Today I bring you Anisa Heming. You know many people, maybe including you, see working on the environment I think as a distraction from the rest of life. They want to get ahead, they want to do things in life and if they have to work on the environment, it’s something that distracts them from getting ahead. I think they tend to think of leadership as coming from rising through the ranks. They get promoted and promoted and promoted and eventually they become a leader. In my view, that path may get you authority but that doesn’t necessarily get you leadership. Authority and leadership are often contrasted against each other. They often go together but not necessarily. That path often [unintelligible] compliance. I call it the rat race.
Anisa is another example of someone who developed and emerged as a leader by doing what she cared about including environmentally even when she might not have seen it as specifically advancing her career in the rat race. As a result, when disaster struck, in her case the recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas, her career brought her to help people on the ground in something that should care about, something meaningful to her, not just working behind a desk. And what are we here for if not to help other people? As it happens with many cases of people who take leadership roles in areas that other people are neglecting and I think the environment is one of these areas, globally people care about the environment, it advanced her career as well as we’ll hear. It’s funny because there’s always professional talk but she’s actually a very friendly person. And all of this comes out as someone who cares about… Well, enough talk about her. Let’s listen to Anisa and let’s take it away.
Joshua: Hello and welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Josh. I’m here with Anisa Heming. Anisa, how are you?
Anisa: I’m good. How are you doing?
Joshua: I’m great. And you do a lot of different things that all touch on leadership in different ways. You have a degree in architecture. You work in education. You also work in policy in government in D.C. You do a lot of different things.
Joshua: Can you tell us about the Center for Green Schools is where you work and can you tell us what it does and what you do there?
Anisa: Sure. Yeah. So, the Center for Green Schools is part of an organization called the U.S. Green Building Council. And so we kind of grow out of the architecture and building industry. But the Center for Green Schools was founded because we knew that if we were going to address how our schools are addressing sustainability, it required few more strategies than what we use in the commercial sector and other building sectors because schools are all about learning. So we have to include you know education and educating both students and the people who are working with those students to make sure that we’ve got you know the information about sustainability out to the next generation.
Joshua: The reason I’m asking is that with all these different things… Now with a degree in architecture you could easily say, “Look I’m just going to build buildings, worrying about this green stuff is like that’s you know someone else can worry about that. You know I get clients that want a building made.” And I think a lot of people say, “You know I’m living a life and I got to do what’s important for me. And this environmental stuff is like that’s later or someone else can worry about that.” How did you make the switch? Was it natural? Was it inevitable? Was it hard?
Anisa: Yeah, you know it was kind of gradual and a little bit unexpected. I was in graduate school and I worked at architecture firms and I was sort of thinking I don’t know if the architecture profession is really the right fit for me that the type of work every day. I’d really enjoy working directly with people and the people that are my work and my… You know the stuff I do every day as it is impacting and that’s a little hard sometimes in architecture especially when you’re starting out because you’re kind of far away from the clients and the end user. So, I actually looked for a lot of ways to make that…To make a leap into something where I could use architecture to actually make specific and like real difference in people’s lives. So I actually applied to the Peace Corps or like you do if you don’t quite know what you want to do after graduating school.
I ended up not doing that but I did, I also applied to this job in New Orleans to work with the schools and with the school district. The U.S. Green Building Council is hiring this position after Hurricane Katrina to help with the rebuilding of the schools. And typically the school district had committed to building those schools in a green way. And so, I was on the ground there for two years doing that. And I would say you know I really wanted to make a difference with architecture but the environmental side of that actually didn’t really come at me as strongly until I was on the ground in New Orleans and I started seeing the real connections between human health and climate change and environmental action. And those were so clear and so obvious in that work that I think that’s really when I became committed. So, I sort of committed to the job and then later became more committed through that work.
