Ian Johnson; Sustainability Director; ​Colorado College

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Ian Johnson
Sustainability Director
Colorado College

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Ian is the Sustainability Director at Colorado College. As an NWF Fellow in 2009, Ian developed a theoretical rotational management plan for 425 acres in a nearby state park that provided a holistically integrated model for native prairie restoration in conjunction with optimized management of rare, threatened, and endangered (RTE) grassland species for the sake of profit-driven, carbon-negative climate initiatives in the upper Midwest. 

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF in 2009, how did participation as an NWF Fellow help shape your career path?
Ian Johnson:
In a lot of ways. Aside from things like personal growth and networking, I think having a fellowship with a well-known and widely regarded organization like National Wildlife Federation is a huge resume builder – it’s an attention-grabber, a talking point. That’s been a core piece of my professional accomplishments because it fit organically with what I was doing. Nothing about this has been a forced fit.

Interacting with other fellows - making connections with them - that certainly influenced some of my thinking both in reinforcing and challenging the path that I was on, my mindset, and things that I had assumed mattered or were important. I think definitely serendipity played a part in it too. One of the fellowship meetings circuitously turned into a personal invitation to the White House to meet with President Obama back in 2011. That was a major milestone and one of my proudest accomplishments.

DC: What would you say was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
IJ: If I had to pick the top thing, I would say that it’s to step outside of your comfort zone and engage with new people in areas that are outside of your core competencies, to build a repertoire and network that fits with your personality but to always be pushing the boundaries.

DC: What are you up to these days? What is your work as Sustainability Director at Colorado College like and why did you choose to work there?
I often tell people that this is the best job at CC, and I really believe that. I get to work with really incredible students, awesome faculty, and great staff on sustainability initiatives – really broad projects and initiatives, not just environmental sustainability, but everything across the board. No two days are the same here, and I’m really empowered to make some great advancements alongside the folks with whom I work.

This institution really gets it. One of the most attractive things about this place, when I was interviewing, was how they envisioned sustainability fitting into the college. Instead of the traditional placement of the Sustainability Coordinator inside of facilities services, CC had envisioned a director that operated on the academic side, which I think is a huge advantage.

I work on many things that have traditionally formed sustainability efforts on campus with the facilities folks, but I also work closely with faculty in all disciplines on incorporating sustainability – and not only environmental issues, but also social, economic, and community issues. I get to go visit classrooms; I host faculty development workshops; I lead field trips, and I work directly with several dozen students – interns and volunteers – in many offices across departments and across our campus. There is really a level of understanding and development of what sustainability is and how it applies broadly at CC, I think is second to none.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
It’s definitely changed over the years. In some ways, it’s become more urgent now that I have children of my own, and I’m working with college students and the next generation of leaders, and that shifts my perspective to how it’s going to impact these students and my kids and future generations. But in some ways, I think it’s also become more tempered. There was a time when I just wanted to save the world (not that this has completely gone away), but I’ve become something more of a pragmatic radical. And I think it’s important to have some of those radical stretch goals in place but to work towards them in a combination of new, radical, and exciting ways alongside pragmatic ways that are easily achieved today.

I definitely focus more on personal sustainability now than I used to both to avoid my own burnout and also to ensure that the students I’m working with realize that their own personal sustainability is tantamount to their ability to impact other sustainability issues. Making sure that people understand that we all need to relax and take a little time and enjoy ourselves in our endeavors as we strive to make the world a better place, enjoying the world and our time in it while we’re here.

DC: What motivated you to begin on this path?
I suppose just life experiences. Some of it was probably formative relationships with people along the way and the natural world early on. My family was pretty self-sufficient; we spent a good amount of time when I was growing up camping, fishing, and gardening. My dad was an engineer, so engineering and building things that helped us to thrive in our own little biosphere.

