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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cultivate your voice

If you cannot say what you mean, you will never mean what you say

By Dave Newport

 In the historically accurate and visually sumptuous 1987 Best Picture “The Last Emperor,” Peter O’Toole played an English gentleman appointed to tutor China’s young ruler in the English language.

If we all had English lessons as powerful as those from O’Toole’s character, Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, the sustainability movement would be much further along.

In a famous scene, Emperor Puyi, then a teenager, asked Sir Johnston why he, a Scotsman, didn’t wear a skirt.  Johnston replied Scots didn’t wear skirts, they wore kilts. He added, it was very important to get those words right.

“Why are these words important,” the Emperor asked?

Sir Johnston replied, "If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say--and a gentle man should always mean what he says.”

I can do nothing to improve on that logic.

Likewise, sustainability professionals were reminded of the importance of words in one of AASHE’s best plenary presentations two years ago in Pittsburgh.  Former Unity College President Mitch Thomashow asked a crowded hall of campus sustainability professionals, "What will your voice be and how will you cultivate the voices of those around you?" 

Thomashow’s presentation essentially mirrored the message of Sir Reginald Johnston. “Find how your voice is best manifest. Writing, speaking, engaging, partnering, inspiring, whatever talent you have. Cultivate that voice.”

Say what you mean.

And yes, you can blame the existence of this blog on Mitch Thomashow. I decided to channel my publishing past as I listened to him speak that day. Now if I only had something to say…

Anyway, what do campus sustainability folks need to say?

Well, if you are reading this blog you must be somehow connected to the sustainability business; a business that is about creating change. We are all staff in The Department of Change.

And just what change do we wish to see?

Another of our favorite orators, David Orr, once set the bar on the change we need this way:

“The sustainability revolution will not fail because we are too radical, it will fail because we are too timid.”

We all know the changes needed to move our campuses and our culture to a sustainable place are very big, hairy, audacious goals: BHAGS.  Zero waste, zero carbon, zero pesticides, etc are all BHAGS. But there are many more we have not yet framed.

Sustainable leadership author Bob Doppelt talks about first-order vs second-order goals. First order goals are “10% energy reduction by 2020” or other incremental changes. Carbon neutrality, on the other hand, is a second order goal that is transformative—and radical. A BHAG.

So when I think about my voice, I think about BHAGS and the changes we need to attain “true sustainability,” whatever that is.  

Begin with the end in mind, leadership guru Steven Covey teaches. 

Voice your BHAGS.

The ten-year test

A recent Chronicle piece on writing gave advice that implies visioning your BHAGS is a prerequisite to an effective voice. The author reflected on the first rule of effective writing:

Find your voice; don't just "get published." 
James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1986. One of the questions he asks job candidates is: "What are you writing that will be read 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now?"

Wow. I’m pretty sure nobody will be reading this blog in ten years—or even ten days. (I comfort myself with the corollary to the above first rule of writing: “If your writing doesn’t measure up to your standards, lower your standards…”)

Anyway, a compelling voice is crucial to advocating for the durable changes we need. As all literary agents know, there are very, very few new ideas that can be sold without a fresh and compelling voice behind them.

Indeed, it can be said there are no new ideas, only new voices. Radical new voices, we hope.

Another sharp campus sustainability originator, Dedee Delongpre Johnston, wrote a great piece recently about the challenges students face in cultivating a radical voice:

One: members of this generation realize that unlimited growth, particularly unlimited economic growth based on a fixed set of inputs, is unsustainable. As one young woman put it, however, “it’s the devil we know and trying to imagine jumping off into something different is terrifying.”

Two: members of this generation want to care and want to make a difference, but are spread so thin and are so overcommitted, that they don’t act on their passions.

Three: members of this generation recognize that we need radical change, but they are paralyzed by a commitment – to their families, communities, and selves – to be practical.

Notwithstanding students’ needs to be practical, the world needs those voices for radical change, Delongpre continued:

At his recent acceptance of the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal, life-long civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte said "What is missing I think from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought... America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such a quest."

And how do we sustainabilistas educate and inspire students into forming a radical voice?

If this generation feels paralyzed by practicality, how can we empower them to think, and act, for change? In the follow-up conversations after our panel, we found that students valued the transdisciplinary solutions articulated by the presenters. The mix of economics, history, social equity, and ethics gave them a new insight into the importance of multiple perspectives and it added a pragmatic dimension to their otherwise narrowly conceived understandings of sustainability, based on discipline-specific teaching.

In short, breadth of awareness and systems thinking can empower a radical voice for change. Well, partly. The strength of the idea and how well they are voiced counts too, duh. So does consistency; it can’t be a one and done. Stake out your ground, cultivate your voice, say what you mean—and keep saying it.

Think ten years out.

“Democracy belongs to those that show up.”

Campus sustainability is going through some growing pains lately (see pretty much all previous blogs)—and radical and sustained voices for change are needed even within our own ranks. AASHE is seeking to correct its course too and the recent launch of a “Listening Project” seeks input to guide that reformation.

This is a great place to power up voice.

How do we reform AASHE and empower the sustainability movement towards the BHAGS that will be important in ten years?  What are the elements of a sustainable campus we need to fight for? How should we organize and operate to effectively advance the revolution? And what are the radical ideas we need if the revolution is not to fail from timidity?

Let us not be timid. Let us not go gentle.

Now is the time to turn up the quality—and volume—of your voice. Speak it to the Listening Project.  Speak it in your work. Speak it in your life. And keep speaking it.

The story goes that back in the day President Franklin Roosevelt met with a group of activists who sought his support for bold legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, “You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”

AASHE’s Listening Project will become the new normal—if we insist on it, if we keep voicing our best radical thoughts. If we make AASHE do it. We have before us a great opportunity to shape a new organization, and new operation, a new direction, and new outcomes for the future of campus sustainability. The Listening Project is great—but it’s soliciting your voice. We need to assert our voices without being asked. Long term. Not a one and done. Cultivate your voice. Then use it again and again.

Democracy belongs to those that show up.

Show up. 

Say what you mean.
See you in Nashville.


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