Joshua: I really hope people are making the connections that I’m making in what you’re saying. So many people look at environmental stuff as disconnected from what they do in a distraction. And if I hear you right, and tell me if I’m overstating it or just looking…. I hope not to look for what I want to find but you wanted to make a difference, you wanted to work with people and when you started working you found that it was more relevant than you’d ever imagined. And it all came through acting first.
Anisa: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s absolutely true for my life and I think you know I can imagine a lot of people have had that experience.
Joshua: Oh, man, I think a lot of people think it’s not worth it to try because it’s too far removed and it’s not going to make a difference. It’s like the opposite. I think a lot of people think, “What I do is not going to make a difference.” I’m not going to get to work with people and it’s abstract as opposed to here and now which is the opposite of what your case has been.” And I’m reading, correct me if I’m wrong, you love what you do.
Anisa: I love what I do. Yeah, I love what I do. And I think like the harder I try at it, the more I am able to see an impact which is more motivating and leads me to further work because it’s not that obvious when you start out because it does feel like you’re doing such a small piece of the puzzle. And I certainly felt like that going to New Orleans after Katrina. I mean there was so much to do and it was so easy to feel like a tiny little piece of that. But then I visited schools and I was able to get this EPA grant to hire an indoor air quality manager for the schools and I toured the schools with her and I started seeing you know the connections between like the energy systems in the building and the energy used there and that impact on the environment and then how that impacted the health of the schools and the school environment. Those are the direct links that I was seeing and I thought, “Oh my gosh. The work that I’m doing actually has an impact on that.”
Joshua: Can you tell that story… Because what I heard was that you started with just a piece of something and then you emerged as a leader and not just like a side thing. And I think that… I mean people who are listening to a podcast called Leadership and the Environment podcast I presume want to take some leadership role and I feel like there’s tons of leadership stuff there but people don’t see it at the beginning. Can you walk through the story of how you went from being an outsider having a small little piece to a leader that… Is that what led you to having the role in D.C.?
Anisa: Yeah, a bit of a long road like any of the stories are. It’s sort of a story of those two years in New Orleans sort of growing my own knowledge and commitment through the work and through doing it every day and through listening to people, meeting students, meeting teachers and school administrators, just listening really deeply in that work making sure that you know what I was doing or trying to make sure that what I was doing you know was helpful and had real impact on the students in those schools and on the school’s sustainability in itself.
So that work I just really focused effort on learning about what was needed and learning about what that city and its students really needed for the future. And then you know that commitment and that learning process grew my own expertise in green schools and so that position in New Orleans was always meant to be a temporary position.
And after the two years you know toward the end of the two years USGBC asked if I would move to D.C. and bring that expertise to other school districts around the country. So, the role that I had when I moved to D.C. was pretty much to spread that knowledge that I had gained in New Orleans to other school districts. And I’m lucky that I was given the opportunity to do that because it’s really interesting and fun and fulfilling work. And we grew this network of you know around 120 school district sustainability staff many of whom didn’t exist when I was doing the work in New Orleans. And so that job class has grown up through the work that I did but also the work that many others were doing around the country to kind of lift up this idea that sustainability in schools is really foundational.
Joshua: I like how you describe yourself as lucky to have gone until the belly of like a really difficult location, really difficult, you were putting the time for something that’s temporary that probably other people were like nervous about doing. You emerged as a leader. And I think you’re saying because you love what you do that you feel lucky. But I feel like you put in the time and effort.
Anisa: Yeah, yeah. I just you know I feel like sometimes people put in the time and effort and really grow their expertise and it’s hard to find the place to direct that expertise. So, I guess that’s why I feel lucky that that opening was given to me to actually use what I had learned in that experience and use that become a leader in the green schools’ world.
Joshua: So you say lucky. I mean to me, I think that… One of the questions I wanted to ask you, and this is purely speculative, is say someone’s in some other field that’s as equally distant from their perspective as probably a lot of people would think architecture would be from doing something environmental related. What are the odds of them going to start seeing like how they can do something connecting what they’re doing with the environment. I think that it touches on everything because it’s like the water that we drink, the air that we breathe that it’s going to touch on everything. So if the connections aren’t there and you make that connection I think you’re going emerge as a leader. And it might not be in the most obvious way and it may take longer for some people. What do you think?
