[The following are automatic transcripts, and not copy edited. They should serve as a resource, not necessarily great reading.]
Alex Fisch/Culver City
Alex Fisch (00:47):
There is a real change happening. Politicians at every level of government, people are stepping up big time and actually taking some real political risks and they’re succeeding because it’s time.
Andrea Learned (01:04):
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a whole range of sectors. The more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Hey
Alex Fisch (01:22):
Alex, nice to see you.
Andrea Learned (01:23):
Nice to see you too. <laugh> today I’m super excited because I’m talking with Culver City Councilman Alex Fisch, who I’ve gotten to know via Twitter and he’s so good at it. We discuss his efforts to increase transportation options and housing opportunities in his community. Needless to say, we also talk about his love for his e cargo bike. Now
Alex Fisch (01:40):
I probably drive less than 3000 miles a year, and it’s not because I’m consciously trying to avoid driving, it’s because I just don’t enjoy it. It’s faster generally to get around on e-bike in West LA and it’s a lot more fun.
Andrea Learned (01:51):
<laugh>, I’ve been especially excited to talk to Alex about Los Angeles’s Livable Communities initiative because it’s been so fun. I’ve been advising on that project and I got to know him a little bit through that and I really couldn’t wait to talk to him about it. Here
Alex Fisch (02:06):
So many of the crises we face are completely self-inflicted. Um, climate and housing, affordability, transportation, all these things are, we’re at the endpoint of 60 plus years of choices. And I, when I ran, I was pretty clear about that. But once I was in office and you’re past the communicating values to people and, and broad goals and really into the what exactly are we gonna do, I kind of felt like it was important to be very loud about these solutions because while they’re kind of obvious, you know, more houses and funding affordable housing are how you get cheaper general houses and more affordable housing, um, you know, I just really wanted to amplify the controversial but obvious things that needed to be done in the hopes that other people would say maybe that shouldn’t be so controversial. And so, you know, it’s not just via Twitter, it’s absolutely on the dais. It’s, it’s anytime I get a chance to talk to someone like you where I, you know, try to be unequivocal and hopefully that created a little bit of resonance cuz Los Angeles is absolutely, there is a region hitting the limits on things. You know, with visible street homelessness with terrible air today, there’s no reason for there to be bad air quality. But the Purple Air website shows that, um, particularly it matters over a hundred today, so,
Andrea Learned (03:16):
Oh, yuck. Yeah.
Alex Fisch (03:17):
So I think, you know, that’s part of it, but it’s not all just me. Part of it also is the regional housing needs assessment process that the state of California has. And the process has never really meant anything before. There’s no teeth. Essentially the numbers were derived by going to cities and say, how much space do you have for housing? And, you know, city like mine would say no space, totally full <laugh>, you know. And so we created sprawl, we created traffic, we created terrible air quality, we created all these GHG emissions as a collection of cities. This time the state said, here’s your number regions, figure it out. And a lot of housing was gonna end up along the coast where the climate is more moderate, where all the jobs are. Um, and Los Angeles is facing some huge number and elected officials are starting to see the impact of these changes in state law and recognizing that a lot of housing needs to get built and lci that that livable communities initiative has the benefit of not irritating the folks who live in detached traditional single family homes. So I think it’s very politically appealing when you combine all that.
Andrea Learned (04:20):
I love that Alex used the phrase, get loud. We almost call this podcast Get Louder cuz I’m always running around yelling people for the love of humanity yell about this. So I love that Alex used that phrase. A bit more background on the Livable Communities Initiative or LCI, it’s a grassroots coalition that was launched by mainly entertainment industry people that live in the Los Angeles area to address the housing crisis with lots of attention on safer streets and parking mandates. I wondered how Alex’s constituents were responding to LCI people
Alex Fisch (04:50):
Are mostly the same as Oh,
Andrea Learned (04:52):
Alex Fisch (04:52):
Yeah, people have, I I kind of thought, you know, is anybody gonna come with me if I am aggressive on all these important things? Because I spent the first couple years being loud, you know, saying, Hey, California Air Resources Board says we need to reduce the number of miles that each person drives by 20%, which is not that much, but it’s a significant change and it just never sunk in. And I would point out, and that means densifying our city. That means making space for buses and bikes. And it didn’t matter if I said it. So we started doing it and then people paid attention and, and once an actual policy is in front of people, what I’ve seen is that a tremendous number of people are primed for change because they see that things aren’t working. They, and they can feel the climate not being the same as when they were a kid. And so more people than I, than I would’ve thought a year ago have come along for the ride and, and get it and are becoming really knowledgeable.
Andrea Learned (05:46):
That’s great to hear. Now I’m interested in connecting the dots for climate and often people think affordable housing is its own little thing in the corner here and transportation is its own little thing. Thing in the corner over there. Every one of us should get louder about affordable housing because it is climate action. We need to understand these issues are linked. Again, affordable housing is climate action.
Alex Fisch (06:11):
All of this stuff is one thing in my head. Public safety is climate action. Because if you’re gonna have a public’s realm that is inviting for everybody so that they do decide it’s safe to walk, to take the bus, to take the metro to ride their bike, they have everybody has to feel safe. Black, white women on transit, everybody has to fe have, everyone has to be safe. And so to me it’s really clear that housing is climate action. It’s really clear that creating walkable bikeable networks, like actually not just in lip service mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that is climate action. And, and it all has to work together because everyone knows that public transportation doesn’t work if you don’t have enough people in proximity to use it. It doesn’t work if the public bus is stuck behind a few dozen private automobiles on the public street. There’s these things when you campaign, you get to connect these things and people are receptive cuz the people who are showing up are at least interested. So even if they hate the message, at least they hear it.
Andrea Learned (07:06):
If we look at some of what say Livable Communities initiative or anybody that’s sort of forwarding beautiful streets, they’re doing a lot of sharing. This is a yucky before picture of some huge avenue. Right. And then this is a gorgeous Paris Street or Amsterdam Street or whatever. So what have you found politically starts to make this idea palatable for people that are resistant?
Alex Fisch (07:27):
I think that’s exactly it. Um, you know, there the, the Livable Communities Initiative has a lot of people who are professional storytellers as you point out. And they know what captures people’s imaginations. And so that eye candy goes a long way. <laugh>, you know, there’s a tradition in, in sort of urbanist, uh, advocacy of showing the Amsterdam or Paris because they work so well. You know, we all know that I think lately there’s been more self-consciousness about showing more of the world because a lot of cities, north American cities are uniquely dysfunctional.
Andrea Learned (07:56):
Alex Fisch (07:58):
So, and so it shows me other parts of the world has been a trend. But what I think that the folks at Livable Community Initiative does really well in that I wish I, what I think what I try to to do myself is to appeal to people’s American sensibilities and show buildings, you know, a street that makes sense, that’s familiar to people. It’s a twist. It doesn’t exist at this moment, but it’s easy to imagine a Culver city that looks with some art deco four story buildings lining at Treeline Street. That’s very easy to imagine for someone who lives in Culver City. That’s what I think is most effective is, is kind of reflecting back a better community that people already know.
Andrea Learned (08:33):
The other thing that I’m always trying to get loud about is why do you think you wanna go to Europe to travel, right? <laugh> and then, and then you come home wherever you live, you know, Culver City or Seattle or wherever you come home and you’re like, well I guess I gotta get in my SUV and drive my kid to school two miles away and whatever.
Alex Fisch (08:50):
It’s easy to get excited about LCI because it makes such a explicit connection between the transportation, environmental justice and housing. Because as it’s become clear that people who are opposed to housing are not gonna win this fight, it’s just not legislatively possible. The temptation has been to say stick it all on the corridors. You know, stick it away from me. But of course there’s an injustice. If your affordable housing program is inclusionary zoning and the only new, big projects are gonna be those things on traffic, sewer corridors, four lanes of exhaust and tire dust and break dust, you’re basically saying that every single person who lives in a subsidized home in your community has to live in the least environmentally safe place. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I what I love about what they, the, the streets that they’re showing is that they’re much more just streets and they’re also streets that support the public transportation and active transportation that we know we have to build over the next 10 or so years.
Andrea Learned (09:42):
What Alex is saying is incredible. One thing that I’ve taken from this process is just to remind people that when you’re talking about affordable housing, you’re talking about near job. When I was first getting more familiar with the situation in Los Angeles and Culver City, which is a studio town, a light bulb went off and I was like, oh my gosh. There are these people that work at the studios, they have to drive in an hour plus from where they can afford to buy a house or rent an apartment. And then they get there and then they have late days and then they have to drive an hour plus home. These types of jobs are done by all sorts of people, lower income jobs, everyone. And everyone’s just like, well I work downtown and I live an hour way as if it’s this common thing. And it is, the thing to note here is we are literally referring to people living near where they work. Like in the olden days, near job is a concept we can’t even imagine now.
Alex Fisch (10:35):
It’s so essential. It’s such a great shorthand and, and I guess part of it is because it was part of my logic when we bought this house. I chose Culver City even though it wasn’t as trendy, I guess, and or nearly as expensive as it is now because it’s centrally located. And I knew, you know, if I’m gonna live a whole life in this basin, there’s probably over a million jobs within a 30 minute commute for me.
Andrea Learned (10:56):
That’s really interesting that point also that you were thinking that far in advance. The, the title of this podcast is Living Change a Quest for Climate Leadership. And I think that you started to live change at various points of your life. You’re making these decisions, you know, and that that was a real distinct decision I think, and whether or not you knew it was gonna be climate influence. Right. Which it ends up really being. I think that’s kudos to you and that’s super fun. Um, the thing that kills me is that 2028 Olympics will be here before we know it. So I asked Alex about the importance of that dot connecting between his Culver City work and this approach that we’ve been talking about. This combination of affordable housing, transportation and social justice.
Alex Fisch (11:35):
You know, we were thinking about knowing that sort of buses are the only hope. We’re not gonna spend a trillion dollars and build a bunch of subways in Los Angeles anytime soon. And the, and cars, whether they drive themselves or or not, <laugh>, there’s a basic geometry problem if there’s just not enough space if everybody drives. And so we opened up a project called Move Culver City, city that is, you know, it’s a bus only lane. Sometimes it shares the space with a bike lane because there’s not enough space to have both. Other times there’s a totally separated bike lane. We’ve used the separation of the cars from the sidewalks to expand outdoor dining. So it’s a much better out, um, dining experience in our downtown area with a lot more space for restaurants to turn tables. Uh, we knew that someday somebody had to do this and we piloted it during Covid 19.
During that time there had already been advocacy work about bus and only lanes. But as Metro and the LA 2028 Olympic planning started to think about, well what are we gonna do <laugh> to move millions of people during the, the Olympic Games? The answer was zero car infrastructure and it’s a series of bus, you know, rapid transit lanes and, and other sort of active transportation connections. So really we lucked into creating the first building block of what will hopefully be a transformative regional transportation system. And which Metro has said is intended to be a legacy after the Olympics.
Andrea Learned (12:53):
What a great legacy. So I have to ask, because one of your favorite modes of transportation is riding your e-bike, which I know from Twitter. Did you ride it today?
Alex Fisch (13:03):
<laugh>? Yes. I dropped off the kids, um, took my daughter on the bike and my son pedaled
Andrea Learned (13:08):
Bigger kids, these aren’t little kids.
Alex Fisch (13:10):
My daughter’s 13, my son’s 10. Oh
Andrea Learned (13:12):
Alex Fisch (13:12):
Can take, you know, they’re too big to go together, which is why my son rode. And it’s funny, this this I’d been, that was one of my few regular car trips was the drop off cuz they’re at um, a school that’s actually across town. It’s not the neighborhood school cause it’s a language immersion school. And we just didn’t ride. And then, uh, just two weeks ago I went out to start my car and my battery was dead <laugh>. And it was one of those moments, yeah, it was one of those moments of like, okay, I can call an Uber and they’re gonna be late or we can get on the bikes and sit,
Andrea Learned (13:40):
Ah, I always think that’s interesting to hear other people’s biking is the better choice moment. So what is the reason you ride your bike?
Alex Fisch (13:47):
I think it was mostly because I worked so much, that was my one chance to get exercise, but also I started to think about a different lifestyle. I think it was all sort of happening at some level because once I started working downtown Los Angeles doing work that is directly advancing climate action in a cleaner environment, then it just kind of all happened, you know, the damn broke. Because at that point I had more time to see what was going on here in Culver City, a place that I really love. And I started going to city council meetings and I was astonished that the things I had been reading about, I just assumed that it was really difficult that people were afraid of the politics. And so bike lanes weren’t happening, affordable housing wasn’t getting funded. And then I started going to meetings and nope, there was just no leadership on these issues. There were, or not enough. I don’t want to trash anybody, but at that time the idea of affordable housing was taboo. Like it was bad, you know, complete 180 today. But, um, so I was as I was quite shocked and I started to get involved with our local politics and helped a couple people with their elections and saw how easy it is to make an impact at the local level.
Andrea Learned (14:47):
Now I wanna go back to bike riding for a second. Constituents and peers. See Alex pedaling his talk every day by writing an e-bike himself. He’s modeling what is possible for a Culver city that wants to move towards being a more livable community.
Alex Fisch (15:02):
I always point out that I am a driver too, and, and everyone is a pedestrian. Um, but there’s really no question that people, whether they are themselves, people who like to ride a bicycle for their daily needs or not, there’s a lot more oomph when they see me out and about. I definitely know what I’m talking about when I express frustration and anger at a close pass, you know, <laugh> Yes. Or the, the frustration and anger over my children not having a safe route to school. So I think it helps, it, it adds legitimacy and authenticity, which I think is really important in politics. It also, there’s a joke that you’ve probably seen that everybody who rides an e cargo bike becomes an unpaid participant in a multi-level marketing scheme to sell ecar bikes. Oh, <laugh> <laugh>. Because it’s so obviously awesome, you know, it’s like it’s, I can carry a week’s worth of groceries on there for four people. I can carry a kid, I can carry an adult all without breaking a sweat and I can do it in a suit with a big smile on my face. And, and I do. Five years ago again, there were zero e cargo bikes at drop off and pick up at the school. And now they’re adding more bike racks because there are too many children’s bikes for the existing bike rack. It’s
Andrea Learned (16:10):
Really relatable and authentic and I think that, that you are really building trust, resilient trust there with your constituents.
Alex Fisch (16:16):
Yeah. If there’s a, if there’s a type of change that the population wants to see, having an elected official who’s living that change is so critical.
Andrea Learned (16:25):
Yes, yes. Exclamation mark. Being an official who is living that change is so critical. That’s why we called the podcast Living Change. There’s a connection between living that change, amplifying it on social media and ultimately the climate influence You can have, take Twitter for example, which we’ve discussed a little bit. I wanted to know how Alex first got on and why
Alex Fisch (16:50):
As I was getting ready to run for office, I thought I better use every bit of social media that I can. And Twitter just very naturally was a good place to tweet about urbanism and start to connect with other people who were thinking about it critically thinking about it, traditionally thinking about it in new ways. And it’s, it’s the education. There’s tremendous amount of education where if you curate carefully, you can receive on Twitter and start to really participate in the discussion. And what I realize when you get to a certain account size and it, the algorithm starts to screen out people who are just creating problems on the platform and it starts to really promote people who are offering something really excellent content. And so once you sort of hit that point, you realize that you’ve got this direct connection to policy makers, journalists and people who influence public opinion and actually make decisions.
And so I have watched these things that have turned into legislation or changes of the public’s mood. I’ve watched them happen in real time as you kind of see an idea, get promulgated, criticized, adapted, until you really start to have this collective input on important societal issues. People have argued about it for two years and by the time that process is done, you have legislation in Sacramento or you have a group of people in the city who come to you and say, Hey, we think we need more housing. Have you considered that? It’s like great
Andrea Learned (18:17):
Idea. Well, I mean, haven’t we just seen that? Because I participated a little bit in amplifying, uh, tweets around AB 2097. So tell me a little more about that and if you thought that that kind of conversation on Twitter may have nudged what was happening with that and, and why the governor did sign
Alex Fisch (18:36):
It. So AB 2097 eliminated the ability for cities to require to mandate parking within a half-mile transit. And as people started to talk about what are the problems in cities and there’s these little communities that form and oh my gosh, have you ever considered how much the cost this adds and how much it ruins the, the architecture of a building. You know, all of a sudden you’ve got this popular movement to illuminate parking minimums, which was unimaginable even five years ago. Unimaginable.
Andrea Learned (19:03):
It’s so powerful.
Alex Fisch (19:04):
It really is. And it doesn’t take a ton of time. It’s not like, I think, I think some social media people really wanna monitor like the gossip or what people are saying about people and Twitter just for whatever reason. And, and LinkedIn as well. LinkedIn is a place where I’m a lot quieter, but I still learn a ton because people put in their long form efforts
Andrea Learned (19:21):
Because I was observing that. I saw that several LA Metropolitan City council members, you know, some of in Santa Monica and wherever, several other places where you guys were all supporting one another on Twitter. And even as several of you are up for election or reelection, I’m watching you support each other, right. And use those channels. Oh my goodness, that never could happen. That never, the fluidity of that and the wonderful kind of warm vibe that that gives off is incredible.
Alex Fisch (19:48):
So your point about supporting people regionally and, and knowing what’s going on regionally, it’s allowing a little bit of a political movement to happen, which is, you know, one based on actual genuine municipal climate action and, and a mindset that’s about abundance and making sure that we are taking actions so that there’s enough for everybody. So yeah, I don’t think that that would be happening, you know, how would I get together with people in West Hollywood and Santa Monica and talk about what they’re doing in any other way. Instead I can just kind of keep a, keep an eye on them and say, that’s a great idea. I’m gonna tweak that and use it here.
Andrea Learned (20:23):
Throughout Alex’s career, it seems like he’s always had that mindset of abundance and has understood the importance of community with his peers. All of that combines to build political capital that he then leverages to make positive change. I asked him how he evaluates his impact.
Alex Fisch (20:40):
Oh, that’s a great question. Um, and I sure hope it’s right <laugh> because it’s, it’s sort of would be consistent with my political philosophy, which is that you have to know where North is. You know, you have to go have a good compass. I have a set of goals and, and for publicly, um, I’ve done a tremendous amount on my public goals, you know, which is to expand the capacity of Culver City’s government to put the government in a position to do more for people, to make public space more democratic, more accessible, and to really, really start to take action on climate. Cuz we know the things that cities are supposed to do and not enough people are doing ’em. So I think that I have had a pretty good impact in Culver City and and beyond, I hope. And some of the stuff is not gonna be, it’s not gonna be possible to roll back because people aren’t gonna want to go back. So I I I, it’s been a busy four years and I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done.
Andrea Learned (21:30):
I love that the idea that you people aren’t gonna wanna roll back because it’s already evident that they kinda like what’s happening there. Oh, I
Alex Fisch (21:38):
Love that. Not everything is like that, right? Like if this stuff was easy, if the climate things that needed to happen were popular and easy at the front end, they would’ve been done. Cuz who doesn’t like to do something popular? <laugh>. So,
Andrea Learned (21:49):
But it’s so interesting. You just put these things into place or you may, you know, you change a couple blocks with bike lanes or whatever, and then you have to be kind of bold to do that. And I, I think as we know, people in the community are gonna be like, oh, that is kind of like, it’s just, you have to trust that that’s gonna happen.
Alex Fisch (22:08):
It’s not immediately obvious to a lot of people why having a bus lane that doesn’t have a very frequent bus in it is a good thing five years from now when there’s a bus every, you don’t have to look at a schedule, you just know you’re gonna get picked up
Andrea Learned (22:19):
By the bus. Hallelujah. Yeah,
Alex Fisch (22:20):
Yeah. And taken all the way across town in 30 minutes instead of an hour and a half and not have to pay for parking. That’s gonna be, I don’t need to sell that. That’s gonna sell itself, you know, and it’s gonna, it’s gonna come.
Andrea Learned (22:31):
Well it’s interesting that you say that because I, because I ride my bike so much, I, and I, I have a car, same, like I, that’s another, everyone thinks that if you ride your bike and you’re kind of militant about it on Twitter, you don’t have a car. I think a lot of us have a car, I just drive it very little. But when Seattle started to have the rapid transit, the b r t roots, I was suddenly like, oh, okay now, right? So I would like bike to where that was going. And it’s to your point, it’s exactly because it’s running every 10 minutes. If it’s a schedule that I have to follow and it’s every 20 minutes and this and that and the other thing, I’m not as inclined, but you better believe, I’m super psyched that they figured out at least however many north south roots they’ve got that do that. It changed me into being more of a bus rider, whereas I don’t, you know, I may have ridden a bike or whatever. So figuring out how to hold them from when it’s pokey and doesn’t come very often to like, trust me, <laugh>, you’re gonna really like this when they’re every 10 minutes. So that’s great.
Alex Fisch (23:30):
Yeah, and there’s a, there is a real change happening. Politicians at every level of government, people are stepping up big time and actually taking some real political risks and they’re succeeding because it’s time, it’s time. You know, we’re very fortunate that Congress and the president managed to get something done at the federal level on the climate. We, we all are very, very fortunate. It’s a wonderful inflection point. A lot of investments to leverage those investments, um, are gonna need people to champion them. It’s one thing to get the legislation done, uh, you know, we didn’t really touch on this, but Twitter is also good for the implementation. You, you need people who are gonna show up to those regional meetings to obscure government bodies that are gonna decide how transportation do dollars are doled out and there is no more time for highway expansions. And so we, we need people who care to do the thankless work of hounding their legislators and saying, I want the bus lane, I want the bike infrastructure, I want the water, the storm water capture and retention. Like all these things that we know need to be done. It’s just a wonderful time for people who wanna make a difference but don’t necessarily wanna be in an elected office.
Andrea Learned (24:38):
So why is it worth it to step into bold, progressive change the way you have? It’s
Alex Fisch (24:43):
Very rewarding, I think not just in the personal lived benefits, but the climate needs us <laugh> it’s civilization. The planet doesn’t care. The climate doesn’t care like civilization. My children, my children, they need me to do something. And the beginning I would say, oh, I’m doing this for my kids. And when the personal costs and the family costs of, of politics really register, I’m not doing it for them anymore, but I am doing it so that I can face them. Knowing that you’re acting on something that is valuable. There’s gonna be heroes and villains to the climate story and to the housing affordability story and homelessness. And I know which side I want to be on. And there are definitely psychic rewards from feeling like you’re doing good work.
Andrea Learned (25:30):
Thank you to Alex Fisch for the inspiring conversation. I love what he said about the importance of taking a stand, even when it seems unpopular to have the vision, the foresight, and the patience to say, we need more bike lanes here, we need more frequent bus routes, or we need to prioritize bus routes. The car will not be dominant forever. Trust the process. Trust that people will appreciate this and think of it as a system that is being built. It’s a system that takes time and investment to build. And we need brave politicians to put their stake in the ground to defend livable communities. And the idea of investing the time, resources, and energy to make it happen. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me, I’d love to help. Find me at www.learniton.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn Living Change is produced by large media. That’s L A RJ Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joelle, Jeff, Nick, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.
John Richards/Life On Mars
John Richards (00:00):
This was not built just for vegans. This, this was very much my intention. And I think it’s, I think it’s wrong to go in it to it that way. I don’t think shaming the non-vegan and shaming meat eaters is the way to go. And unfortunately, uh, I experience that with vegans all the time, and it really is, is a bummer. And that’s why people shy away from opening vegan places, to be honest with you. And so what we need to do is normalize it. Then when I go to Portland, when I’ve been to New York and I’ve gone to London, it just is, I don’t know how else to say it. Like they just are plant-based.
Andrea Learned (00:38):
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Today I’m speaking with globally recognized KEXP DJ and the longtime beloved host of the morning show. John Richards at his plant-based bar in the heart of Capitol Hill in Seattle, life on Mars.
John Richards (01:11):
I’m probably standing in the room area. That probably I’m most proud of. Yes, because, uh, when we decided to build this place, I wanted to have a living room or like a basement where people collect vinyl and hang out. And so to have a space large enough to be able to achieve, that’s been awesome. So
Andrea Learned (01:26):
We catch up with John in what he calls the vinyl living room, an area of the bar that really does feel like you’re in. Someone’s extremely cool living room. One wall has nearly 6,000 records floor to ceiling, and another has a giant mural, by the way. Cool in it. A David Bowie like spaceman floats over a classic Washington mountain landscape with translucent color spots. I found it sort of trippy and stunning, but I’m not qualified to talk about art. You just need to see it for yourself.
John Richards (01:54):
It was funny, when we did our mural here, we felt like we needed this mural for some, we needed like a thing that everyone’s eyes were drawn to whatever. We never thought that it would be the giant 6,000 record wall to my left <laugh>. But this sort of draws everybody in from outside. Yeah. I mean, I would think
Andrea Learned (02:11):
They walk by and they’re
John Richards (02:12):
Like, yeah. One of my favorite things is to sit here in the, in the room and, and, and look out the window and you see people who’ve never, you know, been in here walk by and stop and point and you know, they’re coming in at some point. <laugh> at some point we’ll break them down.
Andrea Learned (02:25):
Yeah. John gives us a quick tour of life on Mars from the disco bathroom with its own sound system. Yeah, you heard that, right?
John Richards (02:33):
So we installed a disco ball, the lighting disco’s, usually playing, you know, the entire day
Andrea Learned (02:38):
To the two record players at the front. Something I’ve never seen at another bar.
John Richards (02:43):
These are two Technics that we, uh, installed at the front of the bar. So right when you walk in, it tells you what we’re about and then that this is serious <laugh>. Yeah. And so yeah, we are about music if you didn’t know that we are. And so what happens if people come in and they can pick records from the, the wall and we play album sides instead of playing a jukebox or playing our own mix. Um, we just make sure you can only pick good records. And that’s, in our opinion, all we have in that wall. So, um, there is a cutoff like around six, seven every night we cut off to a mix that I put together because it’s just too busy. And so it’s a nice mix of both, Hey, here, pick some vinyl. And then later it’s a mix that I’ve created, um, for the bar, but I’m really proud of this just because we weren’t sure how to like hand over control to people and we ended up handing over control to people. So yeah,
John Richards (03:33):
In a smart
Andrea Learned (03:34):
…the food isn’t the only aspect of the bar that’s vegan. Every element of the bar’s design and materials are plant-based.
John Richards (03:42):
I’ve been vegan for half my life since, uh, January 1st, 2000. And so we were never gonna open a place where it was served animals or served dairy or any way exploited animals or, or any life be taken. It seems silly when you say it like that. Yes. So everything we did had that in mind when we designed the bar and we designed the menu and we designed, um, the drinks, more drinks than, you know, uh, actually have that because of the, a lot of the tubing they run through, oh, we’ve got some animals and things like that. So, and then other beers especially. Mm-hmm. Um, and some liquors as well. So we go through that with uh, you know, meticulously making sure that you just know that you can come in here and know that nothing was harmed during that. And the design was the same. You know, the whole, the materials using the booths, the everything. We didn’t want to, you know, it’s hard. You see why people cut corners or, um, don’t make that effort because it’s just easier. And, and to be honest, it’s more expensive. Doesn’t make any sense to me why it’s more expensive. But it is
Andrea Learned (04:45):
The intentionality with which John and his wife Amy built this restaurant. Living their change and living their values is so inspiring to me. I love that. Although the restaurant is plant-based, the vibe of the bar is fun, funky and inclusive. It’s a restaurant that just is plant-based and invites you to make that choice even for one meal.
