Community Voices - David Gard

Posted by Jake Holtzman
Jake Holtzman
I am a second year Oberlin College student majoring in environmental studies and
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on October 21, 2013 in Community Voices

FaceDavid Gard was hired the end of September 2013 as the Executive Director of the Oberlin Project.  Prior to the Oberlin Project, David Gard worked at the Michigan Energy Council as the Program Director. David completed the Erb Institute MBA/MS Program at the University of Michigan, worked as a design engineer, and served in the U.S. Navy. He grew up in Cincinnati, OH and has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University.

What excites you about the Oberlin Project?

Oberlin is a recognized leader among efforts to achieve resilient communities. Our biggest challenges -- climate change being the most obvious -- still require national and state policies to help drive effective responses. But these responses must be rooted in actual places where real people are going about their lives. The hard work of changing the behaviors of individuals and institutions must be done close to the ground where context matters. Oberlin occupies a perfect scale in this work: small enough to regularly connect with key decision-makers, yet large enough to provide meaningful lessons for larger communities. And I am particularly excited that Oberlin is situated in America's industrial heartland, the so-called Rust Belt where proof of concept can be really powerful.

 How has your background prepared you for this job?

Even in a smaller community, sustainability involves an amazingly complex mix of issues and perspectives. In this project, a varied background can be an asset. I worked for more than ten years as an environmental advocate in the non-profit sector. Previous jobs included design engineering at a large manufacturing firm and four years in the Navy. My formal education in engineering, business, and public policy reflects a similar variety. All of this has provided great practice in approaching issues from various angles, and learning how to help translate between different points of view.

What first got you interested in doing this kind of work?

My passion for what people now call sustainability had early roots. I grew up next to a large wooded park in Cincinnati and spent lots of time there as a kid. These and other experiences fed a strong sense of connection to my natural surroundings.  Over time, I also developed an uncomfortable awareness that our situation on the planet is precarious. Responding to this concern became the focus of my graduate studies and has remained central to my professional life ever since.

 What is your personal definition of sustainability?

The term 'sustainability' is famously hard to define at a practical level. I prefer to think of it more as an organizing principle than an endpoint to be described precisely. My favorite statement related to sustainability is Stein's Law, which simply says that if something cannot go on forever, it will stop. Nobody can argue with that. And to me it invokes biophysical limits, too often downplayed in serious discussions about sustainability.

 Can you talk about the challenge of becoming climate positive?

By joining the Clinton Initiative's Climate Positive Development Program, Oberlin committed to eliminating its carbon footprint by 2050. This is an astounding goal that will require much lower emissions from each sector. An important early step was City Council adopting a long-term Climate Action Plan. In support of this Plan, the municipal utility has already found a way to cut its carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2015. Also, the College is well underway to becoming net zero by 2025. We should celebrate these milestones and tell others about them. At the same time, we need to focus on integrating carbon reduction into the decision-making DNA of local institutions. Achieving that is the key to reaching our ultimate goal of climate neutrality.

How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by all of the interconnected issues of sustainability?

Sustainability is inherently complex. It touches on every major aspect of how a community operates and plans for the future. As with any real-world enterprise, the Oberlin Project has limited time and resources. We need to resist the very legitimate pull to work on all issues at once, or we will not be effective. We take a strategic approach to identify areas that can benefit most from the leverage we bring. For example, one area of focus is expanding Oberlin's local food economy. We saw an opportunity to borrow heavily from the previous work of Brad Masi and others who have already charted a viable path to increase local food consumption from 6 percent to 70 percent. The Oberlin Project is well positioned to help support and connect existing local food efforts, and bring new voices to the table as needed. In this way we act as a catalyst where we can have the greatest impact.

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I am a second year Oberlin College student majoring in environmental studies and piano. I come from San Rafael, California, and have been involved with sustainability at home as well as in Oberlin, especially through local foods and community gardens. I have also had the pleasure of interning with Zion Community Development Corporation for the past few months; I have been helping organize their community forums, editing their newsletters, and working in their community garden, and I am glad to have gotten to know the local community better in the process. I look forward to making more community connections, and hearing about all different kinds of creative ways people are engaged with sustainability locally.


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