At a few points, I’ve certainly found myself working in settings that I definitely didn’t want to be in. and I think those fostered a shift towards where I’m at today. I also love learning new things, I am one of those people that wants to know and experience a little bit about everything, which leads me to not really be an expert in any one thing, of course (laughs), but I think that the path has been filled with new experiences that add to my satisfaction. My primary motivator is happiness; I don’t tend to hang out too long if I’m not enjoying myself. This type of work is what I would probably be doing whether it was my job or not. You know that old adage about doing what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life - I think that’s pretty true in my case.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
I think most people expect you to focus on the great names of our era – someone like Bill McKibben or Vandana Shiva or Joel Salatin, you know those sorts of folks – but I’m hesitant to do that. You know, they certainly make the list of great minds and leaders of the movement, but I don’t necessarily count them as my own “influencers” in a major way.
I think I’ve been much more influenced along the way by my parents and my friends, my own spiritual relationship with my surroundings, certainly a number of professors and mentors throughout my graduate studies certainly, students that I’ve worked with and my colleagues at work have been enormous influencers and have helped me grow and certainly my bosses that have supported me and given me room to define what this work is and what it should be at the institutions that I’ve worked at along the way.
Kind of like I was saying before, I think this is innately a part of me so my interactions and relationships with people along the way - even with different species that I have reverence for and that I observe in my own relationship with the natural world. I think all of those things are my primary influencers.

DC: The NWF EcoLeaders program emphasizes acquiring project-based leadership and project management experience. Individuals across the country are working on various projects that align with their skills and interests, and we provide resources for best practices in project design and management and give them a platform to communicate and support each other. And then they can apply for and receive a certification of their leadership development and project management experience. If you were looking to hire someone, and you came across an interviewee with an NWF leadership certification, what would you ask or say to that potential hire?
The main thing that I look for even with the interns that I hire is whether their interest is an organic trait – are they doing this strictly as a career move or is this a genuine thing that’s a piece of who they are? So, I would ask: how did your projects fit in with your overall life passions, and what were the formative pieces that led you to care about that, and where do you see that going in the future? Those are some of the questions just to gauge overall personality because a lot of this stuff, we’re kind of discovering as we go. Sustainability as a profession is a pretty new field, and we are writing the rule book as we go. So, to expect a potential hire to come through the doors with everything that we need is unrealistic. I think that it boils down to your intent and your own genuine attraction to this field of work.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
I love this question, and I get versions of this a lot from students across the campus. How can I do your job? How can I get a job like yours? There’s nothing more validating than getting that kind of question from the students that we work with. I think my own biased opinion for students that want to work in the field of sustainability is that they need to branch out. They need to try a lot of different things. I tell people, “don’t specialize in anything;” we have so many specialists in this world, and they’re very much needed in their fields, and they’re good at what they do, but we also need non-specialists; we need generalists - people who understand that sustainability is a transdisciplinary topic, and it’s connected in obvious as well as unseen ways to everything else. I think it’s incredibly important to branch out and try new things. And as you’re doing that, think through the ways that those different fields, those different jobs, those different experiences are connected, forming a working understanding of how all these issues relate to one another and how that becomes a sustainability issue.

I relate it back to my experience when I was interviewing at CC. At one point there was a presentation and group discussion, and a member of the group had looked at my resume and saw a career that spanned military service, construction management, green building, a period where I was a liquor store manager for a couple years in grad school, sustainability coordinator, I was a newsletter editor, I was working in fields of ecology and naturalism, I had several fellowships, including the one at NWF in various contexts, I met with Obama, that was on there. And she said something to me like, “you’ve got a long and nonlinear work history,” to which I responded, “actually, everything I’ve done has led me directly to this point,” which I really believe. Those were all formative experiences that built this base of knowledge that I have to be able to do what I’m doing. So, because of things I’ve done, I can now work between people of different professions and specialties. I can work with facilities personnel on buildings management and construction, I can talk about national security issues with somewhat of a level of experience due to my military service. I can talk ecology, engineering, city planning and community development, renewable energy, entomology, chemistry. We can talk about spiritual relationships. I’ve worked in sectors that have all these different things, but how they all fit together has been my personal assemblage of the puzzle. So to sum it up, in my opinion, getting a broad array of experiences is what makes someone a truly effective leader in sustainability.
Habitat and Wildlife

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017