Because I’ve started podcasting Leadership and the Environment. I don’t see the people doing it and when I first started doing it I put a page on my blog of like Leadership and the Environment and I searched and it ended up like first or second in an online search and I was like wow, suddenly I’m the leader and leader in leadership in the environment. I think that it’s much more likely than you are saying but now I’m curious. Maybe I’m missing something. You’re in the thick of it too.
Anisa: Yeah. I mean I think it’s there’s a couple of questions linked to… You know I started working for an organization that was focused on the environment. And so, my connection you know making the connection between the environment and leadership and leadership in schools it was one that you know was sort of a clear connection for me to make just because of the organization that I was working in. But I’ve seen school leaders and watched school district and school leaders who are making this connection that sustainability is like central to what their students need to know going into the world. And they are leaders in their field like not just on environment but in other ways – they’re you know asked to speak at superintendent conferences and they’re held up as models of excellence in many things. And those are the ones who typically are really getting it with sustainability. So I think there is a connection between those who are rising to the top in leadership like writ large and those who are recognizing the place that sustainability has in our lives.
Joshua: I have to say I think this reinforces my view that you’re saying the people who really make it central, the school leaders, the educational leaders who make this a big thing they’re the ones who are invited to these conferences and their emerging as leaders the people who are like, “Well, that’s kind of a maybe issue for some other time or whatever.” They’re not emerging as… Well, I mean they might emerge as leaders and some in other things. But if you are in an area where environment is not such a big thing I think that if you make it a big thing, you’ll emerge you know, and you do it not just kind of tiptoe around it, then I think there’s a really good chance that there’s a lot of leadership opportunities people just don’t see because they’re not connecting… I don’t know you know pick random field. Whoever’s listening is what are you doing if that connection to environment isn’t there and you make it, I think you stand a chance to, I don’t know, end up in D.C. or you know whatever… I think you’re not going to know what the potential is because I’m experiencing it myself that you know I started the idea for this podcast. And next thing I know it’s like I’m oversubscribed all the people to be on and so forth. And I think you’re having some experience. I think a lot of people are doing the opposite. They are like, “Well, I will wait till something happens.”
Anisa: Yeah, and that’s yeah… I think people recognize strategic thinking and…
Joshua: And action.
Anisa: Yeah and action. Yeah. But like smart action. You know people want to see that their leaders are thinking of the future and are prepared to tackle what’s next.
Joshua: You just started talking about the future and like about what’s coming next and so forth. OK, so I don’t know when this will be released. But right now a bunch of hurricanes just swept through Houston and Florida and you were in Katrina and you’re figuring out schools there. Are you now a leader yet again having had that experience before? Is your star rising even farther? I don’t want to say star rising because it’s like these are big tragedies but we need to rebuild. How do you fit into what’s going on now? And I think everyone agrees that this is the future of…We’re going to have more and more of situations like this, of natural disasters.
Anisa: I mean it’s so soon after these storms right now and it’s really hard to know exactly like how the assessment and recovery effort is going to go. But yeah, I am getting called on to share lessons and to try to share best practices. You know it’s really interesting like this is… This goes to the topic of leadership again actually because the real Katrina happened fifteen years ago almost. And things are so different now. So I’m being asked for lessons learned and I can give those and that’s always instructive to hear other people’s experiences and other places’ experiences. I’m being asked like, “Is there a playbook to follow? Like can we have anything to follow in order to know how to do this right?” And the answer that I have to give is “no”. One definition of leadership is “Building the next steps where no one else has gone.” And in most of these cases you know the place is different, the time is different, the leadership on the national level is different and many things are going to be very different for these cities and it’s going to be very interesting to see which leaders rise out of these disasters.
