March for Science

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Tomorrow is the March for Science, coincident with Earth Day. I’ve been a fan of the “Every Day is Earth Day” mentality for a long time and so to recognize this particular Earth Day as unique, is a mindshift. It is unique. It is a day to focus on the direction we want to go.

To that end, I dialogued with multiple-award-winning eco-Interior Designer Tracey Stephens of Tracey Stephens Interior Design, Inc.: EcoSmart Kitchens & Baths about recent proposed cuts to the US federal government’s Energy Star program, operated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the direction in which we might choose to go as a result of such cuts. Tracey’s passion about the March for Science and the overlap of our interests in green design spurred us to a dialogue about those proposed cuts around the corner for the EPA.

These are our back-and-forth questions and answers.

tracey stephens - large pic
Vintage-style bath by Tracey Stephens

Maia: Tell me in a couple of sentences about your work.

Tracey: Using my 25 years of interior design experience, I help homeowners bring their vision to life by creating kitchens & bathrooms that reflect who they are and how they really live. From space planning to selecting cabinets, tile and other finishes, my goal is to turn the daunting task of renovation into a fun journey. And with my background in green design, my interiors make the planet happy, too.

Maia: What kinds of products do you specify?

Tracey: I specify both building materials such as non-toxic stone sealer, formaldehyde-free insulation, and LED lighting and finish materials such as cabinetry, appliances and tile. I find my clients are eager to choose healthy products that don’t harm the environment so my job is to stay informed and share with them what’s available. I refer my kitchen clients to appliance showrooms — the technology changes so frequently I rely on my network of experts to help them. People also really want to avoid adding to the landfills so I coordinate donations of items like old kitchen cabinets or bathroom sinks to places like Habitat For Humanity. If something is too worn or broken I use a construction debris recycling company that grinds up materials into either alternative wood fuel (lumber and paper) or road paving materials (toilets, tile, concrete).

Maia: How do you use ratings systems as a guide for making product recommendations to clients?

Tracey: Product information can be very technical and vetting very time consuming so I rely on ratings systems evaluations. I prefer 3rd party certification to guide my decisions on what to recommend for example Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that cabinetry lumber has been responsibly harvested and GreenGuard for indoor air quality. But I have not found FSC certified kitchen cabinets within my New Jersey 500 mile radius so I buy from companies who participate in the Environmental Stewardship Program of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (2nd party certification).

Maia: What do you think of the Energy Star rating system? How have you used it in the past?

Tracey: I’m a big fan of the Energy Star program.  It’s an easy way for the average person to compare products while shopping. In a nod to the program’s popularity and recognition, many websites now have a search function that allows the buyer to select only Energy Star products.

Since its launch in 1991 starting with rating light bulbs, the voluntary program has grown to include office equipment, heating/cooling, audio/visual equipment, windows and appliances and even certification of buildings. Since 1992, the EPA reports that the Energy Star program has helped families and businesses save an impressive $430 billion on utility bills, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 billion metric tons.

Maia: What options do you see available instead of using the Energy Star system?

Tracey: If there is no independent rating system then the average consumer will have only the information from a company rating its own product which I do not feel confident about. Trade associations will likely step up with more 2nd party certifications. Consumers and designers will still want to know about the environmental impact of the products they’re buying.

Maia: How do you feel about the proposed elimination of the Energy Star system?

Tracey: Protecting the environment used to be a bi-partisan issue with wide support. The EPA was created under Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. While not surprising considering Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it is infuriating to hear Budget Director Mulvaney say “We’re not spending money on [climate change] anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” The Trump proposal to slash the EPA budget by 31% and eliminate 56 of its programs is short sighted. As part of the Climate Protection Program, the Energy Star program is on the chopping block, along with the Green Power Partnership (encouraging the use of renewable energy).

Fortunately there are many manufacturers, states and countries who have committed to sustainability regardless of which US administration is in power. For example, California will not roll back fuel economy standards.

Maia: What recommendations do you have for other designers in light of this proposed change?

