Community Ambassadors Promote Green Changes

  • Joylette Portlock uses songs and costimes to get people to pay attention to climate change. Photo:

September 20, 2013

When Joylette Portlock talks, or sings, about climate change, she aims to get people’s attention.

Portlock is actually a scientist, but in a video clip for her song "Climate Denier Style," she’s wearing black sunglasses and taking on the persona of a certain pop star—you know, that Gangnam-style Korean singer who became a YouTube sensation. She’s an environmental activist and her videos encourage people to use less water in their showers, or sign petitions to limit soot pollution—all in the name of stopping climate change.   And that’s why she’s was at a training for community leaders sponsored by GTECH Strategies, a Pittsburgh non-profit focused on energy.

Her audience is a dozen or so people who are known as GTECH’s Energy Efficiency Ambassadors to 14 communities in Allegheny County. 

For several months they’ve been learning about energy efficiency and how to talk to people about it through trainings like these.  The plan is that they’ll take this information back to the places where they are already working on community issues, right around their homes.  Some are already working on environmental issues but others may have their hands in neighborhood development or education.  Zaheen Hussain is GTECH's ReEnergize Pgh program coordinator and oversees the ambassadors program.  He says training people from a variety of backgrounds to talk to their neighbors puts a human touch on cold, hard science.

"There is a lot of information out there in terms of services that exist and what people can do, but it’s just often hard for people to access that information, and that often scares people away," he says.

Reverend Leslie Boone, a religious leader in the distressed Hazelwood neighborhood, says she tries to wear a smile as she works in her community—even on tough issues.  Portlock’s multimedia approach resonates with her.

"Her kind of just, her acting and her being free to just put herself out there on the line, that’s something we all need to emulate," says Boone.

One researcher and consultant on behavior and sustainability says that the hearing and listening that Boone refers to is key when it comes to getting people to make behavioral changes to benefit the environment. But, Renee Lertzman, based in Portland, Oregon, says the ambassadors approach may not go far enough.  She suggests our collective psyche may warrant something akin to psychotherapy for our environmental conscience. That’s because energy use gets right to the core of feelings of security, and what it means to live a good life.

"These issues can bring up anxiety for people, and we don’t always know how to manage our anxiety effectively, and this can lead us precisely to the behaviors that we tend to look at in the environmental sector and say, well, people don’t care.  People can’t be bothered," says Lertzman.

Lertzman believes people’s thinking can change, but that people need to be engaged on a deeper level than perhaps the ambassadors program is designed for. 

But back at GTECH’s offices, Hussain says he believes the ambassadors model has worked for GTECH before—in a program on Pittsburgh’s North Side aimed at reducing vacant lots.  There, community leaders have greened several lots.

He says one goal this time is getting information to up to 200 households to consider home energy audits, or upgrades which could lower their monthly bills, and reduce their carbon footprints. They’re working in a variety of neighborhoods—from wealthier suburbs to the inner-city. The approach isn’t one size fits all.

"There are some neighborhoods where community meetings are a big thing that people really like to participate in. In some communities, door-to-door outreach can work. In other communities, people are really uncomfortable with anyone going door-to-door," he says.

He hopes people from these diverse communities eventually will seek out their ambassadors when they have questions about energy issues.  So their training will continue through this year.  Finding a way to gauge the impact they’ve had on air quality and energy efficiency in these communities is the next step, he says.