Tag Archive: emily

Emily is incredibly fortunate to occasionally contribute her stories and thoughts to the Lift Blog maintained by some management and leadership experts she deeply admires, Bob and Ryan Quinn from the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, respectively. This father/son pair wrote a book entitled “Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation” that inspires the blog. This week, Ryan posted a blog that started to analyze an experience Emily had while trying to progress efforts for large scale environmental education and engagement. Ryan takes a first pass at understanding whether or not it matters if people believe in climate change… in this conversation and analysis- maybe it doesn’t.

Click here for the story/ analysis

The only reason why the story starts here is because I, Emily, am authoring it. I am pretty sure Tad was cooking up plenty of Small Infinity stories long before we met. And, as you’ll see as you follow this blog, plenty more stories are unfolding in the wake of what Tad started here.

The famous Cyndy Cleveland from the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise made the suggestion I meet Tad (connecting people is certainly a small infinity strength of hers!). I was a prospective student and Tad was an alumni in my city Columbus, Oh. I expected the meeting to go as these things normally do: meet once, talk about the program a bit, get some advice, and try not to bother him yet still find ways to keep in touch. That wasn’t what happened.

You might say the Small Infinity stars aligned when we met. Tad had some pretty interesting projects in mind but needed people to help him execute. I was a projectless, recovering accountant looking for opportunities to grow as a leader and explore this consuming interest I had in sustainability. I signed up to help him out and learn a ton in the process.

Tad’s first idea was to create a robust Green Drinks showing in Columbus. Green Drinks is an international, grassroots organization that encourages folks from cities all over the world (714 as of this posting) to convene regularly to learn more about what is happening on the sustainability front locally and to enjoy drinks, which are more often shades of brown than shades of green.

Tad invited me to join a small team of organizers tasked to figure out the monthly locale and speaker for Columbus Green Drinks. The thinking was this on the speakers- why not give a eco- group a chance to showcase what they’ve got going on if all of these eco-friendly people are already merrily convened? We found a bar with organic beers and a great back room (Yay Surly Girl Saloon) and we were off! Over time the locales moved around, the crowd grew, an array of speakers came, bikes were safely introduced to the mix on occasion… but Tad still had more in mind- something larger, something even more far reaching and something that got people to ACT on their interest in sustainability.

For a little bit less than a decade before 2007, Earth Day in Columbus Ohio passed with an ignorable whimper. This clearly irritated Tad. I am speculating now, but I have a feeling that the lack-o-activity bothered him for symbolic reasons. It may be only one day, but what a city does on Earth Day says a lot about its ongoing commitment to sustainability. Anyway, he talked me and an amazing crew of people from all over the city (amassed largely through Green Drinks) into helping him enact something relatively huge for Earth Day 2007. (Side bar: When we started working together on the first city-wide Earth Day (2007), I could see that Tad’s courage, creativity, and pragmatism were enabling him to envision and execute such a large endeavor. At the time, Tad had to convince me that it was acceptable to think SO courageously and creatively. Fast forward to now and I am realizing that Tad was doing a great deal of what Ben Zanders talks about in this video around 6mins 25 seconds in )

That year a team of volunteers pulled off a two part, city-wide Earth day celebration around the goal “a year in a day.” We set out to get enough volunteers at worksites across the city to log the same hours one person would after a full work year. We accomplished this goal and then some. Hundreds of volunteers from around Columbus logged close to 4,000 hours cleaning up river banks, planting trees, etc. To celebrate, thousands of folks came back to beautiful Goodale Park to enjoy the day, delicious foods, music, and conversations with representatives from 40+ green orgs.

My favorite story in the aftermath of all of this comes from a kind-hearted, adorably hipster friend of mine who came to Goodale Park for the afternoon festivities. He came up to me the next day Totally Excited about organic lawn fertilizer. “I didn’t even know it mattered. Someday I’ll have a house and I would have never known to think twice.” Admittedly, I didn’t even know that there was an organic fertilizer organization there that afternoon, but was totally delighted to hear this validating story.

I love thinking about the aggregated small epiphanies that happened that day, during the Green Drinks events, etc. The organizing team alone had so many epiphanies; many about what was possible for the future now that we had made it through that first experience…

The University of Michigan connects its students to AMAZING people. Not too long ago I found myself in a casual conversation with a member of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during a presentation reception. The things said in that conversation have changed me forever.

