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Saturday, January 18, 2014

A new day for AASHE?

New leadership signals a forward thinking reformation

By Dave Newport
With the New Year came the happy news of a new executive director for AASHE, Stephanie Herrera.  I join with all of the campus sustainability community in welcoming her to the leadership of campus sustainability’s professional organization.

We all need Ms. Herrera to be a very successful leader.

And by all accounts she brings strong passion and experience to our most under-served sustainability arena: social justice.  Indeed, as the first person of color and the first person from outside the cloistered Ivory Tower to accept the AASHE ED job, her appointment signals a forward thinking reformation. Very hopeful.

Ms. Herrera has been successful in running NGOs and has an MBA’s business focus tempered by the worldview of a community organizer focused on environmental justice.  

She has sustainability street cred.
Ms. Herrera grew up Colorado’s most polluted zip code: 80216, a few minutes down US highway 36 from my town and sustainability Shangri-La, Boulder. The communities of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea couldn’t be more different from Boulder.

Home to five Superfund sites and all manner of pollution sources, the ~9,000 brave souls who live within 80216 are 98% low-income people of color with elevated blood-lead levels, a high incidence of respiratory ailments due to proximity to a rich pollution broth, and the bad fortune to live where corporate and municipal Denver leaders have shoved sewage treatment plants, power plants, transfer stations, slaughterhouses, refineries, elevated interstate highways that literally shed road and car parts into the playgrounds of adjacent schools, and every diesel truck fleet in Colorado.

It’s an awful place that used to be nice.  

One of my colleagues grew up there. We went on a Toxic Tour of her old community once and she broke into tears when we came upon the old country pond she used to swim in as a young girl; it was now an overflow pond for one of the refineries.

Ms. Herrera’s announcement from AASHE cited her grandparents’ activism in that community as a source of her inspiration. They must have worked alongside that community’s formidable environmental justice leader, Lorraine Granado and the respected agency she founded, the Cross Community Coalition. Indeed, Ms. Herrera’s career has clearly been motivated by some very high quality advocates for justice; thus, her roots are steeped in the sustainability equivalent of combat experience.

I am deeply appreciative that my now former colleagues on the AASHE Board chose this path over the track AASHE has followed previously.  The Board listened to a lot of input and chose this very refreshing path unanimously.

Nicely done.

First, get thine own house in order

Ms. Herrera faces significant internal and external challenges—and is working in a field she is not as familiar with as those of us working on campus every day.  But having been around a very polluted block, no doubt Ms. Herrera has the willpower and force of character to be her own person—not what others want her to be.  While she may be on somewhat unfamiliar ground, she must listen to quality input from the array of AASHE’s stakeholders—and then fold that into her own decisions informed by her own experience, training, and instincts.  

Regarding AASHE’s internal challenges, we must support her as she helps lead AASHE into a new day.  Here are some of the challenges:
  • AASHE has yet to publish a sustainability assessment of its own operations even though its flagship product, STARS, asks campuses to compile their own sustainability assessment and disclose it.
  • AASHE helped lead the campus carbon neutrality campaign, which more than 700 campuses now adhere to. However, there is no such pledge from AASHE. What is AASHE’s carbon footprint? Don’t know. Likewise, Zero Waste, diversity, etc. all have measurement and commitment models AASHE should adopt.
  • More significant are AASHE’s governance practices to date.  Leading sustainability organizations model transparency, democracy, and inclusion.  AASHE’s more opaque, autocratic, and exclusive approach has drawn fire from a large fraction of one of its most important member categories, campus sustainability directors.  For instance, in an open letter to the Board last June, dozens of directors requested AASHE: “Study and adopt best practices from other groups that are striving to achieve a culture of collaboration and empowerment. See particularly AccountAbility's AA1000 standard and WorldBlu’s Principles of Organizational Democracy.”  Likewise, the directors have also repeatedly asked for an open, democratic process to get on the Board along with numerous other reforms.  [In the interest of space and focus, a more in-depth look at these issues will follow later this year.]  The Board’s response to these sustainability directors has thus far been limited, at best.
Perhaps Ms. Herrera can gently lead the Board to a page from its own playbook and adopt STARS’ governance approach. As previously detailed, STARS governance models all the best sustainability principles and practices—and empowered incredible work output last year: STARS 2.0.

Many of us in the community are hopeful that Ms. Herrera’s heritage as a grassroots community organizer will inform an approach to leadership that is consistent with sustainability’s best traditions. She has no doubt seen the dark side of cold-faced corporate collusion.

AASHE must be better than that.

What is AASHE’s business?

Externally, Ms. Herrera faces unique and systemic business challenges AASHE must address to continue it success.

