Afia Ofori-Mensa

Interview by: Jamilah Grizzle and Kate Little

Afia Ofori-Mensa is a specialist in narratives and cultures of communities of color in the 20th- and 21st-century U.S. Her primary research interests are in ethnic studies, American studies, women’s and gender studies, and popular culture studies. Her current book project examines relationships among femininity, race, and U.S. national identity using beauty pageantry and princess culture as case studies. She is also a photographer; her piece “The Winner” was exhibited at Oberlin College in 2012. She came to Oberlin as an Oberlin College-University of Michigan Partnership Postdoctoral Fellow and is now Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Afia Ofori-Mensa is also the Director of the Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation (STRONG).

Q: What do you love about the Oberlin College community?

A: What I love about the Oberlin College community is the kinds of conversations that I get to have with people. I’ve taught at other schools before, and the conversations that I get to have in and outside of class with Oberlin students, I think I’m far better suited to them than to conversations that I’ve had at other places. It’s a real privilege to work and teach here because it’s like I get to delight in the conversations just as much as I get to facilitate them. As far as the Oberlin community more broadly, I moved here just about this time 7 years ago.I remember arriving and standing right near the corner of  College and Main St. and looking in every direction and thinking “Is this it”? But what I loved about it was that every time I went into a business, everybody was so friendly and so willing to answer my questions and engage honestly and openly in conversation with me. I think, to some extent, that’s a midwestern quality. But I also think that the smaller and friendlier the town, the more you get to take part in those conversations.

"It’s a privilege to work [at Oberlin College]; I delight in the conversations that I get to have with students just as much as I facilitate those conversations."

Q: What role do you see yourself as playing within the Oberlin community in making positive change?    

A: The change that I feel is my passion in life is working with other like-minded people to transform this institution to be better suited to the needs of students who are currently underserved, such as low-income students, first-generation college students, students of color, queer students, immigrants and international students. We operate in an industry in higher education where the kind of schooling that we offer, by and large, were not designed to meet the needs of those people. And so, for many years, that has ended up looking like those folks are underachieving. That’s not really what’s happening. What’s happening is that the institution was not designed for them. My interest is in transforming institutions of higher education, and in the meantime being a soft landing place for students who identify in those ways, within the existing structure and to work with them on how they can operate successfully within the limits of the existing structure.

Q:    What kind of culture does STRONG seek to cultivate within the community it supports?

A: My aims as the program director of STRONG were for the features and elements of the STRONG program to cultivate a community of care that centered on the scholars who were in the program and extended to their mentors, and to the people they met over the course of the summer, whether those were faculty members, staff members, students, or community members. I think that people sometimes have an easier time, in a diffuse community, caring about people if they can identify with them. We say here’s a small group of people identifying as STRONG scholars, how can we help them do what they want to do? If they want to be in the sciences, we want to support them to be in the sciences. A lot of people care about the strong scholars; it’s a community of care, I would say is the kind of community that I hoped to foster through the program.

"I am committed to seeing who [the STRONG Scholars] become in the world.”

Q:  What positive impacts do you see STRONG having on your life and the community?  

A: STRONG has a tremendous impact on me. One of the things for which I am really grateful to my supervisor, Dean Elgren, is that he asked me to design the STRONG program. Before the STRONG started, I did not consider myself to be in science education, and now I do. So getting to spread out and learn new things in those ways has been one really positive impact that STRONG program has had on me. The most positive impact is just the people that I’ve gotten to meet. Another thing that I love about Oberlin students, including the students with whom I get to work with in STRONG, OCRF, and Mellon, is that I really feel like, on the whole, I get as much care as I give and that’s not true always as a teacher. So, I love them passionately. I care about them and you and all of the OCRF and Mellon fellows in ways that your joys are my joys. I really am committed to seeing who you become in the world. To get to feel that way about somebody is one of the greatest gifts I think I’ve gotten from STRONG. One benefit that I have heard, most explicitly, from others is that people who lived in Third World House (Price) before STRONG and then who have lived there since the program started say that STRONG really transformed the Third World community. Third World is a more cohesive, more solid community because of STRONG and I think it’s the fact that, when you take a group of people who already know each other and already have some kind of affinity and then put them in a larger group of people with which they identify with, it can have a positive impact on the entire living community.

"With a lot of the students I work with, I get as much care as I give; that’s not always true as a teacher."

Q: Picture a highly successful Oberlin, years from now. Imagine some challenge we overcame. How did we do it?

A: Our challenges are racism, classism, white supremacy, queerphobia, ableism, heterosexism, and cissexism. The challenges of Oberlin College are the challenges of the world, as far as I’m concerned.  From my academic vantage point, those are the ones that I think about every day. We would have to overcome all of those. We would have to push past white supremacy. That’s my life aim. It’s to eradicate racism from the world. I recognize that I can’t do that by myself and it won’t happen in my lifetime but that’s still what I reach for every day. That’s what gives me clarity of focus in my work. [Change] would start with transforming the way that we deliver education at the institution to focus on the needs of folks who are currently underserved. Once we get all the staff members and all the faculty members and students to [understand] how to nurture and love and care for and welcome the folks who are currently underserved, then we’d transform the student body. I would love for everyone who was admitted over a four-year period of time to be a first-generation college student, an immigrant, a low-income student, a student of color, and a queer person. But only after we have designed the educational model to actually serve those folks needs. Because I think that if you just bring in a variety of people and you have the same stodgy system of education then you’d just increase disparities and replicate the problems that you have and then you’re like, “Oh, look we let all these people in and then they failed. That means they’re not any good.” Those are the kinds of things that happen when people mix up correlation and causation. I think that’s what we have to overcome.

"[Oberlin College] is a place where students...are passionate about the things they’re learning.”

Q: Do you think that the Oberlin College community has a cohesive identity?

A: The identity on which the institution rests, learning and labor and that we were the first to admit and graduate white women and black students, is so old. We can’t rest on the laurels of a history of now almost two hundred years ago. That was a radical position at that time, and if we’re not living that radical position in the present then we’re not meeting the standards of the legacy that was set. That’s what I think the institutional identity is.

I think that the identity of the student body is a bit clearer. I think that Oberlin is a place that draws students that are highly academically motivated, that identify with being a student, being a learner. We draw students who, in some cases, felt like they were the odd one back home or in their high school and they can come here and be around a lot of the odd ones and they don’t have to feel so odd anymore. I think we also are known as a place where queer students and, to some extent, trans students can feel comfortable and thrive in different ways. Those are the people who self-select to come to Oberlin. That’s then what becomes the campus culture of the student body. You end up with folks who are progressive, left-leaning, interested in learning about, and increasingly invested in social justice. I think it’s a place where students really want to learn and do the work. They’re really passionate about the things that they’re learning. I have more real friends, not like Facebook friends, real friends that are former students of mine than I have from any other moment in my life. We are a good fit for each other and develop relationships of care from very early on and continue them into the future.

Maggie Robinson

Interview by: Carolyn Burnham

DSC_0300 (1)

Maggie Robinson is an Oberlin native and has worked at the College for over 35 years. She is currently the Manager of Academic Operations and Assistant to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and has worked for many different departments as well. Robinson is passionate about serving as secretary for the Oberlin Community Youth Scholarship Fund and serving on the Elyria YMCA Board. After becoming involved with The Oberlin Project and getting to know David Orr, Robinson developed a deep belief in sustainability. She not only talks to her four children and 18 grandchildren about the earth and climate change, but also her friends, co-workers, and neighbors. She believes educating yourself and others is the most important action to take for a more sustainable world. Robinson takes small but important steps herself every day to save energy and water, and even walks around in her home in the dark.

Q: What is your preferred name?

A: Maggie.

Q: How long have you lived here in Oberlin?

A: I lived in Oberlin sporadically. I would say for a total of 25 years, but I’ve worked in Oberlin for 35 years. I’m in Oberlin so much.

Q: Did you grow up here?

A: I grew up in Oberlin, then I left, went to school, got married and went somewhere else. I came back to Oberlin for maybe 10 years. I’ve been away from Oberlin for 20 plus years. I still live in Lorain county, but because I work in Oberlin and I love coming to the activities at the college, I’m in Oberlin quite a bit.

Q: How did you get involved in the college?

A: Well trust me, it wasn’t a plan. I had always worked for the government, so when I relocated back to Oberlin, my plan was to continue working in the government. My retirement is a different type of retirement. The day that I decided to go out and look for a job, there was a big snowstorm. Every place was closed in Cleveland, Lorain, and Elyria. I came back into Oberlin and I saw a light on in the college and I said, let me just put in an application to say I put in an application. I was hired and my thought was, I’ll work a little bit, take some time off and find a job. It sounds very cliche, but to me it’s such a great place to work that it’s 35 years later.

"Working here is how I learned about environmental issues"

Q: Would you mind elaborating on why you like working here?

A: I like working here because it has helped me to grow. Working in the offices that I have been, I have learned so much. Working here is how I learned about environmental issues. Not just that, the speakers that come to Oberlin are so rich in knowledge. Those are the key things. I’ve worked in bad offices, I’ve worked in good offices, but as a whole, I’ve had a good experience here at the college. And, bottom line, in Lorain County, the factories have all died out. Initially, I was going to try to get a job with Ford or General Motors or the Steel Mill—that’s where my siblings worked—and they said, “You don’t want to do that. Go to school," and so I went away to school and then I came back.

