Storytelling as Medicine: The Women in Green Power Lunch

“Gender equality is a goal in its own right but also a key factor for sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability.”

By: Leah Kinthaert


Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

“According to Korn Ferry, female CEOs are motivated by purpose and want to have a positive impact on their employees, community and the world. Net Impact found that women are more likely to want jobs where they can create an impact. GlobeScan found that women are also more likely to be concerned about global issues ranging from pollution to inequality.”

“Why business needs women to lead on the SDGs”, Ellen Weinreb at GreenBiz.com

At the 2019 Greenbuild conference, a Women In Green luncheon was held to celebrate and empower women in the sustainability field. At times joyous with impromptu dancing and singing – at other times sorrowful with not a dry eye in the house – the event was one of the most inspirational I have ever attended. Why “women” specifically in sustainability? The two quotes I offer above put it in perspective for me: firstly gender equality in itself is a sustainability issue; and secondly statistically women are found to be more “motivated by purpose” and “concerned about global issues”.

The theme for the lunch was “Culture of Courage”, the Greenbuild website explains: “In recent times, women leaders are re-affirming the call and standing for a Culture of Courage more powerful than ever before. Today, women aren’t begging to be heard, or even demanding it, but are simply expecting it. And this deliberate expectation overshadows fear; women are speaking up, women who are bringing attention to injustice, women are supporting each other and not taking “no” or “not right now” for an answer.”

“The 2019 Women in Green platform theme, The Culture of Courage, celebrated the crucially needed and deliberate voice that women bring to society and to the green building movement. Spiritual Activist and Author Marianne Williamson once said ‘Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you’. It takes a Culture of Courage to stand firm as women and continue to fight for what is right – equality and equity with positions at the top and voices at the table.”

Human Rights Go Backwards When We Are Complacent

The President and CEO of Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI Inc.) Kathy Abusow opened the event with this call to action evoking the theme “Culture of Courage”: “Human rights go backwards, not forward when we are complacent. Fear is caused by lack of diversity, a lack of understanding – sometimes understanding the perspectives of others is the most courageous thing to do.” She continued: “More than ever young people stepping up and showing courage. It makes me sad that youth are taking the leadership, as adults we should be using that leadership to be courageous.”

Kimberly Lewis, Sr. VP, Market Transformation & Development, North America of USGBC took over the reins from there and her charismatic presence energized the audience. Design researcher and attendee Traci Rose Rider called Lewis’ stage presence “magic and powerful” on Twitter and it certainly was, as Lewis led us all to a group mediation and discussion on four of the most courageous women of all time: Susan B. Anthony, Greta Thunberg, Mary McLeod Bethune and Malala Yousafzai. Lewis tasked all of us at our individual tables to explain which of these four women we most related to in our sustainability journeys, and invited volunteers to come on stage and discuss their experiences and inspiration.

Interestingly, at the table I was at, the idea of a “women only” event brought consternation from one woman in particular – she thought men should be also be included. It was a great discussion point as everyone at the table respectfully chimed in on the topic. We were all in agreement with this statement: “We need to educate ourselves and get this out, which means we need to have men be part of the conversation.”

How Can We Be Sustainability Stewards?

One young woman at my table said she most related to Susan B. Anthony, she used her personal story to communicate “the why” in what she does and to bring others along the way. She explained: “I work with engineers, I am not an engineer myself. I need ‘Buy In’. I asked what her personal story was and she explained: “I spent my teens canvassing neighborhoods to eliminate bottled water.” The entire table agreed that bringing our own personal stories includes being oneself at work. “We all have the right to be who we are in our personal lives. Understanding what people’s values are, how sustainability might align, is important.”

Another woman at my table commented: “The construction industry is 97% male. Green building consultants are typically female.” However even though anecdotally you hear that there was more women than men in sustainability, there are always more men in leadership roles. So the discussion moved to how as women we may have challenges coming in to a male dominated industry.

“How we listen to make change? Listening thoughtfully to understand where the changes need to be made, how can we be stewards.”

“I Have Decided I Am No Longer Going to Ask for Permission”

Kimberly Lewis invited one of the audience members to the stage who said she most channeled Mary McLeod Bethune in fostering justice. She explained: “I have decided I am no longer going to ask for permission. I ran for office in my town and I won. I have been trying to start hardhat recycling, to dispose of #2 plastics seemed like the most irresponsible thing to do.” Several audience members stood and clapped. It was interesting to actually see one of the trends you read about in the news come alive – as women have been running for public office at unprecedented rates in the past two years.

