In this third story of our “Greenprenuers” series, the Office for Sustainability (OFS) features a Q&A with Emily Sadigh (College ’99, HGSE ’05). Trained as an educator and certified as a Biomimicry Specialist, Emily designs strategies for the public sector, universities, and businesses to go green and build learning systems for sustainability. With the Alameda County Sustainability team, Emily applies change management tools to promote broad-based participation in climate action in one of California’s largest counties. Emily has been recognized as a Next American Vanguard, one of the top 35 civic leaders under 35 working to improve U.S. cities, and Toyota and the National Audubon Society recently named her a TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow for her pioneering work applying biomimicry to organizational change. Connect with Emily on Twitter: @emilysadigh.

OFS: How did your experiences at Harvard influence your professional work in the sustainability field?

Sadigh: My Harvard experience has significantly shaped how I approach my work, which involves leading internal change efforts to green the operations and facilities of large organizations and creating learning systems that support innovation for sustainability. As a social anthropology concentrator at Harvard College, I learned a valuable insight that has guided my work ever since: the first step before making efforts to embed environmental sustainability in the culture of an organization is to understand that culture.

While working at Harvard’s Office of Sustainability (then the Green Campus Initiative) from 2002 to 2004, I had outstanding mentors and gained hands-on experience in climate action areas like waste reduction and energy conservation. As the founding coordinator of Harvard’s Resource Efficiency Program, I learned how to create engaging campaigns and manage a large group of peer environmental educators. I still collaborate with colleagues from that time and continue to be inspired by Harvard’s greening campaigns.

My master’s studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education focused on adult education for sustainability because I wanted to learn best practices – based on findings in adult developmental psychology – in teaching adults. Today I use the principles I learned at HGSE when educating Alameda County’s 9,000 employees through orientations, trainings, competitions, and interactive events. 

OFS: What is involved in your cutting-edge work to apply biomimicry to a new arena, organizational change?

Sadigh: While studying biomimicry, I became very interested in how the natural forms and systems that are so well adapted to earth’s operating conditions can not only inform product and building design, but also guide organizational innovation. I am currently applying principles of biomimicry in a pilot network of about 25 employee volunteer “green ambassadors” who share opportunities for green workplace actions, such as clean commuting, with their colleagues. 

“Life’s principles” – a fundamental tool in biomimicry – describe patterns in how organisms relate to the world and each other. With the green ambassadors, we are applying four of these principles – the natural world’s ability to self-organize, demonstrate resilience through variation and decentralization, stay locally attuned, and use feedback loops – to design the network and to encourage the ambassadors to turn to nature when tailoring their campaign approaches. For an illustration of a “life’s principle” in action, consider how the narwhal, a small arctic whale, locally attunes to its environment. The narwhal uses its sensitive tusk as a sensor that helps it avoid solid ice and find food. The green ambassadors realized that they needed to be the tusk or, in other words, provide regular progress reports to their colleagues.

OFS:  How would you describe a “typical” day or week for your day job as Sustainability Project Manager at the County of Alameda?

Sadigh: There is always something new to learn: The environmental issues I am working on vary from green building to telecommuting, and the skills I apply may range from metrics development to grant-writing to meeting facilitation

In a typical week, I am juggling several projects in varied stages, such as conducting feasibility and best practice research; developing and presenting a new policy for review by the County’s executive leadership; supervising campaign design on a specific topic like “smart printing” and training our peer educators to promote it; analyzing survey results; and developing a case study presentation. One welcome and regular aspect of the week is our sustainability group meeting where we celebrate successes and share new developments.

OFS: What projects are you most proud of at Alameda County?

Sadigh: I’ll share two projects that promote broad-based participation in sustainability; we hope other organizations will be inspired to adopt each of these projects. First, over the past 18 months, we have created and have been working with six internal teams tasked with carrying out key initiatives from the Alameda County Climate Action Plan for Government Services and Operations. This effort has involved over 50 staff members from 13 agencies serving on cross-agency teams with engaged executive sponsors. The teams have launched programs such as shared departmental transit cards that employees can check out, to make it easy to use public transportation for on-the-job travel.

Second, I have had the pleasure of leading the county’s involvement in a program that promotes both public service careers and citizen involvement in climate action: the Bay Area Climate Corps. For the past three years, this AmeriCorps pilot program has trained and placed 30 AmeriCorps volunteers each year in local governments and non-profits to provide a year of service. Alameda County has so far hosted 14 volunteers who have implemented our Climate Action Plan and ensured that eligible community members’ homes receive federally subsidized energy efficiency upgrades. We welcome Harvard graduating students and alumni to apply for the 2013-14 positions!

OFS: How have you maintained your connection with Harvard since graduating from the College and Graduate School of Education?

Sadigh: Harvard and Radcliffe alumni have been very generous in supporting my career explorations through externships, shadowing opportunities, and informational interviews. I am delighted to continue this tradition and support Harvard students who are interested in careers in sustainability by hosting them for externships and internships. I make it a point to reach out to students involved with Harvard’s Office of Sustainability when the County has openings. 

Working with current students help keep me up to date on life at Harvard today. I also enjoy reading the Crimson and Harvard Magazine and visiting campus whenever I’m in the area. I look forward to a very green 15-year reunion next year! 

Image Captions: Green Ambassadors learn to use Alameda County's public electric vehicle charging stations, Photo Credit: County of Alameda; Emily Sadigh, Photo Credit: Sarah Rea; Alameda County employees share what they do to be green at work, Photo Credit: County of Alameda