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The Inside View

Climate Corps: Leading change starts with knowing 'why'

I was invited to talk to a gathering of this year’s EDF Climate Corps, some 117 passionate people determined to make a difference in society. Tom Murray, who leads the program at the Environmental Defense Fund, wanted me to share my thoughts on what it takes to be a change-maker. I particularly wanted to speak about the fearlessness and humility that is needed for a social change leader.

My own fearlessness came from the depths of the murder of my brother, his wife and unborn baby in 1990. Losing my brother, and his future, made me examine my own life, motivating me to race to do some good. This transformed me in the workplace, where my approach went from playing it safe to taking chances, always pushing for something I believed in — and not at all afraid to lose my job tomorrow.

As I prepared for the Climate Corps event, I began to wonder what motivated these Climate Corps fellows. I knew my “why” but what was their “why”? I figured I also would use my time there to explore the “why” behind the motivations of Climate Corps interns by interviewing several of them.

The day before my talk I coincidentally finished reading “The Road To Character” by David Brooks. It illustrates many aspects about the “how” to make a difference, including the humility needed to drive change. It’s an intriguing and eye-opening read for current or aspiring corporate responsibility/sustainability leaders.

Brooks profiles both well- and lesser-known societal leaders, and summarizes what it takes to make a social impact into a 15-point “Humility Code,” one of which is:

“In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is the having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. Humility is awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness. Humility is an awareness that individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but serve a larger order.”

In the wake of reading this passage, I was gratified to see that humility firmly was embedded in the “why” that was driving these future energy leaders:

Dennis Bartlett was a construction engineer from Duke. Some of his friends thought he made a “hippie move” by joining Climate Corps. “As an engineer, I just saw a real need for people understanding engineering to be involved in the environmental field,” Bartlett related to me. “Since power systems are technically based, you need people both with passion and knowledge (to create solutions). I just want to be one of those people.”

Samuel Irvine is a student at Presidio Graduate School. “For me, I am driven by work that can benefit others.” He contested the “me” image of millennials: “This generation is not about me. That is a relic of the older generation.” Indeed, Brooks goes into depth about baby boomers, telling the story of the Broadway Joe Namath as a symbol of “me” versus Johnny Unitas as a throwback to humility and hard work.

Ajith Das Menon is at Columbia University. “I’ve seen the effects of climate change in my country (India) and it is shocking to me,” he said. He wants to go back to India and reverse the trend.

Radhika Kapoor from Stanford (and from India as well) had a similar jarring experience. Her mother forced her to join an NGO for a stint where she experienced inefficient subsistence farming. She converted from the comfortable life of an engineer to join the sustainability movement.

Elizabeth Halford is a retired Army officer. She served two tours of duty in Iraq, supervising a team that worked on emergency power generation when the electrical grid would go down — which was quite often. This was juxtaposed by two stints in Germany, where she saw energy efficiency all around her. Although she was raised on the 3 R’s of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, it was not until she witnessed such dire energy systems in Iraq and the solutions first-hand in Germany that led to her change course and commit her career to energy efficiency.

Devashree Ghosh is a student at the New School. Her family thinks she is “lost” as she pursues the energy field. Her life changed when she worked with coffee farmers in India and saw their struggles in life. They did not like farming at all. She saw workers in factories squeezed in every way, with natural resources exploited as the norm.

These fellows, as I suspected, had strong “why” motivations, and were using their graduate studies and their experience with Climate Corps to help them define “how” to achieve their passion.

Because the “how” is where humility really is put to the test, during my talk that evening I shared more about the long road ahead, how you need to learn the skill of steadfast patience. Brooks' profiles showed it takes decades. Home runs are rare. There is very little instant gratification. Just starting out in their new careers, the fellows found it hard to imagine how I could stay at one organization for 30-plus years.

Halford hit upon a wise insight about “how.” She spoke of a role model she had at George Washington University, where in the landscape school a teacher talked about “changing the environmental landscape of our communities one yard at a time.” That is what Halford intends to do: Just keeping making a difference one yard at a time.

My own career in sustainability was largely this, too. On most days, you think you are losing a foot of progress for every inch of gain. But before you know it, you’ve had a football field of progress.

With patience and time, eventually you get a joy described by Brooks at the end of his book:

“Joy is not produced because others praise you. Joy emanates unbidden and unforced. Joy comes as a gift when you least expect it. At those fleeting moments you know why you were put here and what truth you serve. You may not feel giddy at those moments, you may not hear the orchestra’s delirious swell or see flashes of crimson and gold, but you will feel a satisfaction, a silence, a peace — a hush. Those moments are the blessings and the signs of a beautiful life.”

Kudos to the Environmental Defense Fund for creating Climate Corps. It takes bright, talented professionals who have the “why” and it gives them the “how” they need to make a difference. Since 2008, more than 3,000 graduate students have applied to be Climate Corps fellows, and more than 600 have been accepted into the program.

And thanks to those organizations and individuals that take on all interns and mentor them. With one intern at a time, we will create sustainable living as the norm across society.

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