John Richards (05:05):
That’s the whole idea here is this was not built just for vegans. This, this was very much my intention. And I think it’s, I think it’s wrong to go in it to it that way. I don’t think shaming the non-vegan and shaming meat eaters is the way to go. And unfortunately, uh, I experience that with vegans all the time and it really is, is a bummer. And that’s why people shy away from opening vegan places, to be honest with you. And so what we need to do is normalize it. Then when I go to Portland, when I’ve been to New York and I’ve gone to London, um, uh, even Amsterdam recently, uh, um, there’s been, it’s just, it’s just, it just is. I don’t know how else to say it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like they just are plant-based. And so I wanted this place to be plant-based and some people have come in here and accused me of tricking them cuz the food’s so good. And I’m like, great, I’m glad I tricked you, but this
Andrea Learned (05:50):
Is what I wanna say. So when you look at this place online or you walk up to it, it, there’s no neon sign saying plant-based vegan, et cetera. No. And this is that point that
John Richards (06:00):
You’re making. Yeah. We’re proud of it. And, and I put plant based on everything. Cause I think vegan scares people away. And I think, unfortunately, to be honest with you, even our, our biggest critics will be vegans and not meat eaters.
John Richards (06:13):
I mean just, it’s shocking. Yeah. It actually shocked me and I understand now. Yeah. As a vegan, why people, I get resistance whenever they just assume I’m going to shame them and I’m going to make them feel bad and I’m going to tell ’em I’m better than them. Or they just know maybe. Right. Maybe they know somewhere in their heart that eating animals and dairy is hurting the earth and hurting themselves and they don’t wanna hear us, they don’t wanna hear about it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So if you say you’re vegan, you immediately are projecting that on them. And I didn’t want that. I don’t want that. Every time you come in here, every time you’re having a plant-based meal, and then that means you weren’t having a meat dairy-based meal every time. And if you can come in here and see you can have a great bar meal like, and drinks and they’re vegan, it might open the door to you to think like, oh, I guess I could be.
Cuz I hear a lot of people like, well I can’t have anything vegan. I’m like, dude, have you had a salad? Do you have french fries? <laugh>, like potato chips? Like Right, right. Those are actually in many cases, vegan friends, you know, so, I mean, this is how it should be. You should just be matter of fact about it. That’s just what we are. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, I don’t have to be Thai to enjoy Thai food. You don’t have to be vegan, enjoy vegan food. I think food is just delicious. And if we can get people in a bar setting, especially where you have come in disarmed, you know, you’re just, you know, coming in for a drink. Yeah. Have some food. You have it. And in, and in many cases, absolutely no idea that it was plant-based is super cool. In my book…
Andrea Learned (07:32):
John’s Point here is bigger than just his experience. It’s something I’ve witnessed in my food systems related climate work too. I’ve seen this disconnect about how we get people to consider transitioning away from eating food produced through animal agriculture. There’s this infighting about which words to use and purity to us about who is in or out of the truly vegan club. If it’s visible from outer space that even the masses of people who don’t eat meat, dairy or eggs already can’t get along or agree. How can we persuasively convince other people to steer in that direction? For me the key is messaging and allowance for the journey. The journey is more than just, okay, it’s key to lasting change.
People are coming to visit Seattle. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and people who listen to you all over are coming and going. I want to check out John’s bar and coming here. So the influence that you have because of the platform is incredible. I just, it’s interesting to me. You are really influencing people globally on this front.
John Richards (08:31):
Well, I’ve learned in Seattle that people make a trip to here, they’re starting to associate it with Seattle, you know, KEXP is a location, Life on Mars is a location. The Pike Place market is a location. And so they have that on the list. And, and I’ve heard from people that like, I want to come to your bar and I’m gonna try vegan food. You know, like they have any Oh my gosh. And so when you hear that, you’re like, that’s great. Oh my gosh. Good for you. You know. Gosh. And, and it, for me it becomes like the Paul McCartney meatless Monday thing. Yes. It’s like when you come here, you’re gonna visit from that place and then you’re gonna take a chance on a meal. So what’s gonna happen when they go back, they may seek out the vegan place in their neighborhood, in their city, and then they may go down that path where they’ve seen a part of their town they haven’t seen.
If you’re visiting Seattle, let’s say you’re on a cruise ship or you’re, you came in from the airport or you’re staying downtown, yeah. You’re gonna stick to heaven forbid <laugh>. Yeah. You’re gonna stick to the same, no offense to Seattle. Some pretty kind of boring, stale areas that that, that are made for tourists. And I know this cuz when I travel I try to get out of those areas. Cuz cuz it’s it, you’re not seeing the actual city. Well what happens when you come up Pike here and you come up pine next door and you hit this qu this is where you see Seattle. Yeah. Like as much change as there’s been, this is still the heart and soul of the city. Um, or you go to West Seattle where I live and it’s, you know, the heart and soul of that area is amazing, you know, and, um, it takes the traveling a little and getting you to come somewhere. So if my platform can get you to come visit the, you know, music bar with vinyl that you’ve heard so much about that is named after David Bowie song, well then I’ve done something. Right. Cuz you’ve seen our city and you’ve tried vegan food mm-hmm. <affirmative> and hopefully, you know, you had a good memory. I I’ve run into so many people in this bar that, that have come from other cities. It’s amazing. Everywhere. Every almost every time I’m in here, I learn. People have traveled here just to come to this bar.
Andrea Learned (10:11):
I wanted to hear more about John’s journey to veganism.
John Richards (10:24):
I had been leaning towards that for quite some time. You know, I was in my twenties and I had dated someone who was a vegetarian. And so I had been in that world and it, it was not a great world then. You know, there was like, just, you know, there’s no sprouts in this bar by the way. No sprouts. Oh. Oh, okay. Because every goddamn vegetarian place I went to, it was just sprouts and dry bread. Right. And the worst sandwiches you’ve ever had, like that was it. I was like, I can’t do this. And then, you know what’s funny? You can eat really badly as a vegan, like really badly. Yes. And people say that to me, I don’t know why, like, well, you can be unhealthy. I’m like, yeah, you can. Absolutely. I, you know, I could go eat baked goods all day long, you know, like Flying Aprin, my, one of my favorite places on earth Yeah.
Is vegan. I could eat there all day and make, so I had just, I’m very <inaudible> sports lot athletics. Um, I’m from a family of, uh, smokers, alcoholics, overeaters, all who most died before they were 60 or at 60. Um, none of them were runners or vegans or anything getting close to where, what I’m doing. And so I didn’t wanna be like them. So I’ve been trying to do the opposite of them from the get-go. And so more and more I started thinking I didn’t, it seemed wrong to eat animals. Like just seemed wrong to hurt an animal if you didn’t have to. Like, why would I do that if there’s alternatives? And so actually I became vegan, right? I guess not in 2000, but vegetarian. I was at my brother’s on New Year’s Eve and Millennium, you know, we’re all freaked out about 1999. Yes. I’m like, well if we all live, my computers flip seems so stupid now.
Andrea Learned (11:55):
John Richards (11:56):
I’m just gonna, I think I’m gonna try giving up meat and I’m gonna be done with it. And I’m someone, if I commit to something, I’m pretty committed. But yeah, we had a steak that night and luckily it was super, like rare, medium rare, just pink. Oh. And I ate about half of it. I was like, this is a way to go out. Yeah. <laugh>, I’m done. This is awful. And then, uh, a little down the road a little while later. So I was barely doing any dairy and Amy and I, she had had some health issues and, um, some serious health issues. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and giving up dairy in particular. She already was vegetarian, but giving up dairy was high on that list. And we were on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere. We made that decision to give dairy. So what we did is we went and found, you’re on a, you’re still on a cruise ship Right. <laugh> that they took over and we said, we went and found the like most like disgustingly rich dairy, like, I dunno, like a Sunday cake Sunday we put ice cream on it, just piled it with dairy and just ate as much as we could to
John Richards (12:55):
John Richards (12:55):
Moment. Yeah. To be like, let’s remind ourselves why we want to give this up. I don’t know why. This was our thinking like we’re go out with a bang, I’m not sure which I’m sure we didn’t finish it. Well
Andrea Learned (13:03):
It is akin to the big rare steak kind.
John Richards (13:05):
Oh yeah. So each time it happened, I got like, it was, it was awful. Yeah. I felt so bad and it made it very easy. And I’ll tell you what, the next day, you know, how you make commitments though. The next day we had to go through the Miami airport, which is the worst airport, um, on many levels. But there was nothing, there was nothing we could eat. And we started to go like, well, I guess we could start tomorrow. And I said, look, if we can make it through the Miami Airport and stay vegan and not have to compromise here. And sometimes you do and you don’t even know you’ve compromised. I’m not, I’m not so strict that I would beat myself up when that happens.
Andrea Learned (13:36):
I’m the same.
John Richards (13:36):
I think, I think that’s a really bad, I hate to label, right? Yep. But we made it through that airport and we managed to find enough food and we decided from then on we’re gonna plan better and be vegan. And so yeah, we went out with a bang and Amy’s health improved greatly. You know, it’s not for everyone, but I think if you’re having inflammatory issues, if you’re having all, you know, health issues, it’s something to, to look at dairy in particular is something to look at. My son was that way. He, he has a gluten intolerance. But once we took dairy out of his, uh, diet, um, and he went vegan, his health improved greatly. So it’s just, for him that was, again, it was a life. It just changed his life. Well
Andrea Learned (14:13):
It’s interesting because I see the same thing. I’m like, if you, if you try it, if you go without dairy, literally I feel like for like a week you’re gonna see a difference. But two, the point of all of this is you, each of these things, if you go plant-based, then you stop eating dairy, all these things happen. You, the story tells itself to you via your body. Yeah.
John Richards (14:32):
Yeah. And, and you, you have to give yourself that chance. I have a, uh, my buddy Gary, he’s in the music industry. He’s, he’s always been sort of a mentor to me. And, and he sat with me once and said, John, I I, he came up, visited from California. He goes, I, you know, I’m really trying to be vegan. I I, but I, I gotta ask your advice here. I’m like, huh. He goes, I just love pizza. And so I don’t know what to do. And I, I said, then eat pizza. But that you don’t have, you didn’t, we don’t get a card. You’re not in a club. You didn’t fail. Right. If you’re doing everything but pizza, yeah, you’re good, man. Yeah. Like, think of the moderation you’ve just achieved. But I bet because you still eat pizza, you’re still eating meat and dairy and stuff because you’re like, well I’m not a vegan.
And I said, yeah, I am. I said, well, what if you just gave up that like you wanted to and allowed yourself this pizza. Now I didn’t tell him the secret information here is that in about three to six months you’re gonna be like, I can’t eat this pizza. Yeah. That’s the secret. So I didn’t tell him that, that he’s gonna get, then he’s gonna eat that dairy and be like, oh my. And just straight bread, by the way, this is like, I’m gonna get sick. But at the time I remember thinking, I have to remember this, these labels that we give each other that he couldn’t just be a moderate, you know, cuz you know, vegans are, say he is not a real or whatever, you know, or his friends are gonna look at him funny, you know, oh, I thought you were vegan and you’re eating the, you know, I just, you know what, 95% of my diet now is plant-based. Yeah. Great man. Because it was 50% before. Yeah. Imagine if everyone went to 50%. And so
Andrea Learned (15:49):
The motivation, it’s self perpetuating.
Speaker 3 (15:50):
That’s yeah’s my thing. People are always like, I don’t know if I could do it. And I’m like, if you do it for like a week, your body will go, what did you just put in here?
John Richards (15:56):
Yeah. Yeah. I’ve trusted the whole idea of the bar. And the whole idea with us is, um, just choose meals. Try not to make it the main thing in your meal. Yeah. Like, just try and just see. Because for me, I had to, if you’re okay, if you’re, if you’re a plant-based diet, you have to cook, you have no choice in this situation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because I didn’t cook before and now I had to cook and I’ve got, and they said, well, what do you eat? I’m like, I eat so many more things I didn’t eat before. I’m so more creative. You know, I read Scott Zurich’s book. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, he’s the ultramarathon or a vegan. I cannot recommend it enough. It had, it had, um, menus in it. And Amy was telling me, you know, when you really started cooking, I said, when he said I was pregnant with our youngest son, and you knew I was outta commission, so you’d be cooking all the time instead once in a while.
Yeah. And you’re reading that book and he has recipes in the book. She says he made like every mess recipe, like to this day you make that chili like interest from this book. And so just because I was reading it for inspiration, he’s a runner. I’m a runner. He’s vegan. I’m vegan. So for me, you know, if you want to learn more about your food and your body and, and be better about how you spend your money on food mm-hmm. <affirmative> and like, you know, and try to control what comes into your body, then if you have a plant-based diet, I think you’re gonna be a little more selective, which is good.
Andrea Learned (17:02):
John makes a great point. I tell people all the time how when I first went plant-based, it was self-perpetuating because I felt so much better almost within days. So then I wanted to experiment more with cooking and keep learning. I asked John about how his behavior changes have evolved and how it impacts his family and their lifestyles.
John Richards (17:23):
I moved to West Seattle. I used to bike my regular bike to the radio station every morning. I could. As in Greenwood, it’s, it’s just a few miles. You know, it’s a, it’s a haul, but it was like a haul like leaving at that hour because it was scarier to ride home in the daytime. Yeah, I agree. To be honest, morning was being a biker. I know. <laugh>. Yeah. Morning was like, it was dark. People could see me coming. Beautiful. You know, and, and it, and later it’s buses and cars that are mad at you and, and yeah, <laugh>. Um, but I moved to West Seattle, so that was off the table, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Okay. So I’m driving to work now. Uh, one day Megan Jasper from SubPop CEO of SubPop was riding with her husband Brian in these e-bikes down the street just with the, with just the stupidest smiles you’ve ever seen. And I was like, what is that? I didn’t know what it was. I was like, shot. I didn’t know she was get on this thing. I got on and wrote it around the neighborhood. And the next thing you know, I reached out to Rad Bikes and, and, and one,
John Richards (18:10):
One thing led
John Richards (18:11):
To another. Yeah. Now I have a cargo bike that, um, that I ride. And, and the first six months I put 200 miles on it. And these 200 miles, I only rode it two places. I rode it to the park with my son and I, I didn’t, I’m, I, 95% of the time I write it, my son’s on the back. Right. And the other was to pick him up from school and back.
Andrea Learned (18:31):
So it was really two very specific things that were transportation that you kind of felt you could do safely.
John Richards (18:37):
Safely. I kinda wanna make that felt safe. Yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Because these roads were side roads mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And the first day I rode my bike to pick him up, I’m like, well, I’m gonna pick ’em up. I was just saying like, how am I gonna use this bike? Who? And West Seattle’s made of hills. It was west. Seattle’s just hills. So I picked him up and I looked, and it’s one of those moments where you look and they’re, and I’m one of these people, I was 25 cars, idling, idling half lived within a few miles of the school. And I was doing this too. So I’m not shaming anyone, but I just looked at it like, this is crazy. This is crazy. Talk. Like, what are we doing? And they would sit and you’re looking at the cars idling and exhaust going up, and I roll on my bike and
Andrea Learned (19:14):
You roll up.
John Richards (19:15):
And I just pull it up. I’m like, Hey dude. And he gets out and he puts a helmet on and the kids are looking at him, you know, and you’re home like a half hour early. I was out and these people are still in line. And not only did I cut the line, but I cut the emissions and I just rode two, two miles that I wasn’t gonna ride. And then again, you add that up in six months, looking at that thing, that’s 200 miles. I mean that was an eyeopener.
Andrea Learned (19:36):
That’s an eyeopener. And then what happens is you start to squeak it out, right? Yeah. I need something from the drugstore or whatever. Yeah. Yeah. And then you look at your e-bike thing and go, oh my goodness, I’ve ridden this much.
John Richards (19:44):
It’s, it’s a, it it it is, it’s a tool. I cannot, I cannot recommend those enough to people. Like I cannot, uh, I they, for someone who gave up bike riding, really because of where he moved, because he has kids. So of course I can’t ride with my nine. Of course I can. Right, right, right. And, but on my back of my e-bike, he’s, he’s, he totally fits on there. And, and I can ride on roads where I’m not gonna get hit by a car most likely. And we can go down to Lincoln Park, we go down to the junction, we can go to a school. And these are all places I probably wouldn’t have gone to in a car. But,
Andrea Learned (20:14):
So then the other thing that you realize, and I’m even from the veganism and the bikes, is how much you’re influencing your kids. So you’ve got a child that’s in high school or you get to a point where the kids are 16 and my neighbor automatically like, oh, I can drive now I’m gonna save to buy a car. And it’s like just giving your kids the gift of eat a plant-based diet. Think about riding a bike instead of driving. Oh my gosh. Yeah. And then exponential climate influence.
John Richards (20:37):
My 18 year old, and I, I remember looking at your carbon footprint and I have kids, number one thing you can do is not have kids. Well, too late. I have kids <laugh> and, and you love it. Not drive a car. Okay. Well I have a car and I do, I do have to transport even if they’re hybrids and I, I’ll go electric in my next purchase. But, um, my 18 year old has never read meat in his life. He’s, he’s more militant about being vegan than I am. He’s not shy about it. He knows how to talk to people about it, even when they’re, because what we’ve experienced all our life is people angry at us. And again, I can’t understand it and it, I don’t understand a lot of things humans do, but that one always gets me. Um, and Arley has handled it like a champ, you know, and he’s just matter of fact about it. He’s like, Hey man, I just, I don’t want animals to die. So my kids I hope, will influence others in themselves. And at 18, you know, Arley can, he has the right, we are not, and that’s the other thing. We do not enforce this when they leave our homes. You’re not gonna find meat or dairy in our home because we don’t have any <laugh>. Right, right. But if you go out, my son is gonna go out. It is your call. It is up to you now. And he’s,
Andrea Learned (21:41):
And he’s gotta hunt it down right. As if he’s in the Miami airport.
John Richards (21:44):
Yeah. And I, and I let him know like, hey, well he could have meat, you know, and, and I just let him know like, this is going to taste, you’re gonna think it’s funny cuz it’s gonna taste is very similar. He said, well then why would I have that? I said, well, I don’t know. I said, that’s up to you though. And so he has stuck to that. And I would say probably will all of his life.
John Richards (22:00):
And the other thing is just being strategic, I think both with the bikes and the plant base, like being strategic of do I need to drive this? No, I can take a bus or a bike. And then being strategic with the thinking ahead. Yeah. If I’m gonna go to this party or I’m gonna be with these friends, let me bring a vegan bar or something
John Richards (22:15):
Something. Like with Arleigh, we, he takes the bus. He goes to school downtown. It’s a, it’s quite a commute. He doesn’t have a license yet. And I think it’s the best thing we did for him. Plus my son riding the bus is gonna give him an education he’s not gonna get anywhere else. He’s always gonna appreciate how he gets from one place to another. He won’t take for granted when he is able to drive. And he knows he has the tools to use public transportation or a bike, which I think is really important. You gotta at least introduce it to him so they know they have that.
Andrea Learned (22:40):
If you’re living change, people see your values. And that reflects in decisions that ripple outward in your family, in the community and in the environment. Suddenly one person’s impact really reverberates
John Richards (22:53):
At the top of who I am is I, I just wanna make a difference in people’s lives. I wanna make their lives better in some way. So it’s be a good human. And then what does that mean? I care about animals, I care about life. I don’t think, I think our, I think our ability to mass slaughter animals relates directly to our ability to hurt each other. Yeah. And so I feel like if we could just be kind to humans and be kind to animals and be kind to any living thing, it seems like our low bar that we can’t seem to hit, um, that this world would be a better place. So if I live that every day, maybe they can see like, that guy seems somewhat normal <laugh>. Right, right. He’s not a, he’s not totally loony and he’s a vegan.
Andrea Learned (23:35):
There are all sorts of people. I mean, my argument is always sports, music. I don’t know. There are a couple things where there’s community and you’re standing at a, you know, you guys go to a lot of professional sports. You’re standing standing in a stadium Yeah. With a bunch of people whose politics maybe you don’t agree with. That’s right. But you’re cheering it on. Same thing when I’m at shows or at KEXP events. That’s right. It’s like, I don’t, all the people could be whatever, but we’re all going. Hell yeah. Yeah. And so that solidarity and a universal love and respect. Yeah. Oh my God.
John Richards (24:02):
And be open about the things you support and then tell everyone, well, that’s okay. This is what we are. Not – you have to do it. Yes. No, but if this is, if you believe, if you, if you like us, if you follow what we do, this is how we made our decision. This is a decision. And I think we probably open people’s eyes to do that.
Andrea Learned (24:18):
The point that you made that you do this, but also you mention it or you let slip. Right. That you’re doing this Yes. And that you had a, maybe a decision change. So even telling me that, but I’ve also heard you say that on the air, you know? Yeah. You, you, you’re mapping it out. And in a way, what I think you’re doing is giving other people permission who are kind of thinking about going vegan. Yeah. Kind of thinking about to try it. Which I also feel that I do. And that is exactly what I’m talking about. You’re exactly right. I mean, it’s so fun. So this has been amazing, John. Thank you so much. Of course. Yeah. Really appreciate it. Yeah. Yeah.
Andrea Learned (24:53):
Thanks so much to John Richards for taking the time to share his story and his amazing bar with us. This conversation with John brings up so many valuable points for leaders looking for ways to lead by example. Behavior changes are self-perpetuating. You start with a meatless Monday or a simple reduction in meat consumption and you feel so good, you start to think more about animal agriculture. The why to eat this way gets a lot more interesting to dig into. Gradually maybe you make the switch from dairy and then maybe you’re ready to tackle your transportation methods. If we trust the process and expose more people to plant-based food, especially by way of highlighting leaders who are vegan or call themselves plant-based, we can shift the perceived social norm and move their peers and followers along the path. From the climate perspective. Not being militant about veganism helps more people lower their political defenses and eat new kinds of food.
So trust the process. Expose more people to amazingly fun bars like Life on Mars and plant-based food trucks, et cetera. Leverage the stories of influential people. Celebrities, yes. But for me, even more important are the folks we already point to as professional leaders. They are the surprising validators with huge influence to shape policies and expose their staff and stakeholders to a whole new way of thinking. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn Living Change is produced by Larj media. That’s L A R J Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joel, Jeff, Nick, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.
Bowinn Ma / Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, British Columbia
I often hear from folks that say, I like that you’re supporting cyclists, and I like that you’re supporting bicycling. But not everybody can use a bike to replace their car. I’m not trying to get everybody outta their car and onto a bike, but I think that a lot more people can actually use a bike more than they might. They. On top of that, the more people we can get onto bikes, the more space there is for.
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I’m interested in talking to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions. The more visible we are about these changes, the more we chart the way forward for leaders wanting to create new social norms. Today I’m speaking with British Columbia’s Minister of State for infrastructure Bowinn Ma. A few years ago, Bowinn made the transition to e-bike for her work in the legislature. That one habit shift has had huge downstream effects from becoming more accessible to her constituents to influencing her legislative strategy on mode shift to active transportation infrastructure. I wanted to know more about what the term active transportation means to her.
Let’s talk about the term active transportation. I try to use that as a way to encompass all of the different ways that we move under our own power. Um, of course I’ll talk about cycling and of course I’ll talk about bike lanes. Uh, but I feel like sometimes those who don’t regularly cycle have this misunderstanding of what it is that we are talking about when we’re talking about improving, uh, safe travel infrastructure for people who bike or people who walk or so forth. And they think that we’re talking about only providing infrastructure for this mythical, well, it’s not so mythical, but like, you know that, that that guy and the Lake Cross spandex who’s like on his $4,000 road bike
On Sundays only
On Sunday. Yeah, that’s right. Like this, the idea that it’s a very, very small percentage of the population when in fact the vast majority of us engage in some form of active transportation. Because even if you drive, you are probably walking at some point. We’re also talking about making it safer, smoother, uh, better for people who use mobility devices to travel or people who use transit. Cause most transit users are also engaged in active transportation. They are going from their home to the bus stop and they’re probably not driving from their home to the bus stop. They’re probably walking along some type of sidewalk, some type of path. And so active transportation is a phrase that I use to try to reduce that psychological barrier that people have that might prevent the, from seeing themselves on the kinda infrastructure we’re talking about.
I want to drill down on this point. The weekend Lycra cyclist is one of those frustrating stereotypes that creates the psychological barrier Bowinn is talking about here. Lots of people don’t even consider an e-bike as a viable or realistic method of transportation. They’re probably picturing this serious spandex biker and feeling intimidated. Like if you aren’t a lyra wearing long distance cyclist, you somehow lack the resources or skills to make the transition to biking local trips. I love what Bowinn’s saying here. We need to start thinking about active transportation as biking, walking and public transit. They all work together to reduce dependency on cars. Seeing leaders regularly. E-bike reflects it as a safe, reliable and fast way to get around. Living. Change in this way has massive climate influence. That’s why Bowinn’s story about transitioning to an e-bike has a potential to inspire many more urban folks.
My partner and I, we used to have two cars. Both of them were gas vehicles and both of those vehicles came to the end of life and we had to decide what we did to replace them. And we ended up purchasing with help from family because I’m a millennial and I don’t have, you know, that kind of money sitting around. So I actually took out a loan from my dad to help us purchase an electric vehicle. And then our second vehicle was an ecargo bike. And that’s actually what I use. And I often hear from folks that say, you know, I like that you’re supporting cyclists and I like that you’re supporting bicycling, but not everybody can use a bike to replace their car. And usually what my answer is, I’m not trying to get everybody outta their car and onto a bike, but I think that a lot more people can actually use a bike more than they might.
They can. And on top of that, the more people we can get onto bikes, the more space there is on the road for people who really need their vehicles. And so supporting active transportation, supporting mode shift onto bikes, e-bikes, cargo, e-bikes, it helps everyone because we’re, we’re making space on the roads. It took a little while for me to decide that I could make the transition to an e-bike instead of having my own car. Part of that is because the North shore is known for a few things. One of course is bad traffic, but the other things that it’s known for is a lot of rain and mountains. This is where the mountains are. Yeah. And so I wasn’t sure if, uh, I would be able to, you know, show up as an m l a as a, as a minister show up to a press conference ready to be in front of a camera, right?
Like I had to really think about these things, right. And a cargo bike allowed for me to, uh, I, I have a, a big box on the, on the back of my bike with a bin that I basically use as my trunk that I can carry around, you know, my spare shoes. And I figured out that I can actually cycle in business wear if I’ve got a bit of stretch in the dress that I’m wearing or if I’m, or if I choose an a line dress Yes. Instead of like a pencil skirt, that kinda thing. Right? So I’ve, I have managed to find ways to make it work. And my hope is that I can kinda help demonstrate that yes, cycling isn’t for everybody in every situation, but it might be possible for more people in more situations than they might’ve previously thought
A lot of rain and mountains. Sounds familiar, as a Seattle-ite. I also have an EV because sometimes you do need a car. I’m not saying get rid of your car altogether, but get an E-bike because you won’t believe how much you use it.
Vehicles are incredibly expensive. They’re expensive to buy to own, to operate my e cargo bike, I purchased it for about, I think it was five or $6,000 before tax. And we actually, our government ended up removing sales tax off of electric bikes. So if I had purchased it a couple years later would’ve saved me a bunch. But that’s all right. I’m glad that other people are able to Yes. Benefit from our changes. Yeah. But when I talk to people, they’ll see the bike and they’ll say something along the lines of, oh man, that’s a expensive bike. And my response will be, yeah, but it’s a lot cheaper than if I were to buy a second vehicle.
Bowinn pedals her talk. She went through all the same decision making as her constituents and she’s helping demonstrate that it’s possible. Sometimes it takes a little strategic thinking, like changing the way you dress for work, but you shouldn’t feel like you need to go full Lycra. In his new book, the Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas wrote about what it will take for political change. And one thing he emphasizes is how much better it is to say what you are for and to tell the better story. Bowinn understands that her presence on social media is accessible and optimistic.
I mean, one of the motivators, one of my motivators for getting into politics was being worried about climate change and realizing that it was important to have climate oriented voices in government. If we want government to do the right thing from a climate change perspective. And also realizing that it takes sacrifice to be an elected official and to put yourself out there and to do this role. And if I wasn’t willing to do it, then how could I expect other people to be willing, willing to make that sacrifice and, and enter into this role?