The presentation preceding the conversation was about the amazing efforts our government is taking to address today’s problems through progressing science and technology. From carbon recapture to nano-everything, we seemed to be working on it. It felt really great to see such inertia in science under this administration.

That said, the picture painted seemed incomplete.

Given the urgent gravity of the problems the espoused technology are posed to solve, I was hoping to hear more “prongs” to the approach of solving them. Specifically, I wanted to hear about how the administration had scanned all the sciences, including social sciences, to identify many levers for addressing problems. I wanted to hear about how research in neuro-cognitive studies, sociology, ethics, and environmental and health behavior was informing research into proposed technologies and so on.
I didn’t hear this inclusion of social science and and my questions lingered. What if technology isn’t found fast enough? What if even when it is found it will be ineffective, not enough, not used, etc.? Why weren’t we calling on social sciences to figure out why the potential for carbon reduction from EXISTING, tested technologies has not yet been realized. ? Couldn’t social science help us figure out the obvious gap in what we know about nutrition and how we eat? My primary wonder is this: Why aren’t we talking about changing individual and organizational behavior?

So I asked some version of this last question to my new acquaintance from the Office of Science and Technology.

His answer was eloquent and respectful. He had clearly thought a great deal about the topic, without a doubt more than I have in my entire lifetime. But… he admitted abandoning the passion he had for changing behavior long ago. When I asked why he said many things but the one that stuck out was, “because it is too hard.”

Too hard. No reference to suggest support for targeted social science coming elsewhere in government and a suggestion that “Too hard” is now an acceptable reason to abandon ship.

If I needed any more reason to become passionate about studying environmental behavior and organizational change in business, I just found it. “Too hard” is not good enough. “Too hard” closes opportunities social psychologists, organizational theorists, behavioral psychologists, etc work to create. Opportunities we need to exist. Opportunities that will help fill the gaps left by an exclusive technology and cap and trade policy approach to mitigation. Opportunities that, if ceased, could better many societal problems simultaneously. (What else happens when you bike to work, use a clothesline, shop at farmers markets, encourage a corporate culture that authentically cares about all stakeholders, etc?)

Maybe my expectations of the knowledge my new acquaintance would have about such efforts were unfounded. Maybe the support for a behavior change approach comes from a different part of government. (LET me know if that is the case!) Maybe I was talking with someone who is not up to speed on the progress made in behavioral, environmental, and organizational psychology AND SO ON since he last visited ideas about this “lever” for change (pretty sure it was long ago). Maybe supporting behavior change initiatives has economic and (consequentially?) political implications that might make such an investment risky or unfavorable for the requisite politicians. Maybe we have a hard time translating social science findings into action. Maybe my thinking is made possible by naivety. Or… maybe it is “too hard.”

But those are just excuses I’d be accepting despite myself. Unspoken excuses that “we” accept despite ourselves. Not only do I believe that the social sciences offer new levers to addressing social problems, I believe that levers drawn from social science insight are the ones that need to be pulled soon… now…decades ago. This project, including all the As, Bs, and Cs in your stories, is a proverbial electron of an atom of a molecule that comprises the tip of the iceberg when it comes to observations (and research!) that suggest changing behavior is possible and a good idea.

Nobody said it was easy, but I am not convinced that is a reason to disregard that which can be labeled “hard.”

Sometimes you overhear small infinity stories at the most unlikely times… and even that can change you.

I was driving out of a parking garage later in the evening last week and clearly it was busy enough to warrant two cashier booths but not slow enough to stop the cashiers from keeping their windows open and chatting across the lane that separated them. I was sad to break up the talking and laughing as I approached.

I am hopelessly curious and relish opportunities to laugh with strangers so I asked what they were discussing, in hopes they’d let me join. As Parking Lot Attendant A was taking my cash and preparing his words, he pulled a copy of the book “Fast Food Nation” out of his lap. I saw the title flash, recognized the importance of the moment, and quickly rolled down the passenger window of my car to create a tunnel through my car for him to continue teaching Parking Lot Attendant B and now me. Parking Lot Attendant A was soaking up the message of the book. As I pulled away he was talking about his first meal from Whole Foods that afternoon made him feel different and healthier already.

An image of the “food cups” from the movie Wall-e flashed through my mind. I wish I could find a clip of the scene where the captain first learns that food can be so much more than processed junk in a cup. It would be perfect to share here.

