Kumar Jensen - Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer at City of Evanston, IL

Kumar Jensen - Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer at City of Evanston, IL

Kumar is the Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer for the City of Evanston, IL and serves in multiple leadership capacities within the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) including as a co-chair for the People of Color Support Initiative and on the USDN Planning and Advisory Committee.

Kumar’s work centers around stakeholder collaboration including: community advocacy groups, strategic partners, other units of government, elected officials, and various city departments, all to make Evanston a climate-ready and carbon neutral community. In 2018, Kumar was named to the 2018 GreenBiz “30 Under 30” global list of 30 young leaders in sustainable business who demonstrate “the world-changing promise of sustainability in their everyday work.” 

Kumar Joins Sustainable Nation to Discuss:

  • Engaging people of all ages on local climate issues

  • The importance of spaces for people of color and how they relate to progress on racial equity within sustainability

  • Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) People of Color Support Initiative

  • Evanston's Climate Action and Resilience Plan

  • Advice and recommendations for sustainability leaders

Interview Highlights:

Sustainability and resilience were both built into your climate action and resilience plan. Talk to us a little bit about the development of this plan, what that process looks like and the challenges of now prioritizing your actions around this plan.

Now is the right time for us to be talking about that. We're certainly at the point at which the plan has been approved and we're moving quickly into implementation. If we backtrack a little bit, back in 2017, when the federal administration indicated their intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, we already had numerous commitments around climate action and resilience at the local level. That process of pulling out of the Paris agreement actually kicked us into gear. The mayor called on the community to develop a 17-member working group of residents to work alongside city staff to develop a plan. The climate action group had their first meeting in November of 2017 and had their last meeting in November of 2018, so they took 12 months, meeting and breaking out into task forces, to develop the entirety of the plan.

So, this plan was written by community members in consultation with city staff. We didn't hire consultants to develop the plan and it wasn't a plan that city staff developed and then asked community members for feedback. It was written by and then edited and advised on by city staff and other community partners. As we now look at implementation a lot of the responsibility has been turned back on the city and some of our major partners. So, the process that we're going through right now has two pieces to it. One piece is looking at our administrative responsibilities or things that city staff and municipality can focus on. So, thinking about where we purchase our energy from for a municipal standpoint, what we're doing with our fleet, how we're evaluating a critical infrastructure for vulnerability etc.

But then also within we had dozens of policy changes that were recommended and advised upon. So, the other part of this process is figuring out how we move forward many of those policy changes, understanding that some of them are pretty complex. For example, thinking about the way in which we transition our buildings to be net zero emissions or net zero energy. In Evanston, 80% of our community wide greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. So, although we are a suburb, we have very strong public transportation options in the city. That leads to, thankfully, a smaller proportion of our emissions being transportation related. But as a very built out community, we have to look at our building sector very intentionally about how we're not only going to transition to low and no carbon fuels, but also reducing that energy consumption.

Evanston is a member of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) and it looks like you serve in a few different ways within that organization. One of them is serving as the co-chair for the People of Color Support Initiative. Tell us a little bit about that initiative and the importance of integrating social issues and racial equity issues within your city's sustainability program.

I'm glad you brought up USDN. Evanston has been a USDN member for quite a few years now. I've had the privilege of being a member and the representative for the city for the past two years since I've been in this role. That organization has been crucial to my professional development, but also to ensuring that Evanston as a community has access to resources, technical expertise, funding opportunities and really innovative practices from around the nation. I'm indebted and grateful for the members in that network and the staff.

The initiative that you mentioned is a really important one within professional spaces, particularly within professional environmental spaces. Oftentimes and historically, those spaces have been predominantly and overwhelmingly white. As the climate justice movements and the environmental justice movements become a bit more mainstream, I think it is really crucial that not only are we thinking about the way in which those communities are impacted, but also the people that are working in those spaces and what their experience is. Often times, those staff people, whether they be working for a city or for a corporation or for community organization, are still working in predominantly white spaces. I think that one of the benefits of a network like USDN is that when members decide that there is a need for additional training or additional support, whether it be small cities joining together and saying, "Hey, you know what, we need an affinity group to work on issues that are specific to small cities in small departments because we don't have million dollar budgets and dozens of staff." USDN is really able to respond to that and help facilitate and create those spaces.

In particular, the Members of Color Peer Support Initiative is incredibly important for a number of reasons. One is just to provide a space so that people of color within that network are able to connect and support each other in their lived experience of the person of color within the field. But additionally, it provides a value to USDN because it's also creating a space in which USDN has a group of people to be able to ask for feedback and support on how the network as a whole is serving their memberships and their members of color. So, I think those things are incredibly important.

What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

The advice that I've gotten that has felt the most useful isn't sustainability related at all. It's just to take care of yourself. To heal, to give yourself time to rest and just to recognize that your needs are valid and important. This work can feel exhausting as a lot of socially minded work can. It seems like we continue to get waves of terrible news and projections that are going in directions that we don't want to see. So, it's not just about avoiding burnout, but it's about being able to be the person that you want to be and not allowing your position or your work at that one particular time to define you. It's really important that we continue to be able to contribute and feel like that contribution is helpful and healthy for us. I'm gonna cheat a little bit and use an Audrey Lorde quote, which I'm sure many of the listeners are familiar with. She says,"Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self preservation and that is an act of political warfare." Oftentimes when we think about things as big and challenging is climate change, it's easy to forget how important it is to take care of ourselves.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

There's a bunch of things but I will be brief. I'd say the youth climate strikes are really inspiring and exciting. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the conversations around the Green New Deal go at the federal level. I think it's exciting to have federal policy being talked about in that way. It's also really exciting that there are over 200 communities around the country that have made formal commitments to 100% clean energy by 2035, if not sooner. Those are all things that give me hope and are exciting.

What is one book you would recommend sustainability leaders read?

One that I am working my way through right now that I find really insightful is called The Environment and the People in American Cities from the 1600's to the 1900's by Dr. Dorceta Taylor.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in your work?

I'd say the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, first and foremost. There's a Chicago based network called Environmentalists of Color or EOC, which I had been involved in and found as a really valuable and supportive space. There's a blog called Fake Equity, which always has really relevant topics around thinking and being reflective around the type of work you're doing. It's not just sustainability related, but it's really insightful. I'm not a huge Instagram person, but I have started following a few folks. One of them is Go Green Save Green, which provides really helpful and appealing and informative infographics for consumer tips and products on things like reusables and avoiding plastics. The green 2.0 report by Dr. Dorceta Taylor. There's another podcast out about social entrepreneurship, which I've been listening to recently and it's by a dear friend, Judy Lee. It's called Money Mission and Me, and it's intended to be a resource for anyone interested in how startups can be a force for good.

Where can people go to learn more about you and your work at the city of Evanston?

Our Twitter handle is @GreenEvanson. My personal Twitter handle is at @MrKumarj. You can also find some information on Linkedin.