Making Schools Sustainable with DC Public Schools’ Sally Parker

August 24, 2015

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Festival Washington D.C. edition of Green Is Good and we are so honored to have with us today Sally Parker. She is the Head of Energy and Sustainability for the D.C. public school system. Welcome to Green Is Good. Sally Parker: Thank you. John Shegerian: Sally, before we get talking about what’s going on in the green sector and sustainability at the D.C. public school system, can you share a little bit about your background? How did you come to have this important liaison job in sustainability at D.C. public schools? Sally Parker: I think I took a roundabout way to get here. I picked up a lot of experience along the way. I started in the Marine Corps actually, and I got to see the world and see a lot of different places and how people lived and just what differences you can see. After that, I came back and went to school to be a landscape architect, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve how we treat our land through our construction projects. So that’s what led me to go to a Master’s program at Virginia Tech in Leadership and Sustainability, because I really wanted to get the tools to figure out how do we bring it all together and be able to have conversations with the right people and determine the right solutions for the problems that we’re seeing. So that’s the path that I took, and I joined D.C. public schools in January and since then I’ve been trying to apply those skills. John Shegerian: January of this year? Sally Parker: Oh yes. John Shegerian: Did someone have your position before or is this a brand new position? Sally Parker: Oh yes. John Shegerian: Did someone have your position before or is this a brand new position? Sally Parker: It is a brand new position. John Shegerian: Wow. Sally Parker: So in a way it’s great because I get to determine what my day-to-day is. And in other ways it’s wildly overwhelming. I am the only person. I once got a piece of advice – “be wary of any job in which you would be the only sustainability officer” – and I ignored that advice. John Shegerian: Of course. Sally Parker: So I’m trying to determine what it will be, and I’ve already written job descriptions for my future staff so I just need to get funding for them and it will be great. John Shegerian: So getting funding for them. So how does that work as a public servant? Sally Parker: Sure. Well, it’s tricky because you really have to show, especially at a time where in D.C. public schools the focus is on teaching and learning…. John Shegerian: Right. Sally Parker: So if you are doing a job that’s the background in the central office, you really have to show that there is value in that. John Shegerian: Got you. Sally Parker: And so that’s why I’m trying to target some of the biggest initiatives where I can show I can have the most impact, and through that, I will show value for the position and expanding it. John Shegerian: How much of the first six months now is learning, and how much is envisioning? So learning where the voids are and where the opportunities are and envisioning where you can make the greatest impact. How do you balance that? Sally Parker: It’s been about 60/40 with learning and envisioning, and it started off where I just met one person and they said, “Oh, you should speak to this person,” and I just followed this trail of crumbs of people to learn from and I had a lot of informational interviews. I actually brainstormed before I started the job and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could solve food deserts by using schools as hubs?” and it turns out that happens on a small scale. So it has really been a matter of what can we do and then finding out the reality and revising it a little bit. So it’s been a back and forth of both envisioning and of the gathering information and finding out what I can. John Shegerian: OK, so no one had your position before you got this position, but does this position exist across the United States? Are there other Sally Parkers or people like you in New York or Chicago or L.A. that you are able to lean on for advice and information? Sally Parker: Absolutely. I have met and hung out with the similar officers in all the other cities. New York City and Chicago. What’s funny, though, is a lot of us are one person by themselves, so that network is becoming valuable. For example, Dr. Sharon Jay spent two years in New York City, and she has been really a great champion in getting all of us together to share our resources. However, I’m the first person in this position. It’s still kind of a fuzzy industry, however, there are other people in other agencies doing things on behalf of schools, and that’s where I’ve already seen successes that I’m going to try to build on. It’s not like it was a wasteland of nothing happening. John Shegerian: Sally, do you cover everything from the air quality that the young kids breathe to the food that they eat in the hot lunch program and everything in between? Or how broad is your call to action and duty? Sally Parker: I don’t manage all those things, but I definitely keep touch with all of them. John Shegerian: OK. Sally Parker: We have people that are tasked with doing those things, and so it’s really kind of keeping touch with them and maybe find out who I can put them in touch with, and help people partner and help people grow what they are trying to do. John Shegerian: Got you. So you could have influence on all those issues. Sally Parker: Influence is my only weapon. John Shegerian: But it can be very powerful. Sally Parker: Yes. And that’s exactly what it is. