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Erin Ronald: Living a Sustainable Life and Career (with message on racial justice)

Erin Ronald is a 2019 Santa Clara graduate in Environmental Studies and Sociology. Erin was recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to work with the European version of the World Wildlife Fund to bring best practices back to the U.S. to help cities set workable climate action policy.

This conversation was recorded before the George Floyd killing, but the first 8 minutes of the podcast are dedicated to racial justice. I share some of my own recent thoughts and convictions, and share statements and actions from Santa Clara’s Multicultural Center, President Father O’Brien, and the Environmental Justice Initiative.

Back to Erin: Since graduating last year, she has been working as one of 90 Civic Spark fellows across the U.S. Stationed in Truckee, near South Lake Tahoe where she spent her summers as a child, Ronald is helping that city develop its own climate action and adaptation plans.

Erin was incredibly involved at Santa Clara. She served as a Global Social Benefit Fellow in Ghana through the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship; helped run SCU’s OxFam club; was on the Food Recovery Network leadership team, and participated in the Sustainable Living Undergraduate Research Project (SLURP) working on the University’s eco-tray program.

In this conversation, we discuss Erin’s passion for helping cities mitigate and adapt to climate change, the day-to-day work of her Civic Spark Fellowship, how COVID is impacting city climate action plans, Erin’s Fulbright award, and how students can incorporate sustainability into their careers.

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Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: Can you talk a little bit about how you discovered your career mission and about why cities and climate change are so important to you?

Erin Ronald: It starts for me growing up in Seattle in the outdoors. I spent most weekends in the North Cascades up north of Seattle and I always had a passion for the environment. I come from a long line of environmentalists, so I always knew the environment was important to me. Going to Santa Clara and majoring in environmental studies helped… I started taking these classes and narrowed my focus onto climate change specifically. And then from there mitigation: how can we actually slow down the speed of climate change?

I got really interested in cities when I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark which is one of the happiest cities in the world. They're doing a lot of really incredible things for the environment. When I was there, I really became an urbanist and became fascinated by the connection between human well-being and happiness and sustainability and how cities can control all of that. 70% of our carbon emissions come from cities. During this time we have kind of an international stalemate on climate policy. We're not getting action at the global level and definitely not at the federal level so in that way, cities are really uniquely positioned to take action and because they have their own jurisdiction and can make a lot of things happen.

GC: What is the link between cities and climate change?

ER: They go together so perfectly. If you bike to work you're going to be so much healthier and you're going to be much more productive. Just being outdoors makes you happier.

Green spaces in cities are able to do a lot of carbon sequestration and at the same time humans love green space and that actually brings us happiness. The whole idea of minimalism and living in smaller spaces—being able to get to work in five minutes and that idea of a dense multi-use city.

GC: Can you talk about your Civic Spark fellowship?

ER: I highly recommend to anyone who's interested in public service in California. Civic Spark is technically an AmeriCorps program but it's run by a nonprofit. There are 90 of us across California working with local governments to help them with climate change adaptation.

I was placed with Truckee near Lake Tahoe. I'm doing climate action planning and a lot of waste reduction stuff and it's just been absolutely incredible.

I've been doing a lot of the engagement side of climate action planning. So talking to residents, helping facilitate workshops really he getting their vision. It's been an incredible learning experience especially with Truckee since our process is so community-driven.

GC: What does like a typical day or week looks like?

ER: In general, probably about 20% of my time is focused on the fellowship. They provide a lot of professional development opportunities and networking education, and we have different groups that touch on relevant issues and policies happening California.

Recently I've just been super wrapped-up in our climate action plan. We've gone through the community engagement process getting feedback and getting residents’ input and now we have synthesized that input. I've been doing a lot of policy writing and writing for the climate action plan… getting background on the topic, introducing what the plans mean for Truckee, research on solutions other cities are implementing…

Then the other part of my time is with the solid waste recycling department: Keep Truckee Green. That involves educating people about composting and reducing waste.

Before COVID hit, we were working on passing a single-use container reduction ordinance. We were going to work on work with businesses on reducing the number of single-use cups, plates, and utensils. That is currently on pause but I hope we will be able to pick that up at some point soon.

GC: You recently won a Fulbright! Congrats! Can you tell me about that?

ER: Yes! I applied that first time around after junior year and was still super passionate about the project so I applied again last fall and ended getting it which is super crazy and exciting. The idea for the project stemmed from when I was abroad in Copenhagen. Scandinavia is definitely a leader on climate action globally—especially Sweden—so I will be working for the European version of the Worldwide Wildlife Fund. They have a program called the One Planet City Challenge which happens every two years. They encourage cities around the world to commence to ambitious climate goals.

I'll be working with three different Swedish cities that have participated in the challenge and figuring out what the best engagement methods. First, helping citizens engage in these plans, while at the same time evaluating this challenge and seeing how it's working. All this has ramifications for how we plan for climate change in the U.S. so ideally, I would love to figure out best practices. I’m super excited.

GC: What advice would you give to a student who is passionate about incorporating sustainability into their careers?

ER: First, zoom out and take a step back because climate change is going affect every single industry. We're all going to be impacted by it no matter if you're working for a financial institution or social services or business. Check out some of the leaders in the industry you’re interested in and see what they're doing to prepare for climate change. Start integrating that into your work and just talking about it. Engage with your peers your co-workers because I don't think there's enough dialogue about how climate change is going to impact all parts of our lives.

We can also take a lot of action in our personal lives by contacting our representatives and telling them what's important and definitely voting and electing the people that we want to see an office. There are opportunities for everyone to incorporate sustainability into what they’re doing.

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