Liz Davey has been training up the next generation of environmental advocates since 1999. That’s the year she moved from East Lansing, Michigan, to Tulane University in New Orleans to become the institution’s first-ever director of sustainability (it was known as environmental coordinator at the time). Since then, Davey has impacted hundreds of students directly through various on- and off-campus initiatives and hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians indirectly through her advocacy around issues of transportation, greener building, and environmental justice. (Davey was instrumental in starting New Orleans’ local bicycle advocacy group.)
Davey is not just a strong leader with a gift for campus sustainability, but someone whose experience of climate change is uniquely and tragically real. Davey was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and she returned just weeks after the storm, intent on rebuilding her home and redoubling her sustainability efforts at Tulane and throughout the city.
As we thought about a guest editor for this issue—which would receive an early release for the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo in New Orleans and focus on designing for water, as well as carry a feature on our Top 10 Women in Sustainability Leadership—Davey became the obvious choice. She and I spoke on the phone on August 27th, nine years nearly to the day after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. We talked about Davey’s experience with LEED, why sustainability appeals to women, and (unofficial) presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Our conversation begins after the break.
PART 1: A HAUNTED HOUSE
gb&d: You became Tulane’s dedicated director of the office of sustainability back in 1999. That’s relatively early for a position like this, given that only within the past few years have most large organizations added dedicated sustainability positions. How has the job changed over the years?
Liz Davey: I’ve moved more and more into operations, into the design and construction process. When I started, I worked a lot on student programs and extracurricular sustainability programs. But as we’ve taken up the commitment to LEED, and as we’ve really worked to take our recycling program to the next level, those pieces take up more of my time. My position started within an academic research center, which was basically because they had a sense of what it was—because I spent many, many years just explaining what my job was. But in recent years, we needed to find a more permanent home for it within the university, and when we looked at peer institutions, I was surprised that the sustainability office was, for the most part, on the facilities side of the university, rather than the academic side. These programs began, at Tulane and at other universities, as class projects: How does the university impact the environment? How do we measure that, and what can we do to change it? But as they’ve been taken up, I think they have moved away from the academic side.
gb&d: Do the two talk to each other? I can see from the university’s standpoint why it makes sense to roll it into facilities, but I imagine that the environmental studies [programs] can continue to push the field forward. What does the interaction between the two look like?
Davey: It varies every year. It varies with the faculty and with the courses being taught. We have a very strong service-learning program at Tulane. Tulane is the only major research university that has a public service requirement. It was put in place after Katrina, and it’s a two-tier requirement. It’s not just one course—it’s one during your freshman and sophomore years, and then it’s a public service experience of your choosing, your design, during your junior and senior year. A lot of times my interaction with the academic side will be through the public service programs.
gb&d: Do any projects stick out to you?
Davey: Lots of them. I hate to name them because I don’t want it to seem like I’m taking credit for them, but we just had a fantastic program complete its first year. It’s called Trash to Treasure, and basically, the students collected donated items from the dorms as students moved out, stored them over the summer, and sold them back to other students during the move in. It saved parents an extra trip to the store, it reduced the waste of all that packaging, and it set such a great example of student initiative. Like I said, that was all student driven.
gb&d: People come to positions like yours from various background—some have MBAs, some have masters degrees in architecture. What’s your background?
Davey: I came out of a very good undergraduate environmental studies program, and then I went to graduate school and got a PhD in English. So my path is an unusual one, but probably typical of some of the people who worked at the front end of university sustainability. Then I was an adjunct faculty member at Michigan State University. A librarian there started convening a group to work on greening the campus. I worked with that committee, and we launched Michigan State’s university sustainability initiative.
gb&d: Before you came to Tulane, did you have connections to New Orleans?
Davey: My sister and brother-in-law had lived down here. I had actually come down to research an environmental justice case—that was how I first connected with people at Tulane. When they advertised the job the next year, I applied.
gb&d: What was the case?
Davey: It’s known as the Shintech Case. There was a vinyl plant proposed for the industrial corridor north of New Orleans, and it became a test case for whether civil rights laws should be used in the determination of the permitting of a facility.
gb&d: What was the outcome?
