Powering the community: A Q&A with James Stevenson from the Pinellas County Extension

They say that information is power.

If that’s the case, Pinellas County Extension is charged with green power.

Extension’s mission to is “provide provide research-based knowledge and educational programs enabling people to make practical decisions to improve their quality of life.” The Extension is part of a nationwide network of universities that provide research-based information to citizens; in this case Pinellas county residents are linked with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The educational programs provided through Extensions are directed at both state and county concerns. With an extension office in every Florida county, there is an opportunity for education and a foundation for building more sustainable communities.

One of the core aspects of Extension is classroom training and information services. In addition to a comprehensive website, Extension offers “Solutions in 30”, an online webinar program that focuses on key issues within the community such as energy conservation, climate change and money management.

I recently had a chance to sit down with one of the education specialists and sustainability educator James Stevenson.

What are the goals of the different program areas under the Extension umbrella?

“To develop curriculum and outreach for citizens in Pinellas county to understand and implement sustainable behaviors. Extension is a behavior change organization, We, without telling people what to do, we give them the information so that they can choose to do the ‘right thing.’ We don’t come in a say ‘You’re doing it wrong, you have to do it like this’. We don’t make policy and ordinances. We just provide outreach education that fosters that behavior change in people when they realize it’s a benefit to them.

“It’s not just saving money, it’s changing behaviors for the betterment of the whole system. And that’s a four pronged approach. There’s energy conservation, there’s waste reduction and recycling, there’s green purchasing in the workplace and why it’s important to, if you have a choice, choose green, over the long term. It might be more expensive up front but you don’t pay for it later. And finally, pollution prevention within the workplace with regards to hazordas chemicals which might be found inthe workplace.”

How do Extension services reach to businesses as well as individuals?

“Another program we are right in the thick of is called the Green Business Partnership. That is a voluntary self-assessment that businesses do. And it’s basically running down a check list over those same (four) areas, finding out, checking the boxes if you do these practices or don’t. If you don’t, note the barrier there and then we evaluate that, and if there are barriers help them overcome. Sometimes just the nature of the business means that you can’t check any of these boxes for green practices and so we try to mitigate that and try to find other areas in the business operation that can be greener. Once they have been through that, they have an energy audit, a waste/recycling audit and then they get to be green certified. And that is good marketing piece for themselves. They can say, ‘If you have to choose between two companies, you can choose us because we are green certified.’ We are a green business partner.

What are the challenges in Pinellas county to becoming more sustainable?

“From an energy standpoint, a lot of the houses here are old; they date from the 50s and 60s when houses weren’t really built for energy conservation. So given that, we are encouraging people to take advantage of the federal stimulus and replace windows and doors and go with some sort of solar water heating. Another one of the barriers is the cost of retrofitting. It’s hard to convince people that they need to spend money now so that you can have free hot water for life in just three years time.  We try to get all the information, that message across and that there is a benefit for everyone in the long term, not just individual.”

“Another problem we have in Pinellas county is that we are built out. We’re full. We don’t have any green space. So, that means all of our surface is covered in pavement and that leads to all sorts of water quality issues and air quality issues because all the cars on the road. So, just the way that the county grew is a barrier to green beahvior. That makes it even more important that green is instilled inside the home and inside these buildings just as much as outside, just as much as we can control the outside since there isn’t much green space left.”

“Another barrier is the age of our population. Although, the median age is coming down, we are talking about people who have relocated from somewhere else and have done something someway all their life and the behavior change is that much more difficult. One of the eaasiest ways to do that is to hold up the economic leg of sustainability and say, ‘Tis is going to save you money. We’ve got a way to save you money, would you like to hear about it?’ And yes, they would, but is happens to be switching to something green.”

What is the role of education in building more sustainable communities?

“I’ve done a lot of work with youth and they get it. They’re little green sprouts. I work with kids to get them to put pressures on the grown ups. ‘Kids, we have to teach your folks to be green. How can we do that?’ So we have this little army and they (parents) are going to listen to their kids more than they’ll listen to you. Which brings me to the 4-H youth development, because we have what are called Youth Mentors. They are high school aged kids who work with other high school aged kids and the 4-H curriculum is very much based on leadership and being responsible citizens, and really being green.

What is the most common myth associated with “going green?”

“Something that both Vestina (Crayton) and I are both very conscious to remind people in the whole going green thing is that it’s not just about the environment. It really isn’t. And we mustn’t forget the social aspect and we mustn’t forget to support local businesses no matter what they are. Help your neighbor, especially now because small businesses aren’t getting loans. So how do we help? We can get together as a community and help the small businesses, it’s that kind of getting back to the common sense of what it is to be a community because that has a knock on effect, with social issues like crime. The social aspect is one that should not be ignored and it often is because everyone thinks its all about tree hugging but everything has a knock on effect.”

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