Ever since I was a kid growing up in Portland, Oregon, basking in the abundant greenery that grows naturally in that part of the world, sustainability was part of my everyday life. In my family, we separated waste: recycling what we could, composting some (or more truthfully, feeding it to the raccoons), and throwing away whatever was left. Doing my part for the environment was second nature. However, I never really thought much about sustainability beyond responsible waste management.
After high school, I moved to the Northeast to attend Boston College, where I majored in history and economics. I continued to take environmental responsibility for granted during those years. I started my career in logistics, and my husband and I moved to Georgia for our work just over eight years ago.
Several years after moving to Atlanta, I decided to go back to school for an MBA. In Fall 2015, when I enrolled in Scheller College of Business’s Evening MBA Program, I thought sustainability was something individuals did as a hobby or lifestyle choice. Corporate sustainability was a new idea to me. It struck me as complicated and hard to measure. However, once I learned more about it, I recognized the potential impact a company could have by adopting sustainable practices, and I immediately wanted to be a part of it.
I participated in the Innovating for Sustainability immersive track, which included the course, MGT 6369: Sustainable Business Consulting Practicum, taught in Fall 2016 by Michael Oxman and Jay Cranman. Student groups were paired with organizations looking for insights that would help them address business challenges related to sustainability. My peers and I chose to work with the City of Atlanta on a project focused on increasing recycling in multifamily units.
At the kick-off meeting, City of Atlanta Sustainability Ambassadors tour the BeltLine's Westside Trail and learn about the work Trees Atlanta has done to make the trail greener.
As my teammates and I researched and developed recommendations, we learned a great deal about the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and its goals to prepare the City for physical, social, and economic challenges. For the first time, I realized that there existed professionals who align their occupation with what was quickly becoming my passion: environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility. And for the first time, I wondered, Could I do that, too?
While working on the project, I learned the importance of public-private partnerships to achieving development goals within Atlanta. For instance, waste management company managers explained to me how they work with City organizations to help track, enforce, and incent recycling at multifamily units. I also realized the impact of individual efforts. We needed to promote resident involvement in condominium associations and apartment buildings. In order to give these individuals help in complying with City initiatives, we recommended a recycling ambassador program in which self-identified recycling champions shared best practices with their neighbors. As I observed collaboration between corporations, municipal government, and individuals, it seemed to me as if each organization was contributing a different piece to the same puzzle, and we had to work in tandem to see how they all fit together. It was then that I discovered that I wanted to be a key player in helping to put those pieces in the right place.
“As I observed collaboration between corporations, municipal government, and individuals, it seemed to me as if each organization was contributing a different piece to the same puzzle, and we had to work in tandem to see how they all fit together. It was then that I discovered that I wanted to be a key player in helping to put those pieces in the right place.”
During the practicum, I discovered that I knew very little about Atlanta’s sustainability efforts or goals, so I sought to get more involved. Atlanta had recently been selected to join the 100 Resilient Cities network, which focused on creating sustainable and equitable economic growth. The City was on the cusp of pledging to move to 100% clean, renewable energy in its municipal buildings. I wanted to learn: What were the City’s plans to move forward with these goals? What did “sustainable and equitable” growth mean to citizens and organizations on the forefront of sustainability? How does a city move its population forward with sustainable initiatives—especially with ones as ambitious as ours?
A few years after my practicum experience with the City, I applied to join the Office of Resilience’s Sustainability Ambassador program (a relatively new eight-week training program that is offered twice a year) in hopes of learning the answers to these questions. I was thrilled to be invited to join the Fall 2019 class. The program aims to gather like-minded individuals from across Atlanta and to expose them to various organizations and projects that support the City’s sustainability efforts. Every week, our cohort of about 30 Ambassadors convened at a different organization’s location to learn about its initiatives. Some places we visited included the Southface Institute headquarters to learn about energy efficiency and changing the built environment, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper office to become more knowledgeable about urban water quality and litigation, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center And Aquatic Center to hear about lobbying for environmental policies at the Georgia State Capitol.
While the curriculum had an excellent mix of organizations that taught us action-oriented lessons, the strongest feature of the Sustainability Ambassador program was getting to know my amazing peers. My cohort’s roster included both sustainability professionals and others who are passionate about the subject. I met remarkable Atlantans from all industries and walks of life, from students studying environmental policy and solar energy experts to urban farmers and Southface fellows. Thanks to the program, I became connected to people who inspire me with how well they have aligned their profession with their passion.
The program culminates in a capstone project designed to have lasting impacts for both the City and the Ambassador class. Our capstone project was an urban agriculture work day at Doghead Farm, which is run by Concrete Jungle, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing fresh fruits and vegetables and donating them to local food banks and shelters. We helped to harvest turnips, to spread dry leaves to protect the soil throughout winter, and to turn and spread compost. Through the capstone project, the Office of Resilience made a positive impact by leveraging one of their most valuable resources—the City’s own sustainably-minded residents.
City of Atlanta Sustainability Ambassadors participate in an urban agriculture work day at Doghead Farm.
The City is currently working on formalizing a plan to continue engaging alumni of the Ambassadors program. The program is growing and growing its network of passionate alumni who infuse the Office of Resilience’s goals into all corners of our City. I am excited and proud to be a member of this small but powerful army of Ambassadors to lead Atlanta to its most sustainable self.
Jacquie Smyth received her MBA from the Scheller College of Business in 2018. She currently works as a senior analyst for small businesses at UPS.