I often wonder how warped my view of the world is given that the places where I spend most of my time are filled with people who read, study, and passionately live to their definition of “sustainability.” OK so I also spend a lot of time in places where people do NOT live to any definition of sustainability but that is intentional on my part. (Professional Change Agency will do that to ya.) This encounter was a refreshingly hopeful reminder that although my life may happen in a bubble of like-minded people (Erb, SNRE, etc.), it is actually just one active node in a huge network of people from all walks of life headed in the same direction.

Emily has this funny habit of writing herself notes on her mirrors with whiteboard markers.  If you go to her apartment, you’ll see it- in her bedroom, her bathroom, anywhere else there is a mirror, there is usually a note.  Sometimes it’s small and silly, like “I like your shirt”.  Sometimes it’s her grocery list, or her to-do list, or something she thought of in the shower that she wants to remember later.  I think it’s a great idea (it wipes right off, and it looks much tidier than post-its), and several months ago I started keeping track of my half-marathon training runs on my bedroom mirror, too.

Then, in my first day of a Public Health class called “Aging in Health Behavior” in January, we were having a discussion of how difficult it is to start and maintain healthy behaviors, like flossing and stretching.  I told the class about Emily’s notes-on-the-mirror trick, as a prompting technique, and everyone thought it was kind of a strange idea.

But over the next few months, I learned that my classmates had tried it, and it was working.  Teja was finally taking her vitamins, because she wrote herself a note on the mirror.  Christee had finally made it a habit to floss.  And the professor had given her daughter a pack of whiteboard markers and permission to color the mirror, and the 8-year-old had apparently unleashed some hidden creativity and turned her bathroom into a work of art.  Small changes, but hey- flossing is important.

During the first class of a core strategy course the professor briefly mentioned that the first step to a great strategy is providing value to society.  This framing of business purpose as providing value to society was not one often heard throughout the core coursework of my MBA program, but one that is found in nearly every book about sustainable enterprise.  So I wrote him an email asking if we would talk more about that idea throughout the rest of the course.  He kindly wrote back to say not specifically.

6 weeks later, right before the course was over- I wrote this email:
I have tried to honor the email that you sent me at the beginning of the term about how we will not be discussing societal connections and consequences of ideas covered in the core class, but it has not been easy.  I know that time is the limiting resource in our class and that discussion must be focused and diverse but I can’t help but ask that we revisit the topic once more.  Below is the background on why I think this is important and a suggestion for a possible solution.

The Dean of our B-School  just said this in a message to the student body today:
“The idea that business does not exist in a vacuum is central to what we do here. We embrace the fact that business unfolds in the wider world of human concerns and institutions. Our School’s commitment to the social dimensions of business is visible in both our curriculum and our culture as evident by the enduring strength of our Net Impact chapter, by the School’s approach to leadership development, and by our MBA program’s consistently high showing in rankings such as the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes (in which we are currently ranked #2 in the world and #1 in the U.S.)

It seems that the Dean of our school joins many in the argument against Grant’s thinking of the corporation as simply shareholder property and not a social entity as found on Pg 34 of the textbook for class.  I understand the purpose of the core course is to introduce simple strategy concepts covered in our competitor schools, but I worry that without a bridge to acknowledge the real world complexity added from social and environmental impacts many of the students in this class may not know to take the electives that would prepare them for decision making with these factors in mind.  I also worry that we are teaching to a definition of the corporation that may have been salient in the past but less accepted now, especially as transparency of management increases and social and environmental problems worsen. (I was clearly feeling bold on that last bit.)

I would like to write something to expand on the conversation of a couple of the cases we’ve discussed in class and post it in the online discussion section for our class.  The objective of anything that I write would be to highlight added dimensions of complexity that real world business leaders are facing and offer an introduction to additional classes offered at Ross that would unpack that complexity more.”

Not only did he let me prepare something to post in the online discussion: he let me present it to the class of 50+ part-time MBAs for 15 minutes as a lead in to lunch.  I scraped something together in a flash and did a presentation, from which I learned a great deal.  It was far from perfect (embarrassed by the emphasis I put on what business “ought to do” vs. what business “gets to do”) but I think I was able to get people thinking differently, if only for a bit.  During the break after my “presentation,” Many of my classmates expressed gratitude for the introduction and said they would not have otherwise known about the concepts and other classes.  I expressed gratitude to my professor for the opportunity to present.

Who knows what happened after that, but If there is one thing I’ve learned for certain:  saying something increases the odds of change exponentially if the other choice is remaining silent.