Tracey:

For designers who care about sustainability, and honestly that should be all people everywhere, it is time to become an environmental activist.

If the federal government is going to roll back protections and programs we need to push our state governments to step up. I’m very hopeful about the state of New Jersey right now. An exciting new broad-based coalition of labor, faith, social justice, community and environmental organizations has launched Jersey Renews to urge our NJ elected officials to act now in support of climate justice, clean energy and good green jobs. And the People’s Climate March on April 29 in DC is going to be massive! We have at least 6 buses going for the day from Montclair. Click here to sign up to join a bus ride to Washington this weekend.

Maia: What recommendations do you have for legislators in light of this proposed change?

Tracey: Legislators at the local, state and national level need to reject climate denial and big business profits at the expense of our health and safety. And we the constituents need to encourage our legislators to support the crucial work of protecting our nation’s climate, people and natural resources, and hold them accountable. So please sign this petition urging Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R- NJ11), chair of Budget Appropriations Committee, to maintain the EPA’s full funding!

Maia: What could be an upside to this proposed change, that others might not have seen yet, and that you have a unique perspective on to share with other design professionals? What is your big picture scenario?

Tracey:

Since so many of us feel under attack, we are galvanized and energized to act.

Maia: There’s one last thing I would add to your big picture thinking scenario, and it comes directly from your website. It’s quote from Sufi poet Rumi, and I think if we step out with this attitude blazing forth, we will find a path to a new system, or way of thinking of these systems:

Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now. -Rumi

Tracey can be reached in Montclair, NJ at:

Tracey Stephens Interior Design, Inc.
EcoSmart Kitchens & Baths
973-202-8130
www.traceystephens.com

Let us know if you attend a March for Science near you!

Postscript from Maia:

I am personally very moved by these marches, although I won’t be able to attend this Saturday. Instead, I created two resources to share.

One: a printable poster in support of the March for Science (spoiler: includes a poem by me): https://www.maiakumarigilman.com/downloads

Two: a resource base online, of many of the US government’s energy and climate-related PDF documents: https://www.maiakumarigilman.com/resources

climate resources

As my website says,

These PDF files are archived US federal government documents relevant to architects, engineers and planners with energy and climate-related interests in historic preservation, community planning and disaster mitigation.

This is not a complete list and we do not have any further information about the files. Consider these archived/cached internet files that you may download and use in your work. Click on an image and then “Go to link” to access, then save to download.

-Maia

www.maiakumarigilman.comauthor of The Erenwine Agenda: a novel

Leadership

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Photo of Alex Torpey by Stephen Voss: http://www.stephenvoss.com/

I live in a little village outside of New York City called South Orange, New Jersey. This is an interview with our de facto mayor Alex Torpey, Village President. Alex’s time in office took him through the path of Hurricane Sandy, among other environmental issues. Curious to know more, I offered up some questions to Alex, and he agreed to share his thoughts.

Maia: What inspires you?

Alex: 

Potential. 

To elaborate: I feel like this can be a challenge in certain situations, but I tend to see things in what they could be. It’s that way with people, with places, with ideas. And even though I’m by no means optimistic about things which need to be fixed, I’ve been called an idealist because I believe, and see, the ideal ways things could, or should, be, and seeing that is what inspires me.

Maia: How do you keep yourself upbeat for work?

Alex: That’s a tough one. To be perfectly honest, it’s a roller coaster. There are some days that are very difficult – not just in my own difficulty with a particular topic or issue, which is usually invigorating, but difficult more so means when there seems to be a loss of momentum on a larger scale towards progress, or when something turns out not to be what it seemed as though it was. Little victories help a little, support and inspiration from those to me help, but probably the biggest things are

having the chance to take a step back out of the present challenges and see again the potential in a more clear fashion

– and help remind myself what I’m working towards. Good music also helps.

Maia: What are some unique advantages to being a younger leader?

