Going Sustainable Events Live Forward Blog About Us

Meet Jessie Lerner, Sustain Dane’s Interim Executive Director


Posted: 4:36PM August 19th, 2013 | Comments

Dear Friends of Sustain Dane, 

As you probably know, I have stepped into the role of Interim Executive Director at Sustain Dane this summer following Kristen Joiner’s departure. During this time of transition, Kristen and I worked very closely to ensure that Sustain Dane doesn't so much as skip a beat in our tremendous effort to make the Madison Region a national model for sustainability and sustainability innovation. Today, I am more confident than ever in our ability to achieve this, together.

Since 2007, I have experienced firsthand Sustain Dane’s incredible evolution, from our small discussion groups to growing our successful MPower Champions Program, not to mention countless other projects, events, and partnerships along the way. Our momentum continues to build.

It is with honor and excitement that I have taken on this position to lead Sustain Dane in its next evolutionary chapter. Together, with a dedicated and talented staff, a supportive Board of Directors, and, most importantly, YOU, we can build a strong community of sustainable neighborhoods, businesses, schools, and homes and can position the Greater Madison Region as a national model for sustainability and sustainability innovation.

I would like to take this opportunity to share with you my background and to share a few brief stories that have led me here today.

My roots in the Madison Region pre-date me. My mother was raised on dairy farm just outside of Waunakee. When I was a child, we made a pilgrimage to Wisconsin every summer, picking raspberries in my grandmother’s garden, playing on State Street, snacking at the farmers market, and exploring the bluffs of Devil’s Lake. Early on, these visits fostered my love of nature, my desire to explore, and my appreciation for the offerings of Madison.

Both of my parents are UW Madison graduates and 30 years later, I followed in their footsteps, up to Bascom Hill to take my picture on Abe’s lap (this time, digital!) after proudly earning my B.S. in zoology and psychology. Like so many Badgers before me, I had fallen in love with Madison – its vibrant seasons that cater to an active and healthy lifestyle, its abundant supply of cultural and intellectual stimulation (how did I not know about the Distinguished Lecture Series as a student?) and its burgeoning craft brew scene. Madison set the stage for my long-term, mission-driven work, but it was a year in Kenya that pushed that dream into the limelight.

As a college junior, I spent a life-changing year in Kenya. I started out ready for action and adventure. Somewhere between a 30-hour bus ride full of chickens and obtaining my SCUBA certification in Lake Malawi, I developed a visceral understanding of how susceptible to human impact our natural systems are. I realized the urgent need for deep, systematic change and for global cooperation if we are ever to expect safe drinking water, clean air, and a nourishing food supply for our children and grandchildren.

This realization steered me away from my intended career path of white-lab-coat scientific research towards one of immediate and tangible change in the community as an educator and advocate for our natural systems.

Upon graduation, I was one of the “fortunate ones” who landed a job in Madison – as a waitress. Wanting to put to good use my degree and love of the outdoors, I quickly secured a part-time position as a naturalist at The Aldo Leopold Nature Center and a summer internship at the DNR. At the Nature Center, my role was to expose Madison youth to an enriching and fun experience on the land. This experience connected me to the majesty and bounty of Wisconsin’s biodiversity in ways that move me still today.

After my DNR internship ended, I moved into another one at a small, grassroots non-profit – Sustain Dane. As the MPowering Madison Outreach Intern, it was my job to talk with the community and get the word out about a new community-wide carbon reduction pledge campaign. If, at any point during 2007 and 2009, you talked with someone standing next to a big green “M,” there is a good chance it was me.

Fast forward to spring of 2008, a growing Sustain Dane offered me a part-time position. Goodbye waitressing! (I still maintain, however, that the world would be a better place if everyone had some service industry experience.) The MPowering Madison Campaign asked individuals and businesses to take a pledge to reduce their carbon footprints. A number of businesses took the pledge, and then were left to ask, “now what?” Sustain Dane responded with the first pilot of The MPower Business Champions Program.

In 2009, under a small EPA P2 & MGE Grant, Sustain Dane worked with seven Madison-area businesses to help them turn sustainability ambitions into real action. These first sustainable business pioneers, including current Sustainable Business Network members Webcrafters, designCraft advertising and Sergenian’s Floor Coverings, gave us valuable insight and feedback that continues to strongly influence the program today.

One multi-year EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant later, the MPower Champions Program has evolved and grown in ways we could not have imagined in the initial pledge campaign. To date, Sustain Dane has worked with over 70 area businesses: American Family Insurance, CUNA mutual, Union Cab, UW Credit Union, Ian’s Pizza, Madison Mallards, to name a few. These organizations have all established green teams that have led the implementation of over 240 sustainability projects – projects that are collectively saving over $916,000 and 21,500 metrics tons of carbon dioxide annually.

From the MPower Champions Program, we developed the Sustainable Business Network as a way for alumni to stay connected and engaged in sustainable business and broaden the conversation. The Sustainable Business Network also serves as an on-ramp for any Madison-area business professional who is passionate, or at least curious, about ways to advance sustainability within his or her own organization. Now in its second year, the Sustainable Business Network continues to expand, with over 60 members and regular opportunities to connect, share, learn and explore ways to make Madison the nation’s epicenter of sustainable business.

I so greatly appreciate the passionate people who I have had the opportunity to work with during the past six years at Sustain Dane. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the “hidden gems” of sustainability happening across our region. As the Interim Executive Director at Sustain Dane, I am excited and eager to expand and build upon these efforts to create a region that thrives environmentally, socially, and economically. In the coming weeks, Sustain Dane will announce our vision for the future of the Madison Region, for the MPower Champions program, and for the future of our organization. Your endorsement and support of this vision is crucial to our success. Please watch for these exciting announcements in your inbox.

In addition, please consider becoming a supporter of Sustain Dane with a one-time donation or by joining the Live Forward Club at just ten dollars per month. Your contribution supports Sustain Dane in our effort to make the Madison Region a more vibrant, sustainable place to work, play, and live.

With the 2013 MPower Champions program underway, the Growing Outdoors Classrooms Program about to kick off with the new school year, the Natural Step training workshop and Badger Bioneers 2013 on the horizon, we are buzzing with excitement this season.

Please know that I am always happy to pause for a cup of coffee or tea with you to learn what Sustain Dane means to you and to discuss how we can work collaboratively to achieve greater results. Consider this an open invitation to connect; my contact information is below.

I hope to talk to you soon!

Live Forward,


Jessie Lerner

Jessie [at] sustaindane [dot] org

Comments on "Meet Jessie Lerner, Sustain Dane’s Interim Executive Director"

blog comments powered by Disqus