White House Honors Champions of Change for Greening our Cities and Towns

by Tammy Zborel 

The White House honored nine individuals on April 25 as Champions of Change for Greening our Cities and Towns as part of President Obama's "Winning the Future" initiative. These leaders have demonstrated a commitment to advancing innovative approaches to promote energy efficiency, revitalize outdoor spaces and waterways and adopt transportation solutions that conserve natural resources, improve walkability and improve other quality of life aspects of towns and cities. 

NLC was pleased to participate in the event honoring the champions, along with local leaders from the cities of Gaithersburg and Annapolis, Md., to hear the inspiring stories and engage in a dialogue with the champions and the administration. 

"Healthy, sustainable communities support a strong economy and better quality of life for Americans," said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The leaders we've selected as Champions of Change are finding creative ways to make their communities healthier places to live, work and play and demonstrating how a healthy environment and strong economy go hand in hand." 

The champions that were recognized represent the cities of Tallahassee, Fla., Pittsburgh, Pa., Galveston, Texas, Denver, Williamson, W.Va., Flint, Mich., Jonestown, Pa., Atlanta, and Charlotte, N.C. 

During a panel discussion with some of the champions, Shelley Poticha, director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, made the observation that the leadership and comprehensive approaches demonstrated at the local level in many ways embody and help inform what federal agencies are striving to achieve. 

Efforts that emerge from or seek to link together a range of stakeholders - including local governments, schools, non-profits, workforce training programs, philanthropic communities, private sector and community members - are proving successful in communities across the country. 

Among the reoccurring themes that emerged throughout all nine of the champions' stories were the importance of involving youth and building sustainability within educational programs, the value of strong political leadership at the local level and the role of partnerships. 

Champions spoke passionately about the work happening throughout their communities and among the various organizations and agencies they represent. Lindsay Baxter, project manager for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) in Pittsburgh, spoke about the leadership of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in establishing the first Office of Sustainability for the city, the value of taking an integrated approach to the issues and leading by example. 

Dr. Jackie Cole, former city councilmember in Galveston, Texas, shared the inspiring story of local leadership and vision in rebuilding after Hurricane Ike. Dr. Cole spearheaded an initiative to replant more than 8,000 trees and founded the non-profit Galveston Island Tree Conservancy to educate citizens and raise funds for replanting. Her central message to participants and federal agencies at the event was around shifting current valuation of trees from being about beautification and aesthetics to recognition of trees as critical infrastructure. 

Workforce training and skill development for green jobs and emerging economic opportunities were leading elements for programs in Atlanta, Williamson and Flint. 

Eric Mathis, founder and director of The JOBS Project in Williamston, offered a compelling account of working with the coal industry in rural West Virginia to advance sustainability goals and alleviate generational poverty by creating mutually productive economic links between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries and the surrounding communities. 

Leadership of local schools and the active engagement of youth was emphasized by many of the champions and formally recognized through the work of Brian Kasher, manager of environmental health and safety for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District and Marian Robidas, principal of Jonestown Elementary School in the Northern Lebanon School District. Getting students out into the community and into nature were core elements of success in instilling sustainability values and messages, not only with the students but also as a strategy to engage with and educate parents. 

Details: The Champions of Change program was created as a part of President Obama's "Winning the Future" initiative. Each week, a different sector is highlighted, and groups of champions, ranging from educators to entrepreneurs to community leaders, are recognized for the work they are doing to serve and strengthen their communities. To learn more and review the profiles of all the "Champions of Change" please visit www.whitehouse.gov/champions.