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Early-career public-sector sustainability professionals reflect on VERGE 19 (Part 2)

Two-way conversations. Interdisciplinary perspectives. Here’s what inspired CivicSpark leaders at this year’s conference.

A lack of federal leadership on climate change has inspired cities and towns across the United States to unite in their calls for action. That’s one reason the CivicSpark program, administered by the Local Government Commission and made possible through the AmeriCorps program model, was rolled out 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 local level. These emerging leaders spend 11 months building capacity to address environmental and social resiliency challenges, including climate adaptation, water resource management, affordable housing, social equity 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. In total, they have provided more than 515,000 hours of service to California communities statewide.

This year, GreenBiz Group 10 hand-picked, up-and-coming CivicSpark Fellows and alumni attended 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 to share their post-conference impressions. Below are five responses, edited for clarity and length. The first set of responses may be found here.

Shannon Rivers, CivicSpark alum

Shannon Rivers, CivicSpark Alum (2014 to 2015), utility analyst, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

VERGE 19 introduced me to new ways of thinking about existing systems and procedures with consideration of whether there is opportunity for efficiency enhancements. I was impressed with the extent to which the gathering of like-minded people in a setting with displays of clean technology, forward-thinking ideas, responsible management of waste generation and diversion would promote productive discussions and the exchange of solutions to climate change.

A challenge I was not expecting was choosing between equally relevant and intriguing breakout sessions held concurrently. VERGE 19 crafted a conference with a myriad of thoughtful breakout sessions and allowed me to make meaningful connections.

Beyond developing an agenda filled with stellar panel talks and plenaries, VERGE 19 took a step further in addressing the environmental footprint of the conference by considering its collective energy consumption and waste management impacts. Creating a local conference microgrid was a thoughtful element as it served as an educational tool and demonstrated the viability and effectiveness of microgrids, while directly reducing the environmental impact of the conference. Conferences are generally conducive to waste generation, however, VERGE 19 planned in advance to ensure a zero-waste event would be achieved.

I was thrilled to reconnect with former colleagues and make new connections with professionals similarly motivated to solve our pressing climate change challenges. I approached the conference with the expectation I would have the opportunity to absorb information beneficial to my job. While this expectation was certainly met, I was surprised and pleased to have so many opportunities to share my experience with fellow attendees in ways that filled gaps in their knowledge and enhanced their understanding of certain topics. It’s not often that a conference enables so many two-way dialogues among participants and speakers alike.

One such conversation really stands out. I had a discussion with an agriculture expert who informed me about the robust screening process USDA employs to ensure there are not any pesticides on produce that ends up at grocery stores. I learned that growing organic food generates more greenhouse gas emissions than non-organic growing methods. This conversation highlighted the kind of challenging dilemmas we face in the sustainability field. In this case I can choose to eat food that is grown in a safe manner without the impacts of pesticides on my body or the water quality but generates greater greenhouse gas emissions or eat food grown with pesticides (that are ultimately removed from the food), but emitting fewer greenhouse gases. As someone who considers themselves pretty informed on environmental issues, I didn’t expect to so directly confront such a dilemma, which led to an internal debate about my personal food choices (I settled on buying locally grown organic produce). It’s this kind of surprise that made VERGE so engaging for me.

Coming from the utility industry, it was helpful to hear about new practices and approaches in the sector. I was particularly interested in learning from other utilities about how they participate in the emerging battery storage market and how to balance the need to shallow out the midday peak of solar.

I was also interested in learning about how one utility is addressing their "stranded" human capital from the increasingly obsolete coal power plant operation through workforce development programs. Finally, I was inspired by a session that shared examples of solar systems being paired with pollinators. It is a combination that is consistent with my employer’s OneWater principles, and I would like to find ways to replicate this strategy at our solar sites. 

Erin Ronald, CivicSpark

Erin Ronald, CivicSpark Fellow, Truckee

Right now, our world is facing terrifying math: 10 years to all reduce emissions by 55 percent, for only a 50 percent chance to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius climate threshold. As the founder of Otherlab, Saul Griffith, urged us during a VERGE 19 plenary presentation, we are in World War Zero. All new initiatives in every industry must be carbon-neutral.

