A Mission for Sustainability with Leonard Robinson

September 9, 2020

Leonard Robinson is a proud father and grandfather, has traveled a very distinctive career path in his life. Currently residing in Atlanta Georgia, he has a successful track record in the private; public and non-profit sectors with over forty-five (45) years of experience in environmental management and sustainability. He has run the unusual path of wastewater treatment plants to superfund sites to steel mills to radio studios to working for Governors giving him a unique, holistic perspective in the environmental/sustainability field. When asked about his unique career path, he remarks, “I didn’t find my career…my career found me”. He is a much sought-after speaker; consultant; strategist; radio talk show host and lecturer specializing in the opportunities and challenges of a Circular Economy.

Currently, he serves as the Sustainability Strategist for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He is entrusted with creating a Sustainability vision; mission and program for 103 parishes and missions, 277 diocesan and religious priests, 62 seminarians, 18 archdiocesan Catholic schools, 1.2 million Catholics in north central Georgia. He is also a partner with the sustainability consulting firm SEMCO with offices in southern California and the greater Atlanta area.

Mr. Robinson has served as an appointee for four (4) California Governors in Executive positions at the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) and the Colorado River Board of California. He was part of the Executive Team that created California’s Climate Change and Green Chemistry policies. Prior to his State service he was the Environmental/Safety Manager for TAMCO Steel, the only steel mill in California.

John Shegerian: This edition of the impact podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users, and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. For more information on how trajectory is leaving the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com

John: Welcome to another edition of the impact podcast. I am so excited to have with us today, Leonard Robinson. He is a longtime friend of mine, a personal friend of mine. He is also the sustainability strategist of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He is also known as Enviro Bro on his own podcast. Welcome to the impact today Leonard.

Leonard Robinson: Hey John! Thanks for having me. We have been friends. It has been a while. We were just talking about faxes and Pony Express and carrier pigeons and landlines, you know, so we an eight track tape players we go back long. So thanks for having me on the show.

John: Of course. We might be able to do our own podcast together cold old school.

Leonard: That is right!

John: But you know, listen Leonard, I know because I have gotten to be great friends with you over a very long period of time and your background is fascinating. One of the most fascinating parts is you have been in an appointee and executive appointee under four different governors in the state of California. So before we get talking about all the cool things you are doing now in Atlanta with the Archdiocese of Atlanta and other things, please share your journey, your background, with our listeners who have not had the chance yet to meet you or get to know you.

Leonard: Okay. Thank you. God, I feel like I am giving my own obituary. However…

John: No.

Leonard: I can do that. What started me on my path was my parents. They always said leave your room in better condition when you leave. Then it was when you got there by simply decided to make this society, community, and the planet. My room, you know, the environment, my room and try to leave it in better condition. As you know John, we are part of that generation that brought toxic waste landfills, plastic, global warming, and high fructose corn syrup to society. At that time it seemed like a good idea but now we were part of the challenge but we are part of the solution. And as far as my path, very unusual man. I went from wastewater treatment plants, to super clean up super fun sites, to a steel mill, to radio show, to working for four governors. And it is kind of given me, now I am at the Archdiocese of Atlanta. So just you know, most people get one dream job in their life. I have been blessed to have this work. I am going at the Archdiocese of Atlanta for sustainability. I am loving it in with the same passion and the same energy. So I have kind of had a holistic view of everything in sustainability, in environmental, and it has just been very exciting. I love it. I did not find my career, my career found me.

John: You know, but talk a little bit about you know, some of the cooler things you have done in California under the four governors for instance. And also one of my favorite stories in your great history of successes is what you did with guns in California as well. People need to hear those stories.

Leonard: Well, it was interesting. I was working at Tamko Steel. That was the fat kid that started there in 89 and I get a call from the governor’s office, saying “Hey, the governor wants you to work in his administration.” I said “Okay, but we have to find something that is not a conflict of interest. So we would have went through about eight different appointments. We tried to waterboard. Nope. Got a permit there. We tried A, Q and D, nope, got a permit there. We tried therapy. Nope. Got a permit there. Tried Cal EPA the first time, that is a conflict because we have permits there. So finally, Governor Pete Wilson put me on the Colorado River Board of California as basically representing the public. That was my first exposure to politics. I really had known too much about politics and kind of how the system works. So that was interesting because that lad I reported to the governor and we covered water policy in California. In Southern California, 75% of the water comes from the Colorado River. So it was my job to make sure we got our fair share of the Colorado River and then split up evenly between municipalities and you know, farms and everything in California. So that was kind of my exposure that you know, I told the people that appointments I have no experience in governor in politics. They said, “That is okay. That is perfect.” So I was working for people soon. It was interesting, it went over to Gray Davis, he was governor.