Q: How did you get involved with the Youth Scholarship Fund and the Elyria YMCA Board.

A: So the Youth Scholarship Fund, someone on the board asked me to join it. When I learned about how they select students for scholarships, it just kind of hit home. Basically they provide scholarships to students who wouldn’t otherwise get a scholarship. Students who have struggled maybe their first couple of years in high school and at the end of their sophomore or junior year they realize, “Oh, I want to go to college.” So you see this gradual academic change. Also, their FAFSA scores are low, so combined with a need and the realization that they do want to further their education, those are the students that we provide scholarships to. And each year it gets tougher and tougher because there are so many bright students out there who haven’t received scholarships. It’s fulfilling to be able to say, well, let us help you a little bit. The Y-Board is geared towards empowering women and I believe in that.  

Q: What words or images would you use to describe Oberlin?

A: Historical, forward-thinking, diverse.

Q: What do you feel is most important to you in this community? Or, what do you love most about this community?

A: Opportunity. Education. I mean, there are so many opportunities that you can just take advantage of. Even in the elementary schools, they have programs in the summer, they have the SITES program. The people that are brought to the campus for convocations—there’s just so much opportunity to learn. I truly believe that the college embraces Oberlin’s educational system and tries to afford every opportunity for them to come to this campus, or for the campus to go into their school system to help them.

Q: Have you taken any classes at the college?

A: I used to take classes at the college, and then for some reason every time I tried to go to my classes, there would be deadlines to be met in my position and my boss would always say, “This is not a good time for you to go.” So I got discouraged. There was a class that I really wanted to take, it was a seminar. Even though I got coverage from a student assistant to cover me, there was still an excuse for why I couldn’t take it. So that discouraged me and I finally gave up.

Q: I am really sorry to hear about that. What were the classes you were interested in?

A: I’ve taken some in Africana Studies. I’ve taken some religion classes. Those were very interesting to me.

Q: Given that sustainability can be a pretty broad term, what would you say it means to you in your own life?

A: Well, I can tell you what I practice. I walk around my house in the dark--I’m so serious. I try to use as little electricity as possible, I try to educate my grandchildren and tell them about power and electricity. I wait before I wash my clothing to try to do it at once instead of putting in a few pieces of clothing. I time my showers, I’m in and out in five minutes. I recycle cans and my neighbors recycle. I talk to people about the earth. I really talk to people about the earth, and not to litter, and about the landfills. Now everybody is drinking bottled water. No, get a container and put the water in a container--something that doesn't have to be thrown away and fill up landfills. At one point in my job I was really connected with the Oberlin Project and really got to know David Orr. So I heard about so much from David. There are so many things we can do as a people. Even in our purchasing habits. I mean, carpool. Don’t drive by yourself, try to have more people in your car if possible to reduce emissions. When you go out to eat, take it home and eat it again. Those small practices really make a difference. I always ask people at work, “Do you leave the lights on at home?” People will just go to the bathroom and leave the lights on. Turn off your lights. Or you don’t have to turn on your lights-- it’s daytime. You don’t need lights. Maybe I get on people’s nerves a little bit, but it’s important.

Q: What motivates or inspires you to take these actions?

A: Working alongside David Orr and realizing where the world is with global warming. You can see the changes now. Watching documentaries on T.V., I want my grandchildren to live in a safe world where there is more access. Everything is so limited. There’s no water, for instance, in some places. You can only have water “X” amount of times a day. I don’t want them to have to live like that, but they are going to.

Q: Is there anything you would like to tell your fellow community members regarding care for the environment and sustainable actions?

A: I would say the best thing to tell them is to educate themselves. Unless you really sit and listen to it, they don’t really know it. Google it, read about it, watch documentaries on global warming. Go to lectures at Oberlin when they bring people here to talk about it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out.

Q: For my final question, have you had any interaction with the Environmental Digital Signs around town and campus?

A: I don’t go into places around town, but I do pay attention to the orb right outside. One time we were having a competition in the building and no one ever came in and told us if we won! I was trying really hard to win that competition. Last year we had this big community day in Tappan Square. I did ask John Peterson if he would come and do the Dashboard Display and I was happy that he brought the dashboard. He and [Sam Hartmann] were able to talk about it to community members. To me, that was a great way way of engaging people and for them to understand it.

Heather Adelman

Interview by: Sophie Davis, September 25, 2015


Heather is the liaison to the Education and Local Land and Agriculture Committees. She is also working on projects related to waste and material flows, with the goal of zero waste throughout the community.  Previous to her work with the Oberlin Project, Heather served as the Supervisor of the Tribal Solid Waste and Green Building Team at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working directly with tribal nations in Arizona, California, and Nevada on a variety of recycling, composting, green housing and casino, pollution prevention, green purchasing, and hazardous and solid waste reduction initiatives. She also served as president of a California nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental outreach/education and worked at the City of San Jose's Environmental Services Department.  She has been awarded several prestigious national EPA honors for her work with communities. 

Q: So the first question I wanted to ask was what work are you engaged in that relates to helping the environment, the local economy, and other aspects of people’s well being?


"Oberlin Project has a bold goal of 70% local food utilization in the community by 2050."


A: I would say that the project that’s currently taking most of my time and that I’m most excited about is the development of a local food hub. The Oberlin Project has a bold goal of 70% local food utilization in the community by 2050. So, obviously, to do that in a climate such as ours is a pretty aggressive goal. We need a lot of ways to get local food into local mouths during the winter and off-season times. Over the course of the last four years we’ve done a lot of thinking and a lot of research into the local food scene, and we’ve discovered that there is a lot of food being grown, and a lot of demand from local buyers that want it. What’s missing is the transportation and the sort of logistics side. If you think about it right now, if you’re a restaurant or you’re Oberlin college, or you're another large wholesale buyer and you want local food, for the most part that means that you need to work individually with farmers. You may work with 10-15 different farmers to get 10-15 different products. So you may be working with the local person that has chickens to get eggs, you might be working with someone else to get honey, and maybe there’s one person who can aggregate some of it, go to different farms… but in general it’s a very labor intensive process. So what we have been working on is the development of a hub… there’s a lot of different iterations of what a hub is, but ours will be an aggregation and distribution warehouse where local buyers can buy from. One stop shopping. There’ll be an online ordering system. It’ll say everything that’s available that week that’s in season or that we have stored, and then farmers have one place to sell to. We’ll be buying in bulk from farmers so we can get a better price than if the Feve were to go and get one bushel of apples versus where we’ll be buying ten bushels or twenty or thirty and then reselling it to all the wholesale buyers.

Q: Wow, that’s really exciting.

A: Yeah, it is exciting.

Q: Do you know where it will be located?

A: Yep. So we will be located on Artino Street, which is in the Industrial Park. If you know where IGA is, sort of across the street and just down a little bit is the industrial park in Oberlin. So there’s an empty warehouse out there and we will be using the warehouse space for obviously the repacking of vegetables and fruits and there will be a walk-in cooler and freezer and there will also be an incubator kitchen. So this will be a shared-use commercial kitchen for both the hub to use to do some light processing – so a lot of school districts for example want carrots but they want them peeled and diced for example, or they want green beans but they want the ends chopped off or something… some very light processing and you can only do that in a certified kitchen. The hub will use it to do value-added processing, but it will also be open for rent for any entrepreneur in town that wants to work on a food-based business. So if you make an amazing jelly and you want to make that and sell it to grocery stores or the farmer’s market you can now do that in a certified kitchen.

Q: That’s very cool.

A: Yeah, so we’ll start operations this month with sort of a just-in-time model, so not the full scale, sort of a pilot, and then starting next spring when all the food is back it will be all products for all buyers.

Q: That’s exciting

A: Yeah!

Q: Do you feel that Oberlin has a strong identity, and how would you describe it?

A: Oberlin the community?


Q: Yes.

A: Well, it’s a really amazing place to live. I moved here from the San Francisco Bay area and there are a lot of similarities, I think, in the passion people have for things and the innovativeness, is that a word? It’s a really involved community. I’ve always been really inspired by places whose citizens want to be involved with the day to do life. And you watch city council meetings on TV or you go to commission meetings, citizens are there and they’re involved and that’s really inspiring to me. 

Q: Do you feel that Oberlin has a strong identity and how would you describe it?

A: Yeah, I think the city’s motto “live, learn, lead” is pretty powerful. I think that the citizens, including students here, really make this an amazing place to be.

Q: How do you think attitudes towards the environment have changed over time in Oberlin, and has your own attitude changed since you moved here?

A: I’ve only lived here for four and a half years so I feel like I really came in the prime of all of this. You know, the city council had passed the Climate Action Plan right around that same time, the Oberlin Project came to be right around that time, and since then I would say that the general populous understanding of the environment or sustainability has grown, particularly with recent awards to the city, or recognitions... I don’t remember what it was called, some sort of climate action champion for lack of a better word. And the Georgetown Energy Prize, we’re a finalist in that, and the city passed a zero waste plan last year and got new hybrid recycling trucks, so it’s an exciting time to be here.

Q: Yeah, great! So, what do you think the younger generation can learn from the history of this community?


"I’m kind of blown away by the history of Oberlin"


A: I’m kind of blown away by the history of Oberlin, Oberlin College, and the community. I don’t know if you’ve read the book, “How One Town Started the Civil War” or something, but it was all about the Oberlin/Wellington rescue of a gentleman who had escaped slavery and come here and was living here and I just started reading it and it’s really powerful so I think there is a lot to learn in that and in how Oberlin College was one of the first, or the first universities to accept women and minorities. So I think we need to remember that, particularly when there are differences between town and gown and all this stuff, it’s like we’re all here for the right reasons.