I love that. And so there will be some people from your community who will come directly to you and say, we love that you’re doing things in climate action. We want more, et cetera. Are there others in your community who sort of are resistant to the term climate action but they’re, they’re game for transportation, you know, for active, you know, like talking about climate but not talking about climate.
I’m very, very fortunate in my neck of the woods. I think overwhelmingly my local community understands the importance of climate action. Now, they might not always like what that means for them day to day because I mean, for instance, if we are prioritizing climate action and addressing congestion in the area that I’m living in under that context, then we know that we can’t keep on building more and more lanes on bridges for cars and ignoring all of the other forms of transportation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Now that might be very frustrating. Painful. Yeah. <laugh>. Yeah. That’s very frustrating for a lot of community members to hear. Yeah. I’ll say though, certainly there’s a, a diversity of views on the importance and urgency of climate action throughout the province. And there will certainly be other communities as well that will be less concerned about climate action, more concerned about being able to live their daily lives and not spend so much time in congestion.
Now we are very fortunate though in this particular issue because largely the solution to congestion and the solution to helping people spend less time in their cars is actually the climate oriented solution. You know, enabling more socially and environmentally responsible forms of travel, building complete communities so that people don’t have to travel 50 kilometers to get to and from their job. Like those are actions that improve quality of life for people, but also help us, uh, lessen the transportation impact in terms of climate change too. So in different communities we need to speak to what’s important to them.
Yes. Well it’s interesting. Some work that I’ve gotten involved in recently is related to affordable housing in Los Angeles. And one of the things that’s been so interesting about looking at that and how you message that is as the whole system. And part of that is it’s affordable housing near jobs, right? And a long transit. So it is that whole kind of livable communities thing. And some people may be coming into it for the affordable housing. Some people may be coming into it for less congestion as they drive into work. And, and so I think this whole systems’ idea usually gives each community or each sector something to hold onto, right? That forwards the climate influence.
So one of the major shifts in the way that we are thinking about transportation used to be that we as a ministry could only acquire the land that we needed to build a highway to build a subway station to have the right of way for this particular transportation infrastructure. Our government recently passed legislation to allow the ministry of transportation and infrastructure to strategically acquire land for purposes other than direct transportation infrastructure. And now we can actually acquire strategically place land for transit oriented development. So that means housing, childcare, grocery stores, potentially schools, hospitals like, so we’re actually able now to strategically acquire land around transit stations to create this hub based community and making much more deliberate effort to engage in the development of those kinds of amenities because it’s so related to a good transportation system.
I want to emphasize what Bowinn just said there. We should be thinking about land use when we’re thinking about transportation systems and we should be taking land into account even if it’s indirect. That’s super powerful. Affordable housing is part of a system of transportation inextricably linked with transit and intentional community hubs. One of the neglected ways to reduce emissions in cities is to think about last mile delivery. You know how Amazon delivers packages and a half second to your door. That’s last mile delivery. There’s this cool alternative, well I think it’s cool, to Amazon vans called cyclelogistics.
I guess I would describe cyclelogistics as being simply replacing first mile last mile vehicles with cycles. Usually e cargo bikes,
Or, I think light electric vehicles is another term.
We actually partnered with the city of Vancouver on a cargo e-bike project where we supported the development of a cargo e-bike micro hub. So the idea is all of these goods would come in on the, the big trucks that they do from vast distances, and then they get close to the city. You go to this hub and then from there they get distributed through these e cargo bikes. Instead of getting loaded up into vans or smaller delivery vehicles, you put them into these ecar bikes. I mean, they’re pretty big. Yeah,
Yeah, yeah. And they might have a trailer with
Them that’s right there. I mean the trailer, the, the boxes is pretty big. But there is evidence that shows, especially in urban areas where congestion is significant, that deliveries by this method can be far more efficient and effective even on a for-profit basis. So I mean, I’m thinking for instance, downtown Vancouver, if you get someone to courier a package from one end of downtown Vancouver to the other end in a car, well, you know, first they’ve gotta find parking. And then once they found parking, they’re probably running a block anyway to your business and they’re picking up your package and then they’re going back to their parking spot and then they’re driving at a, like a very, very slow crawl across downtown Vancouver. Right. And then they’re gonna have to find another parking spot. We often think of cars as being faster and being able to deliver more, but in those scenarios, having somebody on a bike that can handle that package is probably gonna be a faster choice for you. So the psycho logistics basically is looking to replace that first mile last mile kind of delivery service, but with bikes,
People haven’t even imagined the potential power and profitability of the micro hubs of rethinking that first and last mile in terms of bike delivery and of the money and time that will be saved. We need to repeat and repeat that making green choices is profitable and worth innovating. Surprising validator leadership stories are the most powerful for influencing climate action at scale. Our culture reflects political leaders as white and male and in three piece suits. We’ve seen this, that global climate events up to and including COP 27. Bowinn is different. She’s a surprising validator doing all of these amazingly bold things. I wondered where her conviction to deliver values and bring others along came from.
Where does it come from? Uh, I think I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak and I think that that gives me the tendency to do things or try to do things, um, particularly when I’m told that I can’t do them.
Oh, I love it, Bowinn.
So someone came up to me who was a, a white male and I believe that he meant well and he had been involved with a party for, for quite a while and our party has, uh, something called the equity mandate that required for different constituency associations to be very intentional about making sure that they have asked multiple women, multiple people of color to run for nomination. And basically it’s kind of like you have to make the effort. This person came up to me on behalf of riding association and said something along the lines of, Hey Bowinn, you know, you should run, you should consider running for the nomination. You would make an excellent equity candidate, but you know, I mean, you’re not actually gonna win the nomination cause so and so is gonna win. Oh,
Oh, they said all of that, but with that little thing at the end,
<laugh>. Exactly. And, and the so and so that they were referring to was another white male <laugh>. And I dunno, that made me, I kinda like, it’s like I know that I think he’s meant well. He’s trying to encourage me, but also, you know, manage my expectations because I’m definitely not gonna win against this other guy. Right. And that kind of made me go like, I’ll show you. Yeah,
<laugh>, I can imagine. Oh my
Gosh. And I’ve kinda carried that attitude through a lot of things that I do. So maybe that’s the root of it, or at least my political start of that kinda attitude.
That makes a lot of sense. I think it’s funny you describe your rebellious streak and then you run for office, because I think most people think if you’re rebellious, you do everything you can to go off grid and not be connected with politics at all. But your rebellious streak was like, I’ll show you. I’m gonna invade your space and make it work.
I love that rebellious streak. That’s a fantastic story. So that’s it for me. I wanted to thank you so much for your service and for being an enduring example of a leader Living Change and all the climate influence you have in your work. I hope that anyone in public service will take note and learn from you because I’m definitely so inspired. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk Bowinn. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for having me.
Climate impact and sustainability can seem daunting when we think about it globally, but policy makers taking simple steps to live, the change can impact policy, can impact business, and can scale climate action. The more e-bikes there are in leadership roles, the more naturally mots will emerge throughout city planning and infrastructure. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me, I’d love to help. Find me at www.learniton.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn Living Change is produced by large media. That’s L A R J Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joel, Jeff, Nick, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.
Sandeep Patel / PopSockets
Andrea Learned (00:00):
I’m Andrea Learned, and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms.
Sandeep Patel (01:30):
A plant-based diet, I would argue, is the most inclusive type of diet you could serve as a company. Everybody will be included, right? And so even cultural inclusion gets flipped on its head. Perversely to be a reason why, oh, we have to have meat for these reasons. But every culture around the world has a deep, rich history of plant-based foods. So, you know, I would argue it’s also increasing inclusivity. To do that,
Andrea Learned (02:02):
Hi Sandeep. How are you?
Sandeep Patel (02:25):
Hi, Andrea. Good to see you again.
Andrea Learned (02:27):
Today I’m speaking with Sandeep Patel, the President, cfo, and Chief Transformation Officer of Pop Sockets. Even if you don’t have a pop sockets product, chances are, you know, someone that does. They’re those super cool and expressive phone grips, pop sockets, social impact innovation is centered on what they call being an eternal positivity machine. I met Sandeep at the Reduc Arian Summit last year. Our short discussion about food as a driver of corporate sustainability really stuck with me, and I knew I had to talk to him for this podcast. Sandeep is so passionate about this impact driven work that it was important to him to talk with each person walking into the conference hall about pop socket’s company mission. So how did he get here?
Sandeep Patel (03:10):
You’d have to go all the way back to when I was eight years old and I made a conscious decision after hearing someone give a lecture on the wisdom of a plant-based diet. It was more of a humanitarian lens at that time. This was many, many years ago where the point was producing animals is very inefficient. It consumes a lot of food that could be going directly to humans. It wasn’t so much of the environmental thrust to it. It was more of a animal welfare lens and a humanitarian lens of just being fair to other humans and not consuming so much food in the way of the inefficiency of animal production. So I’d made a decision long back then. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and I come from a family that comes from Western India, so my parents are vegetarian, have always been, uh, so it wasn’t that difficult a decision for me personally to make, to not eat meat.
We would still eat dairy in the home and and so forth. So when I was a vegetarian, decided to consciously decide to be a vegetarian very early on. And then for most of my career in on Wall Street for 20 years. It was something that you didn’t really highlight. You would hide it because growing up in, you know, elementary school, middle school, it was just another reason why you were different. Oh, you can’t eat that. Right? And it was always, I always found that interesting. Can you eat this <laugh>? Well, of course I can do what I want <laugh>, but I choose not to. Right. So the concept of someone choosing not to eat meat as opposed to a religion dictating you can’t do this or whatever, was a foreign concept, right? Yes.
And so, you know, it was really 20 years into investment banking. I decided, you know, what do I wanna do with the rest of my life? I want to have a bigger impact. I found myself gravitating towards entrepreneurs who envisioned the world differently than it is, and had the conviction to go and actually do something about it. And that was infectious to me. And so I wanted to be a part of building something with companies that actually shared my worldview. And so there was this book that I read at a Stanford University, how to Design Your Life. I
Andrea Learned (05:15):
Totally read that book, <laugh>. You did great. Yes, I loved
Sandeep Patel (05:19):
It. And it’s great for people in college who don’t know what they wanna do and to preempt a midlife crisis, right? Yes. So it helped me preempt a midlife crisis, and it kind of said, well, you have to think about different things. And so I thought, oh, wouldn’t it be great to fuse my sort of work life and my worldview into one? And so every day I was just excited about what I did, not only because it was intellectually interesting, but I thought, oh, this is what I care about in the world, and this is how to make the world a better place. So that’s, that’s what led me to join Califia Farms after getting to know the founder, uh, for quite some time. And then that’s also what led me to Pop Sockets.
Andrea Learned (05:55):
I’m struck that from a young age, Sandeep was living change, and even in the face of resistance on Wall Street, he was able to stick to his convictions. The lens through which he sees the world has almost exclusively been plant-based. So a role in an impact-driven company like Pop Sockets makes perfect sense.
Sandeep Patel (06:12):
I’ve been a pops sockets about two years. The is David Barnett, and he created the company kind of by accident. He was looking for a way to keep his headphone cord from tangling. He never imagined it would become as big as it did. And that was back in 2012. I was introduced to him first in 2020, right before the, the height of the pandemic. And I remember my first conversation with him, I was on the phone and I just asked him, what’s your mission in life? And he said, my mission in life is then factory farming without hesitation. Whoa,
Andrea Learned (06:46):
<laugh>, whoa. I just,
Sandeep Patel (06:48):
Exactly, I was not expecting for that to come out of his mouth. <laugh> in my first conversation with him more ever. And he said, I just happened to create this company, uh, by accident. Now I’m looking for how can we use the company to be forced for good? And then I went out to meet him in person. And I remember going to the cafeteria, and at the time I was the C F O of Califia farm. So I was very attuned, not only from a personal lifestyle standpoint, but from a professional standpoint of what kind of milk people were using. Were they using plant-based milk or not? He asked if I wanted a coffee. They had a very fancy coffee machine in the cafeteria. And I said, sure, but do you have plant milk? And he said, I don’t know. I don’t drink coffee. We opened the machine and sure enough there was almond milk and oat milk already loaded into the machine. And I had this kind of shock look on my face. And he looked at me like, why are you shocked? And then he said, oh yeah, we wouldn’t have animal products here. Why would we do that? <laugh>, it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the animals. And some people may not like it, but you know, they, they go work somewhere else.
Andrea Learned (07:52):
Sandeep Patel (07:53):
So I was not expecting that either. And it was a, it was a level of conviction and following through on that conviction more so than I’m even seen at some, you know, executives at plant-based food companies themselves. So I thought that was very, very interesting. And the company had a long-standing focus on doing good for the world, but the approach was more diffuse. One, it was a great approach. We empower people to be their own activist, and the goal was to create a platform for activists to express themselves. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> through custom grips and things like that. Okay. And that program was called Populism and expanded to over 450 nonprofit partners. But in my conversations with David, even before I joined, I was commenting, wouldn’t it be great if we could tie the company’s focus and products more directly to what you care about personally and what is so important for the world that many companies and the governments are not focusing on as much as they should, as well as consumers. Yeah. So that kicked off a lot of conversations, which then led for me to join the company in early 2021. And since that time, we’ve really tried to bring that vision to life and connect a focus on more sustainable food choices to the products and the partnerships that we support.
Andrea Learned (09:18):
I want to emphasize this part. Sandeep is talking about tying the company’s consumer focus and products more directly to what he and the CEO care about personally. Thus the mission around food sustainability and food waste. I love this. This is why I focus on Leaders Living Change in this podcast.
Sandeep Patel (09:37):
When I joined the company, they had already been working on sustainable materials. Okay. They had looked at biodegradable materials, concluded that that could actually do more harm than good. If it’s not composted properly, it can release methane. And they landed on a plant-based solution, a variety of different suppliers, very thorough testing, cornstarch, canola oil, castor bean, for example. And we thought for a while to call it Pop Grip echo, I convinced David and others at the company to call it Pop Grip Plant.
Andrea Learned (10:09):
Sandeep Patel (10:10):
And here we had the makings of something that we can now start connecting the product to our broader vision of a plant-based future. And you know, we, we had a lot of debates, like it’s gonna be a stretch. So the same reaction that you had, why is Pop Socket supporting Vegan Women’s Summit and Reducetarian Summit and Right. And focus on these things. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what is the connection, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we said, look, it might take us a while to really articulate that connection. In the meantime, let’s just start doing stuff. Let’s start doing stuff that has impact. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So one of the things that we did is we reached out to Partnership for Healthier America, an organization that Michelle Obama actually had started when she was First Lady. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> focused on providing more nutritious food to people in need with a real focus on nutrition and not just hunger relief.
Yes. A lot of hunger relief is focused on calories and expired food, Uhhuh, <affirmative>, and not necessarily nutrition and, and food equity, which leads to health equity, which leads to economic equity. So it’s an organization that I had gotten to know when I was at Califia Farms because we were thinking of doing things with them there. And we landed on a partnership where for all of the plant-based products that we sold on our website, we would donate cash to P H A and then they would then use that to fund a program called Good Food for All. And so we launched that in December of 21 with an initial goal of 150,000 servings over the course of a year. Wow. We hit that goal in two or three months, we exceeded that significantly. And earlier this year, we expanded that goal to a million Servings. And then what we also did as part of that partnership is we enlisted the support of five plant-based food brands, including Beyond Meat, wild Earth, back to the Roots.
Andrea Learned (12:06):
What do you mean by support? Supporting them in the fruits and vegetables offering? Is that what you’re saying? The
Sandeep Patel (12:12):
Whole concept of the partnership was we combine a corporate action, we’re putting more sustainable materials into this product with a nonprofit partnership where there’s a charitable component. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And then the third piece, which I’m most excited about, but it’s also the hardest to execute, is a call for the consumer to act.
Andrea Learned (12:32):
Sandeep Patel (12:32):
And contribute. Yes. So the call there was, we had coupons and incentives from these five plant-based food brands. Okay. And then with pha, we had co-branded emails, a programmatic set of emails. So, you know, thank you for buying this sustainable pop socket. Did you know that one of the most impactful ways to address climate change is actually some of the food choices you make? And here’s some incentives from five plant-based food brands that we know well and trust to try products,
Andrea Learned (13:01):
Corporate leadership and conviction in this space is lacking. And Sandeep and his team are bold voices in this movement. I asked him why it’s so hard for corporate leaders to get louder.
Sandeep Patel (13:12):
It’s interesting because there are lots of companies stepping up to do things for climate change. They tend to gravitate towards things like tree planting. Yes.
And so you have no shortage of brands saying, we’re gonna be carbon neutral because we bought land, or we’re gonna fund tree planting projects, and we’re gonna do that. And that’s great. But from our standpoint where we have an installed base of, say, 50 million consumers around the world using our products, what are we asking the consumer to do? Right. And so we’ve always believed that impact should be participatory. So we’ve tried to create a participatory impact model. And so part of our thought is how can we kind of, in the right way, gently nudge consumers to understand one of the most impactful things they can do for the benefit of the world and their fellow human beings and, and living beings is change even so slightly their food habits, integrating more plant-based foods and reducing the amount of food waste. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, those two things. If you look at project drawdown, you look at all these other things, the science is very clear.
They’re the number one, number two or number three strategies, depending on whether you look at the 1.5 degree scenario or two degree Celsius scenario. They’re the, they’re in the top three things people can do. Companies and governments have not tended to focus on that, though. They focus on electric vehicles, solar panels and other things, which is all great. We need all of that. But without addressing these two big issues, we’re not gonna get there. We’re not gonna be at 1.5, forget 1.5, we won’t even be at two degree Celsius. And I view it as such an urgent issue. And our company views it as such an urgent issue that you gotta focus on the solutions that are gonna have immediate impact and the biggest immediate impact. And so, while I think it’s great that a lot of companies are focusing on tree planting, there’s not enough land in the world to plant all the trees people have committed to, unless we change how we think about food.
Andrea Learned (15:21):
I couldn’t agree more. Why are food systems so hard for people to see and address? The intergovernmental panel on climate change referred to as I P C C is United Nations Body for assessing the science related to climate change. Among the three key things they say we can address, one of them is food waste, and another is the adoption of more sustainable diets. And no one seems to be talking about it. Cop 27 last year was supposedly focused on food. And from my vantage point following it online, I didn’t find that at all to be the case. If they’re not seeing the connection to climate, how can he change that? Does he have any insight on how to get food on their radars?
Sandeep Patel (16:01):
Well, I think it’s, you know, I think one of the reasons people are hesitant to talk about it is there’s a number of reasons. One can be leader’s, personal preferences. Another can be they’re worried it’s too sensitive a topic, and people have cultural preferences and so forth. Right. The cultural preferences bite the way, go the other way as well. And actually, a plant-based diet, I would argue is the most inclusive type of diet you could serve as a company. Everybody will be included, right? Absolutely. And so even cultural inclusion gets flipped on its head. Perversely to be a reason why, oh, we have to have meat for these reasons. But every culture around the world has a deep, rich history of plant-based foods. So, you know, I would argue it’s also increasing inclusivity to do that. But really it’s, I, I think, you know, our approach is, look, it’s, it’s every company will make, should make a decision on its own.
Right? But the first place to start is where are you spending your corporate dollars? And so when Adam Newman at WeWorks came out and said, oh, we’re not gonna serve me the WeWorks anymore, corporate dollars. Like people can bring their own food in if they want, but we’re not gonna spend it, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that makes total sense to me. It’s like we’re not telling our employees how they have to do things in their own life. Everyone’s welcome to work here. Sure. But we as a company, we need to be very cognizant. If we’re going out of our way to put solar panels on our roof and and going to all kinds of lengths to figure out what kind of gasoline or delivery trucks are using, that’s great. But let’s not just focus on the plastic straws of the world. Right. You need to focus on the biggest issues.
Right. And I think every company should start with the food they’re offering in whatever way they think they can manage. That there’s a, a nonprofit greener by default. Oh, yes. Uh, which I’m honored to have been asked to join their board very recently. And I think they’re taking a great approach. They’re working with big companies and governments like the city of New York to just increase the number of plant-based options and simply making it a default. Right. Which then gets back to the inclusivity point, and it goes back to coming full circle. Your question of like, what has been the thread through my career? Well, instead of the people choosing a diet that’s generally better for the planet, better for health, better for animals, having to kind of say, yeah, I need a special diet. I need something else. Right? Flip it on its head. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Right? And so in its darkest terms, if you feel like you need to have meat or dairy and a meal that is more carbon consumptive and you know, all these other things, then raise your hand. Simply flipping the script will lead to a lot of change. So, you know, my advice to other corporate leaders would be focus on the science. What is the most important thing as a company we can do? And then there needs to be some internal consistency. If sustainability is very important, then yes, you should focus on the type of light bulbs you have in the building. But first, focus on the most important things you can do. And again, it doesn’t need to be all or none. If you simply set gradual goals, we wanna reduce the amount of meat that we buy as a company by 10%, then 20%, then 30%, it will have a massive impact.
Andrea Learned (19:23):
I’m so glad Sandy brought up, greener by default, an initiative that helps institutions make plant-based with the default. Diners have the choice to opt into meat and dairy, but this strategy allows companies to meet carbon reduction goals, save on food costs, and improve health and inclusivity. I recently moderated a panel at GreenBiz Verge where LinkedIn presented their pilot case study, and the data blew the audience away. I think we’re lacking bold, business leaders will talk about this and make shifts. I wondered if Sandeep was ever in rooms with leaders where this comes up, what has been their resistance? And if he has been able to convince any of them to start to think about it, what has that conversation been like? Well,
Sandeep Patel (19:59):
I, I tell you, first we start with our employees. And so at first, and, and this decision on kind of corporate policy was made even before I got to the company back in 2018 or 2019. And there were people who were like, oh, you’re telling me what I can eat? And so forth. And again, it was like, no, this is just the corporate dollars, like what we’re spending it on. But what I will say is, since I joined the company, we did a number of education sessions on climate change. Like what are the most important things? And we just let the signs speak for itself. And I think now a lot more people get it and understand it. And so I think just getting the word out, like, this is the science, this is why we’re making this decision, this is why we’re doing these things, number one.
Number two, making it fun and interesting and giving people tools. So one of the other things we did is we invested in a great startup out of the UK called Plants and Perks. And they’ve created what we believe is the world’s first plant-based employee wellness portal. And we have, all our employees have access to this, and they have all kinds of tips, recipes, live webcasts of cooking shows and demonstrations. So, so getting employees engaged in a way that’s fun, I think is also very important. Third, in terms of getting other corporates to, to do things. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I would say we haven’t spent a ton of time advocating on that front yet. Okay. We wanted to make sure, first, we wanted to first just start doing things and create a track record. Look, here is what, what is possible, and here’s what we are doing. And one of the reasons I’m thrilled to be on this podcast is so we can start getting the word out. Like these are the, some of the things that companies can start doing and really improving their approach to sustainability by addressing some of the most important issues.
Andrea Learned (21:46):
I’ve been dying for somebody to say that. And the fact that Sandeep has these proof points will be hugely impactful when they’re ready to present it to the world. It’s telling a new story at the leadership level. The data and framing combined can help other leaders make these tweaks to their policies and infrastructure and nudge employees to make different decisions around food and gradually mindsets will shift. Pop Sockets has such a great story to tell. Sandeep should literally be on stage talking about food system shifts at COP 28. He tells us some of the policies, practices, and initiatives that have been successful and implemented in a way that doesn’t alienate employees.
Sandeep Patel (22:25):
Look, I’d say they’re everyday things. So if we have business partners come out and we’re going to dinner, I mean, we’ll make clear, here’s our corporate policy. So you want us to pay for it? It’s gotta be vegetarian <laugh>. Okay?
Andrea Learned (22:40):
And we don’t even know where Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is. <laugh>.
Sandeep Patel (22:43):
Some people are like, great. Oh, that’s so interesting that you do that. Other people look at us like we’re from Mars. But that’s fine. Uh, you gotta have the conviction to kind of stick to it and articulate this. And I think even those little things will start having impact over time. On the much bigger front, what we would love to do is put together a coalition similar to what has been done for tree planting, which is fantastic. So the Trillion Tree Initiative, for example, and one of the ideas we’ve been kicking around is a trillion meal initiative. How can we transition a trillion meals over the next X amount of years to plant-based, you know, we’ve done some equivalency calculations relative to tree planting. And again, the tour synergistic, if you do this, it frees up land for tree planting, right? Yes. So it’ll help companies with stated tree planting goals achieve their objectives, right?
So we would love to put that kind of coalition together and put it on the same footing as tree planting and electric vehicles and smart grids and, and you name it, in renewable energy, right? It needs to be at that same level as opposed to, oh, it’s too difficult to change food habits is just fade a complete, it’s gonna happen, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, mm-hmm. <affirmative> will, changes in consumer behavior have shown that you can change things and people are willing, and they’re very eager to play a participatory role in addressing arguably the most important issue of our time climate change. It’s just a question of finding those ways to do it. And I think because it’s very politically charged for governments to do this, that corporates have a huge opportunity here to step in and take leadership.
Andrea Learned (24:27):
Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I, I mean, I’m so excited to hear you’re talking about this and thinking about it this way. Um, do you have tips on the joyfulness, because I know that the joyfulness was in there, tips for making this shift fun and accessible that may inspire anybody who might be listening or interested in this, like tips for the joyfulness of this transition?
Sandeep Patel (24:51):
Well, I, I’d say a couple things. One, as I, as I referenced earlier, you know, every culture around the world I think has rich history of plant-based food tradition. So you can bring kind of diversity into the equation as well by highlighting, I remember when I was at cia, we would have this tremendous Mexican food that happened to be vegan, right? But it, it wasn’t that it led with vegan, it was, it’s just great tasting Mexican food, right? And so just bringing the richness of flavors from all around the world to play, you don’t need some fancy high tech meat alternative to have great tasting plant-based food, right? So I think that can bring that joyfulness and celebratory aspect to things, particularly in global multinational companies, right? It’s like we have food from all around the world. We can celebrate that and, and celebrate different people’s heritage and so forth. Secondly, I think things like plants and perks. They’re trying to gamify plant-based trial, right? So they make it fun. They have leaderboards, they have contest pledges who’s been most successful. You win prizes, you win, things like that, right? And then third, I would say just, just being very transparent about company sustainability goals. And we need everyone’s help in order to achieve these things. And these are some of the ways that people can do that.
Andrea Learned (26:08):
Are you hopeful that we can change the minds of corporations <laugh>?
Sandeep Patel (26:13):
Uh, I am Okay. Because I think that companies realize they need to be in order to be good corporate citizens, and because employees wanna work, get excited about working in a company actually doing positive things in the world, that they need to take aggressive action on climate change. So that is a major hurdle that’s already been passed. Now it’s a question of, well, okay, what is most impactful to do? Right? And I think, again, the science is very clear. So it’s kind of making it palatable from a standpoint of actually taking action, uh, in a way that’s very aligned with the science.
Andrea Learned (26:48):
Yeah. Oh, this has been wonderful. Sandeep, thank you so much for your time. I, I love your story and thank you for sharing it. And I cannot wait to to hear from you about how you’re gonna be talking about this or really positioning yourself and that coalition sounds amazing. I’m so excited to hear about that. Thank you again for your time. This was so fun.
Sandeep Patel (27:07):
Andrea Learned (27:10):
What a great conversation. I want to emphasize how energizing it is to speak to a corporate leader who is walking the talk and putting sustainability in the forefront of his company’s impact strategy. While it may be surprising to many that a CFO would be so focused on impact and sustainability, Sandeep argues and I agree that CFOs in the sustainability reporting line makes a lot of sense. It removes what some may perceive as the tension between sustainability and financial objectives. And it allows for an opportunity to integrate sustainability into core performance and reporting metrics with equal status as financial results. Small shifts, friends, that’s all it takes to get the ball rolling. Make plant-based your organization’s default food option, and allow folks to opt in for meat and dairy, eat at plant-based restaurants. When your company’s paying, put plant-based milks in the coffee maker. These choices will often lead to larger discussions and bigger goals. But Sandeep and I are here to encourage you to take the first step for your company. Lead through example, live your change. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find email@example.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn
Living Change is produced by LARJ media. That’s L a R j Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joel, Jeff, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.
