How to Transform a Community? It Starts With a Personal Connection

By Green For All | August 5, 2013
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sfe_enblackcuisine_2013_001“I am the Green Economy” Blog Series
Written by: Maritessa Bravo Ares

Rain or shine, Jennifer McPike moves swiftly from door to door with a clipboard in hand in some of San Francisco’s underserved and neglected neighborhoods.  As an Environment Now Crew Leader, she and her team are on a mission. Their goal is to reach out to as many San Francisco residents as they can to teach them about the city’s Zero Waste Campaign, an effort to reduce waste heading to landfills while increasing access to recycling and composting.  Jennifer’s job is more than just making sure she and her crew target every home on her list.  It’s about transforming a community – one home, one business, and one person at a time.

A program of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, Environment Now is an innovative green jobs training program that provides residents with leadership development and career pathways.  The program helps participants develop skills in communication, computer literacy, and customer service in order to be effective environmental advocates and peer educators.  Using their new skills, the participants conduct environmental outreach activities, making contact with homes and businesses throughout the city.  They educate residents and business owners on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, zero waste, recycling, toxics reduction and food security.  The effort is a win on many levels.  Residents are empowered to be better stewards of their environment. Businesses can also save money by changing their behaviors—and it all adds up to get the city closer to achieving its environmental goals.

Jennifer has been working with Environment Now since December 2009. In May 2012 she began her new role as crew leader, where she trains and coaches crew members on how to conduct door-to-door outreach, communicate with business owners, and compile data.  She and her crew teach residents how to compost and recycle, help monitor bins, and answer any questions the residents or small business owners may have.  You can also see Jennifer and her crew at various community events, where they highlight the programs and services the Department of the Environment has to offer.  She says her favorite part of the job is helping the community.  One success came recently, when she helped the owner of an auto body shop take steps to drastically cut his business’s waste, increase recycling, and use a smaller garbage can.  These changes alone are saving the business owner a couple hundred dollars each month on his garbage bill.

Like Jennifer, who has lived in San Francisco for more than 25 years, many Environment Now program participants come from or have deep ties to some of the city’s most underserved areas.  Because of their familiarity with these neighborhoods, they are uniquely positioned to make a difference with traditionally hard-to-reach audiences and boost community participation in the city’s environmental initiatives.  But changing someone’s behavior – whether it’s the way people sort their recycling or how they conserve energy – isn’t always easy.  Jennifer seems to have a magic touch.  What’s the secret to her success?  “People just want to be heard.  Listening to someone also helps open the door for you to share your story.  It’s the personal connection that changes mindsets,” she explains.

Indeed, it’s that personal connection that has helped the program reach a wide audience.  Collectively, participants have reached over 75,000 residents and businesses with the city’s environmental initiatives, making San Francisco a better place to live and our environment a whole lot healthier. More than 1,100 businesses have taken advantage of free business audits in energy efficiency and lighting offered by the program.  Additionally, in the past year, the program has helped 2,000 businesses and 1,300 apartment buildings with their composting and recycling needs.

Beyond the homes reached or businesses helped, there are other intangible ways in which the Environment Now program has been a success.  For some of the crew members, shifting to the environmental field was a completely new area.  With the help of the program coordinators, Jennifer and other team members became experts on the city’s initiatives, developed the skills needed to communicate with the public and craft messaging that resonates with different audiences.  The confidence to connect and speak with anyone and everyone is now a part of who she is.  The program has also given people an opportunity to pursue meaningful work.

“I like working here because it gives me a sense that I’m doing something with myself. Environment Now has given me a chance to take part in working and being included back in my community and talking to my neighbors and peers about how to keep and achieve a sustainable, healthy and safe environment for everyone. While doing that it has given me structure and great office skills that I can take to another job”

Ebony Reid, an Environment Now program participant.

The Environment Now team is made up of San Franciscans from a wide range of backgrounds and spoken languages, with a variety of work and life experiences, all sharing a passion for protecting the environment.  Since 2009, almost 65 people have completed the two-year program equipped with knowledge and transferrable skills they can use throughout their lives.

For more information on the Environment Now program, please visit the San Francisco Department of the Environment webpage at www.sfenvironment.org.

Read more stories in our “I am the Green Economy” campaign here

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