Early-career public-sector sustainability professionals reflect on VERGE 19 (Part 1)

CivicSpark, VERGE 19
Kathryn Cooper/GreenBiz
The CivicSpark leaders at VERGE 19.

A dearth of federal leadership on climate change has inspired cities and towns across the United States to unite in their calls for action.

Just last week, a bipartisan group of 300 mayors representing all 50 states committed to supporting policies that would accelerate the installation and integration of solar power into their communities’ energy mix. But the clean economy is about more than clean energy.

That’s one reason the CivicSpark program, administered by the nonprofit Local Government Commission and made possible through the AmeriCorps program model, was created five years ago to support the development of a wide range of sustainability and resiliency initiatives in communities across California.

Each year, CivicSpark places 90 fellows — early-career professionals who have an interest in supporting the cause of sustainability at the municipal level. These emerging leaders spend 11 months building capacity to address environmental and social equity challenges, including climate adaptation, water resource management, affordable housing and mobility.

Since CivicSpark’s inception in 2014, the 308 fellows that have been part of the program have completed 160 energy assessments, close to 1,900 water surveys, 100 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories and at least 50 climate or energy action plans. They have provided more than 515,000 hours of service.

This year, GreenBiz Group invited 10 hand-picked, up-and-coming CivicSpark Fellows and alumni to attend VERGE 19. The effort was akin to the Emerging Leaders scholarship program, which covers attendance costs for early-career sustainability professionals representing the private sector.

We asked the CivicSpark participants share their impressions about the conference. Below are five responses, edited for clarity and length. The rest of the responses will be published Friday.

Casandra Cortez, CivicSpark
Casandra Cortez, Culver City

Casandra Cortez, CivicSpark Fellow (2019 to 2020), Culver City 

VERGE 19 was my first conference, and it was the best first conference to have attended. I met leaders in the sustainability field, networked with people I highly respected, attended thought-provoking sessions and discussions, and left feeling inspired.

Through participation in "Future Cities Carbon Action Challenge," I learned that building a sustainable city is a multi-faceted challenge that can be achieved through many avenues, including energy, transportation, waste and more. It was encouraging and inspirational to hear how various sustainability leaders are helping their communities achieve ambitious carbon goals through different approaches. This in-depth session helped reaffirm my interest in working in the public sector to help cities lower their carbon emissions.

The youth panel was the most inspirational and resonant discussion. As an emerging leader in the sustainability field, it can be disheartening to think about how big the challenge is and how far we have to go. However, when Marlow Baines with Earth Guardians said, "People power is more powerful than people in power," it reinvigorated my hope for a sustainable future.

Another valuable session for me was "The Purpose of Corporations," where sustainability leaders from Microsoft, Salesforce and GRID Alternatives discussed how their organizations are making dramatic changes to reduce carbon emissions. My favorite takeaway from that session was that Salesforce has an online comment box where employees can submit their sustainability suggestions or questions, which I thought was a great and innovative idea.

My favorite session of the conference was the Food Waste Summit, where private, public and non-profit leaders joined to discuss strategies to reduce food waste entering landfills. Being from a solid waste background and serving the city of Culver City in their Public Works department, I was enlightened to sit down with public and private stakeholders to see how they’re challenging food waste.

For example, during one of the roundtable discussions, I sat with stakeholders from Disneyland and the Hilton Hotels, and it was engaging and interesting to hear how a large hospitality company would tackle food waste versus a public works department. For a novice in the field, the diversity and collaboration from various industries were one of the best parts of the food waste summit and VERGE. I believe having these conversations and roundtables is what is necessary to address many sustainability issues, including food waste. 

In my role with the Culver City Public Works Department, I am researching the possibility of amending the current polystyrene ordinance to include banning single-use plastic utensils, foam meat, fish and produce trays, and requiring dine-in customers to be provided with reusable dishware. Attending VERGE allowed me to connect my project supervisors with city officials from other municipalities with similar ordinances to discuss challenges, outcomes and processes with their ordinances. We will be having discussions with San Francisco’s Zero Waste team on their polystyrene ordinance.

Attending VERGE solidified my career ambitions by meeting people whose career I would like to have one day. The leaders at VERGE were open about how they achieved their current success and gave me great advice on how to proceed with my career. I also met other grad students who advised on specific programs to apply to, how to strategically apply and their experience in their graduate programs. Because VERGE brings together a diverse range of experiences, I was able to explore the potential of graduate school and foster the confidence to apply to competitive graduate programs.

