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Michelle Knapik is the Director of the Sustainable Environments Program at the Surdna Foundation where she engages in grant and program-related investment making to advance Next Generation Infrastructure, including Transportation Networks and Equitable Development Patterns, Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment, Urban Water Systems, and Regional Food Supply. Prior to Surdna, Michelle served six years as the Environment Program Director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. In that role, she developed strategies to support sustainable community solutions in close partnership with grantees, civic and business leaders, and funding colleagues in the New Jersey region. A lawyer by training, Michelle worked for 11 years for the City of Philadelphia, first as a legislative aide to Councilwoman Happy Fernandez focusing on policies related to low-income energy services, and then as the Philadelphia’s Director of Energy Policy, where she initiated energy efficiency programs, transportation fuel alternatives, green building/sustainable development initiatives, and low-wealth community energy strategies. In addition to her experience in urban environmental contexts, Michelle's background also includes service in the U.S. Navy as an aviation structural mechanic. Michelle did her undergraduate studies in sociology and women’s studies at East Stroudsburg University, and earned a law degree from Temple University. A native of New Jersey, Michelle now resides in New York’s Westchester County.

How would you describe your career?

I have always seen my career choices in terms of different forms of service. I approached my legal training as a path to public service and urban policy reform. I aspired to help turn what can often feel like an arcane language and system (the law) into a more accessible platform for social change. My interest in the Armed Forces was about understanding a particular sense of "service to country." Before that, I engaged in grassroots environmental activism (service) that included 80s-stye “issue canvassing," and organized protests and awareness raising campaigns. I rappelled off buildings to hang signs and rode zodiacs in the dark to maneuver close to protest sites. Through all of it, I experienced various levels of small and capital "P" politics and power, communication frames, and languages - all of which can be understood and moved in ways that pull on different levers of formal and informal change.

When I hopped into city-scale environmental policy (late 80s/early 90s) it was pre "sustainability director" era. Cities like Philadelphia were still figuring out how much energy each individual facility it owned or leased was consuming at different times of the day. The work was about a shift to energy management that combined smart mechanical systems, operator education, and user behavior to achieve economically motivating energy use reductions. It was also the era of utility deregulation, and although I was inside the machine of city government, there were voices organizing from within and outside of the system to protect low-income customers from then "hidden" impacts of "consumer choice" and new energy purchasing schemes. This mix of emerging green architectural and engineering solutions combined with questions about “what is the impact on people’s lives – especially those who historically and institutionally have been shut out” (i.e., institutional racism, etc.) led me to dig deeper into the forces that can catalyze socially just change while also improving our relationship with nature and supporting our responsible, sustainable use of all types of resources.

This “connect-the-dot” approach to social change eventually led me to the philanthropic sector (noting that the City of Philadelphia needed to fill my position with a Sustainability Director, which it did!). I think cities can be tremendous places of experimentation and innovation, but making change stick, replicating best practices, and ensuring that we set inclusive tables for change in terms of system redesigns, access and benefits often requires flexible, risk-taking, patient capital. I’m not sure philanthropy always lives up to its promises on these fronts, but more and more people in the sector are taking steps in this direction.

When did you begin working with AGree?

Only about a year ago – it was in parallel with Surdna's program strategy shift to "next generation infrastructure." Food systems might not be the first thing one thinks of in a "next gen infrastructure" frame, but it is clear that we need to rebuild regional food infrastructure in new ways if we want to achieve healthier, just, and sustainable communities. And we need the folks who are thinking about transportation, water, energy, and other forms of infrastructure innovation and investment to include regional food infrastructure in their worlds. AGree's emerging policy focus on regional food systems is a strong bridge to so many ag and urban-rural leaders and perspectives – and to other parts of the global food system. Our engagement in AGree is accelerating our movement toward new models of regional food supply – and we hope that our on-the-ground, socially just, food hub, and value chain funding is bringing learning to AGree as well.

What may surprise people about you?

I was an All-American field hockey goalie, a rugby player, and member of most other forms of team contact sports, and now devoted to more contemplative practices, including Kundalini yoga – an ancient and exacting yoga that integrates meditation, chanting, mantra, and body movements to raise awareness and consciousness (let’s call this spiritual service!).

reprinted with permission of AGree

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