On the Path to Climate Action: Advancing Sustainability with Danielle Beard
On July 13, exhausted after a long day of restorations and repairs, Danielle (Nelson) Beard ‘17, sat on her lawn surrounded by neighbors. Hours earlier, a microburst had occurred in the city of Lansing, upending routines and catching residents off-guard. The strong winds had ripped through the city, leaving behind damaged homes, uprooted trees and debris everywhere.
It’s hard to rebuild after any storm, but Beard said the community of Lansing saw the residents show up for each other to ease the process that day.
“The mayor was there, the local power company was there and they were going to pick up all this debris for free. The city was like, ‘We’re not going to charge anybody for it. We’re just going to do this because it needs to get done,’” Beard said. “It was one of the best days of my life when everybody came together.”
To Beard, this was more than just mending what was broken – it was building a stronger community footing. She recalled that the lasting connectivity that arose from such destruction was far more impactful than the effects of the wind. The unforgettable aftermath had led to new experiences; neighbors who may have rarely spoken before were now actively getting together, with some bringing over chainsaws to help each other out and dragging trees off of cars and out of backyards.
“We had a little ‘Paradise Built in Hell’ moment,” Beard said, citing a book she’d read, written by Rebecca Solnit, describing the solidarity and resourcefulness that emerges from hardship.
These bonds lasted longer than just that day as the residents saw the affirmation of their individual efforts adding up to stronger environmental engagement.
A Changing Wind
Beard said it’s no secret that climate change is getting worse, with greenhouse gasses (GHG) being a primary driving force. Destructive weather patterns are fast becoming the norm, with the number of storms occurring in Michigan steadily increasing.
“Our climate is going to get more and more uncomfortable,” Beard said. “Uncomfortable for people with means, means dire for people without means,” she continued. To make changes, we need to start somewhere, and as Beard experienced, they start locally.
Beard is no stranger to the effects of climate change and such storms, as well as the bonds that emerge from disaster. She had experienced a similar storm at Albion nearly a decade earlier on Sept. 12, 2013.
“This storm hit and we were walking around everywhere looking at debris,” said Beard, recalling the aftereffects of a microburst that occurred during her time as a first-year student. “And this is where I made some of my best friends at Albion because we were just like ‘Okay, the power is out’ and we were just hanging out at Wesley.”
To Beard, learning about the past is just as important as planning for the future. As a student research fellow in her first year, she worked alongside Dr. Lynn Verduzco-Baker to delve into the history of the community and learn about the local industrial changes. It wasn’t long before she became more involved with the Albion community, interning with the city manager’s office and working towards improving the community.
On Thursday, Beard returned to Albion to speak at the Bobbitt Auditorium, presenting new initiatives for improving sustainability in our communities. Beard is currently in her sixth year working at the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and manages the Michigan Green Communities project, where her team guides multiple initiatives for local economies.
“The Michigan Municipal League is a membership and advocacy organization for cities, villages and a handful of urbanized townships,” Beard said. “It is quite a powerhouse of an organization when it comes to training, lobbying and resource development for local governments in Michigan.”
For Beard, Albion provided the perfect circumstances for diving deep into her passions and interests while gaining legislative exposure and relevant work experiences.
While she had the opportunity to take a few courses related to the environment and sustainability, Beard cited her experiences working with the city of Albion as most impactful for her career. Her internships cultivated her interest in pursuing public policy, which eventually led to a chance as project manager for the Albion Economic Development Corporation.
Reflecting on her personal experiences, Beard encouraged students to go downtown and get engaged with the Albion community.
“Go out into the city and explore, go to a city council meeting,” Beard said, adding that it’s important to “understand that the world outside this campus and the things happening outside this campus also matter to this campus, and vice versa.”
As a part of the Policy Research Lab at the MML, Beard and her team take in the ideas, policies and programs from both federal and local governments, as well as from educational institutions, and generate solutions for local communities. During her talk, titled “Advancing Community Sustainability and Livability” she highlighted the importance of community engagement and education for making change.
‘Michigan is Not a Climate Haven, Yet.’