Jerel Francisco, County of Santa Barbara
Jerel Francisco, County of Santa Barbara

Jerel Francisco, CivicSpark Alum (2018 to 2019); Fellow, County of Santa Barbara

VERGE is a one-of-a kind conference that brings many climate solutions to one place. Learning about the clean economy is one thing, living in a clean economy is a completely different reality. Through VERGE, I was able to hear firsthand about many areas in clean transportation and energy that I have been working at the forefront of.

One insight that was important to learn is how technological developments are occurring faster than policy can be created to safely and viably enable mass market adoption of clean mobility technologies. As someone working to develop policies and plans for electric vehicles, it was encouraging to discover that the solutions to many problems I’m facing in my work can be found in the private sector.

Ever since I started working in the clean mobility space, I’ve been grappling with imagining what the future of transportation will look like. It is well known that electrification and autonomy are already underway. However, much remains uncertain.

For example, during a breakout group, a member of Black and Veatch mentioned that mobility for my peers — Millennials and GenZ — will be much different from what we see today. Most of us won’t even buy cars (electric or not) as we tend to move towards urban centers where the cost of housing is often quite high, we have more transportation options and thus vehicles become excessive financial burdens.

Many of us are also drawn towards a lifestyle that is more affordable and integrates environmentally friendly options such as dense urban centers, active transportation, mass transit and transportation network companies. It’s unclear whether companies such as electric car manufacturers that are supporting the early stages of this transition can thrive in the long term. For example, what will happen to personal electric vehicle manufacturers if the market shifts from personal to shared vehicles or even bicycles and scooters?

After three days at VERGE, I came away inspired and excited, but I don’t think I’m any closer to being able to see where mobility is heading. The range of emerging solutions combined with changing demographics makes the space quite unpredictable. There are clearly great changes happening in autonomy and electrification especially, however it is still difficult to determine what will take hold and what our future transportation landscape will look like. Innovation, collaboration and listening to community needs will be imperative to creating a successful transportation ecosystem — what that looks like, only time will tell.

Helen Wagner Maggitti, Carpinteria
Helen Wagner Maggitti, Carpinteria

Helen Wagner Maggitti, CivicSpark Fellow, Carpinteria

A truly unique and inspiring experience, VERGE brings together a diverse community of individuals from around the world and across a broad range of industries and sectors; a community that values people of all backgrounds, knowledge and experience; a community that embraces differences in culture, education, age, gender and race; a community that bridges gaps among differing opinions and political ideologies; a community that comes together and unifies to attack this global crisis we’re facing from every angle.

It’s hard to pick just a couple of things that I found exciting. From participating in the incredible Grid Resiliency Summit, to hearing from inspired entrepreneurs, to meeting Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins (a personal idol), to connecting with so many new people, to the overall positive, inclusive and determined atmosphere, I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of it all.

As a CivicSpark Fellow working in energy, I was able to bring back relevant insights to benefit the city I’m serving, including: energy financing options, the state of battery storage, next steps for grid decentralization, new energy technologies, how to incorporate equity into my work, and the importance of putting a value on resiliency. I was also able to make valuable connections with potential partners such as Clean Energy Works and Ageto Energy.

We are in the midst of a global crisis that threatens ecosystems, species, cultures, norms, public health, international relations and the very existence of the human race. We have an obligation to change our politics, policies, economy, expectations, cultural norms and individual behaviors in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We have a responsibility to include marginalized and frontline communities in our discussions and decisions. We have a duty to incorporate equity in all aspects of this work. 

Working or serving in the environmental field can feel burdensome and discouraging at times. It can sometimes feel like the weight of the world (literally) is on your shoulders, making it seem like your efforts individually aren’t big enough or don’t matter. It’s easy to become uninspired, but it’s instances like VERGE, when I gather with other passionate, driven individuals, that give me hope for the future — a future in which we can come together and work to provide a safe, equitable, sustainable and resilient future for all. Individual action may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but VERGE helped me remember that collective action can be future-altering.

I walked away from VERGE with a spring in my step, ideas in my head and the inspiration to keep fighting for our planet and humanity.