Joshua: Now you make me curious how much of what you do is…I mean you did what you did to get where you are, you are working with other people. Are you going to work with people as much as you wanted to and are you on the vanguard or do you have lots of peers that are kind of at the same level also started bringing their experience to develop their backgrounds and then develop an experience to bear? Like are you on your own or are you in [unintelligible] you are working with teams but are there other people who are pushing the limits? Like is it safe to say you’re pushing the limits at the forefront?
Anisa: Yeah, I hope that’s true and I try to make that true. I would say there are a number of peers that I have in the green schools’ arena, other leaders of nonprofits who are doing things with schools to try to change behavior and change the way that policy is made. My background is unique. Many of them have not…. None of them worked in a school system as sustainability director in in the context that I was in in New Orleans. And you know as soon as I concluded the position in New Orleans we started this network of school district staff who do this work and that was in 2010 which was not that long ago but it was a kind of early in the like advent, the beginning of these positions in school districts. And so, the background that I have in guiding those positions and getting school districts to hire these people and coaching them and that sort of thing is unique in my field. And that kind of work I do feel like that that sort of fulfilling that desire that I had to work directly with people, the work that we do with school district staff and then also with teachers and school leaders, the work that we do directly with those guys is really motivating to me and we get to do a lot of that.
Joshua: So, the personal side of things is…I am going to use that to segue away because we are talking about a lot about leadership. Let’s talk about the environment. And in particular, why do you care? What does environment mean to you? What’s your passion behind it?
Anisa: Yeah, I think my passion comes from a couple of different places. I mean my childhood was spent with parents who cared about the environment, like my dad rode me to kindergarten on his bike and we washed plastic bags in house you know.
Joshua: I am so glad the people do that.
Anisa: I made fun for it a lot.
Joshua: Well, I’m not making fun of you for it. I’m glad that you said it. I’ve been doing it. Yeah.
Anisa: Yeah, yeah. I mean like once you start thinking about it and then once you don’t have to think about it it’s really the point. Once you don’t have to think about it just becomes sort of second nature. And it’s not a big deal. So I think a lot of what I do related to the environment is kind of like obvious choices to me because of that background.
But you know the other connection that I don’t know if it’s made as much as I would like to see it made but the connection with health and healthy environments is crucial I think. And when I was in New Orleans I talked a little bit earlier about the fact that I saw that connection and I saw very, very clearly when we don’t take care of the things that we have built and the things that we are surrounded by natural and built environment, when we don’t take care of those that impacts people directly and their health directly. And so, you know a lot of the sustainability operations, actions and advocacy we do here relates to this drive to make sure that people are healthy in these places that they’re coming to learn and that really motivates me as well.
Joshua: I’m hearing that it’s health, it’s kids, it’s your father, it’s your parents that it’s about caring for people. These are all to me positive things. I mean it’s your values but I’m reading like this is something that it’s the opposite of a burden. And also you said that it’s not a big deal but am I right that it was a big deal before? It’s not that you were born thinking it’s not a big deal because it sounds like there was a shift at some point.
Anisa: I do remember asking my parents when I was a kid why it mattered because you know as soon as you start learning about the scale of the world then your individual actions start feeling pretty small and dinky. But my parents did it anyway and they were really committed to those actions anyway and they would talk about you know the collective action. You know you, yes, are one person but if everyone did this or even if the majority of people did this, we would be in a lot better shape as communities and you know as a planet. So they kind of hung on even through that kind of doubt about personal efficacy and that stuck with me. And so you know I don’t remember a time when I didn’t do something and then all of a sudden sort of decided to do it. It was more like a gradual sort of going back and forth and settling on a way of life for a lifestyle. And I think it’s like constant choosing. Like every day there’s like some choice that you make that either it’s sort of conscious or unconscious. And one of our jobs is to try to make them conscious. Like try to make those decisions about your actions conscious. And I struggle with that all the time.
