The city's new sustainability manager offers her insight on how Sarasota can become more environmentally conscious.
As the city's sustainability manager, Stevie Freeman-Montes has to manage two related but distinct responsibilities. Internally, she's making the city more efficient, searching for ways to reduce waste and energy use in the day-to-day operations of the local government. Externally, she's getting to know residents and working on plans to form a community-wide taskforce to address environmental problems they've encountered.
Now two months into her new position, Freeman-Montes talked to us about her background, her plans for the city and her assesment of Sarasota's commitment to sustainability.
What led you to Sarasota?
It's been a winding road. I have an undergrad degree in zoology with a focus on marine biology. I was really fortunate to be in the Peace Corps and was in Yap, Micronesia, for two years. I love the marine environment. That experience in the Peace Corps really got me interested in culture and low-impact development, so I got my master’s degree in sustainable development. After my master’s degree, I moved to Oregon, and I've been working in the local government sector for the past five years as a sustainability coordinator.
Oregon was great, but I love the water. I found this position opening and applied, and it's perfect for where I want to be right now.
How do you find areas where a business operation can improve sustainability?
It's hard, because I do feel like it varies a little bit with each organization with where they're at on a sustainability plan. One thing I learned because this position had been vacant for about a year and a half we didn't really have an operational sustainability plan everybody was operating under. One of my goals is to just create that plan, establish the goals and the plans to reach those goals. I definitely have to work across departments to create that.
Is it hard to get workers to prioritize sustainability?
It can be. So far, I've interacted with so many staff that are really supportive and definitely very excited, it seems, to have me on board to help move these forward. There are so many great things that everybody's doing already. For example, energy efficiency can sometimes be invisible. We've done huge upgrades to some of our facilities back in 2013, and some of that isn't visible and seen, but we're experiencing significant savings from it.
"I personally think it seems like Sarasota is ahead of the curve, and that's coming from outside Portland, Ore., where there's a huge support for this type of work."
How do you keep the more reluctant people engaged?
I have to figure out exactly how that's going to look. Integrating fun and some campaigns into it, some awareness, educational campaigns. Making it easy for folks and not so burdensome. Making, for example, recycling at your desk easier. Coupling a fun, educational kind of campaign with infrastructure in place that makes it easy, and being willing to help out when it's needed. It can turn into almost a fun puzzle piece of: how can we save money? That's where the innovation comes in too, I think.
Who do you see getting involved with your external work in the city?
I think its really important to have different sectors represented — and different socioeconomic spectrums, different communities and definitely historically underrepresented communities. Trying to do targeted outreach to them, getting a wide spectrum involved in the conversation of how we want to evolve as a community. I definitely envision private sector, neighborhood associations, academic institutions, nonprofit research. I would love to have representatives from major stakeholders. I don’t know yet the timeline of that, how it's going to be chosen, how it's going to be recruited for. That's going to come, I hope.
Based on what you know, how does Sarasota rate as a community as far as prioritizing sustainability?
I haven't done any quantitative assessments, so it's just me guessing a little bit. I think there's a lot of great things happening in the community and that we're doing pretty well. Especially in terms of the downtown core and growth and walkability and some of the community-wide conversations that are happening. I personally think it seems like Sarasota is ahead of the curve, and that's coming from outside Portland, Ore., where there's a huge support for this type of work. Coming to Sarasota, I was really impressed with the level of work. The Urban Design Studio, all these different initiatives that are happening that are looking mostly at low impact development. But, I think it's done in a way right now where we don't have a lot of those quantitative goals that would allow us to compare ourselves easily to other communities, so that's what I hope to work on.
"I feel like this work is so important — not only for the environmental reasons, but there's a lot of financial impacts."
How do you get people to go beyond the first thought — to do more than just recycle?
I think that's where we have to try our hardest to tap into the human resources we have as a community and get them engaged, help create a movement and culture for it across the city. It’s something that comes out as an external value and it's a social norm, so to speak.
I always have to pitch the point that I feel like this work is so important — not only for the environmental reasons, but there's a lot of financial impacts. A lot of times, there’s financial benefits to receive from these choices. There's also an incredible amount of social benefit, in terms of public health, for reducing our energy use and increasing our recycling and sending less to the landfill, using less water. I think it's important when we have big city investments coming up, that we look at our options, and not just look at it from a financial standpoint of how much it costs. That's important — especially with taxpayer dollars — but also looking at the environmental impacts associated with that choice and the social impacts associated with that choice, looking at alternatives and weighing them all. I think in the past, a lot of balance has been on the lowest cost, bottom line. Sometimes that has to happen, but I think there's an important conversation to have on what our options are for purchases.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location in which Freeman-Montes served with the Peace Corps, and has been updated to correct the error.