Alex: Well at a young age, there are a million hurdles, but there are no doubt advantages too. I don’t have any real indebtedness to anything being done any particular way, and

I think approaching problems with a pretty legitimately open mind allows you to put pieces together that others may miss

because they’re seeing the same thing, but through a different lens that may not allow them to clearly see the entirety or a problem or the connections between things.

South Orange by Day_Maia Kumari Gilman

Maia: How did Hurricane Sandy test and change your approach to emergency management?

Alex:

It was an unbelievable test.

Probably the only other times in my life I’ve been that pressed were during the final days of my campaign (second place) and several other emergencies in town that place distant third places for the most part.

But it solidified what I studied in my masters program at John Jay, what I’ve learned at the Rescue Squad, and what I’ve discussed with people who have been doing it longer than I have. There’s a decisiveness in emergency management that is required to even give you a chance of meeting your challenge successfully that is often absent in other areas of government where the focus is on an egalitarian process that often is incredibly time consuming and slow, where people are often afraid to make a decision as they might have to take responsibility for it. Hurricane Sandy was the opposite – and not only did I learn a lot about myself, about the process of communication, organizing resources, from supplies to human capital, but

(Hurricane Sandy) taught me the value of a committed and unified workforce,

as our team in South Orange performed so unbelievably well. It also taught me where major areas of systemic incompetence exist – for example with the utility companies and our entire regulatory structure around those entities. Like I’ve said, I’m no optimist about any of that, but that was even eye-opening for me – just how ill-prepared the organizations and people in the organizations, mostly at the higher levels (not the individual workers who worked fiercely hard) were for that kind of emergency or anything like it. Something we’ve all done a terrible job in following up with since then, as very few changes have been made to ensure a better response the next time around, and I don’t see any way for any of that to change until the leadership adopts a more innovative mindset with respect to the service they provide.

Maia: What learning will you take from your job as Village President into a future job?

Alex: It’s honestly too much to list. This has been and still is a learning experience beyond all else. Every day I find myself learning things about myself, about government, about politics, about New Jersey, about South Orange. But one thing in particular that I find most interesting, that is one of many, can serve as an example, is my interest in

how to get people from simply living in their environment without engaging with it, to understanding and being able to genuinely interact with their environment, to going to understanding that they have the real ability to change it,

if they so desire, to then actually taking a position of leadership that allows them to do so. Figuring out that community and leadership building process has been on my mind since high school, throughout college, very much now – trying to find a way to understand it, and move people up that ladder to the point of having real agency over shaping their future and surroundings is a component to real participatory democracy we have yet to figure out, and that every day data and information is being fed in through my experiences to help me get a better handle on that much bigger question. I think there’s a bunch that I’ve obviously learned as it relates to time management, human/team organizing, communications and I guess, something I have some difficulty with, but social/political dynamics. I tend to expect, because it’s where I’m coming from, that everyone’s reason for participating in this process is just to help make it better, but I’ve found that more people have egos in the game than that, and knowing that, how to identify it, and how to work with/around that, are lessons that will always stick with me.

Maia: What do you think about the role of public and private approaches to regional distribution of services, especially in regard to drinking water?

Alex:

Generally speaking, everything in New Jersey is far too hyper-localized.

Things cost a lot because there is a huge repetition of services that don’t need to exist. There are a hundred ways we could make regional cooperatives a bigger part of governance, but that’s going to take leadership from the state level to incentive those types of things, and so far, we really haven’t seen people step up to that challenge.

Maia: What does your ideal municipality look like?

Alex:

I love the idea of certain types of regional administrative responsibility sharing, with local delivery and identity.

We don’t have to conglomerate everything and strip local identities out of government, but there are areas of government that people don’t really interact with quite as much, that would be much more efficient if they were done at larger levels – tax assessing and collecting, insurance purchasing, redevelopment, higher education, public safety communications, infrastructure improvement and much more. This is different, from for example, a library, or senior services, or police, where there is required direct local contact between the service provider and the citizen.