Davey: The company withdrew their application for a permit. It was never actually decided.
gb&d: Do you remember your first memory of nature, when you experienced it as a living, breathing thing?
Davey: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a place that has parks throughout the city and where a lot of space is dedicated to ecological restoration. My most significant early memories are of going to a place we called “the haunted house,” which was an old, abandoned, Victorian-era farm that my dad’s boss used as a hunting and fishing camp in the Sand County area—you know, where Aldo Leopold had his shack—and they would just dump us out in the woods to run around while they fished.
PART 2: WOMEN WANTED
gb&d: I want to talk about leadership. You introduce our Top 10 Women in Sustainability Leadership. Do you think sustainability, as a field, offers women new opportunities?
Davey: Yes. For one thing, sustainability is opening up as a field. We have more women graduating with degrees in environmental studies and environmental science, so as a new field, it offers opportunities that just weren’t there before that women are ready for. And then the combination of a technical background but a lot of outreach and communication—which is typically part of a sustainability position—is really appealing to women. Those kinds of careers have often been a choice: to either pursue a science field or a communications field.
gb&d: What do you think can inspire young women to go into some of the fields that continue to be dominated by men?
Davey: We need to help college students, and probably even high school students, see the kinds of opportunities that are emerging in sustainability fields so that they can see the end point of pursuing some of the more technical degrees.
gb&d: Is there a specific call to action for men currently in leadership?
Davey: Think about the pipeline: How can I help put a piece in place that will help a more diverse group of young people find their way into this position?
gb&d: Social issues like gender inequality, class inequality, immigration policy—are these things tied in with sustainability and urban planning? How do you see those things connecting?
Davey: So much of the work has come out of a more traditionally environmental background that we haven’t engaged the partners that we need to in order to realize that larger vision of a sustainable society. At Tulane, we have this very large commitment to public service, but we don’t typically talk about that as a sustainability program. We’re using a different kind of language. But we should see that larger work in the community as part of our work in sustainability as much as having a decent recycling program and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
gb&d: Everyone is waiting on the formal announcement, but obviously Hillary Clinton is going to run in 2016. If she is elected, what sort of message do you think that will that send to the country?
Davey: It would be about time. It’s just so crazy that we have not had a woman president. It’s time that presidential candidates draw from our full population.
PART 3: ‘WAITING FOR THE CITY TO REOPEN’
gb&d: I want to ask about Hurricane Katrina. You were at Tulane and living in New Orleans when Katrina hit in 2005. The university was evacuated and eventually closed.
Davey: Right. It reopened for the spring semester in January 2006.
gb&d: Where were you during the storm? Where were you staying?
Davey: We were actually recycling cardboard on campus. It was our move-in day, and we do a big recycling program as students move in, and that was the day they announced the university was going to close.
I went with a bunch of friends to Memphis. Eventually, I ended up in Madison, and then a friend found a friend who had an extra room about an hour from New Orleans. So I came back about three weeks later and hung out on the edge, waiting for the city to reopen.
My house was just a little bit flooded. It was a big job, but not a catastrophe. But I was anxious to get back—I knew if I got to work on it right away, it would reduce the damage.
gb&d: Did you have any responsibilities as a Tulane employee? Was the faculty in charge of anything in the immediate weeks after?
Davey: As the fall went on, I did work to get ready to reopen the recycling program—just calling around to see who was open, who would be able to take things—and then I did a lot of work with our community-service staff person at the time. We did service projects during the fall, and then when we reopened, Tulane and the other universities did a huge joint day of service with other universities all over the city.
gb&d: So you were in Memphis when you saw the footage of what was happening. What was that experience like?
Davey: It’s amazing how much of it I’ve shut away. It was absolutely shocking. First, the collapse of the levees, and then the delay in helping New Orleanians evacuate. This is a tough time of year right now because it’s the anniversary this week.
One of the things that has been really difficult in the years since Katrina is to see so many other communities go through major disasters, to see so many communities suffer flooding. It was so hard to figure out what to do with a partially flooded house. What could you save? What did you have to take out? And to think that Katrina was a unique experience and then see versions of it—smaller versions—has been really hard.
gb&d: Has the experience shaped your approach or commitment to sustainability?
