PP55 Inspires a Career in Ecological Design

Sharon Gamson Danks’93, and a former PP55 fellow, is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, which was published by New Village Press in November 2010 and has been acclaimed nationally and abroad (www.asphalt2ecosystems.org).

This comprehensive book includes documentation and vibrant photographs of over 150 ecological schoolyards in 11 countries and is one of the outcomes of Sharon’s successful career which began with a Princeton Project 55 fellowship at CONCERN, Inc. in Washington, DC in the fall of 1993.

Directed by Susan Boyd, wife of Steve Boyd ’55—one of the founders of AlumniCorps—CONCERN’s environmental work was a perfect fit for Sharon’s growing interest in this field, and Susan was her ideal mentor for her first job. After being hired at CONCERN, Sharon worked with Susan on the emerging field of community sustainability and was inspired by her colleagues and their work. Sharon’s primary responsibility at CONCERN was to catalogue and organize information from around the U.S. about local “sustainable community” initiatives.

During her time at their office, before the World Wide Web was well developed, Sharon created a survey and database of sustainable community information that became the foundation for the current Sustainable Communities Network website, www.sustainable.org.

After working with Susan, Sharon moved to California, married, and settled in the Bay Area. Inspired by her work at CONCERN, she decided to become an environmental planner, specializing in ecological design, so that she could help cities move toward a more sustainable future. She studied at UC Berkeley, receiving joint Masters’ degrees in City Planning and Landscape Architecture in 2000. After graduation, Sharon was awarded a traveling fellowship from UC Berkeley to expand on her Master’s thesis research by documenting green schoolyards abroad.

When she returned, she formed her own consultancy, EcoSchool Design®, and began working with the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, conceiving and directing the first conference for this newly founded organization. Coincidentally, Susan’s children also settled in San Francisco so on trips to the area she and Sharon would visit, eventually joined by Sharon’s daughters and Susan’s grandchildren. In the fall of 2007 Sharon took Susan on a tour of exemplary schoolyards in Berkeley and Oakland to see how they were teaching the principles of ecology and sustainability to their young students. Upon returning to Washington, Susan was contacted by the U.S. Botanic Garden, which was planning a Sustainability Exhibit from May to October 2008 on the National Mall and was open to a proposal from CONCERN. Thus the idea of a Sustainable Schoolyard Exhibit was born and a series of synchronicities followed.

Unbeknownst to Susan, Sharon and two of her colleagues had just formed a new landscape architecture and planning firm, Bay Tree Design, Inc. (www.baytreedesign.com), which would specialize in designing ecological schoolyards. Would they like one of their first projects to be to design the sustainable schoolyard exhibit on the Washington Mall next to the Capitol? Despite the fact that there were no funds, budget, or staff, they said an enthusiastic “yes” and a very creative and challenging five months of design and planning ensued. Collaborating with Susan and her colleagues, they performed the impossible and created one of the most popular exhibits, attended by over three-quarters of a million visitors from around the world.

Sharon and her business partner, landscape architect Lisa Howard, are continuing their work to green school grounds at schools in the Bay Area and beyond. They have been working with the San Francisco Unified School District on their bond-funded green schoolyard program over the last two and a half years, helping almost 30 schools to create green schoolyard master plans. Sharon was also instrumental in shaping this ground-breaking program, using research from her master’s thesis, fellowship travels abroad, and the sustainability principles she learned long ago at CONCERN.

The publication of Sharon’s new book is providing fertile ground for Susan and Sharon to collaborate further on a new set of projects—starting with an international sustainable schoolyards conference planned for San Francisco in October 2011. The conference will help to launch a national and international initiative to encourage more schools to design their grounds with sustainability in mind and thus inspire their students to green their communities as they grow up to become tomorrow’s leaders.

Emerging Leaders: A New Program for PP55 Alumni

Princeton AlumniCorps is excited to announce the launch of our new Emerging Leaders professional development program. Emerging Leaders is designed to help aspiring and emerging nonprofit leaders develop the skills and confidence to advance their professional contribution and accelerate their careers in the nonprofit sector. All Princetonians and all alumni of our TAN affiliate programs that fit our eligibility criteria are welcome and encouraged to apply.

The lead facilitator and trainer for the Emerging Leaders curriculum is Hilary Weston Joel ’85. Joel is an executive coach and management consultant with 25 years of experience across numerous industries. Joel writes, “The program is intended to yield tangible, near-term value to participants (and their employers) and support their longer-term leadership development.  It will employ experiential learning and outside experts and speakers to build management skills, leadership competencies, and sector-specific knowledge.” In addition to Joel’s role, specific modules will be led by accomplished guest speakers and experienced trainers who are experts in specific areas (e.g., fundraising, nonprofit financials), and there will be occasional panel discussions with well-regarded executive directors from nonprofits in the area.

“This is an excellent benchmark of growth and expansion for Princeton AlumniCorps,” says Executive Director Kathleen Reilly, “We hope to help equip those individuals who completed a fellowship or internship with additional skills and support to avoid burnout and achieve long-term success in the nonprofit sector.”