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. Talk a little bit about now you’re on the public side, but on the private side there are lots of people that viewers and are listeners that want to become a chief sustainability officer one day or they are now the chief sustainability officer at a company and the first one. What is it like to be a trailblazer, to be the first one, and what advice would you give to our listeners out there that are just starting on their journey in sustainability? Sally Parker: I would go back to the point of influence. People don’t understand what sustainability is. If you work for a logging company it means something very different than if you work at an office. So really trying to figure out what it means to your company and how you could provide value is really where it is, and you have to understand that if you want people to help you do your job, you have to get behind what their mission is and you have to expand your umbrella until you are both working towards the same goal, even though they didn’t know that was going to happen before they met you. John Shegerian: Right. So now that you’ve had six months underneath your belt – which is still a very short period, I understand that – what are some of the areas that you think you’re going to be able to make the greatest impact, and what are you really excited about the next six months and hopefully the next six years? Sally Parker: Well, when I started the job ,I thought there was no way I would be here longer than two years, and now if I can make a dent in five, I will be thrilled. But I think that energy is the biggest thing. John Shegerian: Really? Sally Parker: Yes. D.C is invested in just really amazing LEED Platinum schools. Dunbar High School is – I think – the highest-rated LEED building in the world right now. But we’ve still got old buildings. There are 111 schools and the Department of General Services is sort of our landlord and they manage it for us, and the teachers and the students are in the schools consuming the energy, and there is a disconnect in what we could be doing to conserve our energy and to make the most out of those buildings we’ve invested in, so that is where the communication and influences can play a huge part. Then, we will also have the opportunity to engage those students and let their schools be a learning opportunity and put the cherry on top so they can understand what’s being done on their behalf and how we can equip them with an understanding of sustainability as they grow into adulthood and become decision-makers. And energy is – I think – going to be the greatest way to do that. John Shegerian: Are there any green curriculum programs that exist today in the D.C. school system so the kids can say, “I want to learn about climate change” or – as you say – “energy” or “green food” or “green landscaping” or any of these things? Sally Parker: It’s interesting. This is something I’ve been trying to dig into myself. There is something called the “Environmental Literacy Framework” that has been created by the Healthy Schools Act – or has been driven by the Healthy Schools Act – so we’re trying to get that into the curriculums and there is a pilot program in four public schools and four charter schools to figure out how we can incorporate those “no child left inside”-type lessons into the curriculum. Now there is also the Next Gen Science Standards, which is approved to be folded into the curriculum in 2014, and so there is actually quite a bit of science-based push to really get that into the curriculum. It’s a process. We have 3,500 teachers, so it’s a rolling effort to get those latest topics of interest in the curriculum. John Shegerian: We’ve got Sally Parker with us. She is the Head of Energy and Sustainability as a liaison for the D.C. Public Schools. To learn more about what is going on at D.C. public schools, go to www.dcps.dc.gov. I asked you earlier, Sally, about other people doing what you do across the United States. How about across the world? Do you have people doing what you do in Paris or in London and are you able to lean on them for information that could benefit the great young people in the D.C. public schools system? Sally Parker: I personally have not yet made contact internationally, but there is a great organization that started in a grassroots way called “The Green Schools Alliance,” and it was really to help schools communicate with each other and share their successes and failures in what they try to do in schools. It’s grown into a nationwide thing. They’ve been stunned and they’re so happy about it and they have started getting international schools joining in the conversation. John Shegerian: Really? Sally Parker: Yes. And so any schools can join the Green Schools Alliance, any school district can join the Green Schools Alliance, and so that is something that I’m trying to push in as a support system for DCPS. John Shegerian: So it’s five years from now. Whose program do you want to model after? Who right now in America has had the most experience and has driven the most change in what public school system in the United States? Sally Parker: I think that it would have to be New York City. John Shegerian: New York. Sally Parker: Of course, it’s always New York City. But Dr. Sharon Jay did a great job. John Shegerian: Really? OK. Sally Parker: They have 1,800 schools