Q: Is there anything you would like to tell other community members regarding care of the environment and sustainable living?

A: Just to get involved, to be informed. I know this phrase is overused a lot, the 'never doubt that one,' I’m not going to paraphrase that well, but you know the one I’m talking about.

Q: Oh yes, the 'never doubt,' I know exactly what you mean.

A: Never doubt that. Is it Margaret Mead that said that?

Q: Yes.


"I really do believe that one person can make a difference, particularly in a small community like this"


A: I know I border on cheesy when I get talking about this stuff, but I really do believe that one person can make a difference, particularly in a small community like this. You know, if you feel passionately about something and come in and are excited about it and ready to work, things can happen. You know when I started I joined, or I was appointed by city council, to be on the city's Resource Conservation Recovery Commission, which is a group of volunteer citizens that help the city think about recycling, composting, waste management. I joined that committee about four years ago, right after I moved here, and we were talking about zero waste and how we could get that happening. It was a new concept for some and some had heard of it, but three years later we have a zero-waste plan. I believe we're the first in the state of Ohio to have a plan like that.

Q: That’s amazing.

A: So you know, we can all do stuff like that, as corny as it sounds, and I guess I would just want people to realize that – that they all have power and a voice here.

Q: That’s really powerful. Thank you so much.

Cullen Naumoff

Interview by: Bryan Rubin


Cullen Naumoff joined the Oberlin Project in September 2014 as the Director of Sustainable Enterprise. Naumoff leads the sustainable economic initiatives to drive smart growth in and around Oberlin, Ohio. Naumoff brings to this role innovative and inclusive strategies that aim to both attract and grow triple bottom lined businesses in the community.

Prior to joining The Oberlin Project, Naumoff was the Vision 2030 Project Director at the Charleston Area Alliance. The Charleston Area Alliance is a multifaceted, regional economic development entity re-charting the course of West Virginia’s economic future. She drove the long-term economic development strategy to capitalize on the strengths of West Virginia and match them with emerging megatrends to position the state to become a development model  .

Q:  What words would you use to describe the community of Oberlin, and why would you use these words to describe the 12 months that you have been here?

A:  I would say Oberlin is a dynamic and diverse community that has a lot of energy and and a lot of ideas, and wants very badly to be on the forefront of progress. I think it’s about figuring out how to actively implement those ideas.

Q: And to follow up on that, how do you see that role and sustainability intertwined with those ideas? When you think of Oberlin do you think of sustainability?     

A: Yeah, it’s interesting. Certainly from a third party looking in, I think everyone makes that connection both [regarding] social progress, social justice, environmental justice, and obviously this idea of what does a sustainable community look like, again from that third party. That’s standard no matter where you work, both the corporate sector and public sector.

Once you get here, you recognize, oh, there’s a lot of talking and we need to do more walking. We need to to walk the talk. But, that's hard right? Because of all of these ideas we have bubbling, because all the great talent from both the college and the community are at the forefront of “people have never done it before.” And so that’s scary. And that’s something I didn’t have a sense of coming into Oberlin. That even in a very progressive community, change is hard. And I believe that’s a statement that holds true wherever you are.

Q: How would you try to make those changes, with the work of the college and the community together?   

A: I think part of that has to do with starting small and doing actionable things, and that’s something we have tried to do here at the Oberlin Project in the past 12 months by really deploying new initiatives. They’re not going to be game changers overnight, but we have to start somewhere, and you can’t improve or evolve before you start actually putting something on paper. What I mean by putting something out on paper, I mean getting money and investing and starting an initiative.

That’s kind of my strategy. The idea that we won’t ever have the perfect plan. There will always be uncertainty, and that’s okay. We have to be comfortable with some level of uncertainty, and use the relevant information we have to start, and then be willing to evolve as we go forward.

Q: What would you say, when going forward with these smaller projects, is the role of the community and of the college?   

A: I think in Oberlin, and at the Oberlin Project, we approach things from a systems perspective. So when I think of the community of Oberlin, I rarely differentiate in my mind between the college and the community because they are a part of the same system, and the way systems operate most efficiently is if everyone is contributing at the balanced impact. That being said, leadership needs to be strong from all of the stakeholders in the system, committed to this idea of progress, and commited to the idea that we know we will need to evolve some of our behavior, some of our investments, some of our approaches, but we’re willing to do that in smart ways. There’s this concept of change management, and so how do you get people to change behavior, and again, change anything? If you think of a ladder, when you climb up a ladder you don’t go from the bottom rung and then jump all the way to the top. It’s rung by rung. In order to make change you have to meet people at the rung they’re at, and then move them one rung at a time, as opposed to asking them to make these giant shifts.

Q: You talked about the image of Oberlin being a progressive one, but there is more talk that change is still hard. How does that play out currently in the community as a whole?

A: I’m from a small rural town in Ohio originally. The level of diversity, diverse thought, and the critical thinking that happens in this rural town is orders of magnitude greater. I think that is partly because of the talent that Oberlin as a community at large attracts. That spirit and that idea of driving strides forward is really powerful and ever present here. Again, I would reiterate... how we actually make progress is where the rubber hits the road. It’s not just about talking. That’s something that as a community we can all get better at.  

Q: How do you see the Oberlin Project, and your role in economic development at the Oberlin Project playing into that, and some of the smaller roles that get you up the ladder one rung at a time?

A: I think its about showing action, showing tangibility. I’ll give you an example. We know politicians like to talk about economic development, but if you ask them how are you going to make more jobs, it’s sort of like crickets. Most often, traditional economic development is about recruiting big existing companies and having them put a big footprint up, so that hopefully you’ll have 400 new jobs. That’s not really the ethos of Oberlin, nor do we have the physical infrastructure from a housing perspective, from a school capacity perspective.

What we do know is that we have so many great ideas here. So how do we help our idea creators take those ideas and make something tangible that the marketplace will respond to? This idea of entrepreneurship, but often times, to be an entrepreneur, you have to have a lot of capital to actually take that idea to the market. So we started something call Seed Ventures. Seed Ventures is a pop-up incubator marketplace to both provide business education and a market so that entrepreneurs can test the marketplace in a very low risk, no cost way. This is an example of tangibility.

We’re saying, yeah, we ask this property owner who owns 29 South Main St. to go out on a limb that we’re going to sign only a five month lease with him. But we’re going to prove that by supporting these 5 to 10 entrepreneurs, he will get a long term lease out of that. That’s something that is tangible to him. So that begins to hit on people, profit and planet.

Q: So you see this as something that people will see in a bigger picture? For example, if this works, we can start implementing it more wide scale.

A: Right. I mean frankly, I’m not concerned about Seed Ventures' long term vitality. I’m concerned about all of these entrepreneurs, because that’s where we know sustainable economic growth will happen, as opposed to trying to attract this big manufacturer. If everyone can provide a product or skill relative to their neighbor, that becomes a really viable local marketplace where the dollars are retained within the local economy.

Q: Sort of like creating a sustainable ecosystem of sorts, within the market place essentially?

A: Yeah. Circling back, we can talk all day about the best way that we think we can grow the economy in Oberlin. All day, all year, and we’re probably always going to be a little uncertain as to what the right approach is. Right now we think, based on our analysis, that the approach that Seed Ventures is taking is the best one. I’m not ultimately saying that it is, but we’re giving it a shot. We are going to learn a lot from it, and then we can pivot from there in terms of how do we really support sustainable, economic growth.


Q: Going with a broader question, how would you define sustainability?

A: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. One of the key things that we all have to work on in Oberlin right now is accessible language. Sustainability to people, sometimes that word turns people off. I was listening to NPR on the drive in and they were saying conservatives were immediately thinking about bugs and wildlife. That we have to eat bugs; we all have to walk. So really, sustainability to me is about doing things more efficiently. I think everyone can relate to efficiency. People want to save money? Great! Turn your lights off! You want to have less miles in your food, you want your food to be fresher, so it travels fewer miles? Great! Let’s eat local. So this idea of not having it be sustainability and then the accounting department. No! Efficiency needs to be embedded into the accounting department, so that it’s applicable to all parts of our lives. I think we really need to get beyond thinking about sustainability as a separate thing, because we’re just creating a silo again, which is a part of what got us in this place initially.

Q: In other words, pitching sustainability differently?

A: Communicating it differently. Early in my career I was like “I’m a sustainability strategist,” but right now I’m about making things efficient and really thinking about it from a systems perspective. Some of the issue is that our free market does not account for externalities. That’s where we lose some of the consideration of efficiency because the price at which something is set isn’t asked to consider my impact to the environment, my impact to the community, my impact to the person. That’s part of that thinking that needs to be embedded into every person's job/department, from the college and from the city to the community at large.

Q: On a personal level, how do the decisions you have made, like where you get your food or tend to shop, how does that connect to the community and/or sustainability of Oberlin, or the world at large? Has it impacted you personally and what you are doing?