John: Right.

Leonard: And he just kept their point looked. He says, “Okay.”. Once you know, gave me thumbs up said “Okay, keep on doing”. Okay, I can do that and then you know I went on to working for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with the California Environmental Protection Agency and that carried over to Jerry Brown. You know, I was kind of a political and that might have been a key there. But it is just, I wanted to get engaged, I wanted to make a difference, and again, I did not find these things, they kind of found me and what I made myself available. That is the key, always putting, you know, never be afraid to put yourself out there. If you make a mistake you go, “Okay, my bad.” and you move on. You keep trying to get better. It is only failure when you do not try. So that is just a shout out for people, get active!

John: It is so true and I know that about your life because you have done so much interesting and important work. You know, talk a little bit about your podcast. You know, I know you have the Enviro Bro podcast. I know you love it. Share a little bit with about when you started it, and how its evolved over the years.

Leonard: Well first, it started actually when I was in Southern California, it was called the Leonard Robinson show. I named it that so I would not forget the name of it at the end of a long day. And I did politics, mainly politics, but then somebody said came on the show my producers that, ” you got to get people to listen. You are trying to get people to like you. Try to get people to listen.” So somebody called from one of the environmental groups and said, “Are you an environmentalist?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “What do you think about the spotted owl in California?” and I said “It taste like chicken.” Well that got me a lot of listeners because people were pissed off, but you know I did not care if they like me but I got a lot of listeners about that. Now I was you know, kind of you know doing it from humorous point of view, some people get it more like you laughed at it was funny, but it got people’s attention. And so I moved on to the going green with Enviro Bro show that was happening in Sacramento. The governor gave me permission to one hour per week on the show like on my lunch break, and I did a radio show, and I talked about, you know, the green economy. I talked about sustainability, and the beginning of circular economy. And so that went fine and then I moved out to Washington DC area and I did a show called Green and sexy. Now if I just called a green I would get all the I would be preaching to the choir, but when you add sexy to stuff that gets people’s attention, so I did you know, I did that in Washington DC area and it was very good show, all kind of interesting listeners. I even got the guy who has the job that I want. It is the sustainability director for the NFL. He was one of the people that had interviewed. That is how much fun it was.

John: Wow!

Leonard: Then I team up to Atlanta and I am you know, with WRFG 89.3 FM, I would do a show, you know periodically about sustainability. I was getting so busy I could not commit. But now with the Archdiocese of Atlanta, we are getting ready to have a podcast. It is going to probably be called the Laudato si’ podcast. Loudato si’ was the Pope’s encyclical letter that talks about climate change, talks about hearing the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. We are going to start that and that is very exciting. Of course, one of my favorite shows ever did was Green is Good. I still have the shirt, John. When I did the show when I was working.

John: Thank You.

Leonard: in Cali and PA that was one of my favorite shows to do.

John: It was one of mine also. And that is we go back a long way and I am so glad you are going to bring your voice back to Atlanta with the Archdiocese. That is going to be great! Talk a little bit about and I am on the website right now and it is a gorgeous website, the Archdiocese of Atlanta. It is www.archatl.com.

Leonard: Yep!

John: Talk a little bit about your sustainability plan. How you even got hired by them and what is your mission? What is your path forward in your vision to do with the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

Leonard: Well, I am Catholic and years ago, five years ago, the pope wrote his encyclical letter and I supply the he talks about climate change. Then I happen to be in Europe. And at the time there was a climate change workshop at the Vatican, and I got invited to attend, you know participate in that. You know, I was on vacation but I heard about it. And again, if you do not ask, you do not get. So I said, “May I attend ?” They said, “Sure!” So I flew where would vacation in Sicily was flown to Rome, where this dark car picked me up and took me fifty miles to the Vatican.

John: Wow!

Leonard: And we went through a bunch of security and we talked about climate change. That inspired, I said, “Wow!” Spiritually and environmentally I can get engaged. So this was when I was living in DC move out to Atlanta, get in, you know, get involved in a few community groups and activism. And I got a call from the Archdiocese of Atlanta and they said, “Hey, we have got a position for sustainability coordinator for the Archdiocese. We are interested in putting together a sustainability plan.” Well, Archdiocese of Atlanta was already acknowledged leader of all the catholic family and sustainability and they wanted to go to the next step, so they brought they brought me on board. And you know me, I bring a lot of experience. And so they said, “Here is what we want you to do. We want you to create a vision. We want you to create a mission. We want you to describe it, and we want you to give us goals for a program, instill the Laudato si’ action plan in Atlanta.” So that is what I am in the middle of doing. I am working with some great people, working with Kath De Olle. She is a director, you know, she is the director there and then another consultant his name is Brian Savoie. So we are putting together this program and it just really exciting to put a pull it all together, and we are getting great support, and one of the things we want to do. And I want to thank you so much John, for letting allow me to talk about.