Davey: So much in campus sustainability is working on the details that I haven’t had the chance to look up. But seeing something happen that was predicted, that was anticipated, but was not planned for, gives some urgency to work on climate change.
gb&d: Have you experienced any kind of shift in others?
Davey: Oh, definitely. I had worked a lot on bicycle improvements in the city before Katrina—I helped found the local bicycle advocacy group—and after Katrina, I thought, that work was just wasted. After a hurricane, no one’s going to be interested in bike lanes. And then, in the planning meetings all across town, people spoke up and wanted bicycle improvements. People wanted their neighborhoods to come back as vibrant, active places, attractive to young families. So there’s been this real embrace of all different aspects of sustainability throughout New Orleans.
PART 4: WHAT’S NEXT FOR TULANE?
gb&d: I had an interesting conversation with some friends about this ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that’s gone viral. Some in the group were very critical of the tactic being used because they didn’t think it was informing anyone about ALS or creating advocates around the disease. I’ve heard similar things said about certain green initiatives, that if a building owner switches to LEDs based on the cost savings, it doesn’t mean he’s running the rest of his business in a way that’s beneficial to the environment—or isn’t directly harming the environment. Others say it doesn’t really matter, and that the point is to get as many people as possible to make as many good choices as possible. Where do you fall?
Davey: Well, if I can split those two pieces apart, because I love the Ice Bucket Challenge. New Orleans is home to Steve Gleason, the wonderful Saints player who has ALS and who has been an amazing spokesperson for ALS, so every time I see an ice bucket, I think, Somebody’s gonna find their way to Steve Gleason and learn a lot more.
On the issue of sustainability, it’s important to be working on many fronts, but we do need to have a continual conversation about where we’re trying to get to and how we know if we’re making progress. We have a lot of ways to measure that now—LEED is one system, and we have STARS. Particularly at universities, because we are places of research and education, we need to be more engaged in thinking about those frameworks—not just accept each action as advancing the larger good. We need to continually take a step back and say, “Let’s go through this again: What are we trying to do here, and how do we know that we’re making a difference?”
gb&d: You mentioned LEED. Tulane has invested a lot in LEED projects in the past several years.
Davey: We have three [projects] certified, three where we’re about to submit the documentation, and then a number of others that are underway.
gb&d: What’s it been like advocating for a campus-wide green building program?
Davey: We took a very collaborative approach to learning about LEED. We said, “Let’s take this renovation of this building and use it to learn about LEED together—how difficult it is, the benefits of it.” After that project, the design staff, the facilities staff, and the construction staff were all knowledgeable about it and found a lot of benefits in it. For example, commissioning was a service that we hadn’t used before, and now there’s 100 percent support for it, and I can’t imagine a project going ahead without commissioning.
So, the first piece was key staff learning about it. Then, the next piece was explaining it to the campus public, and we took a very practical approach. We pulled out the particular credits that we thought were essential to projects in the future, and we developed a green-building standard based on those credits. Those credits include all the low-emitting materials credits so that using LEED is a way to make sure that the indoor air quality will be good.
gb&d: Do the School of Architecture and Tulane City Center get involved in campus green-building projects?
Davey: The School of Architecture is actually in the design phase for a major renovation, and they have used that process to include their students and faculty and think about what will be the next level of sustainable building at Tulane. We laid out the basic level, but what should we pursue next? For example, rainwater harvesting is a real priority, so working through the issues with permitting and restrictions from the Department of Health and Hospitals will be part of the project.
gb&d: You mention in our questionnaire the excitement around net-zero buildings. Do you think there’s a net-zero building in Tulane’s future?
Davey: Oh boy, I don’t know. I think of net-zero buildings more as a discipline than as an actual goal. I think it’s something that we should be working on and at least doing those calculations.
gb&d: I’m not a building engineer, so I may have this completely wrong, but it doesn’t seem that New Orleans is the greatest fit for renewable energy generation.
Davey: Well, actually, Louisiana has a very favorable tax credit for residential-scale solar power, so as you go around town, you will see solar everywhere. I think that’s one thing people will really be shocked by when they come to Greenbuild.
See what happens when we put our guest editor On the Spot.