A: I’ve lived in many communities; I’ve lived in mega cities, I’ve lived in gritty cities, but honestly, shopping at the Oberlin Farmers’ Market I’ve experienced some of the highest quality food I’ve ever had. That goes from our bread maker to our vegetable growers, and jam makers. And these Jams were an experience of complex flavors I don’t think I’ve ever had before, and the fact that he was either sourcing or growing all of his local and specialty fruit, and then really thinking invasively about what flavor is, creating this really amazing product, that to me is like I’m supporting my local farmer, hence reducing my carbon footprint in terms of how many miles my food is traveling, and I’m also really investing back in my local economy. That is really important to me because this is a cyclical effect. So now these guys, the farmers, now have more disposable income that they can reinvest back into the community. I think that’s the most tangible thing, in terms of Oberlin, where I believe there is a big triple bottom line win there.

Q: And would you say since coming here that you have done a lot of your shopping locally, compared to buying on Amazon, or something of the like? Or do you think it’s a hard battle, because as you pointed out, Oberlin is small, and it doesn’t have everything.

A: I think it’s a buffer question for me because this is something that I truly believe in, to minimize my Amazon shopping, and minimize going to Walmart, or whatever it might be, but I think there is some truth to that quite frankly. That’s an interesting question to ponder, as a person who has experienced more diversity in products or restaurants, or whatever that might be, how do you manage full time in Oberlin if you know that there might be something more. I think it’s a balance. That’s the ultimate thing of the ultimate triple bottom line, that’s what sustainability is about. It’s a balance. So if I need to make a drive to Cleveland once a week, that’s okay. I think that’s something I want to communicate about sustainability. It’s not the extremes. That turns so many people off, and rightfully so. There’s no point in starting to have the conversation if it’s an extreme. And also we know extremes don’t lead to good outcomes. It’s a balance.

Q: How do you further the goals of the community and the Oberlin Project to do what you have been talking about?

"In order to make a bigger impact in the world, we have to have smarter consumers"

A: In order to make a bigger impact in the world, we have to have smarter consumers and smarter consumers have to be willing to ask questions. That is what I would ask every citizen of Oberlin to do. I would ask them to ask questions and be curious about how their product was manufactured. Where is their product coming from? Even in their own home, have curiosity. For example how much electricity am I using? How do I reduce my water waste? Once we have a meter consumer base who are driving demand to those companies, to those utility providers, that’s when we’ll see the bar shift.

Q: How do you think that could be achieved?

A: I believe it’s in communities like Oberlin frankly. Communities who have a density of people who have a bias towards curiosity and asking questions anyways. These are the first movers, because right now, because of the way that our accounting rules work, there really is no incentive for consumers to be conscious consumers, they are only coached on the price point. So we need people at Oberlin that again, have this bias, this conscious of thought regardless of the only information they are immediately fed is that price point.

Q: And how that could be related to sustainability for example?

A: Again I would ask every consumer to ask three simple questions to their waiter: where did this food come from? How much are you paid? How much is your company reinvesting into the community? Something around the triple bottom line. It doesn’t have to be these highly intellectual questions.

You start to create this consumer awareness, giving market signals to the market, and the market has to respond because the consumers are demanding something different. Then you have this microcosm of sustainable economic growth in Oberlin, and you know what happens is these businesses start to do really well and we start to see this balance within our community at large. Then people in Cleveland are like, “what's going on at Oberlin? Something is working down there. They’re getting these really holistic outcomes." So they start thinking about it and you see this is how these things grow. But this is also to your previous interviewee’s point, why Oberlin does have an opportunity to be a microcosm in a macrocosm. My call to action is to get Oberlin citizens to ask more questions, be conscious consumers, and be educated. Once you're educated, don’t buy that product if it does not suit how you define what conscious consumerism is. Because if you buy it, you’re still giving that signal to the market that you want more of this.

"My call to action is to get Oberlin citizens to ask more questions, be conscious consumers, and be educated"

Q: So Starting small, using Oberlin as a model, so that others could see and do the same?

A: That’s frankly why the size [of Oberlin] is to our advantage. We belong to some commitments like the C40 cities. These are cities around the nation, around the world, that have committed to carbon neutrality. San Francisco is in this bunch, New York City, but if you talk to San Francisco they're not doing it on a city wide level. They’re doing it on a scale of Treasure Island. So even smaller than Oberlin in terms of population, but here we are. We’re a vibrant active community, with all of the pieces. It’s not like we’re just picking out Treasure Island. We have the opportunity to be a true model.

We’re banking on Oberlin citizens because of Oberlin’s history, because of the type of people it attracts, to not need as much of a tangible incentive. From more of a systems perspective I understand how I interact with the world. We can have this discussion, but it’s different than taking it into action. Both personally, at project levels, and leadership levels.

Lynn Powell

Interview by: Mikaila Hoffman


Lynn Powell is a professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She has published two books of poetry and one non-fiction book. She created and continues to teach the “Teaching Imaginative Writing” course at Oberlin, where she assists interested college students in running week long poetry residencies at Langston Middle School. The course is partially inspired by the Writers in the Schools Program.

Q: My first question for you is, what inspired you to start teaching the Teaching Imaginative Writing class?

A: My work in the Teaching Imaginative Writing comes out of the fact that, for over twenty years I worked with Writer in the Schools in grades kindergarten through 12th grade as a visiting writer where we’d go and work with a class for as little as one day or for as much as a year, depending on the grant and depending on the school. At that point, there was a little bit of Writers in the Schools work going on, a few writers visiting schools, but not very many. When I came to Ohio in 1990, I began to work for the Ohio Arts Council doing the same kind of work. So when I began to move into college teaching, about 15 years ago, I felt like this was something some college students would love to know how to do. There are some Creative Writing majors thinking, ‘what will I do when I go out into the real world,’ and also the larger question of, 'how do I take what I believe in and feel passionately about, and how do I share that with others who are hungry for it?' That’s when I began to teach that class in its earliest incarnation, and what has now become Teaching Imaginative Writing and the Writers in the Schools program.

"It is thrilling to see my college students learn from middle school profound they are, how nuanced they are, how brave they are."

Q: What excites you the most about having this program in the schools and working with college students in that context?

A: Well, I often say this, but one thing that excites me is that the program is an experience where everybody is a teacher and everybody is a learner, and I really do believe that. I love helping the college students learn how to bring what they’re passionate about into the middle school, which is a place where kids are especially in need of that way to express themselves. Poetry is a place you can do that, uncensored, using all of your imagination. It excites me to have my students empowered to teach effectively and open that world to the middle school students. It also thrills me how much my college students learn from being in the middle school class, and how amazed they are by the middle school students, by how profound they are, how nuanced they are, how brave they are. How they’re willing to make themselves vulnerable in ways college students cannot imagine. It really is an environment where we’re all learning all the time. I learn from everybody, so I think that excites me the most.

Q: What have you seen the college students learn from the middle school students, and vice versa?

A: One thing that happens is that college students remember their middle school years as misery, pure misery and fear, and they dread going back into the middle school. They have certain notions of middle schoolers that are completely undermined when they actually get there. I think it helps them see their own history differently, because how they were experiencing middle school may not have been the objective reality around them, so they get more of an objective view of [the dynamics]. You get this window on other people when you are now in a position where you can look at these kids empathetically, across the board. Another thing is it’s amazing to them how vulnerable the kids will make themselves in their poems, and I think the contemporary, fashionable stance of being ironic and defended doesn’t really go down in middle school very well. Those middle schoolers will reveal themselves in poems so honestly sometimes. It is very moving, and it is very inspiring. It’s sort of chastening, too. The other thing is that they’re also wildly, wonderfully imaginative. They can take leaps when they’re not burdened by making an impression or taking a stance in a certain kind of fashionable way. They follow their imagination when it sort of bounds away, which is also inspiring for my students and for me.

Q: Can you speak a bit about what you’ve learned from overseeing both the college students and their interactions with the middle school students in the classroom?

A: In Teaching Imaginative Writing, we’re workshopping each other’s lesson plans. Each week, several of my Oberlin College students get up and teach the lesson they want to teach to the middle school, to us. One thing that I find really interesting is that college students are experts on what someone’s doing wrong when they’re teaching, but it’s a lot different when suddenly you’re the one up there trying to communicate 


effectively, trying to communicate in ways that open up discussion rather than shut it down, in ways that aren’t about you but are about the material. The tables are turned on them, but the tables are also turned on me. The thing about teaching together is that I’m constantly learning from my students, and as we workshop lessons, I have certain things to say. But then I’ll hear my students chiming in with insights about lessons, about how [certain things] might be done more effectively or imaginatively, and I’m learning constantly from the really insightful feedback that they give, because they really are experts.

Q: You talked a little bit about what the college and middle school students learned from each other. I was wondering if you had any further comments on the types of relationships that develop between college students and the middle school students.

A: I have found almost uniformly that the middle school students are really open to what we do and they respond well to what we do. We publish books of the kids’ work. Every class we work in, we do a book of their poetry and the kids are invited to a book celebration at the Cat in the Cream. [The middle school students] are very proud of their work, and I like how the college students as writers become rock stars in their heads. I find it exciting that the college student poets are cool and the kids think ‘I want to be like that.’

"Quite frankly, when you walk across that street to Langston Middle school, you’ve left the bubble, in many ways. You have to get real about what really matters"

Q: Where do you see these interactions, skills, and relationships that both parties get from this experience fitting in the bigger picture, for example, whether that’s into the college students’ career or into high school for the middle school students?

