-fold approach:

First, Sustain Dane serves to raise awareness and inspire action as a central hub for sustainability information, resources, and connections.
Think of us as the Yellow Pages of sustainability so that when people have a question or an idea they can bring it to Sustain Dane and catalyze it to action.

By 2015, Sustain Dane will make our home in the new sustainable GreenLink Center on the 800 Block of East Washington, which will allow us to be a physical hub as well. We are so grateful for the vision of Gebhardt Developers, Bark Designs and Ted Petith who are working to make this vision a reality.

Second, Sustain Dane offers programs that build skills and capacities for individuals and organizations to make a greater impact within their own spheres of influence. In our successful MPower Champion program, our workshops, and community events, participants acquire new information, helpful tools, expert resources, and broader networks that enable them to advance their sustainability initiatives. We are currently planning for MPower 2014, and we are excited to continue this program in it’s upcoming sixth cycle.

Third, Sustain Dane works to strategically align regional stakeholders and key decision makers towards a deliberate and systems-based approach to sustainability. We ensure sustainability is a voice at the table by taking an active role at multiple regional boards, planning commissions, and professional organizations. Broad, cross-sector engagement gives Sustain Dane a better understanding of how to align and reinforce sustainability efforts across our region.

Finally, Sustain Dane plans to replicate a proven model of sustainability success in other communities. We regularly connect with businesses, networks, and municipalities across the U.S. to promote sustainability success in our region and to collaborate on ways to replicate that success in their own communities and bring back their solutions and successful strategies for integration into our community.

That is what we are doing. Now, on to what you can do to help us reach our vision.

  • You can participate.
  • You can invite others to participate and join the conversation.
  • You can renew your memberships – the Live Forward and Sustainable Business Network – to help us keep the lights on – actually we use day lighting the majority of the time, so your contributions can go even further.
  • You can continue to provide feedback on what you need. We are committed to being responsive to your needs. We are, and will continue, to develop our programming around you.

I look forward to what we can accomplish together in the next decade and beyond. We may not see the outcome clearly, but as my Grandpa Bernie would ask, “Do you see a next step?”

Take it!
 

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