Steve Vitolo (00:00):
We’re gonna release numbers to our users about their environmental impact. And I’ll bet you people have never considered this. They’re using Scriptation as a productivity tool, and they’re gonna feel good about it. They’re gonna be aware of it, and it’s like, okay, let’s not stop here, do more. So we’ll give them resources on, on what else they can do.
Andrea Learned (00:25):
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring Unconventional Climate Leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. The more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Today I’m speaking with Steve Vitoloitolo, the Emmy Award-winning founder and CEO of Scriptation. Steve won an engineering Emmy for developing a script annotation tool, which saves film and TV production’s time and paper. It’s used by staffers on big name shows, including Saturday Night Live and Game of Thrones. Ever heard of those two? The idea for scriptation came to Steve early in his career.
Steve Vitolo (01:08):
I’m a TV writer. Um, I’ve written features before as well, but when I starting out, I started as a writer’s assistant. And when you’re a writer’s assistant slash script coordinator, you are putting out scripts for the production is one of the things that you do. You do a thousand things <laugh> <laugh>, but one of the things that you do, uh, is you get the scripts ready and looking good and production ready, and then you distribute it to the cast and crew. So I was, um, working on a pilot in 2013. We had a table read, and then two weeks later we started production. And the showrunner was someone that rewrote constantly. And every single night there was a 50 page script that would be distributed to a hundred plus people. So as a script coordinator, I was getting the script production ready, and then I was printing it out and then handing it to a production assistant to then make a hundred copies to then destroy the environment <laugh>.
I was like, okay, here’s 50 pages that’s gonna result in at least 5,000 more pages getting printed, and then we’re gonna do it all over again the next day. Wow. So, you know, at least at that time, I, I wasn’t a person where you would think of, oh, you know, he’s a super environmental conscious person. So the fact that, you know, I was like, this is insane. Like, what are we doing? We’re destroying the environment. We could easily not do this. You know, how easy it is to not do this very easy <laugh>. So people were feeling the same thing that I was feeling, but it’s, you know, someone needs to do something about it. And it was, it was the right time. And it also wasn’t as simple as, okay, let’s go digital. Because the big problem with getting all of these script revisions is a lot of people make notes on the pages. So if you have a 50 page script and you hand it out to everyone, you have a faction of people that are marking up the script and when they get a new draft, they have to rewrite all the notes that they did previously. So, you know, the big idea was what if you could do this digitally? Yes. You know, Adobe has been around since the seventies, eighties,
Andrea Learned (03:26):
<laugh>. Yes. Yeah, very long time.
Steve Vitolo (03:28):
But what if you could make notes digitally and then transfer them in an intelligent way into the new version of the script? We had to figure out if this is something that could be done. Was the technology available to us? Could we do it? Was it practical for people? And when I was meeting with all these different departments, I said to them, would you be willing to go digital? And I got, sure, maybe, I don’t know. And then I said, well, what if we could transfer your notes into new script provisions? And then everyone was like, ding, ding, ding,
Andrea Learned (04:03):
Ding, ding, <laugh>. I’ll
Steve Vitolo (04:03):
Figure out, yeah, I will figure out your software if you can do that, because it saves me hours of time every week. And there just has to be a practical component to this. And that, you know, coincided with the environmental thing. And then it’s like, okay, like now we really have something here and it’s something that is doing good for people in multiple ways and they could get behind and use it.
Andrea Learned (04:29):
So how does somebody in a totally different industry go, oh, I know who to call about the technology. How did you do
Steve Vitolo (04:35):
That? Well, I didn’t know who to call. I, I had no idea
Andrea Learned (04:38):
Ghostbusters Scott, I was,
Steve Vitolo (04:41):
I was techy in my middle school and high school, and I would make websites with using HTML and things like that, but this was like obviously way beyond anything I had ever done. So I just, I made a post on LinkedIn, Facebook, whatever was available at the time. And I said, does anyone know an iOS developer that can understand PDF documents? And luckily I found the right person at the right time and we worked on it together. And I still remember the meeting when he showed me we were in, you know, we were at UCLA and he’s like, okay, check those out, <laugh>. And then he hit the button and it moved over. And I was like, wow, that’s amazing. That’s so
Andrea Learned (05:24):
Steve Vitolo (05:25):
That, and I was kinda like, okay, let’s, let’s make it better and then let’s put it out there and let’s see if people respond to it.
Andrea Learned (05:31):
So who, was it somebody that you were already working with? Was it a production team you were already working with that you, that you got to try it first? Or how did you do maybe a pilot or sort of start to test it? Who was game for testing?
Steve Vitolo (05:43):
Very brave <laugh>. Early adopting, uh, beta testers. Uh, we had a director that won an Emmy for Modern Family and he was using, because the, remember, you know, at that point the iPad and script is primarily an iPad app. Okay. You can use it on your Mac and you could use it on your phone, but people are used to having a paper script and a, something like that size. So, okay. An iPad had come out around 2011. Oh, okay. So it’s like, you know, the technology needed to arrive at the right time and there was a lot of that. Okay. You know, there were PDF readers and annotators that had come out at that time and he was already somebody that was using them and wanted to go digital. So this clearly appealed to him. It’s like, wow, this is the biggest problem I have now, is I just have to highlight and redraw on everything. So we got him to do it. Was
Andrea Learned (06:40):
This somebody that you worked with directly or that you’d worked with in the past and you had a good relationship with? Or like, what was that first conversation like?
Steve Vitolo (06:46):
This guy was somebody I had never worked with before, but Oh wow. I worked with a line producer for a number of years. He kept bringing me back to work on shows, thankfully. And this guy is digital and he is like always on the cutting edge of stuff, so he might be interested. And he was using us on big shows at the time when he was the only one. And we were testing stuff out. I don’t think I would’ve done that. <laugh>.
Andrea Learned (07:11):
Oh my gosh. I
Steve Vitolo (07:12):
Was like, okay. And I was saying like, here are all the caveats of using this. Right. Make sure you have a backup. Make sure you all <laugh>. Because it, at that point there were so many kinks to iron out of the app and, but yeah, it was wow. He started using it. And then in 2016 we released the app in the app store as a download where you can get it for 10 bucks. Oh my
Andrea Learned (07:36):
Steve Vitolo (07:37):
We got so many early adopters that just wanted to like, okay, you’re promising this thing. Like, let’s see if it could perform.
Andrea Learned (07:44):
So I’m kind of curious, would that director be interested in being named and famed for this? Or do you keep directors name? Oh, sure. You know what I mean? Like who is this? No, no, no, because I think we need to cheer this person on <laugh>.
Steve Vitolo (07:58):
I was just talking to him right before this call. Um, his name is Michael Spiller. Okay. He’s an Emmy Award-winning director for Modern Family. And he’s just done a ton of work since then.
Andrea Learned (08:08):
The reason why I wanted to emphasize Michael Spiller is because Steve needed an early adopter. And so by being game and taking a chance and saying yes to Steve’s app, Michael Spiller is also living change without a prominent name buying in early scriptation would’ve had a hard time getting enough beta testers to get off the ground. Steve tells us more about the early adoption of the app once Michael got on board.
Steve Vitolo (08:30):
So scriptation note transfer is very demonstrable. So imagine one person on a production, they’re in the middle of shooting, shooting is, you know, 12 hour days and you don’t want script changes coming down <laugh> while you’re in the middle of doing something. It’s really hard, <laugh>. And, uh, so, so, you know, script revisions just make things harder for everyone. So imagine someone on set, say a director, there’s, you know, 10 revision pages that come down and, and film and tv. It’s different colored pages, blue, pink, yellow, green pages, and there’s 10 revision pages that come down. So you have one person that has gotten it digitally over email and they hit a button and all of their notes get transferred into a new draft. And they’re like, okay, this took me 30 seconds. I looked at everything, I understand it, I’m ready to go in five minutes. And then everybody else is collating their pages in their binders, <laugh> and rewriting notes. Yeah. And then they’re, they go to the person that, you know, use scriptation. What, what was that <laugh>? What did you do?
Andrea Learned (09:38):
Steve Vitolo (09:39):
Cool. I wanna do that. Oh my gosh. So it spread that way because we didn’t have, you know, we weren’t, we’re not VC funded. I mean, if you think about this space, it’s a, it’s a niche product and a niche industry. So we, you know, we had to grow slowly and we had to grow organically. So, um, something that happened to me when I was working on shows, which is I’d be on a show and it would get canceled and then I’d have to go to a new show. Right. This actually worked in our favor, <laugh>, cuz you had, you had somebody working on a show and they would spread it to a few people that show would get canceled <laugh>, and then two people from that show would go there and three people from that show would go there and then it’d spread. So it was, it was very organic and that was really the only way that we could, it was the best way to do it for us at the time, cuz we couldn’t handle a ton of users at the time.
And we, it was also great cuz we had the small group of early adopters and we kept having to make the app better and they were so invested and we would get a bunch of data in terms of like, this is how you make this better and this is what users really want. And okay, we thought we were gonna build this, but they really want that. So it, it really worked in such a nice way. And really the only way that I, you know, not a business person, a film and TV writer could really do it.
Andrea Learned (11:06):
I was so curious. What were the downloads like and what was the equivalent in saving Trees, CO2 emissions, waste water.
Steve Vitolo (11:14):
Just last year, the 2022, we’ve done 133,000 note transfers. Mm. That equates to almost 7 million pieces of paper that weren’t used, which is, you know, almost 15,000 reams of paper. And if you want to calculate that over tons of wood and BTUs and all that, I mean the numbers are crazy <laugh>, it’s the equivalent of, you know, 600,000 pounds of co2, over 700,000 gallons of water, almost 40,000 pounds of solid waste. So it’s real numbers and the that are using it. I mean some are for environmental reasons and I wanna get off paper, but a lot of people are for productivity reasons and a byproduct that is that they’re saving a ton of CO2 emissions that don’t have to be made.
Andrea Learned (12:10):
I love Steve’s term byproduct. One of the reasons I was so eager to speak with Steve is because he is not running around saying he’s a climate leader and yet he’s influencing change through innovation and smart business and climate action is this huge byproduct. I wondered if environmental concerns had always been at the forefront for Steve.
Steve Vitolo (12:28):
I didn’t get really into environmental issues until after college. Um, I started scriptation and then I sort of understood the impact of all of this. Cuz when you’re, when it’s paper, it’s not just the amount of paper and, but it’s the delivery and the ink and the toner and the printing and the brads and it’s, it’s all of this. So, you know, I wish I had a better background environmental impact story, but I came to it late and I guess it, there’s, as long as you come to it,
Andrea Learned (12:59):
Steve makes an important point and one that’s really hit home. As I’ve developed this podcast, I initially thought these conversations were going to be about people whose personal values have led them to make change. But what I found is that often enough people make these shifts when a realization hits while doing their work, suddenly they start connecting the dots and leadership thinking flows from there. Corporate sustainability leaders often get nervous when they’re asked about how they’ve changed their own transportation modes or food intake for example. But they love talking about sustainability efforts generally. I think Steve is a great example of someone who focused on his own work, who identified a need for an efficiency and productivity tool and saw the climate impact emerge energized by the technical side. He pushes this whole initiative forward. His work backed him up into living change. And I think that’s more common than I initially realized. I love spotlighting it.
Steve Vitolo (13:52):
Right? And so, so something that we haven’t done, and I mentioned this a little before, is that we’re gonna release numbers to our users about their environmental impact. And I’ll bet you people have never considered this. They’re using scriptation as a productivity tool and they’re gonna feel good about it. They’re gonna be aware of it and it’s like, okay, let’s not stop here, do more. So we’ll give them resources on, on what else they can do,
Andrea Learned (14:17):
Do more. Yes. The influence that Steve has here is incredible. And it’s an example for leaders in any business. And like Steve said, the data helps people visualize and comprehend their climate impact, even small amounts of data. I wondered how climate awareness is starting to be integrated into the entertainment industry
Steve Vitolo (14:35):
There. I know there has been a big push there. This isn’t my area of expertise. I am, you know, I’m a writer. Yep. I haven’t written climate stories, but if I’m writing, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a climate story, but just in the background, just no paper cups and just reusable. If, if we’re seeing this on screen and, and these things are so easy to do. I think that’s the thing that gets me on a lot of this. You know, here’s an example. I was on a panel with another app creator, uh, he’s a director. Um, he created an app called Shot Lister. He was on set and people were, had lunch and they were using the single serve utensils and, you know, we all know how bad that is. And so what he was doing was he brought a lunch pale from home and utensils that he could wash and he got in line, had it, and was like, okay, this is what I’m doing. And then everyone saw that and they’re like, wow, I’m a bad person.
Andrea Learned (15:34):
Steve Vitolo (15:34):
Yeah. So then he eventually got a ton of people to start doing that and having reusables and bringing their own stuff from home. So we just need to see it. Someone needs to do something small and then other people will be like, oh, well that’s really easy to do and I’m gonna do that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I’m, you know, I was never pressured, you know, into going vegan. It was just something that my, my wife didn’t eat meat forever. And so I was like, okay, well we’ll move in together and
<laugh>, why am I gonna have meat in my apartment? I’m not gonna cook two separate meals. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that’s an easy way to eliminate stuff. So it it, it’s just kind of this, and then, you know, I, the more research I do, I was like, okay, what actual environmental impact is this and how bad is it on my health? And then it’s like, okay, I’m gonna cut this out and if I’m writing on a show, if I have my own feature, if I’m directing, that’s how I want the background of my film set to be. I don’t want to shove it in people’s faces, but I just want it to be there so it’s normalized and that this is a better way of doing it. And it’s not hard. It’s really not hard. I think going in terms of going vegan, you know, 20 years ago is really hard <laugh>. Um, now there are so many options and so many companies, uh, that are, you know, have vegan products that taste really good. It’s almost hard not to do it. Oh,
Andrea Learned (17:04):
Steve Vitolo (17:05):
That. Um, keep
Andrea Learned (17:06):
Steve Vitolo (17:07):
<laugh>, I say as I still am not a hundred percent vegan
Andrea Learned (17:10):
<laugh> and it’s okay not to be a hundred percent vegan. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Steve should feel great about all that he’s doing for the climate. I wanted to hear if others in the entertainment sector are getting louder about climate action.
Steve Vitolo (17:24):
Yeah, there’s a ton of people in this space right now and it’s refreshing to see young entertainment activists. Earth Angel is a company that we’ve started around the same time and their mission is to limit waste. And they have people on set, they have eco PAs that help you understand how to be more sustainable and what products and services to use. And they have a whole package and they’ve been growing at a crazy rate. So great. They’re on productions all over the place.
Andrea Learned (17:58):
It’s interesting because this is all kind of, it’s not like the famous or the fancy stuff, it’s all the stuff around the sides, right? It’s like how does the actual operation or the work in the entertainment industry get done? It’s what you’re doing right? And how do you clean things up and kind of take care of food and do all these things? It’s all the stuff on the edges that’s making a huge impact.
Steve Vitolo (18:18):
Yeah. It’s, it’s from people starting companies that have worked in the entertainment industry and they see something they don’t like and something they could change. And now they have platforms on social media to get out there and young people starting companies that are affecting change and it’s trickling it’s way up to the top. Not some celebrity telling you what to do and shaming you when they’re on their jet. It’s people that are actually living this, that are poorer than you <laugh>. Yes.
Andrea Learned (18:50):
Steve Vitolo (18:51):
That’s like, if I, if I can do it, then we should all be able to do it. Yeah. And you’re finally getting studio buy-in too. And this has happened just recently. I, you know, had meetings with people in the green departments at studios as early as 2015. Wow. And it was, you know, like I mentioned before, one person and it was largely a figurehead. There was, uh, one sustainability person that I met with a bunch of times, came really friendly with, used the product and just could not get the studio to like even have meetings on it. And, and she eventually left and went to a studio where she actually could enact change. But it was like this, it, it’s, it was the most obvious display of just having a person there just to have a person there. But that has changed recently. And because of that change, it’s helped all of these companies started by a lot of, you know, younger people to actually become real businesses. And it’s just been good for them. It’s been good for the people, um, on the production and for the studio. So it’s, it’s all a benefit. And I don’t know what eventually, you know, made that shift there, but we’re, we’re there now and we’re, we’re constantly moving and pushing and pushing the studios and thankfully they’re actually listening this time.
Andrea Learned (20:23):
That’s great. Now I’m wondering, my one wonder there is, does the studio that you had built this whole relationship with in this time with, have they crossed over to the light yet? Or are you still seeing them kind of lagging on this? No, <laugh>. Wow. That’s fascinating. That’s fascinating. So they’re looking around at all these other studios that are doing something and they’re still not acting.
Steve Vitolo (20:44):
It’s hard to shame them, right? Yeah. Because then I’m out there shaming and
Andrea Learned (20:47):
Oh yeah, it’s, yeah. The other thing that I wanted to say is there’s a pledge. We’re talking about this paperless pledge. So tell me a little bit about that. And I think there was a, there’s a 2030 pledge to make Hollywood paperless. So tell me a little bit about where you are on that and what that pledge is about.
Steve Vitolo (21:02):
2030 is a pie in the sky number. Even though it could be done today. <laugh>, we could all stop it today <laugh>. Um, but I, I understand the speed of how everyone, you know, like I said, gradual change. Yeah. Um, but yeah, I mean we’ve had people come to us specifically, a lot of people are on the productivity side, but we have some people that, you know, Valerie Weiss, a director for example, who heard about us and is using us because of the environmental impact and she directed a feature called Mixtape on Netflix, which came out. It’s great. Watch it.
Andrea Learned (21:39):
Steve Vitolo (21:40):
So she’s part of the 2030 Coalition with Bradley Whitford, Gloria Callone, ket. We’ve, you know, made it our goal to try and get the industry paperless by 2030 and we hope it happens. It’s, you know, an aspirational feat, I guess <laugh>. But hopefully the idea is that we get enough people to join this coalition. We make it known that that’s where we want to go. We set a goal and we try and connect with studios to make this happen. What can we do to work together? We work with Guild, we work with celebrities. Hey, you’re on the show, so let’s talk to the studio and see what we can do and try and get people off paper scripts cuz it is so easy. And not necessarily using scriptation either. Yeah. If they don’t wanna use scriptation for whatever reason, that’s fine. But why do you have to print a paper script where we all have computers, phones, devices, iPads, we can go digital today. Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Yeah.
Andrea Learned (22:37):
So that leads me to tell me the hashtag
Steve Vitolo (22:42):
Andrea Learned (22:43):
Who makes the decision ultimately, who do we need to impact with that pledge paperless call
Steve Vitolo (22:49):
Top line people. It shows. Okay. Honestly because the, you know, the way that scriptation succeeded is by being used on shows that are very popular. Um, because those people on the shows
Andrea Learned (23:03):
Give me an example of shows that use it. Really big name shows that you think are especially gonna move average Joe TV or movie viewer to go, oh my gosh, how cool. Right? And then they can celebrate that.
Steve Vitolo (23:16):
So a lot of the big shows I can’t name, but I will name some of the ones that are possible
Andrea Learned (23:21):
That you can’t name.
Steve Vitolo (23:22):
Okay. The big show that we worked on, you know, this is our first big account was uh, game of Thrones.
Andrea Learned (23:26):
Well that’s pretty
Steve Vitolo (23:27):
Big, so obviously Yeah, that’s a big one. <laugh> um, one that we’re working on now is Saturday Night Live.
Andrea Learned (23:33):
That’s pretty big too.
Steve Vitolo (23:35):
Wait, so here’s what happens. <laugh>, <laugh>, um, when you have, when you have big shows like that, those are the ones that can say I want to use this product and studio. You have to figure out how to pay for it because it is, the big shows are the ones that call the shots, right? Yep. With the high powerful people on those shows. We want to use this, we want to use that. And then, you know, the higher ups or like whatever you guys wanna do cuz you make us a ton of money.
Andrea Learned (24:04):
Okay. That’s the bottom line. I love that. Is there anything else that you’re working on in the climate sphere or is it just mainly refining this product, which I think is is enough, right? But is there anything else that you’re working on?
Steve Vitolo (24:16):
You know, in terms of the company, it’s just branching out into different production departments. There’s a lot of areas that we haven’t explored yet. You know, actors is one of them. We are mostly a production app, but we wanna move into, um, line learning features for actors and you know, that way there can use it on their phone instead of printing up their paper sides for the day and casting teams. Cuz there is an enormous market there. An enormous amount of waste from sides being printed. Um, another thing we wanna do is get into more colleges and universities because they’re more receptive towards this type of thing. Yeah. Not necessarily script revisions cuz that’s like a, a television production thing, but for sure the process of, you know, reading and annotating a script and they’re also already on their devices, so Right. If we start there and we do some, you know, teaching of this is the benefits of it and the environmental impact and we have those two pieces just like we have in our professional space. I think in, you know, colleges, universities, and we have some high schools and middle schools.
Andrea Learned (25:20):
Steve Vitolo (25:21):
Know, these expectation as well. Right. Um, I think those are, you know, places for us to focus.
Andrea Learned (25:25):
Well, just to close this out and say the climate influence of what you’ve done and what you’re continuing to do is unbelievable. So thank you so much for taking the time.
Steve Vitolo (25:36):
Thanks for having me. This was fun.
Andrea Learned (25:39):
Learning about sustainability in the entertainment business was energizing and new for me. Our conversation makes me with my social media minded brain wanna tag every production company on Twitter about scriptation. It’s pretty cool that Steve was recognized for his work with an engineering Emmy. I’m almost certain this conversation has already inspired you to think about small changes you might be able to make in your sector. It doesn’t have to be an Emmy worthy app, but all of us can be sending an example and getting louder. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find me at www.learnedon.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn. Living Change is produced by Larj Media. That’s l a R j Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joel, Jeff, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.
Barbara Buffaloe / Mayor of Columbia, MO
Barbara Buffaloe (00:00):
I like being an active commuter. It’s funny, when I talk to people, they’re assuming I’m doing it because of the environmental reasons for it, which is a big part of it. Um, but in reality it’s just more fun. I get to breathe fresh air, I get to wave at people. I get to just be more conscious of my surroundings and present. And so for me, it’s, it’s just, yeah, it’s just more fun.
Andrea Learned (00:34):
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Today I’m speaking with Columbia, Missouri Mayor, Barbara Buffalo. Before being elected mayor in 2022, Barbara served as the city’s first sustainability director. I’ve been following her for a long time on Twitter, and I love the hashtag she uses. Love where you live and serve Where you Love.
Barbara Buffaloe (01:12):
I think it actually started, um, way back in the day. So our downtown district, they had a campaign at one point in time. It was about love where you live. It is about this, like, appreciate what it is that you have. And so I just started using that just, you know, throughout my life. Like, I love where I live, so I just kind of used that hashtag. Um, and so then when I was, when I announced that I was running for office, I was like, well, hey, this is why, you know, I’m, I love where I live. And then one of my colleagues was like, well, yeah, and you’re, you’re volunteering to serve where you love. And I was like, no, <laugh>. So then, yeah, so then it just became the thing that I put on all of my posts, because that’s what it is. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, this is like the whole walking the talk sort of thing. Serving where you love rather than just like talking about it, but also willing to put yourself out there mm-hmm. <affirmative> and serve.
Andrea Learned (02:00):
If you love where you live, there’s a natural incentive to go out there and live. The change you’re hoping to see reflected in your community and the larger world, loving where you live fuels the desire to serve locally. And that dedication, care, and commitment is felt by the community you serve. Columbia is one of the first places in Missouri to have a Complete Streets policy, and now there’s a focus on Livable Streets. I asked Barbara about the difference between Complete Streets and Livable Streets.
Barbara Buffaloe (02:27):
Complete Streets. The, like, the way that we’ve kind of historically done it was that it was thinking into multimodal transportation, but usually all in the same footprint. Okay. So a complete street had like, you know, lanes for automobile traffic and then a bike lane, and then a sidewalk. You know, on the next part, well now as we’re talking about Livable Streets, we’re thinking how do we make sure that we have that? It’s, um, when we talk about it’s not just a bike lane, but there’s a protected bike path or shared shared mobility paths, um, that are separated so that it’s actually thinking more of trying to align our vision Zero goals of having, you know, zero basically no death is acceptable, um, from, um, car pedestrian, bicycle, fatality. None of that is acceptable. Um, and so then how do we then incorporate all of those together? So our infrastructure is not just about getting you from point A to point B, but the actual, um, what is the, what is the experience
Andrea Learned (03:21):
Barbara Buffaloe (03:22):
Okay. That road. Okay
Andrea Learned (03:23):
So livable it puts the experience into the whole picture.
Barbara Buffaloe (03:27):
Yeah. Yeah. Columbia was one of the first places in Missouri to have a Complete Streets policy. And so that was like 2004. I mean, that was a while ago,
Andrea Learned (03:36):
Barbara Buffaloe (03:37):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It is. It is. Big deals we, like, we touted ourselves for, for years. I’m like, well done Us. Well, it’s been a while, right? It’s been a hot minute <laugh>. So now we are, now we’re working with our groups on like, what does it mean to be a livable street? Like what does that mean? So how do we think about, you know, different types of collectors mean different things in different areas of town. Okay. Like in our urban area, it probably means something different than in more of our suburban areas. Yes. Like right. With new construction versus old construction. And then also, how do we then, you know, we talk about Complete Streets or like a bike lane on the road. Well, you know what, on some of these faster, faster moving roads, I don’t feel as comfortable riding on a bike lane right next to a car that’s going 45 miles per hour. Right? So what does that mean to be a livable street? How do we then think about that? So over the next year, we’re gonna be working on that so that as we make those incremental changes, as we’re going into a new area or an existing area making improvements, we’re then thinking about the future of what Complete and Livable Streets mean.
Andrea Learned (04:40):
It sounds like Columbia is a welcoming community ready for this change. Are there any specific strategies your team uses to get people psyched?
Barbara Buffaloe (04:48):
Local Motion is our local kind of pedestrian bicycle advocacy group. And they’ve worked really well on both doing inclusive community engagement around these pieces. So rather than just calling up our usual bike advocates, pedestrian advocates, yes. Um, but also like getting out into the neighborhoods and talking to those who are struggling to have a safe path to school or path to work mm-hmm. <affirmative> and getting their input on this. What did they define Livable Streets
Andrea Learned (05:14):
As? Yes. Yes. So
Barbara Buffaloe (05:16):
They’ve been doing just a fantastic job and did a lot of community engagement over the last, um, year, and that’s where it’s really fantastic to have an existing relationship Yeah. With those groups. Yes. Because then, you know, they’re like, Hey, we’re gonna do this. What do you think? Before we kind of start and then I’m like, it’s not all of a sudden comes to me completed. I’m having opportunity for input.
Andrea Learned (05:35):
I’m interested in how Barbara’s past role as sustainability director makes her job easier as mayor now.
Barbara Buffaloe (05:41):
Yeah. I worked for the City of Columbia for over a decade before I took a short break and then threw my name into the hat to run for mayor last year. <laugh>. So I, um, when I was with the Sustainability office, you know, I think it’s important to remember by starting the position in 2010, it was one of the first offices of sustainability in the U.S. Wow. And so there was not really a roadmap or anything of which to tell us how to do the work we wanted to do <laugh>. Um, and so it, uh, a lot of it was by forging relationships, both the nationwide and in North America, but also within my own community. And so, you know, I got to talk to, you know, partners in Vancouver to Portland to Iowa City and Lawrence, Kansas, and talking about like, what are you doing in your areas and what are you trying to improve?
