A Quest for Equitable Sustainability

Promoting Justice through Green Design in Architecture


A few weeks ago, PGDG blogger, Sophia Lee, sat down with us along with three of our Cohort ’17 members, Charlene Drake, Kelly Vresilovic, and Maggie Reed to discuss their work in sustainability. As broad as that topic could be, the conversation strayed to related concerns at the forefront of our minds and PGDG actions today—notably: Politics (we’ll spare you), Equity, and Women in Leadership. Long story short, we landed with material for more than one blog post. As a result, today’s and a couple future posts will feature each of these PGDG members, each with her specific variation on the theme—to see what PGDG offers as facets of the meaning and practice of Sustainability. Here's what Maggie has to say.                                  —Sylvia & Danielle

Sustainability, and more specifically the green building arm of sustainability, has long been considered a “nice to have”. It’s been called costly, hard to navigate, too technical, elite, or requires specialized skills. Those in the field who practice sustainability on a daily basis know this is not the case. In 2013 USGBC’s Community Advancement team began to explore ways to engage underserved and underrepresented audiences specifically around the benefits of sustainability. It became apparent that one of the biggest hurdles involves taking these perceptions and misconceptions and breaking them down.

ADVANCE is a framework to increase access to resources and expertise for new, underserved and underrepresented audiences. ADVANCE is built to meet organizations and communities wherever they are on the path to sustainability and assist them along that path.

The Philadelphia community is fertile ground for campaigns such as ADVANCE. As a Philadelphia ADVANCE Ambassador, I teamed up with Frank Sherman, one of the first generation of USGBC volunteers, and we started to meet with community-based groups to talk about sustainability and USGBC’s ADVANCE Campaign. More importantly, our goal is to understand what their mission, goals, and frameworks are so we can find volunteers to help these organizations understand and take actions that increase health, energy, and resource performance. From these initial meetings, we identified two groups now being served by ADVANCE Philadelphia: Action Wellness and the Southwest CDC. Over the past few months we have identified additional organizations who are interested in an ADVANCE campaign of their own.

Our work with SWCDC is what I would like to highlight today. SWCDC is 30-year old Community Development Corporation that pours its heart into the community every day. They work with residents and businesses in the Southwest neighborhoods of Philadelphia and have a strong track record of success. The organization was interested not only in making their building greener and more sustainable, but they are also interested in ways they can use sustainability to improve the local community.

The goal of ADVANCE is to guide participants through the green building process in a collaborative, explorative, and engaged manner. It’s an opportunity to leverage all the green building expertise in our community.  Using local green building experts and a framework established by USGBC, we began the process through a Kickstart workshop with board and staff members.

Kickstart is a values-based workshop that explores how green building/sustainability values align with the mission, goals, and values of the organization. It ignites collaborative engagement and understanding of where everyone is on their journey to green. Following the December 2016 Kickstart event, we began a cycle of information gathering which culminated in March 2017 with a full building assessment. Following a review of the information collected, we then moved on to helping SWCDC build a customized plan.

Planbuilder uses a workshop format to engage key decision makers within the organization. It is designed to help them define performance goals and identify appropriate strategies to meet these goals. Once again, we enlisted board members and staff to review 6 main green building categories and begin to think about goals and strategies that the organization can use to move their building toward green. This process helps organizations determine what is of immediate importance, what no- and low-cost actions can be immediately implemented, and what may take a financial investment.

The amazing thing at the end of the day is that everyone involved has become a de-facto green advocate for the organization and are now able to begin the journey to becoming a more sustainable organization. Our next steps will be to roll out a comprehensive plan to SWCDC’s Board of Directors and to confirm which goals and strategies, created by the newly empowered SWCDC green team, will implement over the next 6, 9, and 12 months.

It is exhilarating to see people engage when they realize that sustainability is accessible and implementable. As team leaders, I work with Frank to provide training and volunteers to make these events possible, but it is the community of passionate volunteers, and empowered community members that make great things happen.

Maggie Reed is Project Manager at Gilbane Building Company, the Philadelphia ADVANCE Ambassador for USGBC ADVANCE, and Co-Chair for the Philadelphia Emerging Architects Committee of AIA Philadelphia. She is a member of PGDG Cohort 2017.