Doing More With Less: A Changemaker Interview with Philena Seldon

Philena Seldon, Outreach & Education Coordinator, City of Cleveland

In February, we will launch our newest discussion course book – A Different Way: Living Simply in a Complex World. Today we share one of the interviews that NWEI Curriculum Director Lacy Cagle conducted for this new course, highlighting many of the amazing Changemakers who have found creative ways to make an impact in their communities while also living out the values of simplicity and sustainability. As we head into what is often a holiday season ripe with consumerism, we share an alternate view and vision through Philena Seldon’s story. She has been collaborating with NWEI for the past several years in bringing sustainability education and engagement to her home community in Cleveland, Ohio. The full interview will be featured in NWEI’s new book, coming February. 

As the Outreach and Education Coordinator in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability for the City of Cleveland, Philena Seldon uses a unique approach in communicating to people about sustainable and simple living. Philena introduces sustainable living to people by pointing out the ways in which they are already practicing sustainability and offering new ways of thinking about reducing, reusing and recycling. “My focus is on the urban core and bridging the language divide that exists in the way we communicate the meaning of sustainability versus the understanding of sustainability,” Philena says. “I ask the people I work with, ‘Do you wear the clothes in your closet until they wear out and then use them in new ways to extend the life of each article of clothing, instead of constantly buying new clothes? Do you use the dishes and silverware in your cupboards instead of disposables and do you have a set at your place of employment? Do you get water out of the tap instead of drinking bottled water? Well, that same water has been recycled for millions of years. That means by drinking from the tap you are being sustainable, you are being practical, and you’re not wasting a precious, finite, natural resource.’” Instead of focusing on raising the level of expectation for sustainable behavior, Philena first focuses on expanding on a foundation of understanding. “I steer people away from thinking as consumers,” she says. “Instead, I help them feel less separate and more connected to the world around them,” and to the idea of living sustainably. She finds that these conversations lead to excitement and interest in sustainable and simple living. “I meet people where they are and use practical and tangible communication about sustainable living while also living by example,” she says.

Philena encourages people to see themselves as part of a village – not just a village of people, but one encompassing all living things, the animals, the insects, the soil, the water, and the air. She also encourages habits that help people live multiple values. Take walking as an example. Walking is good for people’s health, it’s a good environmental practice, and it’s good for being involved in your community. “When people walk down the street, they meet their neighbors. They might find out about resources they didn’t know existed, or find out that someone has a shared interest,” Philena points out. “They would not learn about these things if they didn’t walk down the street and talk to their neighbors.”

That village creation is important in many ways. Philena has hosted several Northwest Earth Institute courses in her community. She’s found that even when some folks haven’t been able to read, the conversation brings out information from the readings that everyone can share with each other. People who have participated in the NWEI course before can sit in and offer their own perspectives. The conversations create a “village within a village” and help people find common ground. The NWEI course discussion leads to other discussions with family and friends not in the course. When people start reconsidering their own consumption habits, values, and waste, they naturally start having those conversations with others and incorporating more sustainable and simple habits of their own. “People talk about what’s meaningful to them,” Philena says.

Philena’s own motivation for living a simple and sustainable lifestyle derives from a personal goal to do more with less, and the recognition that in order to do more with less, you have to understand how to not contaminate or disrupt the resources you already have. Philena’s grandmother served as a model of simple living in many ways, but also helped Philena to see the ways in which we all can waste things, too. Her grandmother started one of the first community gardens in Cleveland. She always had a backyard garden, and all of her neighbors did, too. Philena remembers hopping the fences between neighbor’s houses and “grazing through the summer” during her childhood summers because there was so much fresh produce in her community. 

Philena’s grandmother, Priscilla Elizabeth Walton, grew up in just outside of Beckley, West Virginia in a town called Coalwood in the 1920s and 30s. “My grandmother was the eldest of nine kids who all stayed in three-bedroom ‘shotgun house,’ where sisters slept in one bedroom, brothers slept in another and their parents slept in the third one. I remember stories of the outhouse being out back and how the brothers would scare the sisters as they would go to use it at night,” Philena recalls. “How the roof was made of tin and when it rained it would sound like people were tap dancing above their heads and how she and her siblings bathed in a large tin pale. That the oldest went first and each one would bathe in the same water afterwards until the youngest finally went. After everyone bathed the water would be tossed out into the garden.”  