The idea, for example, of creating a regional cooperative that helps volunteer EMS agencies do all the administrative stuff that no one likes to do anyway, budgeting, fundraising, purchasing, insurance, capital investments, certifications and trainings, etcetera, but allow each individual agency with a local identity and understanding actually deliver the services is a model I’d like to see explored more, and it’s a better use of everyone’s skill set than what we have. It was my master’s thesis at John Jay.

There’s a middle ground between everything being run by people who don’t get local attributes, and things being so local-heavy that it makes regional economic planning, for example, incredibly difficult to do.

We don’t do a great job talking about this, which is a shame, because if done right, it would solve a lot of the problems that I think we all would generally agree exist in government.

Maia: What about your ideal relationship between municipalities and larger governing regions?

Alex:

There should be much closer relationships. So much is put on local governments to do, and so little support is provided.

We have no control over the utility companies, yet it’s our police, rescue squad, our shelters, our 911 dispatchers, or residents, everything, that is sucked into providing a response when things go wrong. Either that type of support needs to come from up top, or we need to be able to own our own municipal power company, for example, but right now it’s split in a way that severely burdens the municipal governments and the communities they serve where we basically have the worst of both worlds because the institutions that run it are in a fairly perpetuating cycle that don’t really net much innovation or change.

South Orange at Night_Maia Kumari Gilman

Maia: What can you teach us about multi-generational leadership and governance?

Alex: At the end of the day, I think you can boil down leaders to two categories, which is ridiculously over simplistic, but worth doing for a second to think about this question. There are people who are doing it, whatever it is, because they love their communities. They stay awake at night dreaming about how to do their job better, how to make peoples’ lives better, dreading decisions that negatively impact people, and generally are consumed with the idea of using their positions to help people, with everything else being secondary, often including their families, social life, income, health, etc. They don’t care who suggests an idea, if it’s a good one. They don’t care for anything in return for doing something, in fact the idea of indebtedness probably makes them nervous, and they aren’t trying to institutionalize themselves into their position for the sake of accumulating power.

Then there are people who just don’t do that. Maybe they did once, maybe they never did. But the bottom line is that for many, the position they are in is, or has become the ends, not the means to a better end. And our two-party system that has failed to create the necessary foundation for a representative democracy (and informed and participatory citizenry) encourages that. I think many people who have fallen into this type of leadership never meant to, but rather are forced to, because of whom they are indebted to. This is the majority of leadership in government, especially at state and federal levels, and I think it’s easy to see it doesn’t work. So little is getting done, especially in Congress, it’s embarrassing. And

I think the only way that will change is if people with a different idea of what leadership is occupy those positions.

And most of the things that seem like they would make people better at it – independence, a value of diversity, less interest in partisan affiliation, less interest in a “career” in politics – things like that, so many of those appear to be value that are much more prevalent in younger generations. So I think there’s a lot of potential there, but there’s a lot of work to do to walk people down that line, or up that ladder that I mentioned earlier so that they realize that they don’t have to be governed, but that they can do the governing.

Maia: What is your hope for the future of South Orange?

Alex:

South Orange has such a bright future.

I have to save some of these numbers for my State Of The Village address, but the amount of economic investment we have had in town and will continue to have is going to not only take the downtown to another level, but it’s going to provide real tax relief over the next couple years. We’ll continue cultivating an incredible community that will attract smart, interesting and diverse people, and I think

South Orange will become one of the most sought-after places to live in the metro NYC area. 

Every year, crime has gone down, and the tax increases have gone down, and economic investment has skyrocketed, and investment in IT has grown, and more people are involved and participatory than they ever been in our history – it’s an amazing story of what can happen when a governing body works together to engage the community in progress.

Maia: What are you excited to try next?

Alex: I plan to spend some time abroad, most likely in East Africa, for several months working with some community development organizations and studying governance and community building. There are a lot of amazing things happening elsewhere in the world, and there are some lessons that we can be sharing, and a whole that we can learn too.

I’m excited to see more of the world, and to do whatever I can to help connect dots that we previously disconnected.

http://www.alextorpey.com/