  • First up: AASHE must better understand who its customer is and what they want—then laser focus on delivering that value. Research identified at least seven different constituencies served by AASHE—but only a few of them enable the checks that keep membership dollars coming in.
  • Second: AASHE should diversify its revenue stream from almost totally dependent on membership and the members’ conference to a broader array of revenue sources. We all remember what happens to a forest monoculture when disease strikes.
  • Third: AASHE is not a monopoly. There is no entitlement. AASHE is in an increasingly competitive market. SCUP, USGBC, Second Nature, NWF, and others are all trying to earn their keep every day.  If AASHE is to survive and prosper, it needs to determine what value-added service defines it and in what market niche that’s valuable. STARS is the closest thing AASHE has to a franchise—but demand for STARS will never approach that of LEED.  So AASHE needs to figure out how to make STARS more valuable to more campuses.
  • Fourth: as currently defined, the campus sustainability market is pretty small. On most member campuses, there may be only 1-2 people who are actually paid to do the work. With about a 1,000 member campuses out of the 4,000 campuses in the US, the total market is limited.  At best, AASHE might get half of the total, that’s all decades-old NACUBO has mustered.

Thus expanding AASHE’s market is crucial to long term organizational sustainability. And this is a place where Ms. Herrera has great advantage. With her background, business savvy and experience, she could pioneer alliances between multi-cultural groups and sustainabilistas. We all increasingly understand the need for this unification—so the timing for alliance building is propitious.

This is the direction sustainability needs to go anyway. We need to advance a just sustainability, as implored by justice advocates and previous blogs. This is where I have the highest hopes for Ms. Herrera and AASHE. The synergies and expansion of power base such an alliance would foster are formidable.

And it’s the right thing to do.

We can do better

I have previously copped to my role contributing to the challenges AASHE faces, so I won’t keep beating myself up here; suffice to say, we can all do better.

When I think about how AASHE's board compares with the 13 other public and private boards I've served on in my career, I am struck by how uniquely its composition reproduced all the challenges facing campus sustainability itself. The cross section of backgrounds (e.g., 4-year, 2-year, private, public, administrator/faculty, etc.) represent the best and the worst of campus sustainability: good people but rooted in the academy’s ancient—and many argue obsolete-- governance approach instead of the progressive practices informed by the ethical doctrines we purportedly seek to advance.

As a result, past Board culture has sadly been somewhat classist, siloed, and largely white (two people of color were added to the Board in 2014). This is representative of a challenge campus sustainability must reckon with: how to engender systems-thinking and more progressive practices when mired in a dysfunctional organizational and governance paradigm.

The cure? AASHE needs to aggressively model sustainability throughout the organization: governance, staff, operations, principles, practices, and outreach.

You are what you are.

Three things you can do to help AASHE’s new day

Notwithstanding the challenges, we have all come too far in our work and AASHE is too important as the platform of the campus sustainability movement to turn away from it now. Disappointed, yes; but my membership checks will still be coming. So should yours. And we must also:
  1. Do all we can to support Stephanie Herrera.  She deserves our full respect and support. She is not responsible for any of AASHE’s past mistakes. Clean slate. And we dearly need her to be successful. So we must stand with her as she moves forward to hopefully lead AASHE into a new day. Send her a welcome email or give her a call.
  2. Continue our own work on the full integration of social justice into the sustainability trinity. Ms. Herrara can help with this. And as witnessed in literature growth and in the increasing number of presentations and discussions about social justice at our conferences, perspectives and actions in this arena are maturing and increasing. The time is right for a full on assault into this space. There are a couple sessions on this at the Smart & Sustainable conference next month that seek to build on the great sessions at AASHE/Nashville last fall.  A LinkedIn discussion group was just set up to continue the conversation post conference. Look for an AASHE professional development webinar on this on June 18th.  And keep working to find new partnerships and alliances with leaders of color, multi-cultural groups, and those most at risk, as we have discussed previously. We are this month hosting an Innovation Lab for aspiring leaders of color; an idea we learned of from Spelman College. From all this we will hopefully keep learning.
  3. Remain very mindful and vigilant of AASHE. Like our nation’s democratic form of government AASHE is controlled by those who show up. You need to show up for AASHE. Read the Minutes. Talk to the Board members. They are good folks that work for all of us without compensation. You should be able to send them all an email here (if that doesn't go through you can post direct to the AASHE discussion forum here or the AASHE Facebook page).  Ask for what you want—and press for the changes you feel campus sustainability needs. Pay attention. Be all in.
And welcome Stephanie A. Herrera. It’s a new day.

Carpe novi diem.