This mission of universal climate neutrality spans public and private sectors, affecting business, society and the environment. Though the challenge is daunting, we possess the technologies necessary for such an ambitious pursuit. Progressing to implementation requires shifting our current paradigm, not just quickly and effectively, but equitably and inclusively. Accomplishing this unprecedented goal requires widespread communication. Industry and organizational silos must be deconstructed so as to align our priorities, share our visions and collaborate on working ideas. I found each of these possibilities at VERGE 19.

Engaging a diverse group of invested and motivated stakeholders — entrepreneurs, city officials, corporate executives, students, nonprofit managers — in our current cultural moment, is remarkable. But getting the same people to co-create solutions and make catalyzing connections, that is a moment of impact. 

While attending the Future Cities Carbon Action Challenge session, I observed and participated in such intentional stakeholder connections. Throughout presentations and breakout sessions, sustainability managers, nonprofit directors, transit authorities, large vehicle producers and even CivicSpark Fellows connected on pressing issues. 

Each came from entirely different worldviews and work experiences, sharing unique and key perspectives that broadened the group’s intersectional understanding of the issues at hand.

Some believed the climate crisis should be framed as an economic opportunity, others said the focus must shift from equity to justice, and many contributors emphasized the importance of civil discourse and human-centered design.

VERGE facilitators assisted the group in voting on issues to be made a priority. We were then challenged to solve the voted-upon issue, creating a tangible plan. I found myself talking with change-makers to whom I would not typically have access, change-makers who asked me my opinion, as I too offered another lens through which we could holistically understand the issues facing our cities. Once returned to the larger group, proposed solutions were again voted upon, and two teams were formed — each tasked with making the solution a reality.

I had a similar experience at the VERGE Food Waste Summit. I found myself discussing ideas with individuals at research institutions, major hotel chains and innovative startups.

Each person passionately spoke of wanting to reduce food waste, having executed many strategies and encountering unique challenges along the way. Some individuals highlighted the public health perspective — just because potential food waste could be recovered and transported to a foodbank, does not qualify that food as a healthy and viable nutrition source for those in need. Others talked about the importance of balancing food saved with food safety.

Corporations shared the innovative processes they had invented and their key allies in implementation. City officials shared what policies were successful in reducing food waste and how improvements could be made. Through this process of cultivating a shared understanding and collectively expanding our knowledge of problems and attempted solutions, we could create a future in which we halve our societal food waste. During the collaboration opportunity, we also made valuable connections that potentially could make some of our solutions a reality.

At VERGE, I was able to see how this intentional intersectional model of stakeholder cooperation can function effectively. Getting people from every sector to meet, talk and connect is the only way to foster empathy and create urgent, viable solutions. As an Oakland Council member said at VERGE, "People realize they are part of a movement."

By connecting and listening to others, people build bridges with a diverse spectrum of other people also working to make change. When we break down industry barriers and listen to other voices with compassion, we can bring more people into the movement and continue to make positive change. 

However, it is our duty to increase our circles of engagement and action. We must be intentional with who we bring to the table, and it must include activists, farmers, First Nations, Fortune 500 corporations, physically and neurodivergent communities, religious institutions and historically marginalized groups. The more people we bring to the conversation, the better understanding we have of how to unite to decarbonize our world. With increased cross-sector connections, we can more effectively address problems facing all stakeholders. The more we create opportunities to work together, like at VERGE, the faster we can win World War Zero.

Vanessa Shin, CivicSpark, Cupertino

Vanessa Shin, CivicSpark Fellow, Cupertino

Throughout VERGE19, cutting-edge technologies aimed to scale and accelerate the world’s transition to a circular, carbon-free and equitable economy took center stage — literally.

During the plenary and VERGE Accelerate sessions, entrepreneurs and innovators shared creative solutions seemingly inspired by science fiction. To name a few, Genecis leverages biological processes to transform food waste to bioplastics; SolarSkyrise imagines high-rise buildings powered by photovoltaic technology embedded into building design; and Tom Chi highlighted the carbon-removal capacity of drones that collectively can plant millions of trees per day. Despite bearing witness to these new technologies driving the clean economy, I remain captivated by how VERGE is a platform for something even more promising: solutions born from cross-sector collaboration and action.

As I reflect upon my experience at VERGE19, it is apparent that there is no technological replacement for the unlimited potential that emerges when individuals representing diverse communities, experiences and expertise come together.