“We are in a climate crisis right now – we’re going to continue having more intense, more frequent storms,” Beard said. “Michigan is being labeled as a climate haven, and it is not yet. It is if you have means, but for people who do not have means who are experiencing intense flooding, like people in Detroit who are dying of asthma attacks every year when there is no need for them to, we can’t really say that.”
When asked about steps students can take themselves to initiate change within Albion and their communities, she said it’s critical to understand “the structures and systems that are in place around decision-making and funding.”
Thinking about constructively adding to systems, she provided an example of navigating composting in the dining hall as an impact at an institutional level.
“Let’s say something like that bothered you. Rather than just getting angry about something or being like, ‘Well, we should be doing this,’ take the time to actually understand,” Beard said. “Let’s say you wanted for the dining hall to be actually composting. I know that we collected compost, but I don’t know if it actually got composted.”
When outcomes like this are unclear, Beard emphasized the importance of taking the initiative to gain insight.
“If that bothers you, whether it is [being composted] or isn’t, talk with people. Talk with professors. Talk with folks within the administration to understand,” Beard said. “‘How are these decisions made? What are the things that are keeping us from being more sustainable as an institution?’”
Beard said her classroom experiences provided her with a “broad view of what goes into like the policy-making process at the state, federal and local level” and gave her the opportunity to dive deeper and really explore her interests.
“Albion really trained me to be a generalist and learn more about systems,” Beard said, describing what she gained from the public policy curriculum at Albion, especially being able to “apply specific events within those systems and understand how they connect.”
Beard said that minimizing global impacts starts at a grassroots level, which requires the sustained collective efforts of a community.
“Climate resilience is a combination of activities that reduce GHG emissions and adapt systems and structures to climate change, all while ensuring that people that live in our communities are also well taken care of,” Beard said. “Meaning that we are protecting vulnerable communities and promoting sustainable economic development practices as well.”
According to Beard, beginning at a foundational level is critical.
“We want to make sure as we build local resilience we build household-level resilience,” Beard emphasized. “Because that improves overall community resilience.”
Rochester Hills senior Emily Abramczyk, who was in attendance, noted that collective awareness is an essential aspect of working toward change.
“It’s important that we try to educate ourselves on the topics, as well as find ways to get involved, especially in our communities,” Abramcyzk said.
To Abramczyk, the complementary connection between the community and the environment is key to improving sustainability.
“The big takeaway for me was the connection between what’s going on with the environment and the community and ways that they complement each other; there is tension,” Abramczyk said, talking about community hurdles. “But they can work together to solve their problem.”
During her lecture, Beard discussed some of the larger ongoing initiatives that are taking place across Michigan, including rising waters in Grand Haven, green rental communities in Ann Arbor and Mayor Duggan’s solar vision for Detroit.
“It was interesting to learn that even on the very local government level, there are still things being done to really help mitigate these things,” Sabrina Fitzgerald, Clarkston senior, who is currently taking an environmental ethics course, said.
With so many changes, there are many local efforts that go unnoticed by the public.
“There’s a lot happening right now, people are working on it,” Beard said. “ It doesn’t feel like that if you’re not in it like I am every day.”
Fitzgerald agreed with the sentiment that many people are uninformed.
“I think there’s more of a push for sustainability than I initially had thought there was,” Fitzgerald said. “I know there have been nationwide initiatives, but I’ve never heard of some of those (local) initiatives like Grand Rapids and Ferndale.”
Beard wrapped up her discussion with resources for the audience to learn more and get involved in their capacity. She said she would encourage the audience to take a look at the Royal Oak Sustainability & Climate Action Plan (S-CAP) for a well-written example of sustainability practices that communities can engage in.
“That’s what gives me hope, is seeing what municipalities are doing at the local level,” Beard said. “Seeing what many individuals are doing, but also seeing the market changes that are happening is really helpful.”
To Beard, it’s the buildup of these seemingly micro efforts that lead to a better climate future and a healthier environment.
“There’s really positive momentum happening right now. The federal government is making the largest investments ever in climate and energy and infrastructure that we’ve ever seen,” Beard said, describing the positive effects of the MI Healthy Climate Plan, a recent legislature pushing for 100% renewables by 2050.
Beard believes the collaboration involved with community engagement and education keeps it moving forward:
“There’s incredible momentum. It is a good thing, so long as we bring people along in the process.”