Her grandmother’s examples left their marks on Philena, both in her value of community and generosity, and in her commitment to waste less. “I was always a minimalist until I got older and started to ‘spread some roots’. Now I’m somewhere in between. I used to pride myself on all of my possessions fitting into one car. Now it’s more like one truck. Hopefully a medium sized truck, but more likely a large one!” Philena says with a laugh. “I like to breathe. Too much stuff feels suffocating.”

Philena sees educational opportunities and teachable moments in virtually everything she does, whether she is working in her official capacity for the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, modelling sustainable and simple living for others, facilitating continuing education classes or workshops, volunteering for NWEI, connecting community members, advocating for small businesses or for her beloved grandmother.  Although Philena’s life is incredibly busy with all of her work and volunteering and projects, she appreciates the quiet life that simplicity offers her at home. “My grandmother always said, ‘When you’re out, you belong to the world. When you come home, you belong to yourself.’ My joy is in connecting freely in public, but having peace when I’m at home, in just being still and not needing stuff to distract me. I also take people to my favorite places in Cleveland. They’re always quiet places, places where people can think, enjoy nature and be reminded that they are connected to everything around them.”

Philena’s enthusiasm and energy for sustainability is contagious. “Connecting with people and sharing ideas, practices and interests brings me joy,” she says. Just as her grandmother has impacted her life, Philena is impacting the lives of many around her, making “the greatest positive impact” she can, both in her personal life and in her connections with others.

*To pre-order NWEI’s newest course book, A Different Way: Living Simply in a Complex World, click here. 

MetLife’s Story of Change: How a Custom EcoChallenge Inspired 1,200 Employees

captureAs we reach the end of the year we’re celebrating the successes of 2016, and one big celebration is the launch of custom EcoChallenges. Today we’re excited to share how MetLife used a custom EcoChallenge to inspire over 1,200 employees from 22 countries earlier this year. The results were amazing, and proved that small actions really do add up to real change!

Over the course of the two-week Challenge, MetLife employees collectively saved over 7,600 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, conserved over 38,000 pounds of water, converted over 39,000 minutes of indoor time to time spent outdoors in nature, and diverted nearly 4,000 disposable cups from the landfill. The global community of EcoChallengers focused on a variety of projects. In China employees focused on reducing impact by eating more vegetarian meals. In Argentina employees focused on promoting reusable mugs. In Australia employees focused on composting food waste. In Beirut employees created an entirely new green roof. Others focused on organic gardening, re-purposing old materials and bike commuting.

captureRecognizing that employees are essential to promoting environmental stewardship across the company, MetLife has focused on integrating sustainability and employee engagement into the workplace through their global sustainability engagement program, called ‘Our Green Impact’. After learning about the Northwest Earth Institute’s EcoChallenge, Metlife’s Global Sustainability Team worked with NWEI to offer a custom EcoChallenge for MetLife employees, in hopes of further encouraging more sustainable lifestyles and contributing to the achievement of MetLife’s environmental goals. Josh Wiener, MetLife’s Global Sustainability Director, shared: “We decided to incorporate the MetLife EcoChallenge into the Our Green Impact program to create a fun and collaborative way to encourage more associates to get involved in our environmental sustainability efforts. It was important for us to find an initiative that could be inclusive to MetLife employees, no matter if they work remotely, in a small leased office, or in any region around the world.”

The Challenge led to positive outcomes for the environment, the MetLife sustainability program and for employees. Through the MetLife EcoChallenge, Our Green Impact gained 300 new members and four new Green Impact team locations, and saw a significant increase in program participation from employees outside of the United States.

Now more than ever, individuals and organizations have the opportunity to make a difference. Want to learn more about how you can bring a custom discussion course or EcoChallenge to your community, school, organization or business? Find out more here

MetLife employees in the Beirut, Lebanon office create a green roof as part of their 2016 Private EcoChallenge
MetLife employees in the Beirut, Lebanon office create a green roof as part of their 2016 Private EcoChallenge

4 Tips for Communicating With Empathy Across Differences

image: Flipboard
                                           Image: Flipboard

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this special kind, is one of the most potent forces of change that I know.” – Carl Rogers

As many of us prepare to spend Thanksgiving with friends and family who may not share our same ideologies, we offer some tips for finding common ground and moving beyond divisiveness in order to find deeper understanding. Participants of our discussion courses will recognize several of the suggested communication tips below, drawn from our participation guidelines. We believe these guidelines are useful for communicating with those who have different opinions and beliefs than ourselves, regardless of context.