A: Well it’s different for everybody. I’ve had students go on to get Masters in Teaching, so that’s one extreme. The other extreme is that it’s a meaningful experience where people learned something really deep about how to communicate something important about yourself to an audience that is not already true believers. I think that’s something college students around here have trouble with. Often whatever they believe in they’re almost always preaching to the choir, especially at a school like Oberlin. So, how do you talk outside of the bubble? Quite frankly, when you walk across that street to Langston Middle school, you’ve left the bubble in many ways. You really have to get real about what really matters. You have to think about what’s going to matter to them, and how can I connect in an authentic way? We don’t want to bring a bunch of gimmicks in there, we don’t want to bring a bunch of stuff that’s loosey goosey or eggheady. We want it to matter. We want to communicate what matters to us. To have these kids who aren’t necessarily interested in poetry respond and feel it as something that does matter and that they do get invested in, that’s a powerful experience no matter how you then use that later in your life. That’s the bigger picture for the college students. For the middle school students, some of them get turned on to poetry in particular. They didn’t know about it, and now they do. It becomes an important art form for some of them, and they really are talented. For others, it’s a neat place to go with their thoughts. For other kids it was just fun, and that’s good too. If all it was was fun, then it makes them more interested in reading, it makes them more interested in literature. Even if it just keeps their mind a little open. I worked in Eastwood School a lot when my kids were little, and one time I worked with the whole school over the course of the year. At the end of the year, the teachers had every little kid in the school write on a little sheet of paper ‘A poet is…’ and had them fill in the blank. My favorite one was from a little first grader who wrote "A poet is someone who opens your imagination when you think you don’t have any." To me that’s the big picture, that’s what we try to do.

Q: Do you have any further ideas for increasing communication or strengthening the relationship between the college and the community?

A: I think I just do my part, and what works for me is to do what I believe in and am passionate about. I try to bring it in a way that is respectful of the teachers over there, to work within the structures that they have, but to bring something that they might not otherwise have access to. I think in terms of how people can look to be more involved in the community, begin with what they do well and what they’re passionate about and think about why it might matter in the community, then go through that with humility and respect for the people already in the community. It is very hard when people come in as college students and think ‘Okay I’m going to go on my crusade and teach these community people stuff.’ Well, there could be some problems with that if you haven’t really asked the right questions about what matters to them, what their needs are, what they already actually know. So I think the larger, big picture, is be motivated by love for what you care about, and what matters to you that you want to share, figure out how it would matter to those folks, and then come in with humility and try to be a learner as much as you are a teacher.

Lester Allen

Interview by: Carolyn Burnham



Lester Allen visited his father in Oberlin during his childhood summers and felt so at ease within the community that he decided to make it his permanent home as an adult after service in the military. Allen began work at the Oberlin Postal Department, connecting with people of all ages as he delivered their mail and discovering his gift of communicating with others. Due to his deep love for scripture and the Church, Allen decided to take over for Rev. Mayle when he retired at Oberlin Christian Missionary Alliance Church. Since then, Pastor Allen has become a fixture in the Church, as well as the community. He strives to make an impact on Oberlin in any way he can, from coaching Oberlin High School Football teams to being a committed member of The Oberlin Project and POWER. Pastor Allen believes in sustainability as a means to not only positively impact the environment, but to create jobs and decrease utility costs for community members.

Q: Before I begin, how would you like to be referred to?

A: Pastor Allen.

Q: What words or images would you use to describe Oberlin?

A: Words I would use to describe Oberlin would be diverse, friendly, and inviting. It is a great place to raise your children. I think the town is environmentally friendly and could have a good impact on the environment and on the people that live in the town. That’s my image of Oberlin.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about how you came to live here?

A: When I was a kid, my dad and a lot of my relatives lived here. I grew up in Cleveland with my mother and I spent my summers with my dad in Oberlin. I just loved the town. It was totally diverse and it was different than the area I lived in in Cleveland. Everyone seemed friendly. People I didn’t even know would speak, which was kind of odd because in Cleveland people would walk by and never open their mouth. I did a stint in the military and I thought if I could live wherever I wanted to after I got out, I would make Oberlin my home—and I did. I have lived here, for the past almost thirty-five years now, since the time I got off the military. That’s the reason I came, because of the impact and impression I had of the town as a child.

Q: Is that the same reason why you came to practice in Oberlin as a pastor?

A: That’s something totally different. I came here and my first job was at a Post Office. After working for the post office for some twenty years, maybe, I watched people's children grow up, from the mother being pregnant to having a baby to the baby going off to college—and that’s how long I’ve been living here. Over that period of time you get to see people in different stages of their life: happy, sad, facing tragedies that might have happened to them. I’ve always had an interest in the word of God. I was a member of the Christian Alliance Missionary Church, and then as our pastor was about ready to retire, I decided to seek out being an interim pastor myself. One thing led to another and I became the pastor. My concern for people, my love for the scripture and the lord, those two things are connected. Basically, I have two full time jobs as it is right now. I’m a letter carrier for the next couple of years and I’m a full-time pastor, as I’ve been for over twelve years.

Q: Some people use the word “sustainability” to mean actions that enhance/maintain the economic, environmental, and social welfare of the Oberlin community. The Climate Action Plan defines it as “policies, decisions, and actions that meet current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (7).  What does sustainability mean to you?

A: Well, sustainability is what I can do to maintain or to advance what we already have, to improve upon what we already have. A lot of the situations where we are wasting energy, I think we can use it in a more diverse way. I noticed that at the Joseph building when you leave a room the lights go out. I thought that was wonderful. I thought that we could have a sensor like that in peoples’ homes, for the people who don’t remember to cut the lights off, they would automatically go off and would come on when you walk in. Those types of things are something that we as a community should be able to do, not only for the environment but also with the workforce. I’m a member of The Oberlin Project and part of our vision is that we might have programs teaching younger adults how to build solar panels and to install them. That would create jobs and it would help the environment. It saves people their bottom line. One of my things is, when you want to have an environmental impact and want to get it across to people, you have to save their bottom line. How is this going to save me money, how is this going to allow me more money to do other things? If I can show you how you are saving on your utility every month by going solar, then you can use that money for something else. I can teach you how to insulate, or to put your shrubs up in a way to stop the wind blocking, I can put energy efficient windows in. I can make an environmental impact and a financial impact on each individual person who is willing to look into it. The best thing is the word of mouth. If your neighbor tells you, “Hey, look they came by and I put new windows in, new insulation, new furnace, and my utility bills came down 100 dollars,” you’re interested now because your bottom line is being addressed.

Q: Are there actions your home and your church take in terms of sustainability?

A: Absolutely. We’re in a process, lord willing, of being able to build a new church. The church we're in now was built in 1938, so we’re limited. We can insulate, but we’re limited to what we can do to make the envelope close. In the new church we're planning on having water that comes from the downspouts to recycle and to water the shrubs, and different things like that. We’re talking about having the floor heated and to have the walls insulated with the foam insulation (which is better because it gets in the cracks and crevices), and to talk about those lights I was telling you about and put them in the bathroom of the church. I noticed that you go to a place like Walmart and you have water sensors in the sinks, so people don’t leave the water on and they use what they need and are done. If I was to install all of these new ideas into a building, it would pay for itself over a period of time because what matters is not just building a new building, it’s the utility cost. Even though we're only using it Wednesday and Sunday, and maybe Saturdays, we need this building to be practical. Otherwise there is no reason to put it up. That’s what we're doing now. We're looking towards the future. Being on The Oberlin Project and being aware of all of the energy saving things that people are coming up with is great. I just found out there is a ventilation system that you can have installed on your roof, solar energy, where the sun hits it and then a power fan draws the heat out of the roof. And I thought, how wonderful is that? Now that is something we would install into our building project.

Q: How did you get to be involved in The Oberlin Project?

A: Pretty much the same way we're doing this interview here. People know me from the community because I try to be a positive impact in the community I live in. I moved here because I liked the town, so if I like the town, I should enhance what’s already here. I like to think, how can I be of help? I was on the Oberlin Endowment Board and I coached middle school and high school football. I’ve been on lots of different committees with the community. Someone else knew all the other things I was involved in and approached me about being on The Oberlin Project. I talked to David Orr and he engaged my interest in it, and I thought it was worthwhile (not like I needed anything else to do). I have two full-time jobs and am doing a lot of other things, but I thought it was important. I thought I could make a difference. I was really concerned about jobs because we’re trying to get our young people to work.

Q: I think that sometimes people think that there are more pressing social issues than the environment, but it seems like you really think they are connected. Would you say that’s true?

A: They are connected; I think that if we don’t have an environment, there is no workforce. If we don’t have an environment, there is no clean water; there is no fresh air. I don’t know if you noticed this summer, I don’t even have allergies at all, but I have noticed that the pollen level is up. Now imagine if you’re in an environment that is difficult to breathe in because of smoke and other things, it would make working very difficult. I think that one of the things we were pressing on is the fact that Lorain County doesn’t have a very good transit system. We want buses to be able to run, so one of my ideas was an energy efficient bus that wouldn’t run on gas, but would run on electricity. Then that would create jobs for the drivers and people would not have to use their cars. They wouldn’t even have to worry about cars, but they would still be able to get to where they are working. In Oberlin, we opened up the streets to make it more bike friendly and a lot of people are using their bikes more. Lots of different things like that. Especially where our society is going, I think that the two issues are connected. I think that focusing on the environmental issues could create a positive impact on where we live and could create jobs. You would do both things.