And then making those relationships in our city. So by talking to what local motion was called before, which was PED net, um, by talking with our county, by talking with the university and others, like building those relationships was what we had to do to create the position, right. To create the office. And then what is our, what are our work plans? What are we working on here? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and so when I made the decision to kind of switch, but, um, I joke to get to basically work just as hard, but get paid way less since it’s a volunteer position as Mayor
Andrea Learned (07:04):
Barbara Buffaloe (07:05):
I dunno, when I, my husband’s like, what <laugh>? Um, but it, it was the same, right? So I had to, I had to lean on those relationships that I have built. What does it mean to lead in this area, um, but also use that existing knowledge that I had of, of what is it that other cities are doing to help lead them into successful into the future so that we can recreate it in Columbia. Um, and then also what is currently going on? Who is working in this space? And how do I then check in with them and see w how is it going and what do we need to improve?
Andrea Learned (07:38):
I think that’s fantastic. And it, and it is the, the organization was the Urban Sustainability Directors Network that is mm-hmm. <affirmative> that is the organization of all of those roles through across the country. Correct.
Barbara Buffaloe (07:49):
Right. So, so, um, U S D N, that’s the acronym for Urban Sustainability Directors Network, uh, is Yeah. Made up of like, gosh, over, I don’t even know now, it’s like over 200 member communities that’s made up now of cities and counties in North America and Canada. Um, and at the time when I started, it started in 2009, when I went to my first meeting in 2010, there was only 65 of us there. Wow.
And that was like individual people just trying out this job. Some of us, our titles were like recycling coordinator, but we were getting tasked with all this other projects we were supposed to do. Yeah. Um, and then now, yeah, now it’s grown. I think there’s something like 1500 people in the network in representing all those different communities, and it’s just, um, it’s, it’s amazing to see. And I think the crazier thing to me though is that like, you know, to see people applying for the job, they now have degrees in this, which there was no degree when I was in college. Right. For sustainability, it was not even a word. Right.
Andrea Learned (08:47):
Right. Yeah. Oh, wow. I mean, that’s super exciting to me because you actually were, you were in that kind of pivotal or that transitional time mm-hmm. <affirmative> where Yeah. And now it’s just sort of obvious. Doesn’t your city have a, a sustainability? Right, right.
Barbara Buffaloe (09:02):
Right. Doesn’t your county Yeah.
Andrea Learned (09:04):
What is wrong? You know, and I’ve, since, since kind of knowing you were in that role, I have re that’s kind of been important to me to build a community and kind of understand more of the people in that space as well. But the thing that’s really exciting me, about what your transition is, just like, Ooh, this is really cool, because you’re kind of seeing in this, in the corporate space too, the sustainability director becomes the kind of integral leader, and it just makes sense, right. For the sustainability director to be the mayor <laugh>. Right. It does.
Barbara Buffaloe (09:32):
Well, because it, you know, you think about it for sustainability, um, it’s not like you’re just like a street engineer or you’re just a police officer. You had to know everything about the streets department and the police department and the utilities department. Like you had to know all these different things in order to propose changes and improvements. And so to move from that to mayor Yeah, it was very <laugh>. It was actually pretty easy. Yeah.
Andrea Learned (09:58):
That’s so cool. Did I read that you’re also involved in the National League of Cities?
Barbara Buffaloe (10:02):
Yeah, so we are a member of the National League of Cities. I will say, you know, the difference I see though in those different types of network coalitions is about how relationships are formed. Okay. And how, how they invest in relationships and how they also help, like, I guess kinda like support innovative ideas. So with U S D N, a big part of it was about the relationships. So they really focus on how do we get peers together, peer networking together, because that’s where we, that’s those are those safe spaces where you can share, I’m really trying to work on this, but I’m struggling. Does anybody have any advice or opportunities that they wish they had done or, or things that they wish they had not done? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, safe space. Yeah. A lot of times in the larger, um, associations, there’s not as much, you almost, you have to develop those relationships before you can share, frankly. Oh, okay. And, um, and sometimes they’re just, it’s, it’s only when they have an in-person meeting. Do you ever, ever actually get to do that? But otherwise it just seems like a lot of fans are thrown at you. Yeah. But it’s not really encouraging two-way conversations.
Andrea Learned (11:11):
It would seem to me that the people that are in National League of Cities are some of those larger associations who came up from a sustainability director’s network, which to me kind of sounds like a grad school cohort. Right. Like you’re right. Right. Yeah. Which really appeals to me because I remember, and I did grad school kind of later in my life and was with, you know, much younger people and I was like, this is fantastic. Right, right. To just have this be like, I don’t know what I’m doing. Ugh. Can anyone help me? Yes. And then the exchange of ideas is more on an even level rather than saying our city has long since had an e-bike share. You know, like being sort of Yeah. I’m so cool. So I love, is there anything else you can say about that? Because I think that’s really powerful and from a leadership perspective, building those networks and kind of understanding and really appreciating these grad school type cohort organizations Yeah. For what they are.
Barbara Buffaloe (11:58):
Yeah. Well, I, I will say, I mean, I can’t, I can’t like plus one that enough. Okay. I think any opportunity that these organizations have or these associations have where they could create smaller pods for people to have frank conversations is always useful.
Andrea Learned (12:15):
So you, uh, you are apparently now on the board of directors for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
Barbara Buffaloe (12:19):
Andrea Learned (12:20):
So tell me, like what are the bigger picture strategies or shifts that you’re maybe forwarding with that group these days?
Barbara Buffaloe (12:26):
Um, so one of the big ones is like for, you know, his history of the group. I mentioned it was a lot about peer networks, right? It was about that peer learning, that peer exchange, all of that. And that is still mission critical. That’s still so important to make the change. Um, the other thing that we’re looking into the space moving forward is about actually understanding you have all of these, those lived experiences, those on the ground examples of what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. And what they need help with is to help move that, to help give that feedback to like state and federal governments, oh, and okay, large institutions that are maybe going to look at funding some of these things or requiring or advocating for these sort of changes to have them have a relationship with those local practitioners so that, you know, we’re, I’m not getting like a unfunded mandate coming down from the state when I have a different experience with that program or policy. Right. Right. And so trying to help build those relationships so that, um, we are actually like, now we are making the change like system wide Yes. As opposed to just locally. But to give that feedback,
Andrea Learned (13:36):
Oh wow. That’s extremely powerful right now, I would imagine.
Barbara Buffaloe (13:40):
Yeah. That’s really powerful for that influence. But then also to think about it on our other regional partners that we can gather together with. So, you know, it’s really important for me, um, when I was the sustainability practitioner here in Columbia, I was part of the Heartland Regional Network, which is about, you know, seven states in the Midwest where we would talk, we would have monthly conference calls and talk with one another. The projects that we worked on together mm-hmm. <affirmative> were so influential for even me locally. Wow. So for instance, we partnered with some of those other like university towns in the Midwest about items like, um, what are, what are local climate data tell us that we’re gonna be experiencing in the future? I don’t have that personal information, but if we work together, we’re able to partner right. With somebody, they’d have those data sets to tell us what to prepare for in the already changing climate. So regional collaboration is another one that is a key focus of U S D N.
Andrea Learned (14:37):
So kind of related, I’m always interested in how you got into sustainability or environmental stuff in the first place. Mm. What did you study in college?
Barbara Buffaloe (14:45):
So I always wanted to be an architect and one of my passions with architecture was existing buildings, like necessarily new construction, but giving new life to existing buildings that maybe, especially if they had like kind of fallen on hard times. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so adaptive reuse was a passion of mine. Um, I went to school and after school I worked for an architecture firm in, uh, actually downtown St. Louis, Missouri. And then I went on to graduate school for Environment and Behavior because I realized I was an okay designer, but I was a much better influencer. And this is before influencer was like a terminology.
Andrea Learned (15:20):
I love it. But that you came to it yourself and owned it.
Barbara Buffaloe (15:23):
Yeah. Like I was like, hold on, I’m okay at designing, but I’m better at actually encouraging like my firm to do. Like, um, this is when lead Accreditation first came out and lead certified buildings first came out. Yep. So in 2004 I became, I got my lead accreditation professional certification and I started to realize, hold on, I can influence other people to do better. So that’s when I went back to graduate school studying the social sciences and looking into what makes people choose Yes. Environmental behaviors. Yes. Yes. And then I volunteered on a commission with the city volunteering again, <laugh>. Exactly. I volunteered on a commission with the city and that’s where I learned the impacts of local government. Okay. And I realized, you know, me just encouraging one-off homeowners to do sustainable practices in their buildings is great. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> me riding my bike or saving my own energy. That’s great. Yeah. But if I could influence, you know what I mean, like policy mm-hmm. <affirmative> or the creation of programs mm-hmm. <affirmative> that’s even greater. Yes. And so they were creating the sustainability office with stimulus funds. Okay. And I thought, huh, I wanna apply to be on that. Great. So I wanna apply it for that position. And so that’s kind of how I transitioned into actually working for local government because of the, the just amazing power of good that it has.
Andrea Learned (16:43):
Barbara’s the first person I’ve talked with who specifically brings up the term influencer and a lot of people including me, struggle with the term and perhaps wrongly shy away from it.
Barbara Buffaloe (16:53):
I do it not to monetize myself. I think that’s where Okay. I think influencer has become, um, money has like a stigma against it. Yeah. Has a stigma against it about it being like, to monetize things. And I would argue the majority of people you see that are like quote influencers, they’re actually, I mean they’re, they’re doing it cuz they actually do believe in the things that they’re doing. Right. They, they want to encourage good household decorations, they wanna encourage Right. You know, active transportation or climate action and then
Andrea Learned (17:21):
They start getting paid.
Barbara Buffaloe (17:23):
Right. And that’s great. Right. We wanna pay people for doing good things. And so, and so I think the term has become kind of sway them with the idea that they’re only doing it for basically monetization. Right. Whereas, like, for me it was like, well no, it’s for encouraging good behaviors. Yeah. Yeah. To show that this is not, you know, I’m active transportation advocate and I can still wear heels like
Andrea Learned (17:45):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Barbara Buffaloe (17:47):
<laugh> it doesn’t, it’s not you not just one look.
Andrea Learned (17:49):
You’re not running in the room going, everyone here, I rode my bike and this is why. Right. You’re just slowly over time showing up at meetings. Yeah. Maybe you’re a little rain drenched, you know, maybe you’re a little sweaty, whatever. That’s, yeah. And that’s living change. Right. That is a huge part of my thing. So thank you for saying that and thank you for doing it and I hope that I kind, I, I love that this conversation is about that and maybe can help influence other people to think about what they can do and to redefine influence at least in your head. Yeah. Maybe
Barbara Buffaloe (18:20):
Say, yeah, what
Andrea Learned (18:20):
Does it mean? You can own it a little bit. So to the other point, when did you start riding your bike for transportation and why?
Barbara Buffaloe (18:27):
Um, when my husband and I first moved back to Columbia, you know, we were both going to school. We both chose to live within a mile of the campus because we didn’t want to drive, like we wanted to walk to campus. Yes. Hallelujah. But we were renting at the time when we decided to buy our first home, we couldn’t afford to live right next to campus, but we wanted to live in a house that we could at least then ride our bikes. Yes. Easily. Right. So it’d take a little bit longer to walk, but we could ride our bikes. And so we purposefully chose a place that we could, you know, easily ride our bikes within like 20, 30 minutes to get to campus or to work. Those are conscious decisions. And you know, one of the things that I always tell people, um, and I did, I do Pilates and you know, one of the things they talk about in your principles is consciously competent mm-hmm. <affirmative>
And like your, your goal is to be unconsciously competent, to be standing up with good posture and doing all those things. And that’s one of the things I always ask for people is to make conscious decisions. Like to be consciously competent in the decisions that you are making, in the hopes that eventually it becomes unconscious. Right. You know, it’s easy for me on Wednesdays to ride my bike or a walk cuz my husband will take the kids to school. Like these are just Yes. You know, I was consciously making the decisions and then it just became unconscious. Like, this is just the decisions we make. Um, so I like being an active commuter mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it’s funny, when I talk to people, they’re assuming I’m doing it because of the environmental reasons for it. Yes. Which is a big part of it. Um, but in reality it’s just more fun. Like, it’s a lot more fun to ride my bike or walk than it is to drive, to go to work. I get to breathe fresh air, I get to wave at people, I get to just be more conscious of my surroundings and present. And so for me it’s, it’s just, yeah. It’s just more fun.
Andrea Learned (20:22):
Well it’s so funny you say that because being now in the climate space as much as I am, people are always like, oh, well you must have started biking for climate. And I’m like, no, no, no, no. And I lived in Portland, Oregon back in the day when none of that infrastructure was there. If you visited it lately. Yeah. Yeah. And it was just extremely… one, I’m from Michigan, it was extremely practical. Yes. I didn’t wanna, I didn’t wanna drive. And then the other thing is, again, the Michigan, or my impatience, it was the bus was too slow. <laugh> <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so I was like, someone, one of my friends was just like in a band, right. This sort of Nirvana era and we would go to shows at night and he’s just like, why don’t you just get a bike? And I literally got a three speed bike at a thrift store like that day and it changed my life and it was practicality, freedom from waiting, freedom from parking.
Then I slowly over time was like, oh my goodness, this is climate action. So I, yes. I think that to your point, the reasons that people get into some of this stuff often has nothing to do with these big lofty causes that we’re all trying to forward now. It’s just, and again, the conscious competence and the unconscious competition, it’s just like I unconsciously am running around riding my bike and just sort of being a reflection so that people are like, oh my gosh. People will say, Andrea, I’m gonna buy an e-bike cuz I sat here and talked with you for 15 minutes.
Barbara Buffaloe (21:38):
I remember I had a conversation, I think this is like maybe 2019 with one of our local advocates for, for cycling infrastructure. And I was talking about the climate impact of it and he’s like, you know, I never really thought about that. What? And I was like, you’ve been like the ex, you know what I mean? Like the executive director of this, you know, for how long? And you never really thought about the environmental impact of what it is you were advocating for, which, but that just goes to show yes, we have our own lived experiences mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we come at this from different ways. And so I think most people, they have assumptions about what it means to be a cyclist, and yet, you know, we could say the same thing about pedestrians, drivers, all these different things. And so it’s just kind of like, take that out of it.
Andrea Learned (22:22):
Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I love that story. That’s so great. Has there been anything that, a lot of what I talk about here is surprising validators or surprising, you know, kind of, uh, instigators or things that launch other programs. Has there been anything surprising where this thing happened and then all of a sudden that happened and you just didn’t see it coming?
Barbara Buffaloe (22:40):
Yeah, so, you know, we had our Missouri Department of Transportation is looking at improvements to where two major highways meet in Columbia. Uh, and it was really interesting to me, but based on them just talking about that initial project, we now have a local coalition of groups that are getting together about how do we influence what that looks like. When that physically comes together, that helps us kind of think about how does regional transportation physically look across all of Columbia and then potentially other communities could, could replicate that as well. And so I was just, I really loved how that kind of like, you know, normally Missouri department transportation is kinda like, we are doing this, we’re gonna say we’re talking to you <laugh>. But we’re like, no, we do wanna actually think about how that looks. So,
Andrea Learned (23:25):
Yeah. So, and the, the point there was that you sort of invited the convening of that meeting or that that Yeah. I mean that is huge, right? So just introducing, and that is part of this understanding of influence. Right, right. Right. I know. And I trust that in the long term, this is probably gonna help us get into a deeper, better conversation. Yeah. So I will convene the fun little party at first. <laugh> <laugh>,
Barbara Buffaloe (23:49):
I heard this really good, this is one of the feedbacks that I got at that, that new mayor’s, uh, training that I was at the, all of a sudden click that I’m the mayor and when I ask people to come together, they do. Oh. And I’m like, whoa,
Andrea Learned (24:03):
That is so cool. And I was like,
Barbara Buffaloe (24:06):
Oh, that’s a great feeling. So now I don’t wanna abuse that. Right? I don’t wanna just call everyone together all the time, but like the idea that they will come, I was like, oh, that is, thank you for reminding me that
Andrea Learned (24:17):
From a broader leadership perspective, no matter where your career takes you or what area you’re in, understanding the power of convening is key. Whether it’s virtually for a tweet up or in your neighborhood for a book club, people who are brave enough to step up and say, I’ll convene a group, can have a lot of impact. These gatherings open up so many doors for more conversation and community. So realizing the power to convene is a major insight. Have you applied this understanding about convening in your own work?
Barbara Buffaloe (24:45):
Yeah. Well, so one thing I was just thinking of is that, you know, I stepped into this space. I, I started working for the city because I was volunteering on a commission. Like that’s how I just had a subject. I just thought I was gonna be an architect or I thought I was gonna work in this space, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And then I volunteered on a local commission and I started to understand the importance of local government and like the way it really impacts where we live and where, you know, and I love where I live. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> thinking about that. Um, so one of the things that I’m working on is with the United We Project. Mm. Um, it is basically this idea of sort of building the bench to get more and more women and minoritized communities involved in boards and commissions.
Andrea Learned (25:31):
Oh my gosh. Um,
Barbara Buffaloe (25:31):
To help influence the decisions that are made locally. And, you know, eventually if those people decide to run for office even better, right? Yes. Like, let’s, let’s really get more involvement from, from our other community members in our local government. And so by partnering with the United We Project, one of the things that we’re doing in Columbia is, is kind of hosting events where we can help women help minority communities know how to apply or be involved in local government and like where the applications available. Um, what does it mean to serve on a border commission basically, it just kind of help almost like demystify Yes. The process of being engaged mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, and having your voice heard. So we’re looking forward to basically just increase the representation.
Andrea Learned (26:20):
I think this has been an amazing conversation. It’s been so wonderful to talk to you and I’m so glad that I came across you whenever I did two years. It’s been a really long time. Anyway, I find I find joy in the biking and I find joy in the podcasting and I find joy in talking to you. So thank you.
Thank you, Andrea.
Andrea Learned (26:43):
I can’t thank Mayor Buffalo enough for the joyful conversation, which I hope will continue on Twitter and in person soon. It’s unique when leaders actually recognize their strengths and harness that power in their leadership. I love calling it out and I really emphasize it with my clients. And frankly, I get frustrated by the lack of it because we’re all limiting our climate influence by not owning it. The last thing I wanna emphasize is Barbara’s goal of being consciously competent in the hopes she becomes unconsciously competent. I love that way of framing intentional decisions in the moment as muscle memory for future lifestyle shifts. I’m going to steal it. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn
Living Change is produced by Larj Media. That’s l a R j Media. Thank you to everyone sending positive feedback and giving us ratings and reviews. They’ve been amazing. You have no idea how much that helps. Get this podcast on the radar of leaders who want to practice living change so your ratings and reviews actually have their own climate influence. Until next time, pedal safely.
Robbyn Lewis/ Baltimore, MD
Andrea Learned (00:19):
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Today I’m speaking with Delegate Robbyn Lewis, representing Baltimore’s District 46 in the Maryland state legislature. Hi Robbyn.
Robbyn Lewis (00:48):
Hi. How are you?
Andrea Learned (00:51):
It’s nice to meet you. I first came across Robbyn through her work, prioritizing the importance of safe and livable communities. Although 30% of Baltimore residents depend on public transit to live and work, Robbyn is the only member of the Maryland General Assembly who is car free by choice. Through that choice, she actually knows the transit system she’s legislating on, and that familiarity informs her urgency in pursuing healthier, better funded and equitable transportation infrastructure. Robbyn’s dedicated bus lane legislation of 2019 laid the groundwork for faster, more reliable service. And so I wanted to start there.
Robbyn Lewis (01:29):
Dedicated bus lanes prioritize moving lots of people over moving individuals in a single vehicle. And like, that’s democracy to me. The greatest good for the greatest number, moving the most people effectively and efficiently. Mm-hmm. [affirmative], that is way more important than moving one person in a car.
Andrea Learned (01:44):
Robbyn Lewis (01:46):
And I learned about dedicated bus lanes, uh, traveling to other places where I saw them, like in Vancouver and New York. And I learned that in Baltimore, a decision was made by the governor at the time, uh, in 2015 or so, governor Larry Hogan and his Department of Transportation decided that in the aftermath of canceling the Red Line Light Rail project, which was a 2 billion massive infrastructure investment in Baltimore City, in Baltimore region, that would have been the largest investment in public infrastructure in Maryland in, you know, like a hundred years. Wow. He canceled that and not only denied Baltimore City this enormously important economic catalytic infrastructure project, but reinforced the history of underinvestment, destruction of public transportation.
Andrea Learned (02:43):
So what does dedicated mean in terms of bus lanes?
Robbyn Lewis (02:45):
Yeah, so you don’t just paint the lanes, you have to enforce them. And what enforcement means defining encroachment or impediment of the lanes as an offense, as you know, something that can be sanctioned, right?
Andrea Learned (02:59):
Robbyn Lewis (03:00):
So, interfering with the bus lane, blocking the movement of a bus in a bus lane, parking your vehicle at a bus stop on a bus lane. Those are offenses and those will qualify for enforcement or citation or some kind of penalty. And so I introduced legislation after the Hogan administration, you know, installed about five miles of dedicated bus lanes in Baltimore City. It took me literally two pieces of legislation and four years to finally pass legislation that enabled bus lane enforcement. Uh, in a way we’re doing it here in Maryland, specifically in Baltimore, which is the only jurisdiction with bus lanes. Right now, the way we’re enforcing or protecting our bus lanes is through automatic camera enforcement. This takes police out of the equation of enforcing and protecting the lanes, citing people who block the lanes and puts it in the domain of digital technology. We are using stationary automatic enforcement cameras, which exist everywhere. Everyone’s familiar with them. You’ve had your red light camera, you have your, your speed camera. Those are stationary cameras that take pictures and calculate whether you’re speeding, whether you’ve run a red light. Right? And in this case, whether you are in a bus lane and the bus can’t move because of you,
Andrea Learned (04:24):
And it’s just a matter of course. So it’s not like the police have to come and Right. And pull you over. And it’s this whole, it’s just like what we’re used to. We’re used to getting something in the mail that says, Uhhuh, you owe money. Yeah, and gotcha, right. And then that, then they’re like, oh, right. Like you, it’s so, I mean, I’m, I know that there’s a privacy kind of thing about all these public cameras, but also when it comes to this sort of thing, I’m like, yeah, okay, do it. But I wanna turn to the question of safe and easy bus access. Everyone is trying to figure this out because it’s connected to everything. You successfully helped pass a bill that requires the state to begin measuring and reporting on non-fatal crash injuries by race.
Robbyn Lewis (05:02):
Right? So all of this stuff is connected. Improvement in transit is a social justice issue, right? Mm-hmm, um, protecting black and brown people moving through space, uh, you know, in public space is a social justice issue. So, you know, black person walking to a bus stop crossing an intersection to get to a bus stop and getting into
Andrea Learned (05:25):
Looking and looking and looking for a bus stop. Yeah.
Robbyn Lewis (05:27):
Robbyn Lewis (05:30):
You know, it’s all connected. And fixing public transit is one of the most powerful ways that we can create a justice society, repair the harm of, you know, white supremacy and racism, uh, of the past, really just fix the transit system. And a lot of the other stuff will come to place. The other ingredient in my thinking and in my work is that I am a public health professional. So I’m always thinking about population level health. How do we make the sort of shifts in land use, built environment, health delivery right? That will deliver the greatest benefit for the population. And pedestrian safety is another one of those mechanisms for protecting and improving public health. I experienced issues around pedestrian safety cuz I’m a pedestrian. We’re all pedestrians at some point during our days. Yeah. But if you are car free, like I am,
Andrea Learned (06:26):
Robbyn Lewis (06:27):
You’re more often a pedestrian and more often subject to the inequities and the dangers of moving around, but mm-hmm. But as a, as a legislator, a policymaker and a public health professional, those things for me are inextricably entwined. Mm-hmm. So what do you do about it? Well, in addition to having been a transit advocate, before I became a legislator, I was also really interested in the built environment and Yes. And streets, public spaces and accessibility and safety of moving around in public spaces. So something outside of the realm of legislating. Like there’s something that can’t be fixed by a bill. Yes. And those are things that require collective action. And I, I looked at this, uh, in my own community when I learned that there were many residents of the community where I live, who are also now my constituents, [laugh] Uh Huh, who were concerned about the experience of moving around two major arterials in our neighborhood. Two big busy streets, high volume and high speed traffic that were dangerous to move around to cross the streets to live near. Yeah. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that these high speed arterial streets that are causing so much harm and unhappiness that they are the, the physical vestige of the residential racial red lines, the red
Andrea Learned (07:58):
Robbyn Lewis (07:59):
In our city. Yep.
Andrea Learned (08:01):
Surprise, Surprise. We have the same in Seattle. Same in Seattle.
Robbyn Lewis (08:03):
It’s everywhere. Yeah. I mean, it was a tool. Let’s put a highway down here and cut these people off. Yeah. That’ll stop ’em from coming to our park. And, and sure enough, it did. And it’s, and it still does. And it also kills people cause we get hit by cars and who’s getting hit, you know? So I started hearing complaints not only from the college educated, you know, worldly white neighbors who ride bikes, but also from uh, African-American legacy residents, older residents who’ve lived in these communities for a long time and had the same complaint. How often does that happen? Oh
Andrea Learned (08:41):
Wait, we’re gonna emphasize this moment because I, how often, and this is the stuff that’s really fun to talk to you about. It’s like, tell me how those came together because let’s analyze it and figure out how to create more of it.
Robbyn Lewis (08:52):
So what I did was I hired a couple of young, um, neighbors to help me conduct a community survey. We knocked over 400 doors. [Wow.] Talked to, I don’t know, like 200 or so people and asked them one question. And that question was this, if you could change one thing about your block, your street where you live Huh? What would it be? You would think in Baltimore that one thing would be crime.
Andrea Learned (09:23):
Robbyn Lewis (09:24):
It was not. For something like 80% of the respondents, people we spoke to said, get these cars off my street, slow down these cars.
Andrea Learned (09:35):
Oh my goodness.
Robbyn Lewis (09:36):
I couldn’t believe it. Now you
Andrea Learned (09:38):
Robbyn Lewis (09:38):
And this is, you know, this is not a randomized, uh, survey.
Andrea Learned (09:42):
Oh yeah. Right, right.
Robbyn Lewis (09:44):
Quality control. This Is just whoever opened the door, we, we knocked doors for, I don’t know, like six weeks and everybody that we managed to talk to. So this is a selective group of people who happened to be there and talk. Who wanted to talk to us. But I think that that is still information and it is useful. And it was great cuz it reinforced what I felt mm-hmm, and what the data suggests from other places. But no one had ever asked people in Baltimore city this question.
Andrea Learned (10:11):
Oh my gosh. The thing that you’re reminding me of is this is just all, you know that FTW for the win. Yeah. Every, you know, everything that I kind of, you know, my bikes for climate, my plant-based for climate, everything that I do, I’m just like, listen. Right. If we get more people safely riding bikes, you who want to continue to drive your car on the street will have less traffic to fight with. Right. Like there’s no, there’s no, it’s F t w or there’s no downside. And you have to figure out how to tell that story. And it sounds like you went and you got that and now you have, even if it’s unscientific data, right. You’ve got this. Yeah. The majority of these people we randomly walked up to said this. So I think there’s something there
Robbyn Lewis (10:48):
Exactly. And there absolutely is. And we have to keep building on that. So I took that as sort of a mandate to build a framework for the community to act for the young white hipsters and, you know, miss Mary’s and everybody in between. And I created a network, a coalition that’s called the Livable Streets Coalition.
Andrea Learned (11:10):
Robbyn Lewis (11:11):
Established the coalition in the fall of 2019 and organized a series of meetings that brought folks across this historic racial divide. Mm-hmm. ,… this physical barrier of these high-speed roads created a coalition that includes not only neighbors, but the school community and elementary schools are part of the coalition. Mm-hmm, it includes nonprofits like the A A R P.
