Interview by: Rick Yu Yue
Sean 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.