Deliciously Life Changing Veggie BurgerOn Earth Day 2004 my friend Gabe invited me to go get an “amazing” veggie burger for free at a new restaurant on High Street in Columbus Ohio’s “Short North” Arts district called Northstar Cafe. At that point I wasn’t too keen on veggie burgers and I thought Gabe shared the sentiment, but given the favorable price and intriguing recommendation- I tagged along anyway.

The veggie burger was amazing- filling, wonderful texture and taste- but the restaurant itself was astounding. Northstar was my first example of a universally appealing experiment in the collision of unlikely bedfellows : business with an inextricably linked environmental mission. Years before this burger…I broke up a year of studying accounting and international business, to spend the summer canvassing with environmental organizers. Back then it felt like dating two men who are each others’ mortal enemies. (Not that I’ve lived that, but we can all picture it, right?) At any rate, I hadn’t encountered many things that really challenged my “mortal enemy” assumption of the relationship between business and environmental stewardship until Northstar.

Certainly there are thousands of restaurants like Northstar on either coast but for this midwestern girl, it was a first. Northstar was trendy, packed, delicious, and the sustainable aspects I loved most were visible primarily to those primed to see them. The primary benefit offered was delicious food.

It wasn’t until Brad, another good friend of mine, started working at the restaurant and befriending the owners that I experienced a fuller picture of what was going on at this place.  The owners made every decision carefully, honoring the complexity associated beyond, but inclusive of, the economic bottom line. They recommended the books like “Cradle to Cradle” to their employees, donated 1% of all sales to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, sourced a great deal of their ingredients locally and organically, and so on. Two more noteworthy facts: their first year they didn’t spend a thing on marketing, yet enjoyed remarkable sales for a startup AND their employee roster included a fair amount of professionals who left higher-paying jobs or recent graduates who forewent higher-paying jobs to work at the Cafe.

I remember feeling how the blind man must have felt in this scene from Amelie when I learned that the folks behind the cash register were former nurses and future professors.
Like Amelie to the blind man, my Northstar experience helped me to Really See and Feel a waterfall of world-saving energy possible in business. I was arguably waiting to see something like this after working a couple+ years with corporate and public accountants. Despite the noble work of the accounting profession, most accountants I met, including the one in the mirror, were disconnected from the value their work provided to the world. I had hope that Sarbanes Oxley, despite its imperfections, would awaken this energy-generating connection for the profession as it was a pervasive, externally-imposed reminder that what we did mattered greatly outside the accounting department. It certainly mattered to the folks at Enron and World Com who lost their retirements. Needless to say, the SOX messaging was rarely translated this way and, perhaps as a consequence, the first years of compliance were grueling for all. SOX= more things on the to do list.

Shortly after my Earth Day burger I realized that the giant change to foster sustainable enterprise was the next SOX in business. Shall we say SOX if overdosed on steroids to conjure an image more appropriate to scale. I also started to wonder “how can businesses respond to the call for sustainable enterprise differently, more effectively, more optimistically?” My hunch is/was that the stakes were too high to employ the SOX model of change: Uninspiring or unclear framing of change –> annoyed employees –> molasses speed progress. I mustered courage and left accounting to appease this new curiosity about HOW organizations change and appease stirring passion for saving the world through sustainable enterprise.

Flash forward 5 years and two degrees later and it seems my affiliation to the characters in the scene from Amelie has flip-flopped. It is my calling to be the metaphorical Amelie to the metaphorical blind man. I want help organizations to see the latent power available to forge ecological sustainability and heart-pounding, human flourishing in business by adding man’s innate connection to nature and drive for challenge, compassion, and meaning to the list of assumptions we make about behavior in management. How different will strategy, management, etc look with these assumptions?

All because an invite to eat a free veggie burger on Earth Day… beyond grateful


The Small Infinity

By Rachel Chadderdon and Emily Plews

Delivered as a commencement address to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment graduating class of 2010

May 1, 2010

Faculty, friends, families, and my fellow students,

In the years that we’ve been in graduate school, our world has seen some incredible changes.  We have witnessed an international summit addressing climate change, the award of a Nobel Prize to the woman who demystified the tragedy of the commons, and the historic election of a man who believes in science to the office of President of the United States.  But we’ve also seen atmospheric carbon dioxide reach the dangerous level of 390 parts per million, global economic recession, and several terrifying and saddening disasters in the process of mining fossil fuels.