Andrea Learned (11:39):
Robbyn Lewis (11:40):
They, uh, saw that Livable Street. I mean they have a national Aging in place program that includes a, I think they call it Livable Streets initiative because a street that’s safe, healthy, and accessible for a senior citizen is also safe, healthy and accessible for you. Me, little kids, everybody. So they were like, we’ve got a stake in what you’re doing. They joined the coalition, a couple of local nonprofits, um, joined, uh, the, and and we also have sitting at the table with the coalition of Baltimore City, department of Transportation, department of Planning. And what we really wanted to do was create a space where residents could take action to transform the streets to make them livable.
Andrea Learned (12:22):
Oh, great. So they could take it on themselves.
Robbyn Lewis (12:25):
Yeah. So, uh, and then covid hit, we started having virtual meetings, but we took advantage of that to do some training of coalition members. And there are more than 200 people who are members of a coalition. We did a couple of Zoom training series on design thinking. Yes. We trained about 25 members on how to use design thinking to develop projects. Cuz that’s what we want. We’re gonna do an intervention to slow down the traffic or make the street more accessible or whatever. And then we also, I was so lucky that A A R P [assigned] a transportation planner to the coalition and that planner helped us design a project.
Andrea Learned (13:01):
Robbyn Lewis (13:02):
So we have a project on paper and we also have, um, a fiscal agent and we’re going to, in the coming year, bring that project, that traffic calming project mm-hmm. …to life. And what the folks community, the members of the coalition, want to do is a traffic calming project in front of one of our elementary schools. So responding to a community complaint, brew into a coalition, which is now going to result in some transformations on our streets that will include black, white, young, old, rich, poor across a historic racial divide.
Andrea Learned (13:39):
I mean, that’s incredible. This is a no-brainer. Every other city in the US, slow the traffic down. Good. Slow the car.
Robbyn Lewis (13:49):
I mean, the people will tell you, I bet you if someone had money for a survey, a could really randomize it. And yes. Election bias out of the picture, I think people would tell us really interesting things. And I think there is so much common ground. Yeah. There’s a lot of work to do. And I don’t want to mislead you that this was easy and that I just got people together and here we go. Like
Andrea Learned (14:11):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robbyn Lewis (14:12):
This is really, it’s, it’s me doing it mm-hmm, it’s me driving, like I’m the instrument of the people’s will and all that. It’s great, but I still only have 24 hours a day.
Andrea Learned (14:24):
Robbyn Lewis (14:26):
And, as a delegate, and also I have a day job in Maryland.
Andrea Learned (14:30):
Oh, do tell
Robbyn Lewis (14:32):
Andrea Learned (14:34):
Oh my gosh.
Robbyn Lewis (14:35):
I was a full-time legislator for my first five years and I’m in my sixth year and I was able to get a job in sort of in my field of public health. Okay. I work as the, the, um, sort of internship coordinator for master students at, at the School of Public Health at Hopkins. So I help master students in public health find internships, which is part of their academic requirement. They’ve gotta do an internship while they’re in the program. Wonderful. It’s very much a nine to five in an academic setting. But it does allow me, you know, an, an income so that I can live as a, as as a legislator. In Maryland, we are citizen legislators. Mm- hmm;, we are part-time mm-hmm, and paid accordingly. But it really is not a part-time job in the 21st century. It’s Right. Really quite consuming and, and, but paid at like a part-time rate. Mm-hmm. So it’s quite challenging to survive like that given your all given your heart not really being able to cover your living expenses, frankly. Mm-hmm. I, I’ve used all my savings, so, but that means I’ve got responsibilities nine to five at Hopkins and balancing that with my delegate work and all that.
Andrea Learned (15:53):
Robbyn, you’re embodying the name of the podcast. Your living change through riding your bike, taking a bus, and in both your legislative job and work helping place students with internships, you’re scaling climate influence.
Robbyn Lewis (16:05):
Write that down. [laugh]
Andrea Learned (16:07):
That’s my word. That’s my word friend. I mean, I’m just like, we have climate influence, each of us and especially people in leadership, lawmakers, corporate leaders, et cetera. We have climate leadership kind of climate influence that we can find, identify and scale. And so I will say kudos to you because the social media, taking time to do that right. Is scaling climate influence and being visible riding your bike. So big kudos for that. Your photos on Twitter are of you with your bike. Right. And the things you’re doing on TikTok sometimes have a bike. It’s just like, this is a social norm for a leader riding around town in maybe a city where it’s kind of unusual, maybe specifically for a person of color. Tell me about riding your bike around town and what that does both for your constituents and your peers.
Robbyn Lewis (16:51):
Yeah. So for my constituents, I have one story from my peers. I have another I’ll share.
Andrea Learned (16:56):
Robbyn Lewis (16:56):
Great. I, I was riding my bike one day, …
Robbyn Lewis (17:01):
And uh, came to an intersection. The light changed. I had to wait for the light to change. So I’m there instead of straddling my bike waiting at the intersection. And when the light was in my favor, as I’m going across on my bike on the crosswalk, a vehicle comes perpendicular to me. And I noticed the corner mine, the vehicle’s not slowing down. It was an suv of course,
Andrea Learned (17:28):
Robbyn Lewis (17:29):
But luckily the last minute I saw the driver look up and kind of, you know, sudden break.
Andrea Learned (17:35):
Robbyn Lewis (17:36):
And so I was like, okay, I guess I can keep moving. But then for whatever reason they’d lightened their pressure on the brake and the car just started rolling a little bit towards me. I think they were maybe looking at their phone or they were fiddling with the radio, but they weren’t paying attention. So I’m like, Hey. I was like, are you fucking crazy? Cause they, and I wasn’t gonna stop. I’m like, I have the right of way. Yes. You were irresponsible, moron. Yes.
Andrea Learned (18:03):
Robbyn Lewis (18:04):
And then I saw the other end of the crosswalk, a couple, a man and a woman also on their bikes. And I thought, oh my God, those are probably constituents. And they just heard me screaming and cursing. Yeah. And losing control in public Right. And my heart sank. And I thought, oh God, maybe they won’t know. They won’t know it’s me. I know they’re my constituents, but hopefully they won’t know it’s me. Right. As I got closer to them, they said, right on Delegate Lewis, you tell ’em.
Andrea Learned (18:38):
Woo. Oh my gosh. High five.
Robbyn Lewis (18:41):
So not only did they know it was me, they thought it was great that I was cursing at a SUV driver and they saw someone standing up for them.
Andrea Learned (18:53):
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Robbyn Lewis (19:41):
On the side of my colleagues, I get a lot of teasing
Andrea Learned (19:46):
Robbyn Lewis (19:47):
From some folks. And, uh, I had a colleague just this morning, you know, who’s an older person used to driving and, you know, takes delight and teasing me Every time he sees me, he says, Hey, how you doing with those bike lanes? What about those bus lanes? You gonna raise the fine, you gonna raise the fine? And I was like, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna put you on the handlebar of my bike and ride you down the street. Hello.
Andrea Learned (20:17):
Robbyn Lewis (20:17):
Yeah. Uh, but at the same time, when it comes to my colleagues, I’m in very good company now. Great. Five or 10 years ago in this legislature, there was no sense of shared priority about investing in transit, which was how Governor Hogan really was able to get away with canceling the red line. Now there are about 70 members of the House and Senate of Maryland who have signed on as members of what we call a transit caucus who are committed to investing in building and defending transit as a priority in, in state policy. So I’m in very good company.
Andrea Learned (20:56):
Can I ask you, do you have a sense of how many in that number also ride their bikes as transportation? Any amount of time?
Robbyn Lewis (21:04):
Yeah. No, I’m the only member who’s car free. Okay. But I do have colleagues who use transit to get to work and who ride bikes. But the beauty is that even for members of the Transit caucus who might never set foot on a Baltimore City bus, they’re committed to making sure that people who use the Baltimore City bus have the best service.
Andrea Learned (21:24):
Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, I could talk with you forever, and because it’s so interesting and you’re doing amazing work and your examples are wonderful and should be heard by many, many more. So I’ll keep amplifying everything I see of yours. But thinking of other people in your situation, in local or regional kind of lawmaking capacities, what have you learned about maybe, and I’ll give you a couple topics. One is sort of social engagement or engagement with your constituents on how to leverage that, how to build that. What have you learned about bringing along resistant peers? Give me a couple of ideas like that, that you would, from your position, say, well, I found that this works, or it’s really worth trying.
Robbyn Lewis (22:03):
Well, I think the best thing to do is in every part of life, lead from strength. So focus on the people who support the, the issues you’re working for. You’re fighting for, don’t worry about NIMBYs.
Andrea Learned (22:17):
Robbyn Lewis (22:18):
I just, we don’t have time. The planet is melting. Yep. Focus on people who want what you want and bring more of those people together and you’ll discover what I’ve discovered over the last decade. Plus more people wanted the red line than didn’t want it. More people want walkable streets than don’t want walkable streets. The hard part of this work is just identifying those people and bringing them together. I help them feel seen, heard and powerful. So that would be one bit of advice. The other thing I’d say is deliver as quickly as you can. Right. Whether it’s painting a crosswalk or, or something that people can feel and it’s visible. Do that as quickly as you can. And I think that’s just a principle of tactical urbanism. And I I would also say don’t choose to go car free and then suffer. Yes. The slings and arrows. You know, you don’t, everybody can’t be car free. It doesn’t need to be. And everybody doesn’t need to ride a bike, you know, but we all walk. Yeah. And so put your energy in activities and actions that, that you hit that are in your heart. And then I’ll give you more energy.
Andrea Learned (23:30):
I love that. Now, I don’t wanna let you leave without asking you about the zero waste task force.
Robbyn Lewis (23:35):
So the people of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay have been fighting to, to shut down a waste to energy incinerator in their neighborhood. Okay. And it was built long before we came along, but it has negative health and social impacts. They wanna shut down. They asked me as a legislator for help. There are all sorts of issues such as we make more waste than we can landfill. What do we do? Incineration is an option that has been chosen, but the people want it gone. So I’m like, what can I do? There’s not a Bill. People need me to do something. What can we do? Build bringing people together. Build a coalition. So I decided, and cause I know that I have a lot of colleagues in the legislature who are very environment minded, who were individually, independently introducing bills on recycling and bills on, you know, landfills and all this other, I was like, why don’t we come together?
Maybe there’s a, a platform we can build on that would address the, this particular community’s desire to get rid of incineration. Mm-hmm. and our larger vision for a healthy Maryland, which is a zero waste economy. So we try to introduce a package of bills that Yes. Will bring us closer. Yeah. And a couple of the bills did pass last year. Great. We’ll engage the community to, to write letters and testify in support of these bills. And we’ll just keep building political power around this vision. And if we can stick with it over time, the puzzle pieces will come together. And, and maybe some of us will grow into positions of leadership in different ways. And we will have set the foundation.
Andrea Learned (25:13):
Thank you delegate Robbyn Lewis for, for sharing this your, your leadership and your inspiration and your motivation and your experience and your background. And they are wonderful stories. And thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Robbyn Lewis (25:28):
It’s been wonderful for me too. I love meeting people who are interested in this stuff. It’s really a joy to talk with you because you’re interested in these issues. And, and it’s also really reassuring that as I’m toiling and, and scrapping around and, uh, trying to do even just small incremental things that it, someone noticed mm-hmm. …and thinks that it’s worthy. And so for that, I’m grateful to you and I thank you for your interest and I, and I’m, and I feel also in joining you on the podcast, that I’m part of a, a community
Andrea Learned (26:10):
You are. And again, thank you
Robbyn Lewis (26:13):
Andrea Learned (26:17):
Lead from strength and focus on activities and actions that are in your heart and that’ll give you more energy. That is such great advice for all of us, so many of us have the potential to lead in our industry’s… corporate, film, politics. And as a climate influencer, I’m always pushing for action and results. So I appreciate Robbyn encouraging us to deliver on our initiatives as quickly as possible. Getting visible results helps drive momentum and change snowballs. So as Robbyn says, let’s find the people who want what we want. Not worry about those NIMBYs and get to work.
Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find email@example.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter, until it is no more. And LinkedIn. Living Change is produced by larj media. That’s l a R j Media. Thank you to everyone sending positive feedback and giving us ratings and reviews. They’ve been amazing. You have no idea how much that helps get this podcast on the radar of leaders who want to practice living change. Until next time, pedal safely.
Amy Westervelt / Drilled Podcast
Andrea Learned (00:05):
I’m Andrea Learned, and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. In this special episode of Living Change Climate journalist and podcaster, Amy Westervelt and I discuss her new podcast series: Light, Sweet Crude, a crossover of her award-winning podcast Drilled. Amy dives deep into ExxonMobil’s activities in Guyana, debunking the moral case for fossil fuels. As a longtime climate journalist, she has a 30,000 foot view of what’s going on. We get into the lessons learned from watching bad corporate influence, things like the importance of local reporting and big picture narrative framing, something the good guys are just not as good at. We even had a light bulb moment over a new role corporations should consider.
Amy Westervelt (01:03):
Andrea Learned (01:04):
How’s it going? Good. It’s great to meet you.
Amy Westervelt (01:06):
I was like, I’ve like interacted with her on social media before, but we’ve never talked <laugh>. Yeah.
Andrea Learned (01:11):
This is the thing, and I don’t know how long I think it was, this is the thing that I actually wanna talk about a little bit, is climate media on Twitter. Like it’s you got, yeah. How are, how are you feeling about not the, you know, the where it is right now, but just that’s how I found you. That’s how we started to engage. Yeah. How is climate media feeling about Twitter right now? And tell me why you do use it a lot and why you have.
Amy Westervelt (01:38):
Yeah. Um, I don’t, I, I feel, I feel conflicted about Twitter right now just because of all of the stuff that’s been happening there. And then there has been like a huge uptick in trolls. Yeah. And a lot of like, um, you know, kind of climate denial bots. There’s this one bot that just like posts Noah data
Having climate tweet, which nice <laugh> <laugh>. Yeah. Um, but anyway, so that, you know, and also I’m, I’m finding that like, um, I’m not seeing as much of the people that I actually follow my feed mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it’s harder to keep track of what’s going on with different climate things unless I’m just like going to specific people’s profiles mm-hmm. <affirmative> and looking at what they’ve been saying. Um, it’s weird. It’s weird. So I’ve been, I, like, I have a Mastodon account now too. Yeah. And there’s some interesting stuff happening over there as well, and I’ve been just spending a lot less time on Twitter, which is great for getting actual work done, so. Oh,
Andrea Learned (02:47):
That’s good. Good. Who
Amy Westervelt (02:48):
Knew? I know
Andrea Learned (02:49):
<laugh> well, it’s interesting. I mean, I’m really glad that I’ve been following you for a while and that we’ve engaged a little bit because it, it’s super exciting to watch your work and it’s, thank you. This new, uh, show is really, there’s only two episodes up so far. Yeah. And it’s been amazing. But the thing that I noted just kind of leading in with social media is talking the second episode, talking with the publisher, Glenn.
Amy Westervelt (03:13):
Andrea Learned (03:13):
Right. And so, I mean, I, I could just jump right in, but the deal is that he is just like la right? He’s on this and he’s on this. And so tell me a little bit about when, like, that’s a big deal that this guy is like, fully trying to use it. So tell me about that.
Amy Westervelt (03:27):
Yeah, it’s really interesting. And actually like, um, I think I, I might put this out as a bonus episode cuz I had a long conversation about with him, about like sort of the, the parameters of that as a publisher and like how much you should and shouldn’t be trying to influence, you know, public opinion about things Yeah. Or politics or whatever. And he kind of sees himself as a publisher as like, well, he’s like, I’m not a journalist, I’m a publisher. So it’s different. But also like, you know, I am also a citizen of this country, so I should be allowed to have opinions about how the country is being run and things like that. But anyway, it was interesting, but he is very like really out there on social media making videos on TikTok and he’s on YouTube and he, like, he’s, you know, doing stuff all, all the time. He has a newspaper and a radio station and he, um, he likes to, his main thing is to translate the news into local dialect, which they call Creoles
Andrea Learned (04:30):
Amy Westervelt (04:31):
Yes. As a way to like, speak to predominantly like the, the working class, um, population there. So it’s pretty interesting how he, how he uses it. I mean, he’s, he’s gotten really into TikTok. Like he, he’s making like a video a day. He’s got like a green screen. He is really like elaborate sets and isn’t
Andrea Learned (04:52):
He just using it like a verb too? I tiktoked I just,
Amy Westervelt (04:56):
I I’m TikTok you again today. Like he’s, it’s yeah, he’s very entertaining. I thought
Andrea Learned (05:00):
It was so cool. But it kind of gets right into kind of the influence that you’re talking about, the influence of Exxon there, which is, and we can get deeper into it, right. Which is advertorials and all the stuff that we’re gonna talk about. And he’s just like, yeah, what, how can I even, you know, come up with balancing that? And, and so I guess the question there would be how into listening to social media or following TikTok or whatever are the people. So tell me about the balance. Obviously it’s hugely out of proportion, but what’s the balance of people that are paying attention to him versus reading advertorials or whatever?
Amy Westervelt (05:36):
You know, actually, I think he’s having a lot of influence. And I say that because I, the things that Exxon starts to do marketing videos on are often the things that he’s like getting people riled up about.
Andrea Learned (05:49):
Oh my gosh, I love that.
Amy Westervelt (05:50):
It’s so interesting. So yeah, like they, he’s been talking about this contract thing there for a long time where he’s like, it’s not really 50 50 because they are paying themselves back for expenses before anything gets split and all of this stuff. Like, he’s really been hammering on the point that this contract that Exxon has with the government of Guyana is not fair to Guyana, and that they’re never gonna make any money off of it and all that stuff. And so Exxon just put up a bunch of billboards all around Georgetown being like 50 50. It’s a fair deal, you know? And I’m like, wow, Glen Glen’s getting to him.
Andrea Learned (06:25):
They’re using his phrasing in his, oh, you know what? That he’s got a lot of influence. That’s huge, isn’t it?
Amy Westervelt (06:32):
Yeah. Yeah. It’s really big. So yeah, I mean, he’s really, um, I do think, and of course like people criticize him too. They’re like, oh, he’s just mad because he’s not getting rich off of the oil. Or, you know, he, um, doesn’t understand like what it took for Exxon to, you know, get this going and, you know, it’s perfectly fair that they pay themselves back some expenses and all of that kind of stuff too. Um, but yeah, he’s definitely having, uh, an influence and he’s not afraid to like be very public. Um, so yeah.
Andrea Learned (07:09):
That’s incredible. So the episode, the contract is the second episode of Light Sweet Crude, and it’s incredible. And so can you give hahaha a short synopsis of what that is for, for, for us today? Yeah. <laugh>. Yes.
Amy Westervelt (07:24):
So, um, Exxon in 1999, actually like, um, inked, uh, a contract with Guyana, and at that point it was Exxon in partnership with Shell. And they, you know, got an agreement in place to do some exploratory drilling off the shore of Guyana and like around, uh, the coast and land and stuff too. But they didn’t really like do much because they were both in Venezuela at the time and other parts of South America where it was a lot easier to get at the oil. And nobody knew quite what the deal was in Guyana. But then in 2008, Exxon started exploring in earnest offshore, still wasn’t really finding much shell pieced out. And in 2015, Exxon announced like, oh, we found a lot of oil. We think there’s like a considerable amount of oil here. Um, and started drilling. So they, um, inked a new contract in 2016, and that’s the contract that’s in place now. And theoretically it’s a 50 50 profit share between the oil companies and the country, the government of Guyana. But the way that it’s been structured is that the oil companies can take 75% off the top, um, to pay themselves back for various costs. And those costs continue to grow as they like look for more and more oil offshore and drill more wells. So the tab just kind of keeps getting <laugh>
Andrea Learned (08:57):
And people of Guyana will not get anything it seems like. Right.
Amy Westervelt (09:01):
That’s like, that’s kind of the, that’s what a lot of financial analysts have said. Now what they’re doing about that, and this, this is like maybe a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s gonna be in the news soon too. So, okay. Um, in April, the government of Guyana is going to have a big auction and they’re going to auction off oil blocks to various other companies. Exxon has bought in to like, be able to be a bid as well. So they might end up, you know, doing another contract with Axon on those blocks, or they might end up doing a contract with Chevron, which is one of the companies that’s interested. Shell, like, there’s a lot of companies that have paid, there’s like a fee you have to pay to get access to the, the seismic data and whatnot to, to put a bid in. So instead, so what Guyana has said is like, basically, look, we can’t, there’s no way we’re gonna be able to renegotiate this contract. Like, you know, if Exxon wanted to renegotiate, it would only be like, to try to make it more beneficial to themselves, like their company. They’re not gonna be like, yeah, let’s sit down and, you know, make this pencil out worse for us. You know? Right, right,
Andrea Learned (10:14):
Amy Westervelt (10:14):
Um, so the government has said, well, we’ll just open it up to other companies because if we can get a couple of contracts in place that are more lucrative to us, then that kind of gets everyone off our back about not getting enough money in off on
Andrea Learned (10:28):
This deal. Right. Right. So, which
Amy Westervelt (10:31):
Is very interesting. Yeah,
Andrea Learned (10:33):
Very interesting to see what happens to that. The other interesting thing right now that, that this show is just coming out is the I P C C report. <laugh>. So That’s right. So it’s just like every story Oh, the, it’s like the IG indignation doesn’t, well, you can’t even, that isn’t enough.
Amy Westervelt (10:51):
I know, I know. Yeah. So, yeah, the I P C C has once again said, there cannot be any more new fossil fuel developments.
Andrea Learned (11:00):
Amy Westervelt (11:01):
Okay. They been saying it. Um, you know, and it’s, but it, it’s a really complicated issue because, and this is why actually we wanted to do this season on Yes.
Andrea Learned (11:09):
Amy Westervelt (11:10):
It’s a, it’s a really good example of what’s going on kind of in the world right now. For the last four or five years. A lot of global south country leaders have been saying like, well, if you don’t want us to drill for oil, then we need, uh, money from somewhere else to be able to adapt to climate change, transition to renewables, all of this stuff, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and have been saying rightly so, like, how dare the global North tell us not to develop our fossil fuel resources when you guys did it for, you know, a hundred years or more. Right. Right, right. Um, and so, you know, it’s like, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The problem is the global climate system is the global climate system, and in many cases we’re talking about countries that will be hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it’s this real, it’s this really like, kind of ridiculous situation where, because the global north has not come through on commitments that they’ve made to pay for climate adaptation and to pay climate reparations and to actually help the global south transition, they are in the position of having to pay for climate adaptation by developing fossil fuels, which doesn’t make any sense at all. <laugh>. Right, right, right. Um, so that’s very much kind of the, the predicament for Guyana. 90% of Guyana’s population lives on the coast. 90%. Wow. It will be underwater by 2030.
Andrea Learned (12:49):
I mean, that’s pretty soon.
Amy Westervelt (12:51):
That’s very soon. It’s the, it’s the first year that analysts are saying like, could possibly be when they like, start to get more oil money in. Oh, just, just for context, <laugh>. Wow. You know? Oh. So it’s really, you know, so as we kind of, you know, build through the season, we’re really looking at like, okay, what are the trade-offs that are being made here? What are the climate implications of this? You know, how do we evaluate this idea that fossil fuels drive development and are necessary to end poverty and all of this stuff? Because it’s, it’s a very entrenched narrative. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but actually, if you look at the economics data from 1980 onward, none of the global south countries that got into oil have wound up better off. It’s like, it’s it, you know, like maybe you have a little bit of a spike and maybe even on paper it looks like, oh, the GDP has gone up.
But if you look at per capita wealth, no. If you look at things like education or even access to energy, cuz that’s another big thing that the industry is like, oh, well, you know, we need to get poor people fossil fuels. Right. They can claim it’s that. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. They claim that Nigeria, which, you know, has been in the oil business for a really long time, is last in the world Oh. Of energy access. So I’m like, if you’re gonna make that argument, like you might wanna invest in, in like actually getting the energy to people so that they feel like they are getting something out of it, you know, <laugh>, because right now, like global oil majors get rich uhhuh, and that’s pretty much it. Yeah. You know? Um, so yeah, it’s really like, it, it reminds me of what happened with, um, cigarettes and now actually with combustion engine automobiles, Uhhuh <affirmative> where like, as you know, the, the US and Europe and other, you know, northern countries start to pass regulation on these things. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> companies just shift the market elsewhere. It’s happening with too. It’s like, you know, it gets dumped on the global south and then, you know, there’s all of this sort of, uh, ru like rhetorical gymnastics done to convince people in the global south that it’s a gift. You know, I call it, I, I told something the other day, I feel like fossil fuels are the pox infested blanket of today. <laugh>. Like, it’s really not. Yeah.
Andrea Learned (15:14):
The, what you were talking about the social, kind of the influence, what was the term that you used? It’s just like they’re, uh, supporting the cricket team and making it a big Oh yeah. I want this fascinating Yes. Building social license. Let’s dig in on that. Oh my goodness.
Amy Westervelt (15:29):
It’s so interesting. So yeah, in, they do this in like the US and all over the world too, oil companies in general. So, you know, like Shell is the, the sponsor of Jazz Fest in New Orleans.
Andrea Learned (15:41):
<laugh> don’t like
Amy Westervelt (15:42):
That. Right. <laugh>, they sponsor like a bunch of different museums everywhere. Aquariums, they love to do aquarium exhibits that show like how
Andrea Learned (15:50):
Amy Westervelt (15:52):
Offshore platforms are for like fishing Sea life <laugh>. Yes. It’s like, look, it provides something for Coral to grow on.
Andrea Learned (16:00):
I’m, oh my goodness. Oh, that term that, that just really got to me. Um, because it’s the, it’s the greenwashing and just to bring it back kind of to what I work on, which is trying to do the opposite. Right. So this is, are there ways that this influence, so in, in the corporate sustainability world, say there’s a lot of advising, start to write up ads, start to whatever, whatever. Right. So one of the bigger topics I had for you was, you now know what all this influence is doing kind of negatively do. Have you seen like, well shoot, if corporate leaders would just take these two tools and leverage ’em better, we could maybe counter this. Have you seen anything like that that you could point out?
Amy Westervelt (16:43):
That’s a good question. Um, I don’t know the, like, the problem is often that the, the industry has been doing it for so long and so broadly, so it’s like, it’s not just an op-ed. It’s like at the same time they’ll have, you know, a program running in k a 12 schools.
Andrea Learned (17:04):
Amy Westervelt (17:05):
Um, the jazz fast sponsorship and a bunch of museums, um, you know, lobbying on Capitol Hill, lobbying at the state level, lobbying at the local level, and like a weekly op-ed and their CEO is like going on all of the cable shows and like, you know, framing the
Andrea Learned (17:23):
Narrative, they’re so far ahead and their money is so in all these areas before that, anyone who’s kind of starting to think about doing it on the positive side, it’s just like a huge mountain. They don’t think they could ever climb out.
Amy Westervelt (17:35):
It is. But I do think that there’s like a couple things. Well, and also I think it’s important to remember too, that they’ve been doing this for like over a hundred years. That’s why they’re so good at it. Yeah. You know, like they have, they were like the early beta testers of like market research and, and all of that kind of stuff too, you know, so like, so yeah. Like they’ve been, that, that was like in the early 19 hundreds already, standard Oil of New Jersey was doing like, market surveys and really drilling down into, you know, and getting really, really specific about like who like would re like, which messages would resonate with which audiences and all of that kind of stuff. So, so like, I think number one, like don’t beat yourself up for not being able to immediately counteract that because it’s like, it’s a lot, you know.
Andrea Learned (18:20):
Thank you. Yes. Number one. <laugh> number one. Yeah. Well, number one, don’t think it’s over already.