Here are 4 tips for communicating with empathy across differences: 

  • Be an active listener. In the beginning of our discussion course books, we remind participants that we need to hear and understand what people are saying if we are to participate in an effective discussion. The same is true now, particularly when trying to communicate across differences. Take time to truly hear what each person is saying. Don’t rush to assumptions.
  • Focus on personal reactions, personal values, feelings or experiences. When you are ready to speak, speak from your own experience, using “I” statements. What values inform your decision-making processes? What worries you, personally? Keeping the discussion personal about our own values, feelings or experiences serves to remind us of our common humanity. When and if attacked, bring it back to the personal. Feelings and experiences are harder to pigeonhole as “right or wrong.” If possible, encourage others to speak from this place too.
  • Consensus isn’t the goal. Rather, find a slice of common ground. With such large cultural and political divides, getting people to agree should not be the goal. Try to move beyond assigning things merely as ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ or persuading others to agree with your points. Instead, make finding common ground a priority. Where are the overlapping areas of values and priorities? What does each person care about in common?
  • Practice empathy. Perhaps most importantly, practice empathy. A few years ago we posted a blog about how empathy is critical to our survival. Empathy moves us to care, and beyond caring is acting. As Van Jones reminded us post election, “More empathy and understanding can keep us from needlessly inflaming one another, and this should create the conditions for a better understanding of our differences. Deeper insight can only help all sides.”

The Importance of Connection, Reflection and Action

When the world changes around us, especially unexpectedly, we are faced with so many questions. Some of us may wonder what this means for ourselves, our family, our community, our faith, and our work. Some of us may spiral into a whole spectrum of emotional responses – from numbness and disbelief to heartbreak and anger. Some might become absorbed in the media or hyper-conscious of how others around us are responding.

Like most of the world, the NWEI staff, board of directors, and community are going through this process.

This week has been a profound reminder of how complex our world is. We’ve been reflecting on how NWEI’s values offer up an intentional process designed to help communities facilitate and navigate change. We have read deeply heartfelt and eloquent responses from our friends in organizations around the country. To complement their messages, this actionable list of ways to cope in these times from our friends at YES! Magazine, and NWEI staff member Lacy Cagle’s blog post last week on the power of community, here are some simple ways we invite you to bring our model for change into your own lives. We encourage you to take time to connect, reflect and act.

Connect with… Self. Family and friends. Strangers. Neighbors. Nature.

Reflect on… Values. Purpose. Assumptions. Blind spots. Relationships. The interconnected systems at play in our world.

Act by… Standing with others. Interrupting discrimination. Supporting healing in those around us. Writing to decision makers. Convening our communities. Donating to causes we believe in. Seeking out deeper understanding. Being the change we wish to see in the world.

Connecting, reflecting, and acting is also a process for exploring differences by creating safety and building trust. It’s a somewhat radical response to break down walls and welcome all people into the circle who are willing to respectfully share their story. On the road ahead, we invite you to continue this critical work with us. It is challenging and deeply rewarding. We believe it is where and how true transformation can happen.

For nearly 24 years now, we have been helping you to connect with the people in your community to take action on the issues that matter. If you’re looking for a way to take action, our Seeing Systems: Peace, Justice and Sustainability discussion course is one tool that we would encourage you to consider.

In times of disillusionment, hope can be tough to find. Some nights may feel darker and longer than others. The morning still comes, and with it, opportunity. We look forward to greeting the morning with you and discovering new ways to create a world that is sustainable, equitable, and just.

Join NWEI’s 11/17 Webinar: Engaging Your Community With NWEI Programs

webinar-1-300x300Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, the months ahead will require all of us who are working to address environmental and social issues to step up and engage our co-workers or community members in making sustainable and just choices. Join NWEI staff this Thursday, November 17th at 10am PST/1pm EST for a 30 minute webinar to find out more about how you can use NWEI’s discussion course books and EcoChallenge to take engagement to the next level in your organization or community.

Just a few weeks ago, we completed our annual EcoChallenge, and participants have been asking, “How can we go deeper?” and “What are the next steps?” This 30 minute webinar will answer these questions and more. We will give an overview of NWEI’s discussion course books, which offer a deeper dive into issues like energy, climate change, food choices and organizational sustainability. We’ll also share how the EcoChallenge can be customized at any time during the year for your business, college or organization, including via our new year-round Campus EcoChallenge.

This webinar will be held Thursday, November 17th at 10am PST. Please click here to register. We hope you will join us!

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