Making a Collective Impact

Portrait of Amber Garrard.
Photo by Robert DeSanto

“I love working in this field, because it requires constant learning,” says Amber Garrard, who, in January, became the director of the Yale Office of Sustainability. Over Amber’s career, including 11 years at Yale, she has brought her expertise in sustainability to bear on questions of transportation, health care, environmental justice, and resilience planning.

In this Q&A, she discusses Yale’s ambitions for sustainability, its work within the New Haven community, and how every member of the Yale community can make greener choices every day. “I’m always so encouraged by how embedded sustainability is across multiple departments — making it easy for staff to get involved in advancing sustainability on and off-campus.” The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

What interests brought you to your current job?

For many years I’ve been interested in the nexus of environmental and social justice issues. Growing up on the west coast during the spotted owl controversy in the 1990s, I became acutely aware of the perception of resources — forests, in this case — as both providing economic vitality to communities and environmental protection for important biodiversity. One side wanted to preserve the habitat of an endangered species; the other wanted to preserve jobs that appeared threatened. The conflict over ownership and management of natural resources left a strong impression on me.

As I grew older and started to understand the implications of climate change and the impact it would have on resources, I realized I wanted to be involved in bridging the gaps across political lines and helping people to understand the nuances and complexities of sustainability issues. Working on how an institution like Yale manages resources and involves our campus community in an understanding of that work fascinates me.

What does your day-to-day work entail?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about big systems like energy, food, water, the built environment, and how they connect with issues of health, equity, and justice. I consider where Yale can be an institutional leader with our policies and practices, how we can leverage our role as a major research institution through our purchasing power, and how we can test and set behavioral trends.

On a day-to-day basis, this includes meeting with senior leaders across Facilities and other operational units, working with partners in city and state government, working with counterparts at peer institutions on ways to leverage our collective impact, managing the Office of Sustainability staff, and engaging with academic leaders, faculty, and alumni.

What aspect (or aspects) of Yale’s sustainability plan do you find most interesting, effective, or engaging?

The Yale Sustainability Plan includes nine ambition areas, or areas of focus. When we created this plan back in 2016, we did more than eighteen months of stakeholder engagement to ensure our goals reflected the priorities of the university community. As a result, it is broad-ranging, but I appreciate its comprehensiveness. In addition to topics like climate action, materials, and stewardship, cross-cutting topics like health and well-being are embedded in the goals. We’ve also been striving to consider how our work can advance justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. These aspects are challenging to measure but are critically important to include.

What are some of the things you do to live sustainably? What are some of your sustainability habits, big or small?

I wanted to help people to understand the nuances and complexities of sustainability issues.

I try to bring awareness to my impacts whenever possible and consider who or what might be affected by the choices I make. I love thrift store shopping and giving new life to products that would have otherwise been discarded. I also try to purchase things that will last a long time.

I’m fortunate to live on a great bus line, and love using public transportation, carpooling, and walking whenever possible. Not only do I save money that way, but I find that a brisk walk across town – in the morning or middle of the day – helps me to focus and be more productive.

How can staff incorporate sustainability into their day-to-day life, both at work and at home?

Now is a great time to make sustainability a focus, especially as many of us are returning to the workplace and getting into new rhythms. A good place to start is the page of recommendations for greener work practices and lessons learned during the COVID pandemic that the Office of Sustainability put together in 2021.

On an individual basis, cut down on your transportation footprint when possible. Can you walk or bike instead of taking that 10-minute car ride? Or take advantage of public transit when you can: the Yale Shuttle recently updated their routes to better accommodate staff, and CTtransit is also working on route improvements around New Haven. CTrides offers free commuter counseling — ask them about how to find a carpool partner or take advantage of park-and-rides and other incentives. And Yale is consistently named a Best Workplace for Commuters for the many commuter benefits it offers.

Every action counts. As we consider the cumulative impact of our decisions as a part of the Yale community — what we purchase, how we get around, how we use our resources, what behaviors we model for others — we are shaping the culture. The actions we take today to reduce our emissions will directly impact future generations and the amount of climate disruption they will face. Consider what impact you can have: in your workplace, in your community, with your family.

What are some of the ways that Yale collaborates with its home community of New Haven? How can staff bring some of the sustainability lessons we’ve learned on campus to their own communities?

We work to align our sustainability efforts with New Haven on numerous shared priorities, including stormwater management, improving tree canopy, and transportation options. Many of our researchers are looking at important issues for New Haven residents, like housing and energy security, and working with community members on identifying and advocating for solutions to these challenges.

In the same way that we measure and benchmark our sustainability work against other colleges and universities, municipalities across the state are also measuring progress and working toward goals. See if your community is registered in Sustainable CT’s certification program and get involved in (or start!) an effort close to home.

Has there been a particular moment that has changed the way you think about or approach your work?

For many of us 2020 was a pivotal moment. The pandemic’s disruption and trauma were significant, as was the social reckoning that rocked our country after George Floyd’s murder. I have always been passionate about the social impacts of sustainability work and feel that it is imperative that we consider the social and financial impacts of our decisions, in addition to the environmental impacts. Policies that shape who lives where, levels of exposure, and employment opportunities are all part of the sustainability conversation and become critical as we consider future events we will have to respond to.

The actions we take today will directly impact future generations and the amount of climate disruption they will face.

With more and more climate disasters taking place globally every day, it is becoming impossible not to see who bears the biggest brunt of these issues. In September of 2020, my hometown in southern Oregon was wiped out by wildfire. The neighborhoods most severely affected were those where farm workers lived — people who couldn’t afford property insurance and who were literally left with nothing. We’re seeing the same thing play out in California right now, due to massive flooding.

Taking action on climate feels like a personal responsibility to me. It can feel overwhelming, but coming to work and trying to find ways I can contribute, as an individual and as a member of the Yale community, feels critical.

What is a project or initiative that you’ve worked on at Yale that you are particularly proud of?

Our office recently partnered with the Office of Emergency Management and The Nature Conservancy to host a Community Resilience Building Workshop on campus. Faculty, staff, students, and university leaders came together to consider the kinds of climate threats we’re starting to see and will likely experience moving forward, like more intense storm events or extreme temperatures, and think about how we may be vulnerable and how we can build a campus that is physically and culturally prepared to thrive in the face of future disturbances.

What’s your favorite place on campus?

There’s a copper beech in Farnam Garden near the top of Prospect Street. I love to bring my lunch up there in the summer and sit in the shade of that tree’s umbrella. It’s a peaceful location that offers a view of campus and the city and is surrounded by urban meadows teeming with wildflowers and pollinators. (I also love the top floor galleries at the Center for British Art!)

Get involved.

Get involved with efforts to advance Yale’s sustainability goals by visiting the Office of Sustainability website, which has gathered a comprehensive list of resources. Amber offers two other ways to support sustainability and connect with nature while on campus: “Yale Hospitality encourages sustainable, plant-forward diet options — grab a meal at a Yale Dining Hall or Café. Take advantage of the many walking tours and trails featured on the Being Well at Yale website.”

And find out more about how recycling works at Yale — what goes in the bin, where it all goes, and how else you can make a difference.