Jessian Choy; Green Purchasing and Toxics Reduction Analyst; San Francisco Department of the Environment
Interviewee: Jessian Choy
Green Purchasing and Toxics Reduction Analyst
San Francisco Department of the Environment
Interviewer: David Corsar, NWFJessian is a Green Purchasing and Toxics Reduction Analyst at the San Francisco Department of the Environment and shares tips and tricks on how to live a greener lifestyle on her site FunAndDraconian.com. She served as an NWF Campus Ecology Fellow in 2001. As a student, she was started the University of California Santa Cruz Student Environmental Center (UCSC SEC) and oversaw the efforts of six ad hoc committees, and helped educate and engage campus and community members.
David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, as a Campus Ecology Fellow in 2001, how would you say your participation in that program helped shape your career?
Jessian Choy: Well growing up, I never spoke in class or joined any clubs. When the teachers would call on me, I would just turn red, and I just liked to listen instead. Even when I was at UC Santa Cruz, I still didn’t speak in class. It was just pretty much my whole life story that I didn’t really speak.
I didn’t have a car, and the bus in my neighborhood stopped at 5 pm which made it hard and unsafe to take night classes, so I decided I had to say something. So, for 3 years in the 90s, I became the only undergrad student representative on our campus transportation committee. But even then - even being on that committee for three year - the public transit still didn’t improve in our neighborhood. The fellowship helped me use my voice and bring students, faculty, and administrators together to develop the UCSC Student Environmental Center and have a bigger voice.
DC: Could you tell us a little bit about how you started and planned the project?
JC: In 2001, I had read about how the Mayor of Boulder, Colorado, Will Toor, was also the director of the CU Boulder Student Environmental Center, and I was really inspired. So I flew to Boulder to meet him, and then I decided to start an environmental center at UCSC to green the whole campus. Including increasing public transit. But not just focusing on one issue at a time, I wanted to green the whole campus and get more people on board.
I had taken a nonprofit management class, and I created an org chart and a strategic plan before recruiting students, and we got 88% of almost 3000 students to vote for the campus to commit to the Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change. We also laid the groundwork for all students to vote on paying for a full-time staff member who wasn’t a student so that we could make sure that the work continued after we left. This was my senior year. So, SEC achieved both of those things in 2003 and still has permanent staff to this day.
DC: That’s awesome. What would you say was the top thing that you learned in your professional development with your experience as a Campus Ecology Fellow?
JC: For me it was really important to create measurable results. That was really important to me, you know, to get 88% of almost 3000 students saying we want the campus to do something.
Also, it was important to focus on changing policies - working with people to change policies and working with the administration. The most important thing I learned was to work with people who are ready to change. I had done it backwards - I felt like we should just go after the biggest polluters. And that’s really important, but I think you accomplish more if you work with people that are ready to change. And not waste time on people who don’t change even if they say they will. This is really important; I had to learn this in all aspects of my life. Even with family members (laughs) which I’m sure people can relate to.
DC: That’s good advice. So, what are you up to these days? What is your role with the San Francisco Department of the Environment and why did you choose to work there?
JC: I am working on getting all our city staff curmudgeons - we have 28,000 - to buy less toxic green products. So here at SF Environment I helped co-lead a launch of two websites to make it easier for anyone to buy green products through sfapproved.org. Also, there’s a second website that I just launched on green policies and programs you can create in your community” at greencitiescalifornia.org.
So that’s my day job. But I am in government, and no one wakes up and says they can’t wait to read a boring government website, right? The websites I made are - you know - they’re government websites. They have to sound very official. So at night, I try to make things fun by creating dance videos disguised as public service announcements and sharing tips - or tricks, rather - to be happy, healthy, and green on my website funanddraconian.com.
For example, you can chill a white wine bottle in your toilet tank.
DC: (Laughs) Right, I’ve seen that before actually.
JC: Right, just make sure you put it where the clean water is! And you also save water with each flush.
DC: What would you say is your personal EcoMission for sustainability?
Part of that is to learn how to use my voice. I hadn’t for most of my life, and I had to take public speaking classes where they videotaped me, and it was brutal! Now, I see a lot of people with really great ideas, but sometimes good ideas die with bad storytelling or body language, or you just don’t know how to deal with hecklers, or because you don’t ask the right questions at the right time. So I’ve been leading some behavior change, negotiations, and public speaking workshops to help - especially young people - with their ideas, so their ideas can thrive.
DC: Who are your primary “influencers” in the sustainability movement?
JC: I really admire women of color who risk their lives to protect our health and environment or have a lot less privilege and are definitely not famous but should be. I was just reading that almost 1,000 activists were killed around the world between 2002 and 2013, and yet there were only 10 convictions. There was this amazing woman I read about: Aleta Baun in Indonesia. Thirty men with machetes had surrounded her because she was protesting against marble mining companies. They were talking about all the ways that they were going to torture her, but she managed to negotiate with them to give them like $20 that she had on her. They still hacked at her legs with the machetes, but thankfully she got away. She actually spent a year with 150 women sitting where the marble rocks were being mined quietly weaving in protest, and it successfully got them to stop. So that, to me, is really inspiring.
DC: In your professional development, did you have any mentors or career coaches that assisted you in developing your career path?
JC: I didn’t have any formal mentors, where we met on a regular basis. I think though I definitely have to credit the Earth Island Institute Brower Youth Awards team for advocating for me and giving me public speaking opportunities that really helped me overcome my shyness. If it weren’t for some of those opportunities I wouldn’t have known that I could speak in public without turning red and fainting (laughs).
DC: What would you recommend to current students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
JC: I would say for students who want to make a difference in the sector. I would say (a) many policies don’t address all the ways people might not follow a law; so create ones that are legally binding and enforceable; (b) question everything and (c) do what no one is doing. Because you might learn and accomplish more if you don’t join a movement that already has a lot of followers and I would say that’s what I would recommend.
DC: What advice would you give for young people on developing skills that may not occur within a degree program?
JC: When I started out, I thought I would major in filmmaking and make documentaries. But I realized when I was almost done with my film major I didn’t want to make films and then wait for my audience to act - there’s just not enough time. I wanted to help them take action now. I think the most important thing is to change policies. Go to the root of the problem and address it. So, to me working on ballot measures is important. That’s definitely not a classroom setting. It’s the most important thing I think someone can do, especially if they’re starting out in their career.
Also, I majored in legal studies - I only took about three environmental classes. I would say that environmental classes aren’t the “be all, end all.” For me, more important are the classes that I took after I graduated - in behavior change, game theory, negotiations. I just spent my two week vacation at a really intense American University campaign management class. I highly recommend that class because I learned that you’re basically creating an organization; you’re learning how to create a startup, manage a huge budget. And you have to win. You have to win. I also learned in that class that you can move up a lot faster in your career if you work on a political campaign. Within the campaign, you can easily be a lowly volunteer one day. And then maybe in a bit of time (in a shorter bit of time than you would in other work settings, in other sectors), you can quickly move up to be in the leadership of a campaign.
DC: That sounds great. It’s good to have opportunities to get hands-on experience with what you’re learning from these classes whether they’re in your curriculum or as you say after you graduate.
JC: Right, I mean I think I learned different things creating the Student Environmental Center and passing a campus ballot measure I just learned so many more things that I didn’t learn in my internships. Internships are also a really great way to learn. But you can learn different things when you strike out on your own.
DC: I don’t have any further questions. But I would like to thank you very much for your time. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?