For example, as a participant of the Future Cities Carbon Action Challenge, I convened with representatives of various industries and organizations to brainstorm actionable steps towards achieving carbon neutrality in cities while prioritizing social equity and resilience.

One common theme that bridged the variety of topics discussed at the conference was the value of dialogue and coordination between all stakeholders, including those who historically have been excluded from these spaces and conversations. This manifested through candid discussions between private- and public-sector panelists, who alluded to the challenges of not only coexisting but working together to serve the needs of consumers and residents.

With the conference’s location in the Bay Area in mind, speakers also underscored how urban sustainability necessitates coordination between the housing and transportation sectors. During the Youth Leadership Panel, the importance of meaningful partnership echoed through the teen activists’ call for an inclusive and intersectional practice of environmentalism as well as the desire for intergenerational support and mentorship. Having identified with these stories as a young woman of color, I am grateful that VERGE amplified these perspectives to a broad and influential audience.

Returning to my CivicSpark service project, I am grounded by the stories shared by Angela Glover Blackwell, who shared a simple, yet compelling message: When we design and implement solutions for the most vulnerable, we all benefit.

Introducing the notion of the "curb-cut effect," Blackwell illustrated the "cascading benefits" of wheelchair-accessible sidewalks and streets, in which ramps also enhance the safety and ease of travel for young children, individuals pushing strollers and carts, and other pedestrians.

In many ways, the conference’s speakers, organizers and participants affirmed that climate action, with equity as the driver and foundation, is strengthened by prioritizing the needs of the marginalized and the voices of the silenced. With this in mind, the experience and privilege of attending VERGE19 have deepened my resolve to grow and operate in the spirit of just and expansive collaboration.

Karina Takemoto, CivicSpark, Goleta

Karina Takemoto, CivicSpark Fellow, Goleta

Under the current political and literal warming climate, it has felt like our planet and country are at odds. We often hear the terrifying statistics of where the world is headed if we continue with business as usual — more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, increased cases of natural disasters, 1 million species threatened with extinction in the coming decades, and irreversible impacts by 2030. These concerns were echoed throughout VERGE, but what rang louder was a great sense of urgency and hope.

At VERGE, the narrative was being told differently. With every overarching problem we heard, there were numerous solutions on the verge of mitigating some of our greatest challenges. People can, should and are doing things that are making tangible changes in the trajectory of how we’re facing this daunting problem — and the battle is being fought on multiple fronts.

I was inspired by the sheer amount of ideas and thorough discussions that came out of this experience. I learned so much about community outreach, equity, electric vehicles, carbon sequestration, circular economy, microgrids, partnerships, project management and renewable energies in just three days.

The way the conference was set up allowed me to not just take in useful information in a lecture setting but also to converse with leaders in these fields, ask questions and contribute my own thoughts. We formed working groups in both the Carbon Action Challenge and Grid Resilience Summit to formulate 12-month strategies on how to tackle GHG reductions, sustainable resilient housing, linking buildings and transportation, and 100 percent renewable goals. I made valuable connections at the networking events with colleagues I respect, and the relationships we’re building will help power these collective movements.

I was impressed by the confluence of people from different backgrounds — private and public sectors, varying age groups, opposite sides of the political spectrum, diverse ethnicities and genders. I check a lot of the minority boxes, being a young professional, Japanese/Guatemalan woman, first-generation college graduate, with a low socio-economic status. Going into the conference I was intimidated to speak up, knowing that I am new to the industry and historically many of my ideas have gone unrecognized, but at VERGE it seemed that everyone was included.

Throughout the conference, I felt as though my insight was heard and valued, which made it easy to show up and participate fully. Equity and collaboration were core values, and this theme was reiterated in many seminars I attended. Seeing Marlow Baines, Isha Clarke and Tokata Iron Eyes speak on the youth panel as not just young women but powerful environmental leaders ignited a fire in me that I hadn’t felt before. I feel so much pride in our generation of leaders and see more clearly how each of us, as individuals and representatives of our communities, have an important role to play in protecting this planet.

I left VERGE 19 with a revived sense of hope, fresh ideas to bring back to my project site, new skills and a network of colleagues to help me see these ideas through.

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