You know transportation to work for instance. Like what am I going to… How am I going to get to work today? Because I try to use public transit and different modes of public transit and things like that and every day it’s kind of like trying to make that choice consciously instead of just like going with whatever’s in front of me.
Joshua: That’s what I’m trying to do with this podcast is I’m trying to get people to do that. Because I think people to…
Anisa: Make it conscious. Yeah.
Joshua: You talk about a struggle but it’s like the struggle that makes you who you are to me it’s like you know people who don’t want struggle I don’t know what they want but like the struggle is like…
Anisa: Yeah, it doesn’t really feel like struggle, it just feels like choosing.
Joshua: It’s not a negative thing.
Anisa: Yeah, you choose things all the time, right. You like choose different socks to wear and you choose like what you’re going to eat that day for lunch and it’s just like those are conscious choices because you like have to make them or they don’t happen.
Joshua: Well, let’s give you another opportunity because this podcast, you read the description and I am going to invite you to take on a challenge and maybe make something more conscious that it might be harder for you than most people if you’ve been doing this your whole life. But are you interested in taking on a personal challenge?
Anisa: I am.
Joshua: So even now you know it but I am going to say it anyway for anyone who is listening to this for the first time. It’s a challenge that it doesn’t have to change the world overnight and solve all the problems because a lot of people think, “If don’t do everything, I don’t do anything.” And it’s not something I’m going to tell you what to do but something that you choose by your values. So you are going to do something you want to do. It can be temporary but I hope when you do it you think about making it long term, maybe even permanent. So that’s for everyone else. And it sounds like you’ve thought about this.
Anisa: I have, yeah. I knew this was coming.
Joshua: Is it related to public transportation?
Anisa: It is not. Do you want to make another guess?
Joshua: I’d rather hear. Yeah, I want to hear what you have to say.
Anisa: Yeah, I really want to try to eliminate and I’m going to try to do this for a week because I could do it for longer and I hope I can do it for longer but it’s going to be pretty difficult. I want to eliminate single use plastics completely.
Joshua: All right. That’s a big challenge. I mean in today’s world a hundred years ago didn’t exist at all. And I think we’re happy. It’s like the videos of… I’ve seen this is on National Geographic with people scuba diving in barrier reefs like it’s covered in plastic. And ok, so for one week to eliminate single use plastics. So what do you mean by single use?
Anisa: So, I mean anything that I buy where if I consume or open that package the package would go to the trash and not be used some other way. So, I’m not meaning like a running water bottle you know like a squeeze bottle or something that I use you know many, many, many times but I do mean like when I buy lunch anything that comes in plastic – plastic wrap, like cellophane even. So I’m like imagining all the things I have like already used today. I have a salad that I ate today that’s sitting on my table in front of me that is in a plastic bowl that I will be recycling afterwards but you know but not reusing.
Joshua: So that’s a single use.
Anisa: Right. That’s what it is.
Joshua: Yeah, I think that one of the things I’m finding with people is that when they do one thing when it works out they start wanting to do other things that I never talked to them about. I think that’s what happens when you live by values and you start moving toward the value. When it’s in conflict with comfort and convenience and you’ve been choosing comfort and convenience it’s kind of like to me you’re kind of like denying, suppressing stuff and then you make it aware and you’re like, “OK, there’s a struggle, it’s hard.” Now you are going to go to a store and be like, “Oh, I am going to get X. Oh, it’s in plastic. I did not realize.” Now you like not for a week and then maybe the other week that you are like, “You know what? I found something different and I like more” or something like that.
Anisa: Yeah. Yeah.
Joshua: And then you are like, “This was hard but actually after a while it got easier.” And when you live by values value means more good, it’s better. That’s what worked out for me. And then you’re like, “What else can I do?” And one of the big things it’s killing me… If you don’t mind my going on a bit, is people keep saying here’s this little thing for you to change. And they say, “Little things add up.” Well, maybe little things may add up somewhat but if I got something that’s going to make your life a lot better and I expect that it’s going improve your life a ton, I’m not going to say “do a little bit”, I am going to say “do a lot”. And so to say “do this little thing” reinforces the belief that it’s something people don’t really want to do and that kept me from making these changes for a long time.