John: Yeah.

Leonard: What we call the Laudato si’ initiative for the sustainability. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, we have got one point two million Catholics a hundred and eight pair shoes, 18 schools,and Ministries and everything and this is the group that we have to work with. The Archdiocese of Atlanta covers half of Georgia, the northern half of Georgia, fifty nine counties. You know, pretty large, pretty daunting but I am up for it. All of us are up for it. You know, to go forward with it, it is beautiful because it is about sustainability, it is about my faith, and I get the best of both worlds.

John: I just love that.

Leonard: We have got the mission, we have got the vision, we have got the goals. And you know, right now, we are just building up partners to partner in the Laudato si’ initiative.

John: And for those who want to connect with you to partner, they can go to l.robinson@sustainable-env.com to reach you. l.robinson@sustainable-env.com and also to find the Archdiocese of Atlanta, please go to www.archatl.com. I am on the site now, it is a gorgeous sight. Leonard forgive my ignorance, but when you told me what you are doing I was so fascinated, and I see the marriage and the importance of your leadership there as paramount as wise as you are with all the experience that you have, take me through this though. Do all archdiocese across America or at least in the bigger cities have sustainability strategists on board like you? Helping them navigate these issues? Or is this a new paradigm that you are creating with the Archdiocese of Atlanta that is going to then get replicated once you pave the way, and leave the footprints in the sand.

Leonard: It is going to be the latter, you know.

John: Wow:

Leonard: One of the things we want to do, one of our goals is we want to develop a shareable and applicable model sustainability for others. For other archdiocese, the other diocese, other faiths and communities, cities, counties. So we are going to do a program and say, “Hey this is what we did. Here it is, it is for free, join us on this journey.” So again the Archdiocese of Atlanta, even when I was in DC, I heard about the Archdiocese of Atlanta being a national leader in sustainability and they put together it was a group from the University of Georgia and other groups have put together what was called the Laudato si’ action plan. And what they needed was just a way to implement it into, you know, into make the action plan actionable. Well, that is where I came in because I read it four times and wanted to see you know, we really need to do this. And moving out to Atlanta made it a perfect fit. I mean, you know again the thing about having spirituality and a religious and faith belief in your life. You know that God is in control of these things. So all you have to do is just be obedient. Again, I do not find things, things seem to find me. I just happen to be at the right place, the right time. Maybe it helps me and all. I do not know.

John: And I am on the but, I press the button with regards to the Laudato si’ action plan and it is fascinating. For our listeners out there, when you are on the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s website, which I have given out a couple times, click on the button Laudato si’, there is tons of information there. You could download it. It is an English and Spanish and it is wonderful. So it is all there for you. And I am sure Leonard, you are going to add a lot more bullet points and downloadable information in the months and years ahead. So this is fascinating. As usual with you, as usual. But I have learned to know and love about you is you are the first. You are really paving the way here. For a replicable paradigm for other archdiocese to follow. So really, truly, all eyes are on you and that is just wonderful and I know you like that position because you are a great leader. And that is really really fascinating stuff though. This is just really wonderful. And again, it is so exciting to have you on the show today to be even discussing that. Talk a little bit, you know Leonard, we are still living through this tragic Covid-19 period that is now affecting Atlanta, and California, and the United States put the whole entire world. How does that affect your sustainability goals at the archdiocese?

Leonard: Well, if the key to making a program work is you have got to integrate it into everything things. One thing you do not want to do is make it something extra since somebody has to do, but it is a total integration. Now the Covid 19, it is bad and I am optimistic. I am always trying to be optimistic. I am like that little kid walking around in a barn full of manure. I know somewhere there is a pony, so I kept telling them, “Find the pony in this.” Well the Covid-19 is kind of like a stressor, you know, like when you go to the doctor and they put some stress in your heart to see if your hearts working okay. Well, this Covid-19 is a stressor on society and a lot of things popped out issues with racism, you know, all kinds of you know, racism all kinds of, you know crime in a whole bunch of things. So put a stressor saying, “Okay, these are the areas where we need to address.” Now another thing is, one thing about sustainability and environmental they what they say is, “Hey get out of your car at use public transportation.”, “Only go out when you need to go out.”, “Be careful.”, “Wash your hands.”, and things like that plus a lot of activities have been curtailed and it has cut down on the greenhouse gases that are being put up. So good program, is resilient. It stands the test of time, it stands the test of different challenges. Like, “Hey you know, this is my first pandemic ever been through.” If we really do this right, it is going to stand that challenge.

