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Participating in A Local Sustainability Effort

Published May 8th 2008, 5:47pm by Jody DeVere in Featured Articles


Recently I wrote a blog about how to get involved in the fight against climate change. Today, I thought, I should write about a nifty city program I am involved with along this front -- my contribution to the challenge, if you will -- that has been quite an eye-opening experience. You see, the city where I live (which shall remain anonymous to maintain some privacy) recently commenced a citizens task force to work on sustainability issues. Its stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to make it a more sustainable place to live. As a student of sustainability, when I saw the announcement in the paper, I figure I should apply, since it provides a very concrete way to make a difference right where I live. Giving back is very important to me, as I have received much over the years... and doing something locally, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to contribute energy in the cause I care about.

The thing is, my town will be partially flooded if the sea-level rises as expected by 2050. And my children will be the ones who will suffer the effects most in the future. I can imagine them asking me what I did to help address the problem, ten, twenty years, down the road. Having a negative answer is not an option to me. Plus, somewhere in the back of my mind, is something someone said to me once. That if you see a problem -- "don't just complain about it, do something. If smart people like you don't contribute to solving it, it is such a waste."

So I was pleasantly surprised, when I was selected to be on the steering committee, along with 14 other highly qualified individuals from all walks of life in the community. The commitment, voluntary and unpaid as it is, has been taking a lot of my time, but has been such an eye-opening experience.
This is my first government experience, so that's always interesting. I've worked in corporations, and in non-profits, but the government is a whole different ball game. But as I always say, life is an adventure. New experiences keep it interesting.

We have six months to come up with a list of proposals for City Council to vote on. The city council had previously voted unanimously to sign the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and appointed a new Sustainability Coordinator person. Now it is the citizens turn to come up with a list of actionable items that they like to see implemented. Obviously, being a small city, and in times of budget constraint, low-hanging fruits that are easy to implement and don't cost a lot, are best. Focusing on the issue of GHG is also key, as sustainability is such a big topic and different members of the community have different pet topics. And so it started...

Some of the meetings have been a little tedious, though necessary. Being an officially appointed committee means we are saddled with the overhead of public notification, official agenda, and official minutes, not to mention the Brown Act -- a well-meaning state law to prevent secret meetings by government, but also a big handcuff in what we can and cannot do. It took a while to get adjusted to.

The fun really came once we split into little groups to work on specific issues. Each steering committee member chairs a sub-group on a topic that the community wants to work on. For example, there is a Transit and Transportation group, that may work on electric/biodiesel cars incentives, walkability, and bikeability around town. There is a Land Use group that is looking into zoning and sprawl issues, a Built Environment group that is looking into green building code and incentives, a Green Business group that is looking into how our city can extend the county's program and encourage more businesses to get certified.

It has been educational for me to see how very different people from all walks of life come together in a loosely-organized fashion. One challenge that is pretty obvious so far is a lack of common communication protocol. Whereas in a corporate-setting, or in any institutional setting, there is usually a clear culture already established -- hence unspoken guidelines on communication styles -- we are simply interested citizens who do not know each other, and an informal working group not bound by any clear rules. It really takes a lot of leadership and negotiation to keep everyone happy. After all, people are volunteering their time and don't get paid for it...

A definite bonus from this is getting to know folks sharing the same interest within the community. I have made many a new friends and look forward to many more. I have met many kindred souls whom I would be happy to continue working with to make the community a better place in future years.

Right now, this volunteer work is taking a whole lot of my time, but I am quite happy to do as much as possible to make my city a better place to live in. It is also good for my conscience. In recent years I found that it has become harder and harder for me to justify leaving problem-solving on public goods issues to others. Perhaps I am getting older... but it sure feels darn good to be a more responsible citizen.

Extrazoom Marn-Yee Lee
Contributing Editor

Marn-Yee Lee is pursuing an MBA in Sustainability at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. After spending a decade in I.T. and on Wall Street, she is now pursuing her passion for the environment. She sees business as a partner for creating innovative solutions to pressing environmental issues. In her spare time, she writes a blog to inspire others to consider the impact of their daily lives on the environment at


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