We’ve been in school this whole time, learning (we presume) how to save the world.  But the enormity of the challenges we face in our climate, culture, and economy can be overwhelming.  So today, as we leave the theoretical safety of SNRE, I want to offer some simple words from someone who writes many words that I like – Michael Pollan.  (NO, I don’t mean “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – though that’s good advice, too).  But equally simply, in a NY Times Op-ed from October of 2008 entitled “Why Bother?”, Pollan stated, “Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”  I like to remember these words when uncertainty overwhelms me, and when the unmeasurable challenges of how to create a sustainable society or even just how to define the word “sustainable”, seems like too much of a wicked problem to handle.

“Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

We graduate today with the best possible skill sets for acting in the face of these unknowables:  We can model incredibly complex systems with elegant mathematics, calculating eigenvalues and eigenvectors to describe and manage populations of wild species (these words will forever remain in my memory though their meanings may not).

We can carefully map the equally complex relationships and forces that surround policy decisions, so that we might have the best chance at progress.

We know how to use the tools of economics for good, not evil.  And we know how to measure and manipulate human behavior to turn ourselves and our fellow citizens into better stewards of the planet.

We can compare the environmental impacts of different products in a standardized way using life cycle analysis, and GIS helps us concretely visualize our changing environment.  We can conduct research, write papers in groups (this is a skill not to be underestimated); we are SMART enough to develop projects with Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely objectives, and we know and understand exactly why there is scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is happening.

But the truth is, we still don’t know that much.  We don’t know how human activity truly affects the planet and we don’t know how to most effectively change our course.  We don’t know which wedge of carbon reduction will succeed or fail, what will keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, what will rectify the imbalance of access to resources between rich and poor. We don’t know what will stop deforestation and overfishing and factory farming and urban sprawl and bottled water – or, if anything will.   No policy works exactly how it’s supposed to; no behavior change strategy works on everyone.  Stochastic events occur; politicians go rogue; uncertainty abounds… and we have to admit, with all our skills and knowledge, we just don’t know what will work.

So sometimes, we have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when we can’t prove that it will.

I know that some of us are bound for greatness in our actions, in careers thinking of the big picture solutions for our whole planet.  We’ll help our leaders draft the treaties, laws, and programs that we need to protect our common resources – or we’ll become those leaders.  We’ll build the corporations that lift up, not oppress, the poorest among us, while conserving, not wasting, our soil, water, and air.  But we hear this all the time.  We’re graduating from Michigan, we’re the Leaders and the Best!  We count nonprofit and industry leaders among our alumni; our dean shares a Nobel Prize; the President flew in this morning just to tell us congratulations!  We have all the examples we need of greatness.

So I guess what I want to say to all of you, and to myself, is… think smaller.  Even a leader is just one person. Robert Kennedy once said that  “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

That’s really it; our world is the sum of all of our actions.  So be great.  Run for office or launch the next Google, take your passion and your expertise and lead- the world needs it.

But at the same time, don’t underestimate the power of small experiments and the importance of everyday actions.  So teach children, ride your bike, pull garlic mustard, get off the grid, support your local everything.  You never know who might hear, and listen, and follow.  Engage in your community; participate in your democracy.  Be nice.  Most importantly, seek out and support the words, ideas, and actions, no matter how small, of others who are headed in the same direction.  You know these images: I’m talking about the small infinity, the school of little fish facing down the shark, the power of a small group of committed people to change the world.   Every choice you make, every word you say, every bite you eat could be the one that makes all the difference.

So act.  Make peace with the uncertainty and just act.

Act boldly.

Act carefully.

Act with courage and act with love.

If you do, no matter what you do, you will make a difference.   Collectively, WE will make a difference – and the “proof” of that will be everywhere.

In this uncertain world, I’m optimistic, because I know you, my fellow graduates, will be out there working with me.  And because I know we have the support of family and friends, who we can’t thank enough for standing beside us, even when they don’t always know what we’re doing.  We have the benefit of an education at one of the world’s best schools in natural resources, and the guidance of professors who, while at the top of their fields in research, truly make it a priority to teach their students well.  So I know that we’re ready, equipped with the skills to assess the challenges we face and the tools to engineer the solutions we need, the pragmatism to know when to move on and when to press on, and the hope to face the uncertainty, be scared, and act anyway, knowing that our work is worth it.

Congratulations, friends.  I can’t wait to see what you do.

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