John: I love it. I agree with you and I know you are going to do right. I mean everything you have touched, you left an important mark on Leonard, and I know that for a fact. Talk a little bit about your forty five year career in sustainability. Share some highlights besides all the fun and exciting and work with these governors. Share some other moments with our listeners that thought your career that are memorable, and that are worth you mentioning today.

Leonard: Well you know, a couple one was when I was at the steel mill, we started recycling used oil filters. Oil filters had been tossed in the landfills and it get into the water. The oil is get into the water table.

John: Right.

Leonard: Well, I found that you know, you have to create a market condition. So we started paying people if they would drain the oil filters and get all the oil up, we would pay them for the crushed and condensed steel. Now we need that clean up the environment but it put a market condition on it. I am really happy about that. One of my favorite programs was Project Isaiah. That was where we were taking Alpha skated firearms from Southern California law enforced made and melting them down making it into rebar. If you have ever gone to the Staples Center in Los Angeles where the Lakers and Clippers, play that was built with rebar made out of guns. That is why the Lakers win those championships because they had the firepower from the karma ,from the rebar that is made out of guns. But anyway, you seriously, the Staples Center was built with it. So that was really big and we called it project Isaiah from the scripture. They should read there, “Swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” in Isaiah 4:13. So that was a lot of satisfaction. But another part is, you know, having that type of stage. I was able to meet, great people like yourself, you know, you and I met during those days and then it just carried on when I went to the office. I got a chance. I mean, I appreciate all the kind things that you said, but I am only you know, I am only a realization of the people I meet, you know. I always hang around people smarter than me. If you are the sharp and one in the bunch. It is time to get a new bunch and I always hang around people that are smarter than me, like yourself and you know all the things that you have done, and the difference that you made, you know, with recycle electronics and information security in those things. So that was a lot of fun and then I’m sitting at my desk at Tamko trying to figure out, “Okay what next I have worked for two governor’s at the time. What is next?” Well, I get a call from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, became Governor I get a call from his office and they said, “Hey, how would you like to come work for Cal EPA?” And I thought it was a prank, I thought I was crazy David.” He said, “I do not know a crazy David sir. This is the office of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we would like you to come up to Sacramento.” and I said, “I have no experience in bureaucracy.” he said, “you are perfect because he says any bureaucrats and he gets will be terminated.” So if the governor said you will be terminated, you got quit that stuff, seriously. Another challenge is when I went up to Sacramento and I remember one of the program’s I did up here recycling electronics from the catholic state capital. You know, you were there.

John: Right.

Leonard: Union group were there. So those are some of the highlights that I had and there is a lot more, but those are the ones that you know, kind of stick out amongst others, you know, because again.

John: Yeah.

Leonard: I have children, both my children were my reason why I did what I did. And that just gives me more verification of why I do what I do.

John: Well…

Leonard: Retirements overrated.

John: Leonard, I just had the blessing of becoming a grandfather for the first time on May 25th. And it is just a blessing times fifty and it is unlike anything else I have ever been involved with the my life and it is changed my life for the better. Talk a little bit about your journey as a grandfather and what kind of perspective has it brought to your life.

Leonard: It is just you know, I have three grandsons and I have about seven inherited grandkids.

John: Wow.

Leonard: Young kids that I just brought on as grandkids. But being a grandfather, you look at it first you think, “Wow, you hear somebody call you Grandpa and you keep looking around for some old guys.” I can not be a grandparent, I dance on soul train.Once you look at them and you hang around them and everything, and you start to see yourself in them and you think, “Okay, I have lived my life. What am I leaving? What kind of legacy am I leaving for my grandchildren?” Of course we want to leave money and stuff, but I think you know in improving environments probably the best gift, you know, the things that you do to improve the environment the things that I do to help improve in our small way. We are leaving that legacy for our grandkids. So it is a great feel of once you get over, you know, being called grandpa or grand in front of it. You think, “Okay, I can deal with this.” So it is again life-changing as it was for you. And as you get more grandkids, it is going to be more life-changing.

John: I agree with you Leonard, and I just wanted to say thank you for being my friend. Thank you for always being an inspiration for our listeners out there to find all the great work that Leonard’s doing right now at the Archdiocese of Atlanta. You could go to www.archatl.com and also you could reach Leonard directly to l.robinson@sustainable-env.com. His website is l.robinson@sustainable-env.com. Leonard Robinson, you are a blessing in my life. You are a blessing to this planet, you make a great impact in everything you do, and you definitely make the world a better place. Thank you for being on the impact podcast today. I ca not wait to have you back on Monday.

Leonard: Okay. Thank you so much John and thank you for all that you do as well.