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. 

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