and 1,300 buildings. John Shegerian: Wow. Sally Parker: And so it really puts into perspective what you can accomplish when you can try to push your purchasing power and push your impact on the students. John Shegerian: DCPS. Who do they partner with for sustainability right now? Do you have some great partners that you want to talk about while we’re visiting today? Sally Parker: Well, the Department of General Services – those are the landlords of the buildings. John Shegerian: Yeah. Sally Parker: And they run the recycling program. They have got a contract to put 10 megawatts of solar panels on top of government buildings. John Shegerian: Wow. Sally Parker: And 60 percent of that are schools. Across the board, DGS is trying to get a lot of stuff done. There is also the District Department of the Environment, who are very interested in promoting sustainability. They’ve been tasked with that. Then, there are a lot of nonprofits. There are D.C. Greens, and there are a lot of nonprofits that are focused on school gardens and school nutrition and really getting on board with that. So the list is an extremely long list. And it has helped me. I would not be able to do a single thing without any of the partners that I’ve met so far. John Shegerian: Talk a little bit about the first six months in terms of your colleagues and the welcome mat. Warm embrace? Quiet skepticism? What’s going on in the real world right now when people like you come in and are seen as potentially disruptors? Sally Parker: Well, my sustainability peers in other agencies – open arms. “Thank god you’re here.” There is a lot of that going on. John Shegerian: That’s great. Sally Parker: And then within the DCPS agency, I sit in the central office, so it’s all office support for the schools. Everyone has been polite and wonderful, and everyone I’ve met I’ve been really overcome by how professional and driven and innovative people are in their particular roles. But as far as when I say “sustainability,” what that means to them, that’s where I have a job to do to help them understand what it means to every office – to the office of teaching and learning and to the office of operations – and that’s where my challenge is going to be is helping people understand what my job means to support their job. John Shegerian: Wow. Got you. How about from the students’ perspective? Do they even know about this new role, and they know about the greening of their schools yet or making their schools more sustainable, or that hasn’t happened yet? Sally Parker: I think that that’s where we have a huge opportunity for improvement is to take all these things happening in the background that students don’t know about and really use it as a learning tool for them. I don’t think that that connection is there yet, the engagement. The biggest thing they see is recycling. It is in every school, and by the end of 2016, a compost collection will be in every school as well for all the food waste as we try to get them to like kale in some way. So there are a lot of problems around that so trying to work those systems together. But recycling is something that they get to do every day. They get to be involved. John Shegerian: Very tangible. Sally Parker: Yes. John Shegerian: What kind of recycling are they doing right now? Sally Parker: They do comingled, they do paper and cardboard and then they have – I think – there was a pilot program of eight schools, and I think now there is organics compost collection in maybe 40 schools. So they’ll get to the rest of the schools within the next year. John Shegerian: So composting is coming quickly. Sally Parker: Yes. And some schools have school gardens that they have their own onsite composting for the purposes of the garden. John Shegerian: Wow. Sally Parker: This is a bigger organics collection where it will actually be collected and hauled away. We’re trying to find where to put it. We might use it in the digester for energy production or it might go into fertilizer. John Shegerian: How about in your own personal life? Talk a little bit about the greening of your own life. How does that work? Sally Parker: I eat a lot less meat than I used to. John Shegerian: Really? Sally Parker: Yes. That is – I think – the biggest single thing that consumers can do in their own lives is to eat less meat and eat more vegetables. Instead of feeding those animals vegetables to feed us, I think you can just cut out that drive. I don’t cut everything out I just eat less of it. John Shegerian: Right. Sally Parker: And it’s hard, and I would say that consumers can put their money where their mouth is. And it’s not just on environmental things; it’s on social issues too. Support benefit corporations. Spend your money on products and services that you feel support your ideals and goals. John Shegerian: Got you. That makes sense. That’s really good. Final thoughts on the future ahead for the D.C. public schools system before we have to say goodbye? Sally Parker: I think it’s really exciting. They’ve had a major overhaul – the school district – over the last I’d say 10 years and I’m getting to come in and ride the sails on that. So it’s pretty great. John Shegerian: And I think also make a lot of change so that’s really great. Well, thank you, Sally Parker. To learn more about what Sally and her colleagues are doing at the D.C. public schools system please go to www.dcps.dc.gov. Sally Parker, making the world a better place at the D.C. public schools system. You are truly living proof that Green Is Good.