Interview with

Michelle Knapik

Sustainable Environments
Program Director

Michelle joined the Surdna Foundation in 2011
to lead the Sustainable Environments Program.
We asked her to talk about her reflections from
the past year and vision for 2012.

How has your past work informed your new position?

Sustainable communities has been a theme throughout my career, starting with grassroots activism at Greenpeace Action and moving into roles such as director of energy policy with the City of Philadelphia and environment program director at the Dodge Foundation. My on-the-ground experience helped me realize that there needs to be a connection among government, the nonprofit sector, academia, business and other stakeholders. There is no substitute for the integrated, cross-sector work that needs to be done to achieve the many benefits of sustainable community investments.

What were the most important accomplishments for your program
in 2011?

This was a breakthrough year in terms of transportation and smart growth concepts becoming infused with economic principles that strengthen underserved communities and the environment. In the Midwest, grantees succeeded in securing standards that ensure more local residents are hired for publicly funded transportation projects, and we think this will be a social and economic justice model in other parts of the country. Effective cross-sector work also helped secure policy wins on energy efficiency at the state and local levels, including landmark efforts in New York to increase entry-level clean energy jobs with career potential and affordability of energy-efficiency retrofits for lower-income residents. Surdna also joined several other national funders in establishing a matching fund to catalyze partnerships between local government sustainability directors and place-based foundations to advance efforts such as energy-efficiency financing models and behavior change campaigns.

How will your program help build just and sustainable communities in 2012?

We will continue to look carefully at the creative, collaborative power of grantees working together to increase impact. It will be a priority to support ways for the energy and economic development fields to explore new funding models, such as financing energy-saving building upgrades through utility payments or creating new investment tools. Similarly, we want to accelerate the connection between the smart growth and transportation community and local food advocates to coordinate on land use and market development. Lifting up local success stories will also be a key strategy in making the case for expanding sustainability solutions that can work in communities across the country.