Style & Substance

Madison native Kristen Joiner went off to change the world; now she’s back to make meaningful contributions at home

Kristen Joiner calls to say she’ll be late for an interview. She’s seven minutes out, but she’s speeding. Since she’s on a bike, there’ll be no moving violations, just time constraints. The seven-mile trek in forty-degree weather that feels more like thirty isn’t an issue either. The real issue is getting there with time to talk and then to Shorewood Hills Elementary to retrieve sons, Oliver and Julian. Joiner has a loaded plate, which also includes running interference for her husband, Randy Ng, who’s opening a ramen-dumpling restaurant on Willy Street.

When she arrives, Joiner looks more like an exec leaving a conference room than someone who has just dismounted a Trek commuter. Clearly she’s adept at keeping a professional appearance despite the twenty-mile-an-hour wind at her face. And that she’s racing across town on this locally made, no-carbon vehicle makes sense. She’s no carbon-reduction poser. In fact, she has enough street cred to make even the most hardworking community organizer look like a wimp. But you’d never hear her say that. She’s not the type that toots her own horn. Plenty of other people do it for her.

Joiner is the new executive director of Sustain Dane, the local nonprofit that connects people, organizations, businesses and communities that share a vision for sustainability—like partnering the Madison Metropolitan School District with the city of Madison and Edgewood College to form a Sustainable Schools Initiative that will help MMSD define sustainability and then identify ways to integrate best practices into every decision the district makes. She’s a Madison native who returned to her roots in 2007 after fifteen years of affecting social change elsewhere. As a UW student she helped solve women’s labor issues in Senegal; she later taught English in Japan, raised funds to build sustainable communities in the Rio Grande Valley for Habitat for Humanity International and helped build sustainable skills in the same region for a nonprofit that promoted social and environmental equality. In New York, she directed sustainable development and population programs in Ghana and Senegal, and then co-founded Scenarios USA, a nonprofit film company that produces short films scripted by underserved youth, films directed by big-gun Hollywood directors like Ben Younger (think Prime) and Doug Liman (think the Bourne film series), to name just two. She speaks French, Spanish and Japanese. She’s comfortable mixing with political and corporate muckety-mucks and with the working grunts. And she’s quickly becoming a Madison sustainability it-girl.

By all accounts, she’s a positive force with a power of persuasion that’s now affecting change at home. She acquired these useful life tools through nature and nurture; Joiner is the daughter of two formidable community leaders who’ve left a long trail of activism in their wake. Her mother, Laurel, who passed away last spring, a painful loss to her family and the community, was a gentlehanded powerhouse behind the First Unitarian Society’s Gold LEED-certified addition; she also founded the Grassroots Leadership College—just two pieces of meaningful work she’s left as her legacy. Joiner’s father, Brian, a leader in the quality management movement and a former UW statistics professor, is a Sustain Dane co-founder who, with other founding members, introduced the Swedish eco-municipality movement, The Natural Step, to city leaders.

This movement promotes the belief that if sustainability can transcend politics to include every community member, education and government leader and local business owner, it is possible to collectively achieve a sustainable goal. He calls the group a “motley crew.” They were, in fact, local entrepreneurs, researchers and activists—intellectuals who understood the environmental impact of the dailiness of our lives. From her parents Joiner acquired the art of diplomacy, a sharp entrepreneurial spirit and her deep devotion to social and environmental responsibility.

And since she took the reins a year and a half ago, Sustain Dane has sprouted from a grassroots organization with good programs in place but little organizational framework—half-funded programs, no phone or printing system, no staff meetings—into a cohesive team leading notable efforts comprehensively throughout the region. Maybe best known for its rain barrel program and its work helping area businesses strategize for carbon-reduction practices through the Mpower Champions Program, Sustain Dane is now a force that can be felt rumbling throughout the city’s infrastructure.

They’re the people who co-founded Badger Rock Charter School that will bring together the neighborhood, the Center for Resilient Cities, the school district, area educators passionate about teaching cultural and environmental relevance, Milwaukee’s urban agriculture guru Will Allen and his Growing Power team led by local urban farmer Robert Pierce, and other partners like MG&E, CUNA Mutual Group and Food Fight Restaurant Group. They host the Bioneers Conference, a national forum for innovation in the field of sustainability. They will be conducting workshops on raising backyard chickens, writing op-ed articles and growing healthy food, and they currently act as a network for every aspect of sustainability in the city.

Jessie Lerner runs Mpower Champions. Under Joiner’s direction, she’s watched the staff and board clearly define their vision and mission through strategic planning for the first time. “Sustain Dane historically has had many great programs and events, but they were very siloed and people have often been confused about what we do beyond rain barrels,” she says. “With Kristen we have been working to make our message more clear, integrate our programs and consciously use what we learn from one program to better others and make ties between them to further all our work.” Lerner’s colleague Rachel Martin, program manager for sustainable schools, says, “Kristen understands how to engage people to work together toward a common goal, which is at the root of all Sustain Dane does.”

Joiner sits hugging a mug of hot tea, watching the time, diplomatically discussing the new direction as a paradigm shift from a linear model to an integrated one. And she makes it clear that any success under her charge has been a collective effort: “Sustain Dane had some excellent things in place, the board of directors were very active. It had started extensive neighborhood peer groups on sustainability throughout the city and had worked with the city to adopt The Natural Step and then educated two hundred-plus city employees.”

The Natural Step, adopted by the city in 2005 as part of its sustainability plan, sparked grassroots efforts around the city, from the fire chief incorporating solar water heaters for showers to the use of renewable energy in municipal buildings and facilities, green purchasing codes and the current campaign against plastic water bottles in city buildings and operations. But the organization needed leadership.

In a year and a half she’s united Sustain Dane’s staff, increased its funding base and is building the capacity of its organizational structure. She’s also created the type of network that has brought school superintendent Dan Nerad and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to the table to discuss ramping up the district’s sustainability initiatives.

“They’re the heads of these major public institutions and bringing them together to talk about sustainability is hugely productive,” says Joiner. “They’re peers coming together to support and learn from each other.”

“Kristen came to us and helped us understand the importance of her work within the context of community and we began a conversation about what that might look like in the MMSD’s strategic plan,” says Nerad. “One of our parameters is that we hold ourselves to an environmentally ethical standard. Conversations led to the formation of a committee that has now drafted its vision statement and principles. To have a local resource like Sustain Dane to help us think out loud about what is sustainability and what it might look like in the district has helped us get closer to defining that.”

So what does sustainability exactly look like in Madison schools? Joiner describes Madison as Midwestern and humble, not wanting to tell its story and, like her, tout its successes. Consequently its face has been overlooked. So to unearth MMSD as a leader in its sustainability efforts was a welcome discovery.

“What we’ve learned is that in many ways other districts are just catching up with us,” says Joiner. “For instance, we have an integrated pest management program, we have a green purchasing code, a LEED-certified elementary school, a number of Energy Star schools; we’ve increased our buildings’ energy efficiency; we’ve hired an engineering firm to work on lowering the district’s carbon footprint to reduce costs by increasing energy efficiency. And, we have twenty-four gardens out of forty-nine schools that are used as outdoor classrooms.”

Joiner’s investment in promoting a sustainable school district is for all Madison kids and generations that follow. But creating a sustainable future for her boys is no small part of it. And as it turns out, she won’t be late to pick them up. In fact, she’s ahead of most of us.

Pat Dillon is a Madison Magazine contributing writer and co-author of two books on environmentally and socially responsible travel published by UW Press.

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