Why I Work

April 14, 2011

By Toni Nelson, Second Nature ACUPCC Program Director

(This post is part of a weekly series by the Second Nature team about why we do what we do.)

Almost two years ago I moved back to my hometown of Lexington, KY, after spending most of my adult life in almost constant motion – living in Charlottesville, VA; upstate NY and NYC; Washington, DC; Eugene, OR; Miami; Rio de Janeiro, and Sedona, AZ, and traveling all over the world for both work and play, sometimes for months at a time.  But Kentucky is the land of Wendell Berry, and to me it’s no coincidence that he is a product of this place – which its inhabitants love more fiercely than any other place I’ve lived, and which, for all my traveling, is the only place I could ever imagine actually putting down roots.  I loved growing up here and always intended to return, despite the rather circuitous path I took to do so.

Hiking in Kentucky

Hiking in Kentucky

The minute I was finally settled, my dad sent me all the boxes he had charge of for years as I moved from one city to another and in and out of storage units, traveling light.  Last summer I took a week off and finally dived into them, sorting through more than three decades of memorabilia in the process.  And one of the things I found was the letter confirming my acceptance as a youth representative to the local environmental council, something I had completely forgotten about.  Yes, I remembered that I elected to study physics (about as close as you could get to environmental studies at the time) during the five-week Kentucky Governor’s Scholar Program held between my junior and senior years of high school.  And I am well aware that I chose to attend the University of Virginia in part because they had one of the few nuclear reactors on a college campus and my career goal at the time, clearly stated in my application, was to solve the problem of nuclear waste (now, given the recent events in Japan, where my brother and his family live, I am sorry I never did that).  But I hadn’t realized how far back my commitment to protecting the environment actually went.

Recycling at UVA, Phase 1 (1989)

Recycling at UVA, Phase 1 (1989)

During college, my path was profoundly influenced by a summer School for Field Studies course in Costa Rica (I must thank Jim Elder of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy here for creating SFS at Northeastern University in 1980).  When I returned for my third year at UVA, I changed my major to Environmental Science and started the University’s first student environmental group, the Student Alliance for Virginia’s Environment (SAVE), with the goal of creating the first student recycling program on campus.  Back in the 80’s there were no sustainability departments at colleges and universities, no institutional goals around sustainability, and a lot of barriers to any kind of student activism, particularly at UVA.  But with a lot of excellent coaching from a PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) staffer, we not only got the administration’s grudging buy-in, we also created the kind of program that would work in the long-term – not just until we dedicated student activists graduated – by contracting with a local aluminum recycling company and giving student dorms an economic incentive to recycle by sharing the profits with them.

As I listened to the student presentations at the recent Smart & Sustainable Campuses Conference I was amazed by how much has changed – now when students want to start a sustainability project on campus, there are often staff members to help them and a national infrastructure of support (remember, we didn’t have personal computers then, much less the internet!).  But I believe they learn the same things I did from SAVE – how to engage and motivate people to care about the fate of the planet and their role in protecting it, how to organize and implement an effective and successful project, and how to leverage resources and support for what they are doing. SAVE launched me on the path of fulfilling my vocation, which “demands that each of us asks two fundamental questions: Who am I? How can I best serve others?” as Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman explain in Boldly Sustainable (p. 29-30).  And I feel a great deal of gratitude at my good fortune of having my career and my vocation be one and the same.

Recycling at UVA, Phase 2 (1991)

So that’s the how (… I got started) of Why I Work, I suppose.   The why is somewhat more abstract.  In part, it comes from my deep love of place, the fact that when I am out in any of the diverse landscapes of Kentucky (rolling horse farms, lush Appalachian mountains, green rivers, and blue lakes), my heart sings and I want to ensure that those places persist, safe from contamination or destruction.  I also believe that a sustainable lifestyle brings us closer to the essence of life – what matters, what is holy, if you will.  One of my favorite writers is the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, who says in her book When Things Fall Apart (p. 106), “If we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure – how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence – then we would practice meditation as if our hair were on fire.”

It seems quite clear to me that the current social and ecological UNsustainability we confront is a direct reflection of the fact that we as a species are indeed cut off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence.  But I work every day with people at Second Nature and in institutions all over the country who are seeking a different way, working to reconnect all of society with that heart, that intelligence.  And I believe we can do it.  That’s why I work.

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