Amy Westervelt (18:26):
Andrea Learned (18:27):
Right. I think that’s exactly’s a good point to make. Okay. So what’s number two?
Amy Westervelt (18:30):
I actually think that people need to invest more time and, and money into, like, thinking through narrative framing. And that sounds really wonky and like abstract, but I, I like, this is the thing that I think the industry does so well and like, is, is decide like what framing best, um, like most benefits them. And then, and then they figure out, okay, what are all the ways that we’re gonna seed this? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the, what I see, uh, corporate sustainability people doing and like people in the climate movement doing a lot is like starting with the particular tool and then like, figuring it out. Yeah. Versus like, okay, how do, like, how do we wanna change people’s minds? And then like, what are the things that could actually get us there?
Andrea Learned (19:18):
Well, at a very, very small scale, one of the things that I see is literally people will call me for advice and be like, okay, we wanna get on, you know, on the cover of whatever. And I’m like, does, has anyone heard from your CEO e o for the last five years on this topic? No. <laugh>. Right. So it’s, it’s building, building social capital and to, and also to your That’s right point. That’s right. Like this narrative thing is really interesting. Have you seen some of the publicity, just as an aside, have you seen some of the publicity lately about kind of Hollywood and changing storytelling in Hollywood? Have you seen any of that?
Amy Westervelt (19:50):
Yes. Yes. Which I think is really, it’s really important. And I feel like there again, there’s this huge moment, right, in Hollywood right now where like, there’s like, people are more interested, there’s money mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, being thrown at these things like, you know, don’t look up, did really well. And that helped to unlock a lot of mm-hmm. Interest in these things. Yeah. Um, but there’s huge potential for very problematic narratives to get baked in because in a lot of cases, like even to the extent that, you know, I know there’s projects like the Good Energy Project, and there’s another one called Climate Spring that’s in the UK that are doing great work on trying to connect, you know, screenwriters and directors with climate experts. Yeah. Um, but climate is one of those things where I think a lot of people think they have a grasp on it.
Um, and it’s so much bigger than what most people really necessarily know. And especially like, there’s just like, there’s like, not everyone can have like 20 years worth of history on what’s been going on in their head, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, like, for example, someone told me the other day that they got pitched a story from this screenwriter, and it was like a romcom and this and that. And it’s like, she was, she’s like, yeah, I was reading it and I was like, this is so great. And then one of the plot, um, things in it was like that these were two climate scientists and they were going to an international climate summit, and that one of them, um, wanted to like fudge the numbers so that people would understand how urgent the issue was. Right. And I was like, um, this is literally climate gate <laugh>. And like, yeah. So she was like, oh, no. Like, you know, so she was able to tell this guy, like, like, okay, let me sit you down and tell me about, tell you about this thing that happened and why this is like, problematic. And he was like, oh, I had no idea. But of course you wouldn’t, because like, that’s such a tiny thing to know about, you know? Um, so Yeah.
Andrea Learned (21:49):
And how would they, so if there are whole bodies, and so this sector heading in that direction is fantastic. We’re all for it. Yeah. And these, there are these organizations that are trying to help, but what would you even recommend or what would help them do it? Like, I feel like if everyone just read climate journalists and listening to your podcast, it sure would help. You know what I mean?
Amy Westervelt (22:08):
<laugh> Yeah. I mean, of course. I agree. No, of course
Andrea Learned (22:11):
You do <laugh>.
Amy Westervelt (22:12):
No, I really think, I mean, it’s the same thing that I think we need in mainstream media across the board, is like, there need to be people like with some amount of authority in the writer’s room or in Yes. The production company or whatever that actually know what they’re talking about. Okay. Like, I actually don’t think it’s something that can be solved by like just bringing in a consultant for a few hours. Okay, great. You know? Yes. Um, I feel like, I don’t know, like almost, I almost wonder if like, there maybe there needs to be like a, a few companies that like just specialize in that and like they partner with lots of bigger companies or something because so
Andrea Learned (22:52):
Would there be the chief climate science storytelling per, like, so, so corporations have a chief sustainability officer. Right. But it, so it’s almost like, yeah. I I I so agree that you that and that you have to, like, you have to, you have to have someone on staff doing that. It’s almost like the intimacy coordinator right now. We have, there’s an intimacy coordinator on these sets. Hello? To having some sort of climate
Amy Westervelt (23:18):
Science. That’s so interesting. You’re right. I hadn’t thought about that, but Yes, exactly. Like something like that. Yes. You’re
Andrea Learned (23:23):
Doing intimacy wrong and we’ve gotta change things. And so that’s what climate is, right?
Amy Westervelt (23:27):
Yes. Yes. That’s a great parallel because it’s similarly like kind of niche, but also huge, you know, like, but
Andrea Learned (23:35):
Also huge with the impact. I mean, I’ve been watching that Hollywood space and I interviewed somebody earlier in the season on that, and I’m just going… This is amazing. Um, yeah. And, and the influence, so I, what I talk about in lot of my world Yeah. Work is climate influence, right? Yeah. And Living Change is a podcast, but so influence, right. Going back to what we were talking about a little earlier, which is the greenwash and the negative. Yeah. So what are these large bodies of sectors Yeah. That have some major influence potentially, and how can we help trigger that? So yeah. Hollywood, yeah. Corporations, like get people to really, and let’s talk a little bit about pledges versus acting over and over again. Yes.
Amy Westervelt (24:17):
Right. Because, well, I think it’s, it is tough for corporations right now because I feel like there’s this whole system that’s been created that like rewards companies for mar marketing, right? Yes. I mean, literally, like, that’s what it, it’s like all, there’s so many of these like, um, CSR awards that, that just go off of like your CSR report, which can, could theoretically just be marketing. Yes. You
Andrea Learned (24:43):
Amy Westervelt (24:44):
Yeah. Yeah. There’s so many companies that have, their chief sustainability officer is in the marketing department, right? Like, um, they’re not in operations. They’re not in, you know, so like, I think that, um, thinking about it in a way that is different from the way corporations that are really just trying to hide emissions have done it, is like a really good start. Like, I actually think that the companies that are serious about it need to kind of like chuck out what’s been done before and think about like, what are we Yes. Hallelujah. We actually trying to do, and like, you know, like, not what are we trying to market or what are we like trying to promote, but like, what are we actually trying to do mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and then figure out the, like the marketing piece around it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, versus for the most part, it’s often like the marketing first and then figuring out the nuts and bolts later. And like, you know, I think that’s not great because actually, like, um, companies, especially when companies within the same industry can come together and sort of like Yes. Consolidate some of that power and influence, they can really move the needle a lot. You know? Um,
Andrea Learned (25:55):
My argument would also be that we need a couple first movers. Like we need like one or two. And, and one of the things that I look at is what we’re actually looking for Yes. Is a perceived shift in social norm of leadership. We don’t need the shift to actually be scientific. We need it to look as if the ball is already rolling. Yeah. That, that’s, I think that’s huge. And with regard to your work Yes. And the greenwashing, right? So Yes. It’s greenwashing make that sucker so irrelevant that those companies look like buffoons because all the coal companies, whether they have money or not, are coming out and being smarter about TOS or whatever it is. Right. We have a couple leaders that step out and do something different and take boulder steps. So Yeah. I, yeah. There’s so, so much power in this influence. And I, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I <laugh> we’ll pause there because I could just go on, but it Yeah. There’s a real opportunity. So let’s go back to light sweet crude and talk about your role as a climate media person. And Yeah. The, the beginning of the first episode is, Hmm. My hotel room was canceled again.
Amy Westervelt (27:09):
Andrea Learned (27:09):
Right? Talk about that. Yes. A little scary.
Amy Westervelt (27:12):
Yes. And actually, like, we cut some stuff out of that episode because, um, because my lawyer was like, Ooh,
Andrea Learned (27:19):
You know? Okay. Yeah. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt (27:20):
It’s just like Exxon in particular, oil companies in general are not super, like, friendly to journalists. And, you know, we see proof of this all the time. Um, and Exxon in particular has kind of a reputation for like, trying to intimidate journalists. So like, I interview this guy in the first episode, Steve Call, who wrote an excellent book called Private Empire about the way that Exxon operates, like, around the world. And he said, <laugh>, he was like, uh, I covered Al-Qaeda, I covered the cia. And like Exxon was by far the scariest and the most intimidating and like, hard to cover.
Andrea Learned (28:02):
I mean, when I, when I listened to that, I was like, you know, I almost had to stop, because you’re right. Yeah. He makes such an incredible point.
Amy Westervelt (28:09):
<laugh>, you know, I was like, Ooh. Um, but he’s like, you know, yeah. Like, they do these things to try to intimidate people and they’re very good at it. And, you know, and they’re very powerful. I think that, like, he did a great job in that book of really showing how like, these global companies in many ways are more powerful than any one government, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because they have so much influence across multiple governments mm-hmm. <affirmative> that they kind of operate like above, you know, above the laws of any one government. Um, and that can make them a little, you know, scary to cover. Um, <laugh> a
Andrea Learned (28:48):
Little bit. Little bit. And you, you’re, and that’s your, your work is digging in on that and this investigative reporting style. Yeah. So how did you, in your career get brave enough to go? Yeah, no, what? I’m gonna super dig in.
Amy Westervelt (29:01):
I’m gonna do it anyway. <laugh>. Um, I think I just have like a thick skin about that stuff. Like, I, I, I, I, yeah, I don’t know. I feel like I just kind of, I’m not a big rule follower and <laugh>
Andrea Learned (29:16):
Amy Westervelt (29:17):
When someone tells me no, I’m kind of like, are you sure? Cuz I feel like I could. Um, so, so yeah, I think that’s partly it. And also I just, I have like a really, like, I don’t know, overdeveloped sense, sense of sort of like righteous indignation. I, I’m like very like, you know, into underdog movies and all of that kind of stuff. And I feel like for me, I’m like, on climate, I kind of feel like the, like most of us are the underdog and there’s this, you know, group of very powerful people that mm-hmm. <affirmative> have been able to, to do things mostly cuz we don’t know about them or, you know, we don’t have, um, or we don’t think we have the power to stop them. But I think that the more that people know and understand the, the more, I don’t know, like the better armed they are to actually like, show up to the fight. And like, that feels important to me. So,
Andrea Learned (30:12):
Amy Westervelt (30:13):
Andrea Learned (30:14):
Yeah. One of the things that you, you’d mentioned, and then you dig in and you’re speaking with this reporter, Kiana. Yeah. And, and one of the things that I’m always interested in climate reporting, and especially these big stories that are far off right, you really rely on some locals on the ground. She’s incredible. But I’m certain you’ve run across
Amy Westervelt (30:32):
Those people. She’s really incredible.
Andrea Learned (30:32):
Tell us a little bit about local reporting, her and specific and just broadly and all of your work, how important that is and what it makes a difference about
Amy Westervelt (30:40):
It. Yeah, it’s huge. So her name’s Kiana Wilberg, she’s a reporter in Guyana. She’s from there. Um, she’s been on the oil and gas beat for the last five or six years. And initially the, I met her because we were looking to hire someone on the ground in Guyana. Um, and purely coincidentally, my producer on the show had had a professor at university who was from Guyana, no
Andrea Learned (31:05):
Amy Westervelt (31:06):
<laugh> Yes. Who was a professor at the university there for a while. And so she asked him like, just on the off chance, Hey, do you know anyone that’s an oil and gas reporter? And he recommended Kiana, and that’s how we met her. Wow. Um, and she’s incredible. She’s really young, but like, so good and like so determined to do a good job. And she has this real, like, she has, she’s quite religious too, and she feels that like this is her calling and that like she is, um, she made a promise to God that she would like keep working on this reporting. And, which is interesting because, you know, part of what’s happening, part of the social licensing that’s happening in Guyana is that both Exxon and the government now are hiring journalists away from their newspapers to work in their corporate communications departments.
Andrea Learned (31:59):
Amy Westervelt (32:00):
And, um, they have tried to hire Kiana twice now, and they, you know, they offer like a big salary and a free car and an amazing title and like all of this stuff, right? Yep. But she has this feeling of like, you know, a I have a responsibility to my country and my fellow citizens, and b you know, I made this commitment because she, she wanted to be a teacher, and when she tried to go be a teacher, they told her that she looked too young for the boys to take her seriously.
Andrea Learned (32:33):
Oh, <laugh>. I
Amy Westervelt (32:34):
Know. And so she like, but thank
Andrea Learned (32:37):
Goodness. Right. Thank
Amy Westervelt (32:38):
Goodness. Because that it worked out well for, for all of us. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So she, um, she prayed and a, you know, sort of asked for a, a, a job that would still allow her to read and write. And the next day she got a, an, an interview for this job at the newspaper and, you know, sort of away she went. So, um, so yeah, she’s, she’s amazing. So yeah, we started out having her doing some interviews for us on the ground because it was covid and we couldn’t travel and we kept having, like, we kept planning stuff and then it would get canceled because there would be a new wave or whatever. Right. <laugh>. Right. You know, so we were working with her back and forth the whole time. And then, um, and then when we went to Guyana, my producer and I, like, we spent several hours with Kiana over the course of, you know, several days.
And I was just, I was like, I think she has to like, be in it. Like, she’s so compelling when she talks about the changes that she’s seen and, you know, like everything that has been happening. Like, I, I want it to be in her voice, not like me describing it or whatever, you know, so. Right. Um, so anyway, then we had to kind of like shift gears a little bit, but, um, but yeah, she’s, she’s been huge because we can ask her too. You know, we had her walk us through the sort of fraught political landscape in Guyana, which is very racialized Oh, okay. And very complicated, you know mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And we had her, like, there’s been little things that I’ll see in the news where I’m like, wait, why is this happening? And she can explain it. And I, I feel like that’s really critical if you’re coming from outside of the country to, you know, not just like, um, swoop in and sort of like, what a lot of journalists will do is like, come in and ask someone for like, contacts and information and then that’s it, you know?
Oh, okay. And not use their help. Yeah. And well, and also like, not really credit them or pay them, or like, yikes. You know? Yeah. So I, I think it’s important to actually like, work with someone who’s on the ground and like, who’s from that place so that you’re not, you know, stepping af foul of like certain cultural things too. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like, there’s a, you know, it’s a very different place from, from the US and we wanted to make sure that, you know, um, we weren’t being thoughtless <laugh>, you know? Yeah. Um, so yeah, so actually like she and Glen, the publisher that we were talking about, they’re the ones that like, um, got me really thinking about the cricket team sponsorship, because at our ho like the, at our hotel, the first day I came downstairs in the lobby and there were all these cricket players wearing, um, their uniforms, and it just said like, Exxon across the front.
Oh no. And I was like, wow, like that’s really something, you know, <laugh>. And so I was talking to them about it, and they were like, yeah, actually, like that was a really smart move on Exxon’s behalf because everyone in Guyana loves cricket. And before Exxon, they couldn’t watch the games on tv. So that was a big deal. It was like, people were like, thank God for Exxon. Now we can watch cricket on tv. You know, and like, um, yeah. So anyway, just stuff like that, which you wouldn’t think about like an oil company, you know, sponsoring the cricket team or whatever. But that’s a big part of why they do sports sponsorships. It’s actually like the number one thing that they spend ad money on is advertising in, um, sports, sporting events, and then Yeah. Like supporting, um, teams and stadiums.
Andrea Learned (36:16):
It’s so funny that you say that because I don’t go to a lot of professional sports or whatever, but I’ve been, I don’t know, I think it was last season Ted Lasso, right? He, oh, there’s this, there’s this airline. And Yes,
Amy Westervelt (36:27):
That was such a great song.
Andrea Learned (36:28):
Wasn’t isn’t that a great episode I just was like, and so it’s the same thing, but it goes back to this social license thing. Yeah. Right. It’s like, that’s right. Because I, I actually, I was listening to the, your second episode on the contract right before I came in and I heard the part about the cricket and just that I was like, okay, yeah, that’s just too much. Yeah. I, there’s, it’s really, really creepy and super, super I impact, you know, powerful to do it that way. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt (36:56):
Yeah. Um, yeah, it totally reminded me of that, um, episode of Ted Lasso too, or that little arc.
Andrea Learned (37:03):
The little arc. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amy Westervelt (37:05):
Oh, it was really, yeah.
Andrea Learned (37:08):
So it’s the part of that, the bigger, speaking of the bigger arc or the bigger narrative, you know, as we were talking about Hollywood and what could change is this sort of idea of debunking the idea that oil is bringing economic development and prosperity. Yes. And they’re just coming in with the storyline, oh, we are helping everybody.
Amy Westervelt (37:25):
We’re just saving the poor. Yeah. Yeah. This is such an interesting, and, and like entrenched framing where it’s basically so like, you know, throughout the nineties and early two thousands, it was like the fossil fuel industry, uh, would c like every time they would talk about international climate negotiations right? They would say, this is not fair because the US is being asked to do, you know, all these emissions cuts, but like the, like, all these other countries don’t have to, and that’s not fair. Right. You know, um, that’s, that was the messaging that they used to block the Kyoto protocol, for example, and all that. Now, the, like us doesn’t want oil anymore or whatever, like is supposedly trying to get off of oil mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the global north is trying to transition off of fossil fuels. Right. And so now it’s that it would be unfair to not allow the global south to have fossil fuels for longer.
So they’ve completely switched their tune because now they need those countries not just to develop oil and gas, but to, to get hooked on it, to use it. So, um, it’s really, yeah, it’s really interesting. So now the story is, you know, you can’t put solving the climate crisis above solving energy poverty. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the energy poverty issue is more urgent. And by that they just mean, you know, access to regular energy, like to, um Right. Regular access to energy. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so like consistent access to affordable energy. Um, where the, the like debunking part comes in is, like I pointed out about Nigeria before, there aren’t a lot of examples of, you know, starting a fossil fuel industry actually solving the energy poverty issue, including in our own country, by the way. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like, you know, there are still people whose like electricity bills are getting shut off in, you know, in Right.
Oil and gas states in the US mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So if proximity to oil and gas development was what dictated your access to or affordability of energy, then I think things would look very different in most countries in the world. Um, so, you know, and then the, the economics data doesn’t back it up either. So they make the argument all the time that, you know, uh, access to fossil fuels, uh, improves quality of life, extends lifespan, you know, all of these things. And actually there’s peer reviewed economic studies that have disproven that mm-hmm. <affirmative> for the last decade plus that have shown that actually, you know, yes, there’s a certain, um, level of energy that’s needed to, to deliver, you know, a certain quality of life and a certain lifespan, but a, it doesn’t have to be fossil fuel energy mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And there’s diminishing returns on that. So, you know, once you hit like the, what, you know, what you need to cover the basics, more energy does not improve your quality of life or your lifespan mm-hmm. <affirmative> or your health or any of those things. Right. Um, so anyway. Yeah. It’s, but it’s, it’s a very compelling narrative. It’s not just for, you know, business people and you know, the fossil fuel industry, but I think the climate movement too has been very quick to say, oh yeah, you’re right. Like, as part of a just transition Oh,
Andrea Learned (40:47):
Amy Westervelt (40:47):
You need to let these countries, you know, develop fossil fuels for longer. Yeah. And actually it’s been interesting to talk to some of the organizers in those countries who are like, actually, we see that as another form of racism, colonialism, whatever. Because what you’re saying is dump the stuff nobody wants anymore on us. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, well, you guys transition to a better, you know, cleaner energy situation with less air pollution and,
Andrea Learned (41:17):
And they’re gonna get their full due of years and years and years of this. It’s like, no, no, no. You learn this. We can skip this down here. <laugh> in Purple South.
Amy Westervelt (41:26):
Exactly. Exactly. So there are quite a few people that are fighting against pipelines and against more fossil fuel development in global south countries, um, who would like to see, you know, yeah. Either a transition to renewables or in some cases hydro, in some cases nuclear. Like there is, you know, something
Andrea Learned (41:47):
Other than fossil fuels. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt (41:48):
But yeah, they’re like, why are you forcing us to get hooked on this thing that everybody says is gonna be worthless in 10 years? You know, that’s the other thing too, is like, oil companies have been worrying about what they call stranded assets mm-hmm. <affirmative> for a long time mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which are like, you know, oil reserves that they have a claim to that they’re not gonna be able to, um, to tap and sell before, you know, nobody wants it anymore, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, this is part of why I think that they’re frontloading expenses in Guyana because they wanna make the most money while oil is still relatively high. And before, you know Yeah. Like half of those reserves in Guyana may end up being a stranded asset, we don’t know yet. Um, and if it they are, then it will be Guyana that inherits that problem, not Exxon, um, <laugh>. Yeah. So, and that’s true of all these other countries too.
Andrea Learned (42:38):
Right? I, what’s, what’s so interesting about what you said about the, the Exxon and the fossil fuel companies knew, and they were doing this global north thing, and then they saw the writing on the wall and switched their narrative. And it kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is why are is are no one is, is no one on the positive side or that knows what to do, thinking that long term in that arc and going, you know, what’s gonna happen? Yes. These companies are gonna start doing this narrative in global South, we should be ready. That’s right. It wasn’t like we couldn’t see that coming. Right.
Amy Westervelt (43:11):
Exactly. Exactly. I think like, yeah, we’ve certainly should have been able to see it coming, um, because I think, you know, it’s quite predictable. Um, and especially like I said, once, you know, you saw, especially after people saw what happened with tobacco, I think mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like the light bulb should have gone off for a lot of folks that like, oh, that’s what fossil fuel companies are gonna do. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> as well. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, and like I said, they’re doing it with plastic too, where they’re ramping up plastic production even though nobody wants it, and they’re trying to spur more demand for plastic in Africa and other global south areas. And then they’re gonna be like, it’s not our fault. All these countries in Africa just love plastic. They’re
Andrea Learned (43:54):
Demanding it. Right, right.
Amy Westervelt (43:56):
We’re just supplying a demand.
Andrea Learned (43:58):
Yeah. But then it goes to your work, I mean, the bigger picture of climate media, you know how Yeah. So it’s like you’re unearthing these and you’re sort of talking about this and really pointing it out and being loud. Right. Yeah. And then I know there’s this whole organization called Covering Climate, you know, trying to do a better job of it and all of that. It’s just like, is that, are, is covering climate educating people fast enough? Or what do you see the climate media kind of their role and, and are they gonna get on it pretty soon to the degree that we need them to?
Amy Westervelt (44:25):
Yeah, I do think that, well, I think the media, um, has a huge role to play. The media has played a huge role in delaying climate action. Yeah. And I think that it needs to acknowledge that and really like focus on doing, you know, playing a role in, in climate action now mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. Um, because, you know, the media has been used as a tool by various companies for a really long time, and there are still some very entrenched ideas around, you know, oh, um, if I’m gonna quote a climate scientist, I also need to quote an oil ceo, <laugh>, or, you know, whatever. So that nobody thinks I’m like an activist or biased or whatever. Right, right. And like, look, you know, when we report on stuff, I always go to, um, axon or Shell or Chevron or whoever it is, and make sure that we do really thorough fact checking.
We give them a, an opportunity to comment. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I just this morning have been going back and forth with a spokesperson from Exxon about, you know, something that she had a problem with in one of the drilled episodes, which is always, you know, it’s a little like interesting, um, <laugh>, but like, I’m not like, oh, you shouldn’t even talk to those companies. I just think that like, you need to evaluate what they’re saying through the lens of, you know, what are they trying to achieve by having this conversation with me? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what are, what do they want to be getting out to the public and like, does the actual data that I can gather from various sources mm-hmm. <affirmative> back up what they’re saying or not. Like is it just their opinion or is it fact? And like that’s our job as journalists. And I think that like there is starting to be some movement where I think journalists more and more are viewing these companies with like a healthy bit of skepticism mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, but unfortunately we’re also at a time when the, the business model for Amelia for media is totally failing. You know, I mean, like, there’s just, just this morning I was reading about the Texas observer being shut. Oh,
Andrea Learned (46:24):
I saw that. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt (46:25):
Um, we’ve ha we’re losing outlets. Um, NPR just laid off 10% of its staff. Right. Um, so I think that, yeah, it’s there again though, actually, I think similar to what I was saying about the Hollywood stuff, I think that more than having like a team of climate reporters or Yes. You know, a whole climate desk or whatever. Right. I think it would be really good to have like a really high level climate editor that’s helping to provide that lens on all of the stories, because that’s really what’s happening. It’s like almost every story has some kind of a climate angle to it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and we should be like working those angles in where it makes sense. I mean, you don’t have to shoehorn it into everything, but you don’t have to for the most part. Like, it’s pretty, it’s like pretty obvious layer that’s there. Um, in most stories.
Andrea Learned (47:18):
I think you just came up with a, a new career that is needed that maybe there could be majors in all sorts of gigantic universities. The climate editor, the person that, uh, gives context to anything. And that could be Hollywood, it could be corporations, right. It could be all these sectors. They all need an editor, which is they need some smart person who’s watching the overall thing. Right. The context and the history and can pull their networks and be like, you know what? I’m not sure of this, but I’m, I know exactly who to call and whatever. Exactly. I think you’re onto something. I think we need a whole new career. Yes. I think this is, I think the climate editor is the thing and I, I feel like journalists, you know, you all could have somebody that you can more easily do that with as could I. And anything I’m reporting on or talking about, I think, yeah. I think our job is done here with this podcast because that <laugh>
Amy Westervelt (48:06):
We did it.
Andrea Learned (48:07):
That was great. So what, a couple more things cuz I would be remiss since the podcast is living Change, one of the things I’m wondering is tell me a little bit about your pivot point personally, like how your be any behavior change where you’re li you were like, oh my goodness, I need to start doing this. Any sort of behavior change or living change, uh, examples that you can tell me about in your life?
Amy Westervelt (48:28):
Yes. Um, I, I actually, I really like this question because I feel like there’s, there’s this kind of false dichotomy in the climate space a lot about like individual action versus systemic change. Yes. And it’s like, no, we need all of it. Like, individual action is how you drive towards systemic change mm-hmm. <affirmative> for the most part. Yep. Also, most of us are part of the like global top 10%, which the I P C C just said like, you know, we’re responsible for like half of the world’s emissions, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which means that our habits do actually make a difference. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and I’m not suggesting that anyone should beat themselves up and say, oh, I can’t hold Exxon accountable because I haven’t stopped using straws or whatever. Right, right, right, right. Is, you know, at all. Um, but I do think it’s important for people to kind of like, you know, take ownership. So anyway, for me, the thing that the things I always like to focus on are non-consumption, um, things. Okay. Because I feel like a lot of times this, this question becomes like, how are you buying different things?
Andrea Learned (49:36):
Oh, yes, yes.
Amy Westervelt (49:37):
Or like, I like it. How are, you know? So I’m like, oh. And
Andrea Learned (49:40):
Then it sounds kind of really judgey, like just right away it sounds
Amy Westervelt (49:43):
Really judgey and it also, it also reduces people’s individual power to, um, purchasing power and not like political power or organizing power or community power or, you know, like those kinds of things. Yeah. So for me, I, there’s a bunch of things like I, you know, try to walk everywhere I can, um, if I can and, and including like, even if it’s gonna take me two hours, I’m like, I, I’ll just walk. You know?
Andrea Learned (50:09):
That’s living change for sure. Yes.
Amy Westervelt (50:11):
I love it. Yeah. And um, but I also am really big on like ju and on having a lot of conversations with people in different communities about
Andrea Learned (50:20):
Like, thank you for saying that.