I don’t know what will happen with you but I suspect that you might find that the non- plastic stuff you’re going to find a lot of stuff that you like more than you thought you did or didn’t really think about. I don’t know. That’s happened with me.
Anisa: Yeah, I hope so.
Joshua: Here’s what I am going to bring up. If people start talking about like, “What about this? What about that? How about that?” like you can get in logical conversations that will go on forever because it’s not like there’s absolutes, a lot of absolutes here like some absolute that says, “This is bad for the environment. This is good. This is the way to do things” or whatever. I find people really want to get into conversations like that “Well, what would you do if the plastic was this type of plastic and very recyclable or something like that?” Do it yourself! I mean I’m trying to do something to figure this out and you want me to figure out everything? I don’t know. And when you talk about action and you think about what you’re doing it’s like it’s much more productive.
Anisa: Yeah, yeah. It’s also sort of a mindset about the purpose of what you’re doing. Like you know that’s a really funny example that you brought up because you were the U.S. Green Building Council and we’re a standards-setting organization. So you know we’re like constantly asked to define what good environmental action is, especially you know in the building industry. And you know we do our best but like sometimes the evidence isn’t quite clear and you just have to kind of do the best thing that you know how to do. I think that’s exactly what you’re saying. You know like we’re asked like, “OK, paper towels or hand dryers?’ You know we’re not quite sure. It depends on a lot of things but you know think about it for yourself and you know do the best that you can and if you don’t know everything, it doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything. There’s always some choice that’s slightly better than others when it comes to the environment. So, it’s kind of uncomfortable to a lot of people if you don’t know every answer and you know it seems a little bit unsure but you know we all have the ability to like reason through our choices and just choose one that’s you know that we think is a little better.
Joshua: That’s such a liberating perspective that the nerdy me of most of my life was like, “No, you got to figure out everything” And before I did my experiments I was like, “How do I plan this out? How do I make my week perfect?” And then it’s like just doing it was much… That taught me so much more than planning.
Anisa: That’s really interesting.
Joshua: Yeah. I’m looking forward to what comes next for you with our next conversation because I think that your experience is… What you’re doing is similar to what I did and I haven’t gotten to talk to someone who’s done something like that before. I’ve talked to people who have tried to do it and haven’t made it yet. Not exactly what you are doing but something different. And so I’m really curious to… I’m looking forward to that conversation.
Anisa: Yeah, me too. Let’s do this. I’m ready.
Joshua: Ok, cool. And I’m really looking forward to some time when you go to New York City and I’ll show you like how I make my food and stuff.
Anisa: Good food. That’s right. Looking forward to that too.
Joshua: Ok, cool. So I will talk to you again. I guess it’ll be two weeks from today and enjoy the challenge.
Anisa: Thank you. Thanks. I’ll talk to you soon.
Joshua: Talk to you then. Bye.
I like a lot when someone uses the opportunity of this podcast to go beyond just the challenge that they take on for themselves but to think of what changes this is going to bring and what’s the next step and the next step as opposed to the more common perception that I see a lot of is, “This won’t do everything and if we don’t solve everything, it’s as if we’ve done nothing and so I’m not going to do anything.” This is why I take leadership is the most important issue environmentally because changing our behavior we have all these internal blocks. Anisa goes right past that. She says, “If you don’t know everything, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything” at least for herself. I predict that her actions will yield answers to those questions greater than just sitting there and analyzing and I would call navel gazing. I kind of put it down because that’s what I did for so long. I believe that Anisa will find that doing things leads you to more results and more answers than just thinking does. So I guess that means we’ll have to wait until next time. But let’s keep that in mind for the next conversation with Anisa.
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