Q: That’s really great. I like how you were talking about showing people how much money you can save on your bills. Even with food, if you are more conscious of what you’re using—

A: You’re right, and you just said it. Even with food, we are talking about having a food hub here in Oberlin where it is locally grown, and locally sent to the stores and markets and stuff like that, so the money stays in the community. You would have people working, people transporting the produce from the fields to the processing place. Fresh. Just been picked this morning, or yesterday. It would be self-sufficient and it would run itself. I think it would draw people from the outside, I think that Oberlin could be a model for other communities, because it has to start somewhere. Although Oberlin is small, it could have a great impact on other places around.

"One of the things I would like is to see the town and the college to work together more ... we are all in this environment together"

Q: Would you say that you have seen a lot of changes in Oberlin since you moved here?

A: Yes, I have seen quite a few changes. The latest change was the old Oberlin Inn to the new Oberlin Inn. I remember going to the Apollo when I was a kid. It was fine then, but it is a beautiful facility now. I love the programs that they have in town now. We just had Chalk Walk last week. We had Juneteenth before that, and we have band concerts in the summertime. Those are things you can only do in a small town. A lot of things have changed in a positive manner over the years, but a lot of things have remained the same which gives the town its uniqueness. Now, one of the things I would like to happen is for the town and the college to work together more and realize that we are all in this environment together. If we do that, we can lift the whole community up and not one just one particular segment. Once again, that would make it a model for other communities.

Q: It seems that there is often a disconnect between the college and the community in certain ways, would you agree?

A: The Oberlin College President [Marvin Krislov] has done a wonderful job of trying to reach out to the community. He has taken some of his own personal time to come and listen to some of the community's concerns. One of the things he has done is try to engage with someone like me, someone he knows is in the community. As a pastor you have a lot of influence over a group of people. He has talked with me about job situations on the college campuses and different situations like that and he has been more than open about it. I think that is one of the things that will help bridge the gap. When we see people who live in Oberlin working on jobs in Oberlin, I’m happy. Everyone has to have a vested interest in everything. When I feel like my concerns are addressed, then I’m more attentive. That’s with everyone. I might be retired, but if my grandson is working at one of these different jobs and I see that the college and community are working together, I’m all for it. Those are the types of things I’m working on and there’s always room to improve. Like I said, the Oberlin College president has been outstanding in trying to have these things come to fruition.

Q: If there is one major request that community members would request from the college, what might that be?

A: If I could put my finger on it, it would be to open up so that there is no schism between the college and the community. I’ll give you a scripture, “Two cannot walk together unless they agree.” So for us to advance, we have to walk together. There are things the community can do too, like when the college reaches out to not be so standoffish. But that is just where the trust comes in. My hand is not going to get smacked away for reaching out, and yours is not either. We’re trying to walk together. I can’t think of one thing, but just generally more jobs and better economic bottom lines that will allow people more spending money.

"The sun powers the fans and sucks the heated air out from the roof. I thought that was just the best thing since sliced bread"

Q: Do you take any actions in your home specifically about sustainability?

A: Now that our kids are up and about, it’s really just me and my wife. My wife is more of a warden than me because she pays the utility bills. She constantly makes sure that lights in rooms that we are not using are off. We already have talked with POWER, so we are already getting more insulation in our world. We are getting a new roof on hopefully before the summer is out. Were looking into getting ventilations in, and hopefully solar panels. We had the land to do so. We try to reuse our water from the downspouts in the garden for the plants. The water from the downspouts—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Its fresh water, rainwater. We recycle that, we use that. There’s a lot we do, but there’s always more we could work on. We’re working on more insulation, using solar panels for different things, and solar vents for venting the roof out, which helps the roof with the circulation of air. The sun powers the fans and sucks the heated air out from the roof. I thought that was just the best thing since sliced bread. Greg Jones from POWER came by and we changed out all of our light bulbs into energy efficient ones, and even ones in our garage, so they just slowly gradually come on. That’s my wife’s area, trying to make sure the utilities stay down. She has seen the difference in our utility bill, that’s her thing.

Q: Is there anything you would like to tell your fellow community members regarding their care for the environment or respect for nature?

A: Like I said earlier, if I was to give any advice at all, it is to give POWER a chance. Look at your bottom line where you would actually have more money in your pocket, and it’s not as difficult as you might think. There are groups that are available for low-income and fixed-income people that can help get these things done, where it’s not going to cost you a lot of money if you meet certain parameters. Sometimes people feel like they are overwhelmed and they feel like they’ll never get to where they want to be, but they have to start somewhere. Like this summer, I’m going to get my windows insulated.  And then next summer, I’ll put a new water tank in. I would say just try it because you will be surprised how much it will help your bottom line. Then you’ll see how it makes a difference in your community.

Q: Is there anyone who inspired you in these actions?

A: As far as environmentally, I would have to say David Orr. I have never seen anyone with as much energy as he has. He’s a funny guy, but he gets a lot of stuff done. He has a greater vision than just Oberlin. He really gets into how to be able to save money and be a positive impact on the environment.

Q: Have you had any interaction with the Environmental Dashboard signs?

A: No, but I have been to meetings where they were discussed and shown how they work. I haven’t been directly involved in it, but I think it’s important. I do. I just haven’t had the opportunity to participate in anything like that. I think it’s wonderful and a great idea, but as far as hands on—I have not.

"If you know what your gift is and you can find your opportunity to use that gift, then you use it in a positive way."

Q: You seem like such an integral part of the community. Do you have any mentors?

A: I had a couple of mentors and both of them passed away. Two reverends, Howard O. Jones, an Evangelist, and Reverend Charles Mayle, who was the former pastor at the Church I’m now a pastor of. Both of them helped me through the ministry. Of all the things I do, that is the most important to me and has the most lingering impact. I can do the most good in that area. If you know what your gift is and you can find your opportunity to use that gift, then you use it in a positive way. As they poured into me, I try to pour into those who are behind me.

Q: How do you speak to your people at church? How do you really reach them?

A: That’s good, that’s an excellent question. I think that how it happens is I’m a bible-believing, bible-preaching type pastor. So, say you are coming to me for advice. I can give you my own intellect, or I can tell you what the word of God says and then give you an example of how it might have impacted my life or somebody I know. That’s more practical for me, and it’s a stronger foundation because it’s based on the bible and not just my personal ideas. I approach preaching the word the same way. If I use the bible and then explain certain parts and how it can impact you today, it makes a difference. If you forget all the stuff I said after I give you advice, you can go back to the Bible and go over what I read and God will send certain things back to your memory if I keep that as my base. People come up with excellent little anecdotes, but when you clear all of that out, where is the meat? Can I go back a month from now and still find it? I use that as the thing that gives me my springboard. No matter what I say, you can still go back and check it yourself.

Sean Hayes

Interview by: Rick Yu Yue


c4b07657175375beb5d8Sean Hayes is Executive Director of The Oberlin Project, a joint effort of the City of Oberlin, Oberlin College, and individual and institutional partners, to improve the resilience, prosperity, and sustainability of the Oberlin community through development of a robust, vibrant, and local post-carbon economy. Prior to joining The Oberlin Project, Hayes was the Facilities Manager and Community Outreach Coordinator for Oberlin College's Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.

Q: What actions are you and Oberlin Project engaged in that relate to helping the environment, the local economy or other aspects of people’s well-being?

A: What do I do for the Oberlin Project? I am the executive manager, so I have to do everything. The Oberlin Project is this collaboration between the city and the College. Our goal is to impact the spectrum of sustainability on the community scale, so everyday is different. Depending on the needs of that day, I could be working on anything from fundraising or management of staff to try to impact one or multiple areas of the Oberlin Project to meet the commitments. Those commitments range from trying to re-localize the food system, we have a 70% local food goal by 2050. It could be trying to help the College and the city to move on their climate positive or carbon neutrality goals. Sustainable economic development is another thing we are pushing on. Making sustainability the default policy. Educating for sustainability, the work that the Environmental Dashboard does, is very much a part of the Oberlin Project, though it’s not one that we do everyday. The biggest thing that the Oberlin Project is working on right now, if I had to pick one, is the creation of a food hub in Oberlin so we can buy food locally. We had a local food goal and the food hub is, as we are moving forward, a wholesale aggregation and distribution site for local food, co-located with a commercial incubated kitchen [...] we think it’s the biggest missing piece in the puzzle of how we connect all of the farms around here that grow food to the folks in town who want to consume local food. The current industrial food system doesn’t allow easy connection between those local farmers. It goes into the big systems and they get shipped from here to somewhere else across the country to be packaged and processed. They get shipped to a distribution center, and then they get shipped again. With the food hub, we are matching and re-localizing as part of that value chain. This helps us provide that local food in a fashion that’s easier for restaurants, large institutional buyers, and grocery stores to get this food so that you and I don’t have to make those decisions. Right now, making that food hub a reality is the biggest thing that we are doing in the Oberlin Project if I had to pick one thing.

Q: What are the benefits of the Oberlin Project as a whole for the school, the community, and for the environment?

A: The Oberlin project has been here for about 5 years now. The benefits for the whole community are that even if the Oberlin Project is mildly successful, we will have a community that is much more resilient and much more sustainable. A happier, healthier place to live and raise a family, a place that is more prepared to help its citizens. Our community meets the challenges of a changing climate and the kinds of problems that we expect are associated with it. We have, in the last three years on the energy side of things in Oberlin, cut the entire community's carbon emissions in half. There's been a 50% reduction from 2012 to 2015 as a result of fuel switching. I think it's exciting and a benefit to this community, and hopefully a small piece of what the world needs to do. As long as some of these parts that are successful are replicated, it will hopefully provide a much better future for not just Oberlin and the community, but also for the climate.

