Lisa Joan Overholt Explains the Importance of Building Community Engagement
In 2010, the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced its Community Engagement Initiative Action Plan (CEI), aimed at increasing the environmental agency’s interaction with community members. The official plan stated the overall goal: “engagement with local communities and other stakeholders to help them meaningfully participate in government decisions on land cleanup, emergency preparedness and response, and the management of hazardous substances and waste.” The EPA was trying to harness the collective power of community to provide crucial input on important environmental issues, a tried and true method of getting long lasting and meaningful results.
Community engagement brings the full force of our combined experiences, expertise, and knowledge to bear on critical and timely issues. One of the best examples of environmental community engagement and government leadership is the Organic Valley farm in Wisconsin, the largest organic farming co-op in North America. State, village, federal and private funding combined to make Organic Valley possible, allowing the co-op to produce sustainable food products, employ area residents and increase local morale.
The 45,000 square-foot barn that houses the company optimizes natural light, minimizes heat and was built with locally sourced materials. Organic Valley farm also hosts the annual Kickapoo County Fair, which includes sustainability workshops and rural heritage exhibits, ensuring that the entire community stays educated.
The success of Organic Valley has spurred the surrounding area of Vernon County to increase their organic and sustainable farming efforts. Vernon County now boasts more organic farms than any other county in the nation.
2015 marks the fifth anniversary of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC), a joint environmental and social awareness effort between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and community leaders. The PSC works in conjunction on a variety of initiatives to benefit community residents across America. One of the most prevalent is the combined effort to reduce pollution and create sustainable communities.
“Communities know better than anyone else what they need. Through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, we at the federal level are organizing ourselves to give communities tools to address economic and environmental challenges in the way that works best for them,” said Gina McCarthy, an administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency in the report completed for the PSC’s anniversary.
Engaging the community in meaningful ways takes a special skill-set; in turn, being able to truly achieve community goals depends on the strengths of a great leader. Lisa Joan Overholt, a project management and stakeholder relations executive, emphasizes the need for driven leadership on community collaborations. “The most success comes from being excited to work in the community and truly listening to the needs and wishes of residents,” says Lisa Overholt.
A leader should provide an example of engagement and drive; by the same token, people can pick up on reluctance or disinterest. “You have to treat each community member as a valuable member of your team,” Lisa Joan Overholt points out. “Some of the most innovative ideas I have come across came from youth and children who valued being included.”
As Lisa mentions, there is no such thing as a small person or small idea when it comes to community engagement – that’s particularly the case when you’re discussing local environmental initiatives. Whether it is a small communal garden for building residents or the widespread installation of solar panels on a housing complex, engaging those who will utilize it is key in the success of the project.
Projects like Organic Valley prove that all levels of government can come together with community members and facilitate meaningful, long lasting change. Whether it’s large scale projects like Organic Valley or ones that are smaller, if we want to collectively protect the environment and implement green projects, collaboration at all levels is the only way to ensure success.
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