As the new associate director for the Office of Sustainability, Amber Garrard grapples with significant issues—for one, how to tackle climate change while striving for social change. She focuses on bringing health, equity, and resilience to the forefront of sustainability at Yale. Anticipating what could happen locally as the result of a climatic shift (extreme weather or longer-term sea-level rise), she’s working to put plans in place to address human and infrastructural vulnerabilities and create support systems for challenging times.
The oldest of three children, Amber grew up in the tiny town of *Talent, Oregon, where her parents still live, and attended public high school. After getting a B.A. in English from the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon, she moved to Obama, Japan, where she taught English at a small agricultural high school for three years. During those years, Amber traveled around Asia and Oceania and witnessed first-hand some of the social, economic, and environmental impacts associated with the exploitation of natural resources. As a result, she wanted to learn how to develop and implement policies that would empower local communities to have better control over their resources.
When Amber returned to the U.S., she went back to school and got an M.A. in Sustainable Development at the School for International Training (SIT) in Brattleboro, Vermont. She developed a campus sustainability program there, working closely with the facilities staff and local community members to implement it. This work got Amber interested in how a college campus can positively contribute locally, leading her ultimately to Yale, where she has been for the past decade.
We connected with Amber recently to discuss sustainability as social change, the importance of mentors, and surfing.
What was your first job after graduate school?
I worked at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont as their sustainability coordinator. I was an office of one and employed students to help. The college leadership was committed to sustainable efforts, and in 2011, we were one of the first colleges in the U.S. to become carbon neutral. We converted the campus power plant to run on biomass energy using locally grown wood chips instead of heating oil. We engaged with local landowners, loggers, and mills to create a local woodshed for the fuel. Sadly, in 2019, the school closed.
I understand you were recently promoted, congratulations. What are your day-to-day responsibilities in your new role?
I oversee Yale’s sustainability initiatives that focus on health, equity, and resilience. This includes oversight of Yale’s sustainability mobility portfolio, and partnerships with the city of New Haven. My team helps support high-level visibility around Yale’s sustainability efforts and engages with stakeholders university-wide to help them contribute to our mission. I love the many opportunities this position offers to convene people and build strategic partnerships across the University.
What was the first thing you tackled in your new role?
I focused a lot on the resilience work, and by that, I mean thinking about climate change adaptation for the campus and the local community. I put a small steering committee together with people from across the University. We are looking at how climate change will affect us in the future and how we can best prepare. We’re reflecting on lessons learned during the pandemic and asking: Where are we most vulnerable? What infrastructure improvements and social supports need to be in place as climate changes begin to impact us?
Favorite Yale memory
A few years ago, as a member of the Future Leaders of Yale (FLY), I helped create that affinity group’s first mentorship program. It was a rewarding experience as we worked to match up mentors with mentees from across campus. It was wonderful to see the relationships and bonding that occurred. While the young professionals grew in confidence, the veterans also gained from the interactions. It was amazing to see the wealth of talent we have in our community.
What does the average person not know about sustainability at Yale that might surprise them?
I think when many people hear the word “sustainability,” they may think of recycling or turning off a light switch. For me, sustainability is more about creating social change, with a central focus around equity. For example, we can’t only focus our attention on reducing food waste on campus or saving energy when there are people in our community that don’t have enough to eat or can’t afford their heating bills. We really need to work to change policies and behaviors to encourage more equitable distribution and use of our resources.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
When thinking about climate change, there is a need to act quickly to avoid a crisis. Yale is a large institution, and it takes a lot of work to make a change here, which takes time. It’s different when you are working at a small school. That said, being able to make changes at a place like Yale can have real impacts – through the future leaders we graduate every year and our market influence, for example.
Tell us a few fun facts about yourself.
I love to surf! I learned when I lived in Japan and have had the privilege to surf in Hawaii, Australia, Ecuador, Oregon, and California. During hurricane season, you’ll find me on the coast of New England chasing waves. Sitting in the water, feeling the power of the ocean is for me almost a spiritual experience – at those moments, there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.
*Amber has seen the impacts of climate change firsthand. Her hometown of Talent town was devastated by the Alameda Fire last year. Thankfully, Amber’s parents’ house escaped damage.