Q: Does Oberlin College make the Oberlin Project special? If so, how?

A: Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin are the two need-partners of the Oberlin Project. The Oberlin Project exists at some level because those two institutions said we need to find ways to collaborate on these issues, because they're bigger than what either one of us can handle alone. Oberlin College is a huge part of this community. If you look back at the history of the College and the community, they were co-founded at the same time, same place, and by the same people. While it's easy to look at the city or the College as separate entities [...] neither has ever existed without the other and so they're intricately well knit. I think that if they're moving into a common theme together, that's part of what makes this place what it is and why this collaboration is working. They have a long history.

Q: How do you perceive your actions and decisions as connecting the school and the community with the bigger picture?

A: There are so many ways to do it. The way that we have engaged with it so far is that we make connections over energy. It goes both ways. The college started buying renewable energy credits from the city a decade ago, maybe longer, in order to help move towards the college's climate goals. This created a revenue stream for the city in a fund called the Sustainable Reserve Fund. The college buying those renewable energy credits kept the credits in the community and the community benefited from it. It generated a revenue stream that has been used since its inception for other sustainable projects. That's one small piece. The college was a part of that process by putting in a giant 2.27 megawatt solar array, which has moved the college towards its goals and the city towards its goals. It has also saved the city a significant amount of money in transmission costs during peak electric usage. That is one example of how that collaboration works for both, and I could go on forever.

Q: What was your motivation for engaging in this program. Why is it important to you?

A: Working at the AJLC may be the best job I've ever had. It is a great job. It is really a great combination for me personally with the interactions between students, building, and people, we're actually doing work. The diversity of things in this building makes it a very unique position [...] I wasn't looking for other jobs. What made the Oberlin Project so exciting is that if you look conceptually at what the Adam Joseph Lewis Center did for buildings when it was constructed over 15 years ago, it changed the paradigm. I've heard it called Kitty Hawk of the green building movement; I've heard it called the building that operates like a tree. Basically this building rewrote the book on building environmentally friendly buildings and has served as a model for a decade and a half. If this building was the sea, the Oberlin Project is the tree that is growing into it. It’s conceptually trying to do the same thing at the community scale that this building did at a building scale. With the state of climate and political discourse and everything that brews into the cocktail of what the world is today, we need solutions and we need them fast. If we want to have a future that looks like what we have known as a species for our children and for our grandchildren, we need to find solutions. I felt that the Oberlin Project was a natural kind of growth and evolution for me professionally. The impact of the project is much larger. If I can make this building run, that's really great, it saves Oberlin College some money, and it interests some students. There's a lot of benefits in there and a lot of it is hard to quantify, but if you can do the same thing at the scale of a community, the impact is much greater.

"There is focus on what we do in Oberlin that gives us a platform to present solutions to the world"

There is focus on what we do in Oberlin that gives us a platform to present solutions to the world and that was too big an opportunity for me to stay in my comfort zone and keep running this building. It is the combination of knowing where we were and where we are getting to as a culture and as a species The opportunity to use the Oberlin Project as a means of communicating to the world. That's why I did it.

Q: How do you think attitudes towards the environment have changed over time in this community? Have your own attitudes changed?

A: For me, when I think about changes in the environment when I was a kid, recycling programs almost didn't exist and now they're commonplace. Now people expect that. Now it’s composting. Oberlin has this long history of being on the forefront of kind of progressive social movements of the day. I think that Oberlin rightly recognizes very early on that the connection of what we do to the environment also has social justice connections. It has economic connections. I don't know how fast Oberlin has moved on this. I've expected Oberlin has been doing this much longer than I've been here, based on my knowledge. I've been here for 4 or 5 years now and I got here in 2011. Even within that time period I’ve seen a lot of things happen. I’ve seen us develop and pass a Climate Action Plan for the city. I've seen us develop a zero waste plan, switch to single stream recycling, and deploy a hybrid hydraulic recycling fleet. We are a bicycle friendly community. I've seen us break ground and move construction ahead on a new LEED Platinum hotel. I've seen us put in a 2.27 megawatt solar array. I've seen that catalyze an affordable high-performance solar powered home for a single mother and her girls. I've seen us have dollars flow into a food house in town. There’s so much when I step back and recognize, in my time here, what all have we done. I did a presentation at City Council earlier this week and I just put it all on one page. Normally I hate doing that because it is so much text, but the concept is that it's so overwhelming to look at all of these things like, hey we are moving forward. Those events all happened in my time here so the understanding is growing. I think that one of the big challenges that we face in Oberlin is that we’ve done such a good job on so many things early on. We did those things. We potentially face the problem of success, too much success, where we think: oh wait, our electricity is 87% renewable, we’ve halved our carbon emissions in three years for the whole community, we don’t have to focus on that anymore because that sounds like we solved it compared to the rest of world. That’s the next challenge we're going to face: whether we are willing to bear down and see this through to completion, or are we going to applaud ourselves, pat ourselves on the back for for those early successes and then stumble before we get the finish line. I think that the understanding of the environment has grown significantly even in my time here.

Barbara Pierce


Barbara Pierce, an Oberlin resident and the first post-war blind student to attend Oberlin College, has worked for the last 40 years for the National Federation of the Blind, advocating for the civil rights of blind people. She is a leader nationwide as well as in the Oberlin community.

Q: What words or images would you use to describe Oberlin?

A: Friendly, passionate, intense. Friendly: I think small towns are friendly because there’s a greater amount of noticing and caring about what’s happening to people and the willingness to step forward and help. Passionate: I’m very involved with the civil rights of the blind. It’s a low-incidence disability. People don’t know about blindness, yet when I get a forum to talk about the problems I’ve got people revving up. They are horrified that people are earning 15 cents an hour in sheltered workshops, and they are ready to roll up their sleeves and do something about it. You can get people to care. Intense: There’s always something bubbling away on the front burner here, like the intense desire to be in the forefront of being ecologically responsible. I take great pride in Oberlin and Oberlin’s willingness not to be irresponsible.

Q: What does sustainability mean in your life?

A: The ability to live in such a way that you can keep going, that you don’t tap out your resources, that you’ve got enough to carry on with. We use to have little exercises years ago in which, for a week or a month, we would undertake to live on what somebody living on welfare had to spend on food. It was exhausting and humbling, but it was important to do it. Obviously we survived and we did okay with the exercise, but it wasn’t easy or fun. So sustainability to me means that you can keep going with the effort, that it’s not so exhausting to put one foot in front of the other, that you don’t have time to think of anything other than where your next meal is going to come from.

Q: What actions are you engaged in that relate to sustainability?

A: Well, we drive a hybrid car. Bob walks everywhere and of course, since I don’t drive, I walk everywhere also. I see that as intentional conservation of gasoline. We’ve got the curly light bulbs. I try to watch water consumption and hot water consumption. I wash my clothes in cold water. We are pretty adamant about turning off lights and turning down the heat at night, and I personally always keep the lights off.


Q: Equal rights is part of sustainability. The work that you’ve done as a leader, to help people become integrated into society so they are treated equally, is a part of sustainability too. Can you speak about what you’ve done there?

A: Well, since 1974 I’ve been active with the National Federation of the Blind, which is really aimed at precisely what you talk about: equal rights. There is a tendency to wrap disabled people in cotton batting and put them safely up on the shelf so they won’t get hurt and won’t get in people’s way. Partly what I do is to insert myself and get in people’s way. I remember once I was walking down the street with Marky in a backpack and Anne was riding a tricycle in front of me. I called to her to stop at the corner, and she did. A man was there lecturing her about how she had to be careful to take care of me. She was three; she had not the least notion of what he was talking about, but this tells you about the presumption that being equipped with vision gives one control or power over somebody else.

“I take great pride in Oberlin and Oberlin’s willingness to be responsible.”

I’m always pushing on societal expectations of blind people and what is fair treatment. We have a 70% unemployment rate, and that’s not because 70% of us are incapable of holding down a job. It’s because people don’t believe that we are capable. They say, “I can’t afford to release someone to take you to the bathroom.” Umm, who asked you to take me to the bathroom? I mean, how do you think I got to this employment interview? So I am always, always pushing the social norms, the social expectations. I value the seven years I worked for Oberlin College because I was in the face of every alum coming back here. I reminded them that blind people are able to function independently, and who knows what effect that may have had on their hiring practices. Jobs are key to equality. Once you give a person a job, then you give them the right to economic independence.

Q: This is inspiring to really appropriately transmit what environmental justice means because sustainability is supposed to be the balance between economy, environment, and social justice, but social justice often gets the short end of the stick.

A: Well that’s because there are a bunch of people who have social justice. However, everybody can benefit from a better economy and a better environment. We all benefit if we lower the carbon footprint of the community, but social justice, there a lot of people who have theirs, and they don’t think of how fragile that can be. All it takes is a stroke or a fall for it to be gone. It’s not for nothing that people refer to the able bodied as the temporarily abled. You live long enough, and you start losing your capacities. Universal accessibility should be built-in everywhere.

Tags: Neighbors, Our Downtown

Sam Beetler

Interview by: Becky Kalish


Sam Beetler, graduate of Lorain County Community College, is the lead gardener for The People’s Garden at Oberlin Community Services (OCS). Sam’s main work is running the garden but she is also involved in many of the other projects that OCS facilitates. Beetler's favorite outdoor spot in Oberlin is the arboretum.