Colgan Powell, Ceres
Colgan Powell, Ceres

Colgan Powell, CivicSpark Alum (2017 to 2018), program assistant, investor network, Ceres

As a professional working on sustainable investing, I did not have any expectations of my experience at VERGE. I work at Ceres, a sustainability NGO based in Boston that works in the private sector to move the economy towards a sustainable future.

I had three takeaways from VERGE. The first: youth activism is front and center. To me, it makes abundant sense to have youth be a part of the solutions and to dedicate a plenary session addressing the energy youth bring. The discussion reflected the diversity and inclusion conversations that need to take place for there to be equitable solutions because the solutions came from those most impacted by climate change. It was refreshing.

As a 24-year-old in the early stages of my career, I was reminded of the role of activism and how it inspired me to do this work. Historically for me, it was participating in the Divest Smith at my alma mater, Smith College. That is where I first learned about the power of an institution’s endowment and how institutional investments do not always align with their values or the values of that community. I have since chosen to dedicate my career to this movement, although I am learning that there are other mechanisms than divesting to move money and people toward the sustainable goals you want them to achieve.

My second takeaway was the number of startups and entrepreneurs that attend VERGE. While it makes sense given the audience and the tracks involved, I wonder given the climate crisis if we have time to invest in such startups. Startups and new businesses take time to incubate, to become the solutions that can achieve the scale and pace our planet needs. Although a startup that helps labs mitigate waste by selling surplus supplies is something that has an immediate solution, can it scale quickly enough to be relevant? For me, there is so much buzz for startups but I wonder if the industry is oversaturated and not enough of our scarce resources are spent on supporting readily scalable solutions with the current ecosystem.

Finally, at VERGE I saw a clear — and vitally important — intersection between the private and public sectors. We need strong policies in order to incorporate any solutions the private sector or startups want to implement.

I think there has been distrust in what public policy can achieve and that is understandable considering the current political climate. But what CivicSpark has taught me is that nothing can be achieved without the support of government and agencies from the federal to the local level. Take carbon pricing; there are some investors who believe carbon pricing is key to achieving our goals for a decarbonized economy. However, you cannot set a price on carbon without policies and laws to ensure its success.

Zachary Reda, Pleasanton
Zachary Reda, Pleasanton

Zachary Reda, CivicSpark Alum (2018 to 2019), Pleasanton

My experience at the VERGE 2019 conference in Oakland can be summed up as a culmination of brilliant solutions to the world’s most pressing climate change problems, along with thoughtful dialogue about equitable transitions we can make on the local and individual levels.

The chance to hear from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was inspirational. They reinforced the fact that, when it comes to climate change, I should not take "impossible" or "no" as an answer.

Newsom illustrated this point by pointing to California’s sustainability transformation and its benefits to the state’s economy. Many believed this could not be a mutualistic relationship. California proved the critics wrong.

Lovins shared Marshall McLuhan’s quote that "only puny secrets need protection. Big secrets are protected by incredulity." If cars and buildings are designed in innovative ways, they will need less energy to operate. Less energy means less time and money on energy efficiency.

Granholm has an infectious personality, and she urged us to rethink the way we train people. If we want to transition to a clean economy, it’s essential that we properly train workers so they can shift their expertise to carbon-free and renewable energy jobs.  

Since I work for the city of Pleasanton, it was important for me to bring back some ideas back that could be effective in local government. Miya Kitahara, program director of StopWaste, spoke about circular economies on the city level. All materials (food, construction materials, clothing) that are used in a specific place have a carbon footprint associated with them. If cities begin to take into account where the materials they consume are made, they can shift their procurement policies to a more local level. Kitahara’s idea of a consumption-based emissions inventory is something worth looking into as Pleasanton begins its Climate Action Plan 2.0.

The people I met at VERGE 2019 enhanced my experience as well. I spoke with people of all different backgrounds, coming from Norway, rural Iowa and Hawaii. Hearing their perspectives on climate change in the breakout sessions was refreshing. The CivicSpark Fellows and alumni were all extremely knowledgeable, and our opinionated debates were extremely thought-provoking. Kif Scheuer, program director of CivicSpark, is an excellent mentor, and makes me proud to be a part of the CivicSpark network.

VERGE 2019 was truly an unforgettable experience. VERGE 2019 instilled hope that climate change is not at a point of no return. Hearing from so many inventive people and companies demonstrated that the fight is certainly not over.