Another audience member brought up the issues of poverty, racism and gender inequality: “We really need to get down to the bottom of equity, we have some underlying problems. We need to go in and write new public policy, require that developers are given policy, fight for justice. Justice is about diversity and inclusion.”

A moving moment, one of many, was when a high school student came to the stage and explained that she was a LEED Green Associate who had started a non-profit to get more students to be involved with sustainability. The audience of women many of us twice her age or older was so impressed with her that we gave her a standing ovation, and it was hard to keep the tears from flowing, she was so inspiring at such a young age to have accomplished so much.

The next woman who came to the stage said education is crucial, and described her evolution into becoming a sustainability leader: “I started as a pipe fitter now I am Director of Energy Systems. My education changed how I thought about the world. A crazy teacher showed me the film “Soylent Green”, it made me think about the environment for the first time. You never know what a teacher has done to make that change for the rest of their lives. Keep reaching out.”

The group discussion closed with the sentiment that we need to get out of our comfort zones: “How do we have the courage to stay community specific and scientifically sound. We need to come out of our labs. Are you really being courageous if you are comfortable where you are. Being the agent of change gives courage to others. As women told to not take risks, play it safe.”

“We Call Storytelling Medicine”

At that point Shelia Haji, President of Common Ground Consulting Services took the stage. She introduced Dr. Mildred McClain a 50-year veteran of the People’s Movement for Justice and Self Determination worldwide. Dr. McClain founded the Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice and currently serves as the Executive Director. She came out dancing, which immediately engaged the audience to get up out of their seats and dance a little too.

Dr. McClain’s mesmerizing talk was part autobiographical lecture, part stream of consciousness poetry, part song, and all inspirational. She began: “Being an African woman in the Deep South made me develop courage at a very young age. ‘Yeah though I walk in the Valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil’. I was born to a 13-year-old girl. My mother was a sharecropper, 1 of 14 children whose father died. They are a second away from slavery. My mother moved to Savannah to become a domestic for $2.50 a day. 50 cents was for transport.”

Dr. McClain continued: “A story is not just a story, it is someone’s life. We call storytelling medicine, it depicts, it repeats, it tells how someone got over it.”

She looked out into the audience and said: “How did I make it to this stage in front of women so powerful, privileged, educated. What is it about my story that will being some healing? As women we masquerade, we work 26 hours a day, 8 days a week 56 weeks a year, rarely we get the opportunities to just be our authentic self. We are vulnerable: crushed, abused misused, seen as a sexual object.”

Dr. McClain reflected on how she was asked to discuss her own experiences so the audience could relate back to the theme “Culture of Courage”. By one story in, the audience was very convinced of Dr. McClain’s immense courage, we hung on her every word as she continued: “In every authentic story there has to be some healing. It assumes you have kinship with the people you are telling the story to. Recently a 16-year-old white girl plotted to kill some people of color in a church. She should be thinking about 16-year-old girl things, not killing people she didn’t like or understand.”

Dr. McClain’s story reminded the audience how our parents and their parents’ histories may seem like something far away, but affect each and every one of us daily. “Not too long ago it was illegal to teach black people to read, it was even more illegal for black people to read. It took courage to read the bible, to learn the ABCs, To exist as human beings in an inhuman system.”

“When You Go Through a Door, Take Somebody With You”

Dr. McClain made an urgent plea to all of us: “We are not defined by our oppressors. Change the world right now, one person as a time, one neighborhood at a time. We only have one earth and her name is mother. Children are learning the behaviour of self-loathing, without blue eyes and blond hair I don’t matter. How will you help little girls of color be all they can be? Here’s your assignment, when you leave this room mentor at least three girls of color. Work with at least three women of color, to bring them into the fold. Help them become architects, engineers, researchers, scientists.”

Dr. McClain explained how she became the person she is today – highly educated and a leader in her field – with two heart wrenching stories: “My teacher told me: ‘you are ugly, big lips, nappy hair. I am telling you this to ensure that you get as much education as you possibly can. It is only through that you will be able to make it and be your authentic self. As small children my sister and I were accosted by two older white gentlemen, they took our her candy. We ran away because they were going to beat us. That’s unjust. We were little girls.”

“I started looking for ways to change that situation, when they were integrating schools in Atlanta I volunteered to go and help. It took courage. Go out and create opportunities for those locked in the basement economy in this country. Courage is defined as having backbone, my mother called it ‘gumption’. Be brave, become even braver. Speak out against discrimination, against racism, against oppression of women. And most importantly, when you go through a door, take somebody with you.”