Amy Westervelt (50:21):
What’s going on? What could we be doing? Like, and in a, in a, a, like a, a non judgy way to,
Andrea Learned (50:27):
In a casual,
Amy Westervelt (50:29):
Yeah. I feel like people need to have the space to be like, I don’t really understand why X, Y, Z, or, you know, well I heard that actually, you know, climate’s not that bad and you know, maybe we don’t need to make really urgent changes or whatever it is. Like I think, or I’m really freaked out about it and I like can’t have a conversation without freaking out. You know, like that’s, all of that is really, really valid and I think it’s helpful for people to be able to just like have a conversation about it mm-hmm. <affirmative> where it’s not so high stakes. Um, so that is something that I like, make a point of doing a lot great with people. And then I also think I’m not like, oh, make sure you vote because I know that, you know, there are a lot of reasons why people feel like their vote is watered down or doesn’t matter as much or whatever.
And I understand why that is, but I also think that especially at the local level, there are a lot of ways to become civically engaged. Yes. And like finding out, you know, what’s really going on in your region, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, who’s like, I, um, I live in Costa Rica now, but I was living in Tahoe in California, which like is this very beautiful place. There’s like mountains and a lake and you know, it’s lovely. Um, and I think most of the people there had no idea that the guy who was our congressional rep was like a really like prolo climate denying like pro fossil fuels guy, you know? And so there were a lot of, there were a lot of efforts underfoot there to try to just make people aware of that mm-hmm. <affirmative> to be like, hey, because for a long time, I think pre-Trump, especially Americans, were really tuned out to what was happening in local and state politics. Yes. National too. But like, you know, sometimes it feels like it can feel like you’re actually having more of an impact when you’re working at like the county level mm-hmm. <affirmative> or the city level. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, and in a big way right now, cities and counties actually have quite a bit of power. You know, they can set like, you know, certain laws Yeah. They can bring, they can hire private law firms mm-hmm. <affirmative> to file lawsuits. All the big climate cases right now are filed on behalf of cities and counties. Mm-hmm.
Andrea Learned (52:55):
<affirmative>, well, two, I mean, I’m so glad you’re seeing this because half of the people I’ve interviewed for season one are local leaders. Right. So Alex That’s awesome. Alex Fisch from Culver City, you know, why does he, why did he ride a bike for transportation? Bowinn Ma, North Vancouver? Like why does she, all these people that I’ve interviewed ride a bike for transportation are a very specifically less car, et cetera, in making changes in bus lanes and the influence that they have. And then I will say to your point, by having influence and by being seen riding a bike or whatever themselves, then Right, right. It’s pushing out. So it’s almost like your conversations, your vote. That’s right. You’re mentioning it reverberates hugely. And I think people don’t be understand that they actually do have influence if they mention, I rode my bike here, or I’m voting for this guy. Oh,
Amy Westervelt (53:42):
Totally. Yeah, totally. Huge, huge influence. And actually there’s a, there’s a lot of research too that shows that if you are a public figure of any kind, talking about climate, that it is actually really important for you to be, to be seen living those beliefs too. Like that cause actually like the hypocrisy there, it’s really
Andrea Learned (54:02):
Amplified. Yes. Yeah. And that’s the whole reason that I’m doing these interviews. So I’m mm-hmm. <affirmative>, thank you. I am so glad that this worked out for us to talk. Amy, thank you so much for your time. I’m super excited. Of course. About light sweet crude. I hope everyone listens to it because it just, it again, it just raises these issues up and I, we’ll start to think differently and we’ll read the news differently. I just thank you so much. For taking the time. Thank you. It was so fun to
Amy Westervelt (54:26):
Talk. Yes. I’m so glad we finally got to talk in real life or close too <laugh>.
Andrea Learned (54:30):
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Maybe we’ll see each other somewhere along the way, but, um, I, I’m happy to help amplify this and, and just I’ll see you on Twitter.
Amy Westervelt (54:37):
Awesome. Sounds great.
Andrea Learned (54:40):
Clearly one discussion does not do Amy’s wisdom and expertise justice, nor does it come anywhere close to covering all that light Sweet crude includes, but listening to that kind of makes you wanna learn more. Right. Head on over to the drilled podcast feed to hear the whole thing. And what a huge pleasure to chat with a climate media leader I’ve been following for years. Amy is truly a force of nature, and I know her reporting will energize you along your path to climate influence. Living Change is produced by Larj media. That’s L A R j Media. Until next time, pedal safely.
John Bauters / Emeryville, CA (Part 1)
John Bauters (00:00):
The best public servants are empathetic people. We joke about studying bus seats, right? There’s the same thing for the human condition. I don’t need to study whether or not it is right to help an undocumented person. And I think there’s too much overthinking and there’s a lot of people with power who want to analyze and study everything, including the human condition. And you study the human condition by working with humans.
Andrea Learned (00:28):
I’m Andrea Learned, and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Today I’m speaking with Emeryville, California Mayor John Bauters. Hey John.
John Bauters (00:53):
Hi. How are you? Good.
Andrea Learned (00:54):
How are you? We had such a great conversation that we’re releasing it in two parts. You may notice a pattern with many of my guests. I first connected with John on Twitter as a fellow biker. I enjoyed watching him document rides throughout the city. I loved his photos with his pup, and I enthusiastically followed as he tweeted about his Emeryville City Council work. And then he went on to be elected Mayor John sees climate impact at the intersection of most of his policy priorities. He’s a vocal advocate for the intersection of housing, affordability and climate. Most people don’t realize how linked homelessness and climate change are, but in fact, the homeless population are the first to experience the climate crisis acutely. Think about it, they’re most vulnerable when a natural disaster strikes from hurricanes to heat waves, and they have nowhere to turn for respite. They’re also disproportionately suffering from systemically rising temperatures, from more frequent exposure to air pollution and wildfire smoke, to longer exposure to disease carrying mosquitoes and ticks. It’s a vicious cycle, making the plight of the unhoused even more dangerous. But in the midst of this bleak trajectory, Emeryville is actually one of the only cities in the Bay Area region that has reduced homelessness. So we jumped right in.
John Bauters (02:13):
It’s a team effort to make it happen. In my city that’s inclusive of the council and the staff in the city of Emeryville and in our region. We have been hit really hard by homelessness, but homelessness is an issue that’s very deeply personal to me. And also I a place where I’ve had a lot of professional experience. Um, so I came out, uh, as L G B T to my family in the Midwest in the nineties. Um, I went through a lot of challenges with my family’s acceptance of that situation. And that led to a period of housing instability in my life, uh, just over 20 years ago now. And, uh, in that period of time, I, you know, faced various different types of housing scenarios. Uh, first place that was actually my own was a room in a boarding house in Southern California. Um, and I worked professionally from that space to be a homeless outreach worker.
I ended up going to law school and becoming an attorney for people who were homeless through a HUD grant. I was a legal aid eviction defense attorney for people who were in public housing in Chicago, came out to California to do policy work on housing. And, um, it’s guided everything that I do and it’s integral to who I am. Um, and from that space, uh, a lot of the things that we’ve been doing in emoryville, whether that be production of housing affordability and housing preservation of housing or protections for people, um, as well as homeless outreach services, those are all informed by my own lived experience and my professional journey on housing justice.
Andrea Learned (03:29):
Well, that is so interesting. I don’t know that I’ve ever picked up on that and following you on Twitter. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but thank you for sharing that. And now I’m curious, um, how, how has that story or the understanding of that really helped you connect with your constituents or to forward some of these policies that you’re moving forward? I, I’m just, I can’t wait to hear.
John Bauters (03:50):
Yeah. So there’s a couple ways that happens. One of the most powerful ways that I found that it, it’s really benefited me and the work I do in my community is it offers me the opportunity to show people what’s possible. And it also changes the narrative. So I, I do a rotating town hall in town. Um, and I had a town hall in 2018 where it was January, and there were about 130 people who came to that town hall. I was at a residential complex out on our peninsula. And one of the residents got up to speak and she was very upset. And she said, Mr. Mayor, there’s a homeless man and he’s living under the Powell Street overpass and he has 40 to 50 bags of trash, and I don’t feel safe walking under the overpass to the Trader Joe’s to get my groceries anymore. And what are you doing to get rid of him? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and a lot of heads started nodding. And I, I said, ma’am, do you know what his name is?
Andrea Learned (04:41):
John Bauters (04:42):
And she didn’t. And I said, does anybody here know what his name is? And nobody did. And I said, his name is Jim. And in that moment, I have already communicated to everybody that I know more about this person than they do. And I told them Jim’s story, 67 year old man who was renting an apartment just across our border in West Oakland and was paying his rent with social security, um, along with a few hundred dollars a month he made by recycling. And there was a recycling center right across our border on Peralta Street. And as that neighborhood continued to get built up with new housing residents began complaining to the city council that they hated hearing shopping carts, rattling with cans and bottles at six in the morning. And the city council voted to close that recycling center down. And with it, they closed down Jim’s supplemental income.
And after he lost a few hundred dollars a month to help cover his rent, he was behind on rent in a housing crisis in the Bay Area. And he was evicted from his home. And he spent a couple weeks on the streets of West Oakland with a few possessions he had from the eviction, and there were gunshots and he didn’t feel safe. So he came to our city because he felt safe. And those 40 bags weren’t trash. Those were recyclables from our own community that he was picking up and that he was taking to recycling centers cuz he wanted to get his own money to pay for his own deposit, for his own new place to stay. And most people just didn’t know that, uh, cause nobody had bothered to stop to talk to him. They hadn’t humanized him. And I said, we have a contract in place that goes and picks him up for a few hundred dollars a uh, a week or a month.
We pick him up and we take him to a different recycling center with all those recyclables so he can receive cash and do what he wants with it. And I said, we offer him housing and shelter. We have a housing and shelter program with the county North Hub. And I said, and he’s declined it. And I said, and I’m not mad at him for declining it. I said, somebody knocked on my car window in 2002 and offered me a place to stay. And I said, no, because it’s extremely humiliating to have some person who you dunno offer you something that you so desperately need and want, but you can’t provide it to yourself. And I said, the goal of government should be to help people and it should be such that he feels he can trust us. And if I and the city staff create a space where he realizes we’re not here to take his things, we’re not here to harm him or move him along, but he can trust us.
My hope is that in that partnership, Jim will realize that it’s not a bad thing for him to accept shelter services from our city. And I said, so that’s what we’re gonna do. And I hope that every day when you walk to the Trader Joe’s, you say, good morning, Jim, to him, because then he realizes that he’s not threatened in the place he is. And it makes it easier for him to recognize that he’s welcome here. And I said, does anybody here have a problem with what we’re doing for Jim? And not a single hand went up. Wow. And I said, thank, thank you. Next question. And I came back two months later and the first thing that happened when I walked in the room, I got run over by about 10 old ladies who said, Jim is missing. Jim is gone. And I said, well, we’ll talk about that in a second. And we started the meeting and I said, it sounds like you all wanna know about Jim. And they said, yes. I said, he accepted shelter services last week.
Andrea Learned (07:31):
This is the power of storytelling. It gets to the heart of what I’m mining for. As I talk to changemakers. We’re all responding to the story of one human being. Honestly, just listening to this was devastating. John was able to connect the Emeryville community to Jim’s humanity and it really reached them. John, did this inherent understanding come from having lived the experience yourself?
John Bauters (07:55):
I appreciate that question. I think it’s a combination of those things. I think most people would or, um, who work with me would argue that I’m an extremely empathetic person. And I think that the best public servants are empathetic people. You don’t have to have lived experience to necessarily understand, like, I don’t have to be a woman or a mother to understand what women are deal with. Yes. Whether that’s harassment being underpaid mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Right. I have to empathize with what it must be like to try to make ends meet. Being paid two thirds to three quarters of what a man makes for the same work mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? Like I, and, and what that might mean for me Right. In my, in my family. So, um, I don’t think everybody has to have lived experience. I think that elevating the voices of people with lived experience is critical to getting the best decisions made.
Right. And my lived experience, I I, you know, you, you noted, you don’t see me talk a lot about on Twitter because I’m really conscientious of the fact that I also live with white privilege. Right. I’m a white person who is a man. Um, I happen to be L G B T. I happen to have had my share of time being unemployed, living through housing insecurity, living in situations I don’t really wanna talk about that weren’t really helpful, that were traumatic for me, um, at a younger point in my life. But I also recognize that if I was a woman and I was black, my prognosis and the likelihood that I would be able to be where I am today is far greater diminished because of all the other variables and institutional biases that exist in society. So yes, I do think lived experience is important, but I think that it’s also empathy and understanding what really goes on in our community.
And I, you know, I, I chose a path of profession that was very closely aligned with social work. So I do work with people and you know, as a legal aid attorney, I’ve had thousands of clients who were low income. Most, almost all my clients are people of color. Almost all of them are people who are low income. And in that space, you know, while I don’t have the same exact lived experiences them, I’ve walked with them through their lived experience and I have been there when they’ve had to make decisions that I do not envy any person making. And it is those experiences and, and the lessons I’ve learned from over 20 years of work in that space, that guide and give me the convictions. I have people say, you’re so confident and so assured about how you’re voting on some things. And we’re, and it’s, I don’t need to study it further.
Mm-hmm. We joke about studying bus seats, right? Yeah. Yeah. There’s the same thing for the human condition. I don’t need to study whether or not it is right to help an undocumented person. Right. When I got elected the same day as Donald Trump, the first thing I did was make our city a sanctuary city. Oh. That was the very first thing I did. Wow. And because I don’t have to be an undocumented person to understand what the plight of that person is from the position of a person who is an ally in that movement. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that is, I think there’s too much overthinking and there’s a lot of people with power who wanna analyze and study everything, including the human condition. And you study the human condition by working with humans.
Andrea Learned (10:59):
Oh, <laugh>. Yes. Wow. I, I you are so articulate on this topic and I’m just feeling kind of goosebumps cuz I that is a wonderful way to put it. And how lucky Emeryville is to have you leading, you know, and, and making these changes. Your story about Jim covers the whole system of city infrastructure that needs to change housing, affordability, parks and open spaces, transportation, community safety and wellness. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s incredible how just that one story intersects with all parts of the system. And so that makes me wonder, you tell those stories in the human stories is that, is talking about it as a systems change. Is that starting to resonate with your constituents and understanding that each of these pieces is all interconnected? Is that, is that helpful? Or do you try and go at it from individual, let’s focus on transportation and by the way, that will help these other issues. Tell me about the whole system’s view, how you use that in your work.
John Bauters (11:56):
Yeah, that’s a good question. And it comes back to advocacy too, right? How do advocates do address these things when you’re, when your leaders can’t or don’t? Um, I think it depends. The, the most common thing that people mis misunderstand, whether they’re they’re speaking from a dais or speaking from the, the public comment is who is the audience? Right? So my answer to your question depends on who my audience is. Um, am I speaking to a group of people who are, um, understand systems, three dimensional thinkers who understand the, the intersectionality of these issues? Do I have, they have a baseline understanding of how systems of injustice and oppression operate today. And how people don’t even wittingly understand that they benefit from the continued operation of those systems. Be that zoning, be that, you know, car dominance be whatever that is. Right? What is, what is continuing to exist and do we understand the impacts that has now and has had historically on people?
And it becomes, it, it comes back to being self-educating oneself about like, why I am where I am. Like what brings, and that’s recognizing my privilege again, like why I am where I am. And I think that when you speak to different constituencies, there are different levels of efficacy with which people come from, right? They have different levels of knowledge. So sometimes presenting the intersectionality of these five things we’re trying to solve is, is like to some people, right? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and, and then the, the effectiveness of me as a leader or a spokesperson on an issue is I may feel like I’m being really smart, but it’s not doing me any good. Right. And I need to then boil it down to singular topics. And as a follow up to the conversation on Jim, you know, I went back and told folks these accepted shelter services, people were very happy.
I said, I’m glad you’re happy. I said, I’m running a housing bond to house people like Jim, I would love it if you would vote for it. And we passed that bond three months, four months later. And, and so helping people see the connection mm-hmm. <affirmative> between something that we’re doing that they now feel connected to, they, a lot of them felt connected to him. I had the same group of residents, some of these older folks call me about a homeless man sleeping across the street from their building next to the fire station. And the parks district had put a notice to a victim and they were showing up to remove his stuff while he was gone out at the store or wherever he was. And old ladies were across the street fighting the parks district officials against removing his stuff. And one of them called me about to have a heart attack on the phone asking me to show up.
And I showed up on my bike 10 minutes later and I, I got the parks district, I said, can you give us 48 more hours? We’d like to work with them. And we moved him 20 feet off of their district property onto the city property. And it’s like, you can empower people when they see that you have an understanding of an issue and that you’re willingness to lead them on an issue and support them in what they know is right. That’s when you actually accomplish change. And so I welcome when my, I, I still get constituents who say, I want this unhoused person, he’s been sleeping over here. I feel unsafe and it’s scary, whatever. I always write them a nice email back that says, thank you so much for your concern for the welfare of our unhoused neighbor. I don’t let them own the narrative about this is a spooky person who, because I don’t like looking at it and it makes me feel guilty or uncomfortable, I should therefore be rid of that.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Right? That’s like disposing of a human being because you don’t, you haven’t taken the time to understand their problem. Right. Right. And there’s some people who say, oh, there’s so many of them and people will come up with all these reasons. Well, they’re addicted and you can’t really help them and this and that. And the the truth is like, homelessness isn’t something that comes in a package that is sold to everybody or given to everybody the same way. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s an experience that’s as unique as the user. And it’s this, it’s an experience that can be entered into and can be left. And people forget that like a person is not homeless as if they are a static experience. A person experiences homelessness. And for the same reasons that I may have lived through housing and security, I left housing at security through my own process.
Right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, other people have that same, and I’ve, I’ve helped many people through that process. And so it’s about helping humanize it. And there are some people who have no patience for it cuz they see it every day. Right. They don’t want it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they don’t understand it. They think it should be the government’s problem to solve mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the irony is that when you say, well, the solution is for me to build more housing and they don’t want it in their backyard, I like, so you would rather the person live across the street in a tent, so you should stop calling me about that, right?
Yeah. Like you should, that’s when you start presenting the intersectionality of why am I building this housing? Right? Because people say, oh, you’re just ybi, you’re right. No, no, no, no, no, no. They do, they’re all over that. And I’m like, no, actually part of the solution to homelessness is an abundance of housing for people of all incomes. Right. And people get down, the people go down the rabbit hole of affordability and this and that. It’s like they make it more complicated than it should be. It’s like, I don’t, again, I don’t need to study that. Housing ends homelessness. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, when there are more roofs, there are more, more places to put people. I don’t need to study that. That’s an answer.
Andrea Learned (16:48):
This is so simple and clear. I hope other local leaders take a page from John’s book. He’s helping connect his community with humanity of the person on the street. His name is Jim. He was collecting cans and recycling them to supplement his income. And when the recycling center near him was shut down, he lost access to his income stream. He doesn’t want a handout, he wants to support himself. It’s street level advocacy through storytelling.
Before we continue with the conversation, I wanted to tell you about a podcast I love an honorable profession, brought to you by the team at New Deal. It’s the go-to podcast for learning about the rising stars and American politics. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Jason Candor, Senator Alex Padilla and Mandela Barnes. These leaders share their innovative policy ideas as well as their inspiring stories about their path into public office. In a world of soundbites and attack ads, an honorable is a thoughtful conversation from the front lines of American democracy. I love finding conversations that give me hope that we can address climate change and the policy challenges of our time. Tune in to learn more and listen to an honorable Profession. Everywhere podcasts are found, John’s work is part of the Bay Area Air Quality management team led him to be selected as a member of the US sub delegation to COP 27, the United Nations Climate Conference in Egypt last fall. As someone who watched the conference unfold from afar pretty much exclusively online, I was eager to hear John’s experience from how he ended up on the delegation to his big takeaways
John Bauters (18:32):
The Alameda County Mayors Conference has seats on several regional boards, and one of them is the Bay Area’s Air Quality Management District. The oldest air quality district in the nation. Uh, it serves nine counties and almost 8 million people. And, uh, I was elected by the my fellow mayors in Alameda County to represent our county on that board. And, um, I’ve been elected by that board. I’m now in my second year as chair of that board for the region. And, uh, there’s 101 cities in the Bay Area and mine is the second smallest by land size. So it doesn’t matter how big of a community you’re from, it, it matters what you lead with. And in that role, we have a seat as a sub delegate to the US delegation, to the Climate Conference. The UN cop, as you noted, the convening of parties. And, um, for the last two years I’ve attended the COP on behalf of the Air District.
And in that role, you know, I’ve gone mostly to learn and to bring back lessons from other people. I really feel that even though our Air District is a leader globally on a lot of issues where other countries and regions are very far behind, there’s still a lot of things that others are innovating on that we could be doing here to make air quality here in the Bay Area better for everyone. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so I go and I, I use that space mostly to, to learn, but also to share, uh, COP 26 in Scotland. I was part of a panel presentation on the role of redlining and community and how we use the lessons we’ve learned on community engagement. And this year we also, um, I I moderated a panel around, uh, some of the things we’re doing in the Bay Area that are innovative.
But this past year, uh, I’ll be very candid, I I have become concerned with cop. Um, I’ve become concerned with, uh, greenwashing and the taking over of this forum by corporate interests, um, including oil companies, which are, I believe next year going to have some people who are in partly in charge of this conference. Right. And I have a very, very significant concern about that. And so while I recognize and, and I, I, I struggle, the activist to me does not want to be part of something that I think is masquerading as climate action. Um, I also feel that there are other stakeholders and partners like myself who are there for whom I need to show up and be present. So I went this past year to Sharm El Sheik Egypt for the conference, along with vice chair of the board, Davina Hurt, and a couple members of our staff.
Um, we went together, we did a presentation at the cop, but I made an effort this year. My goal was to only attend panels and conferences that were put on by women and indigenous people. And I did that on purpose. One, indigenous people make up less than 5% of the people who remain in the world, yet they’re responsible and oversee the lands of 80% of our natural resources that have been untouched and are at risk by inaction on climate. Similarly, women are the demographic most likely to be negatively impacted by a climate change. And they, uh, women in third world countries, equatorial countries, are most likely to be displaced, to be resource burdened. Um, whether that means going further distances to retrieve water, whether that means trying to provide agricultural resources to their families or villages with less battling changes in natural phenomenon that will be variations in short periods of time that differ from hundreds of years of lived experience that they have as a culture.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, women will be disproportionately impacted. And it’s girls the ages of nine to 11 who are most likely to be climate refugees. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so I felt that it was really important to center my time, again, listening to humans who are actually impacted. And, uh, I came back with a lot of new knowledge. I spent my time, um, interviewing and talking to some of those folks. And I believe that if we’re gonna really address the climate crisis, we need to listen to more women and more indigenous people because the, the commitment to science is, is, is good, but science without a cultural or human understanding of the world is not anything but an opportunity to be bought in soul and repackaged by somebody who has a monetary interest in monetizing nature. Mm-hmm.
Andrea Learned (22:35):
<affirmative>. And were you connected with other city leader people that are city leaders from across the US while you were at COP? And I’m kind of curious is what you’re sort of focusing on common or like when you were around your peers in city leadership and I would say probably Global North right? Or maybe US Leader City leadership. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what was your experience with your peers and are they thinking the same way you are? Do you have hope?
John Bauters (23:03):
Yeah. Um, I always keep hope <laugh>. Uh, I do. I you have to if you don’t, here’s the thing. One of the very first panels I went to two years ago was a youth panel. And their entire refrain was, we have hope, and if you don’t, then there’s no hope for us. And so, uh, I do this work mostly for young people. I always felt as a young person, I was not represented, I was invisible. And I don’t do public service out of a desire to serve some interest. I have, I do it because I believe young people really are left off the table, um, left away from a seat where this is their future. And a bunch of who won’t be here 10, 30 years are deciding the futures of who have entire life ahead of them and feel like we have a moral responsibility to center our discussion around them. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, uh, they, they asked for us to have hope. So I keep hope, and I’ll tell you that my experience in Scotland was very different than my experience in Egypt.
Andrea Learned (23:57):
Oh, tell me. Yeah.
John Bauters (23:58)
In Scotland, I had all the, I had all the hopes and underpinnings and conversations you spoke to. I had dinner meetings with, uh, officials from Canada and the United States and parts of Europe. And I attended, uh, some of the, the venues where, uh, language to the Glasgow Declaration was being debated. And I got to watch how certain western powers opposed language and the African and Asian states united against those amendments. And it, it just was really interesting to see the global economic and, and, you know, foreign relations dynamics take effect in real time and to see where people’s interests were and what was really moving them. I didn’t have that opportunity in Egypt because in Egypt, it, the location for this event was a resort community on a peninsula in, you know, next to the Red Sea. And they put us all in gated resorts every evening.
Oh, so you left the co We were in the middle of a desert. They built this, this venue in the middle of a desert, and they put you on a shuttle bus to your specific resort, and you went back to it and there was no community space. Mm. There was no desire to put us in community with each other. Whereas Scotland was the opposite. Scotland was, there were protests outside. I spent a whole day just engaging people who were involved in civil action. There were no civil action forums that you could see. There was no protests allowed in Egypt. And it wasn’t a place where people who wanted to, from the public could even get, you couldn’t even get to it and stay there. You’d be in the middle of the desert. Right. So I felt it was an extremely inhospitable place to the world voice. Um, which is why I didn’t engage anything outside of what I wanted to on the inside of the venue because I felt that it had already been, um, tailored in a way that was designed to give people a very specific experience and an impression. And to me, it was contrary to what I had experienced the year before, which was very uplifting and joyful and optimistic. I felt very, I felt very depressed about my takeaways from COP 27. Yeah.
Andrea Learned (25:51):
And to think COP 28 next year is in Dubai. Oh, I’m skeptical. But were there any events at COP 27 that were actually focused on cities and what cities are doing?
John Bauters (26:02):
There were some speaking events about cities and what cities were doing. Um, it was a little show and tell Yeah. To me mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, that it, it felt like everybody came to just share what they were doing, which can be helpful. Modeling, you know, good behavior or actions that make change is, is helpful. But it, it, you know, I can probably be labeled impatient on this issue, but I feel that cities are talking a lot and not doing a lot mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and, and, and the time for talking is over and there’s a time for action. And it’s been for a while now, and I definitely think that cities could be doing more. I’m really grateful to the Biden administration for the amount of money that’s been put out through the bipartisan infrastructure. And, um, the Inflation Reduction Act has a lot of climate action money.
I know a lot of us think it doesn’t have enough, but I’ll be honest, it is the single largest package of financial resources to cities and states to do these types of resiliency and sustainability projects that we’ve seen before. And so, I’m, I’m hopeful, but if you, if you’ve just followed the math of what science tells us about where we’re headed and what we’re doing, we’re not doing enough. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so whenever I met with, you know, proposal or responses to proposals I’ve put forth at the Air District or in my own city, which is, this is just a lot. It’s too much. I actually say this is incredibly moderate compared to what it should be. That’s, again, this comes back to the same thing with homelessness. Instead of letting people say that the person across the street is a spooky, scary boogeyman, re reframe, reframing around compassion.
Right? Like, let’s have compassion for that person. When the leader has compassion, everybody else has to question why they’re not exercising compassion when you say that, oh my gosh, you know, uh, you know, putting in zero NOx emission standards for building furnaces and water heaters, it’s gonna be so dramatic. Well, really, we should probably be doing it to everything in the building. Right? It should really be NOx emission, everything. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, and people find like, then you want radical, I can show you what radical is like that’s, you know, but it’s still not gonna be enough if we don’t take action. So that’s, that’s kind of how I felt. I felt like I heard a lot of things from folks, but it felt like a lot of what people were presenting was, this is what we’re working on. And what I wanna see is what if people accomplish? What are we actually finishing?
Andrea Learned (28:12):
What are we actually finishing? People go to these climate conferences and say, we pledge this or that, and then they show up next year and say, we’ve adjusted our pledge. Ugh. I share John’s restlessness for action and Solutions-Oriented impact. We had such a great conversation and it doesn’t stop here. Stay tuned for part two airing next week when we get into biking, public safety and infrastructure. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn. Living Change is produced by Larj Media. That’s L A R J Media. Until next time, pedal safely.