Q:  My first question is what got you interested in doing the work that you do, and what led you to work at the People’s Garden?

A: I grew up in a town called Deerfield, Ohio, about 2 hours east of here. Where I grew up, we had 4 acres of land so I felt like I was always outside, playing outside, playing in my tree house, helping my mom out in the garden... well, she kind of made us go out every Saturday morning! So yeah, growing up in an agricultural community and basically being pressured to always be outside got me into gardening, and that led me to pursue sustainable agriculture at Lorain County Community College. They started a sustainable agriculture program about two years ago and I was part of the first class to graduate as an entire class. There were around 12 of us in the program and it took a year to complete. My first semester at that program I had to do a service learning project. I ended up coming to Oberlin Community Services (OCS) and doing a tour. I was living here at the time so I thought this would be perfect, you know, it’s close by! So I started doing my service learning project and I really had a lot of fun with the people that work here at OCS as volunteers.

Q: So it seems like the people at OCS were very engaged in the work they do and that inspired you?

A: Yeah! Everyone here is just so friendly and it really helped me to feel like I was part of the community. We also all had such a good time working back in the pantry. I ended up staying and becoming a work study student through the community college. I stayed until the next spring and then they asked me to be our gardener because they knew about my background, knew I was about to graduate from the program, so I was like sure that’d be awesome!

Q:  Very cool! What words or images would you use to describe this community? I know you talked about some of that already, but if there’s anything else you’d like to add?   

A: Hmm yeah, I’m trying to think about how I would describe it. People are just so friendly. When I was moving out this way to start the sustainable agriculture program, I knew that I had one class out at the George Jones Farm, so I came out and visited the farm and it was just so pretty. People from this town were telling me "you’re gonna love it here, you can walk around, you can meet people." If you’re a social person and love to be involved with the outdoors this is the place to live.

Q: Have you found there to be a lot of interaction between the College and the town, or do you think there could be more of a connection?   

A: Well, working at OCS I feel like I am kind of spoiled because that bridge between the college and community is already formed. There are so many college students that are coming from one semester to the next. That’s nice because when I go to an event on campus I kind of recognize some of the faces, and working here you always have the chance to stop and talk to people because as you’re working you’re always having conversations.

Q: Besides your involvement with the gardening at OCS, what other things does OCS do and what is your involvement in them?

A: Well today for example, we just had the Little Sprouts program. That’s linked to another program called Hard-Hatted Women, which is a program for single moms that need to do job training and get more skills to be more competitive in the job market. There are 14 women in the program, so today they went to the bridge to do stuff on the computer. While they’re doing that, me and other volunteers are taking care of their kids. That’s one program, and of course there’s the food pantry inside. That’s one of the biggest things at OCS. It just seems like the need for it is growing every year within my past two years being here. There’s also America Counts, the tutoring program that they run here. There was a big group that came in today to do training for that.



Q: I’ve heard so many of the great things you do in your work, but I was curious about what some of the biggest challenges have been in your time here?    

A: Finding volunteers to help. Gardening is such a labor-intensive activity so it really just makes a big difference having people out here with me just to do stuff like keep up with weeding and watering, especially since we use the rain barrels. It takes a lot of time, but I’d rather use the barrels than get out the hose and be done in ten minutes. This past summer I was lucky, I had a bunch of high school students that were helping me. Oh, that’s another program is the Tanef students. We always have them during the summer, so local high school students can get employed through the Tanef program and make... I think it’s minimum wage, but it gives them an opportunity to get out into the community and help different organizations.

Q: In what ways do you feel that Oberlin has been “ahead of the curve” in terms of important issues of our time, relating to environmental, economic and social issues? Or if not what do you think could be done?

A: Honestly I’m really impressed. I feel like there’s a lot of communication between City Council and the residents that live here. I know that in the past I’ve attended some sessions where people from city council and leaders of the community would meet and be on a question board where you can ask them questions and they’ll answer you.

Q: Do you find that the city council is willing to listen to ideas or concerns you may bring up?

A: Yeah, I definitely think so. I also feel like the people who live in the Oberlin community kind of expect that... I also think the College has a large part to play in that too.

Q: Definitely, people are very opinionated here!

A: Yes!

Q: How do you feel about the relationship between the college and the residents of Oberlin?

A: I actually have kind of mixed feelings about that. I mean, working at OCS it has been interesting hearing the students talk about how before they came to OCS, they were in this bubble, they didn’t really know the residents of the town, and didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to interact with them. I think the OCS experience changes the perspective of students who come and see the residents and some of the needs of the people in the community.

"I think the OCS experience changes the perspective of students who come and see the residents and some of the needs of the people in the community."

Q: What do you think the younger generations, maybe some of the kids you work with, could learn from the history of this community?

A: Well, just looking at the history of community gardening in Oberlin... there’s been a lot that has been done. I think that a lot of the gardens are struggling with the ability to sustain themselves and have the capacity for volunteers. The youth can learn that if you want to make something happen, you can do it. You have to work at it, tell your friends, let people know this is actually a cool thing to do.

Q: Outside of OCS, are there other groups in the community that you identify, connect, or spend your time with?

A: I still talk to students that were in the sustainable program, like Dennis out at George Jones. We’ve stayed really good friends. I feel like George Jones I’ve connected with, and also we went to a couple different gardens throughout the summer to help out. I’ve been down to the Legion Field Community Garden, which is right off of Professor St., the Service and Learning Project out at the Boys and Girls Club, so I feel like I know the students pretty well and the adults that are leading some of the different programs.

Q: My last question is what places or activities in Oberlin make you feel close to nature, and what in general is most special to you about Oberlin?

A: I would have to say of course the arb. It’s so pretty and right across the street from where I work [...] Sometimes it’s nice to take a walk there when you’re the only person. It’s a nice place to chill out. And then George Jones, I go swimming out there!


Jennifer Smillie

Interview by: Bryan Rubin


Jennifer Smillie has been an Oberlin High School mathematics teacher for 12 years. She lives in Bay Village, which is about half an hour away from Oberlin. She has always felt passionate about sustainability and tries to incorporate sustainability in her math classes with the Dashboard.  

Q: What roles do your students have with the Environmental Dashboard, or being sustainable in general?

A: It depends a lot on the student, and if they are interested in sustainability. I do notice, even when I bring it up in dialogue, it’s something that really resonates in most kids. I do think they realize that living sustainability is important to their well being and their families’ well being. That’s why I think it is so important as educators that we are in their heads a little bit about those types of things, how to just to be a little bit more mindful in how they act throughout the day.

Q: How do you bring up the Dashboard in classes?

A: I’ll pull it up and look at the consumption for the day, for the year. I like to look at the different patterns, particularly in my Algebra 2 classes. When we were studying sinusoidal functions, when you look at it on a daily basis it doesn’t look so much like a sinusoidal graph. It doesn’t have that sort of ebb and flow, but when you start to expand up to a yearly pattern, it starts to take on that function pattern a little bit better. So the Dashboard to me is a nice avenue to perhaps do a unit on big data. Like how we can use this huge field of data to think about how we live and make changes.

"...they realize that living sustainability is important to their well being and their families’ well being."

Q: How do you think sustainability takes place in Oberlin?

A: When you get out into the community there’s a lot of stuff. I was talking with the principal about doing a field trip to the solar array and he was like, "What, there’s a solar array?" Making people aware of what solar arrays can do and then doing some internet searches on all of the different innovative ways some countries have come up with the concept of using roads as a solar array is really powerful. I think it's important to go to see the solar, then come back to the classroom and use the Internet to connect the broader ideas. As teenagers your mind is racing and anything can be done, so you have to harness the teenager energy just as much as you have to harness that solar, and other energies as well.

"You just have to realize the earth is just one giant system and we’re apart of that."

Q: What do you do in your daily life to be environmentally friendly and sustainable?

A: I’m a pretty avid recycler, and we have a door-to-door program. I try to ride my bike actively. I believe in active transportation. I started a bike co-op in Bay Village to try to encourage more active transportation. Mainly teaching my son the importance of recycling. This is one of my proudest stories of his. It was last summer, and we were sitting, looking outside the window, and a plastic bag was kind of rolling down the street and he was like “Mom, we got to go get that bag. It’s going to blow into the lake!” I thought that was so cool, because we always talk about it and live right on the lake. He loves the animals so much, and we talk about plastics in the water being no good, so that was a proud moment. Had to boast a little bit. I really want to improve the recycling at the school because right now it’s not great. It’s better than when I started. I’m working towards starting a sustainability club in the high school, where we would focus on waste management and active transportation aspects. It is important to me, and I do take time, and I think the kids too, because they’ll be like, “Are we recycling?”

Q: What makes you want to keep doing more to improve?

A: It’s just something that’s always been important to me. I realize the interconnectedness of it all. In a sense you are what you eat, and if you’re not taking care of the planet, and you're eating terrible things as a result, then your health and wellness will go down, and thereby happiness. It’s a cycle. It’s a lot of systems thinking. You just have to realize the earth is just one giant system and we’re apart of that.

Q: Is there more you would like to embrace within the community?

A: Well, I wrote a Safer Routes to School Grant, working with Sharon Pearson, and part of that is to build more active transportation into the community. Oberlin is such a walkable, bikeable place. We’re trying to use the Safer Routes to School Grant to incorporate families, so through children coming home to mom and dad, or whatever, and saying let’s ride our bike.