AlumniCorps plans to pilot the Emerging Leaders program in Washington, DC beginning in the spring of 2011.  Then, based on the feedback we receive, we plan to roll it out in other cities where we have a critical mass of alumni in the nonprofit sector.

To learn more about the Emerging Leaders program, visit www.alumnicorps.org.

Board Member Spotlight: Arthur McKee ’90

Arthur recently joined the National Council on Teacher Quality in January 2011, to head up their project to rate over 1000 schools of education, which prepare virtually all the new teachers in the country every year. From 2000 to 2010, Arthur worked at CityBridge Foundation, a family foundation dedicated to creating and sustaining great public schools in Washington DC. While there, he oversaw the foundation’s Early Years Education Initiative, an $8M, five-year effort to expand high-quality early childhood education services in the nation’s capital. Prior to the launch of the Early Years Initiative in 2006, Arthur investigated the potential of philanthropic strategies in the areas of homeless service provision, workforce development, and asset building. He also taught Russian history at American University. He has a Bachelor of Arts in History from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Russian History from U.C. Berkeley. He serves on the board of DC Preparatory Academy and has two young sons.

How/Why did you get involved with Princeton AlumniCorps?

A brief notice in an e-mail from the University in 2005 reminded me that nonprofit organizations could bring on fellows through Princeton Project 55.  While I was aware of Princeton Project 55, having been a senior when it was created, I actually hadn’t kept up with the organization in the intervening years.  When I got this e-mail I was working at CityBridge Foundation, and we were gearing up for what would become the Early Years Initiative.  We decided to apply to become a host organization and brought Emily Chiswick-Patterson on board in 2006.  Emily made a huge difference as we helped design the academic program of a charter school.  So I became a big fan of the PP55 fellowship.

From my own work, I knew that the supply of talent into the nonprofit sector was something of a rate-limiting factor.  Social service organizations could succeed in making a difference only if they had enough motivated and smart folks working for them. Princeton Project 55 seemed like just the sort of pipeline the sector needed.  After talking more about this with Bill Leahy (who was then on the board of PP55), I wrote a letter to the board and was recruited to serve on a taskforce that had formed to discuss partner organizations.  That work got me hooked, and I was very fortunate to be asked to join the board in 2008.

What is your background regarding nonprofits/volunteering? How have you demonstrated “Princeton in the Nation’s Service?”

To be honest, for the first decade or so after I graduated, I was much more focused on advancing my career in academia than I was service to others.  But when I left academia, I was fortunate enough to join the staff of the family foundation of David and Katherine Bradley (Katherine is a member of the class of 1986 and serves on the University’s Board of Trustees).  They had ingrained in their business enterprises and foundation an intensive ethic of service, which was very compelling to me.  And the work of the foundation itself showed me why it was important to give back to the community.

In the past decade, I’ve served on the boards of four organizations, including Princeton AlumniCorps. I feel like board service is a good fit for my skills, and I feel like I have been able to make a lasting difference to the community by helping good organizations get even better.

What’s the most important thing you look for when supporting an organization or serving on a nonprofit board?

Like anyone else, I should suspect, I look first and foremost at the mission of the organization.  Is it something that I am passionate about?  If the organization achieved its mission, would it have made a significant difference?

But after that, I really look at the organization’s leadership.  Are the organization’s leaders energized for growth and eager to improve?  Can the leadership rally smart and good people to support it?  Even if an organization has good programs, it won’t be able to last long with bad leadership.

I should note that leadership cannot be completely concentrated in a single person.  I look to see who the chair of the organization is along with the executive director.  One of the reasons why Princeton AlumniCorps has had such a good run is that it has tremendous leadership strength on its board, in its chairs, presidents, and executive directors.

Please discuss the importance of what Princeton AlumniCorps does for the Princeton community and communities across the country.

I will defer to my fellow board member, Stan Katz, who has told us that he thinks that AlumniCorps has had a profound impact on the culture of the university.  Before it was founded, corporate recruiters really had no competitors on campus.  And if you were like me, and didn’t want to join the corporate sector, you went on to graduate or professional schools.  The advent of Princeton AlumniCorps has actually made the university’s motto real by providing them with viable pathways to service.  And its emergence presaged the creation of a wide variety of other organizations (such as Princeton in Africa) that widened these pathways.  From what I can tell, students are actually giving a lot more thought to how they can serve than when I was a student.

For 2010-11, AlumniCorps placed 51 Project 55 fellows. What would your advice be for our newest class of PP55 fellows?

My advice both to those who are roughly halfway through their fellowships and those who have applied to become fellows is: network.  We normally think of going out and meeting people in a purely instrumental light, as a means of convincing someone to give you a job.  That obviously can be one goal.  But for people who are just getting out of college, networking is actually a way of getting a much better sense of what you might ultimately want to do.  And you shouldn’t be bashful about asking someone to take a phone call or a lunch meeting with you.  Most people are happy to talk about what they’re doing, and you can learn a lot from asking them some simple questions.

One of Princeton AlumniCorps’ strengths is that it has established a remarkably extensive and dense network of contacts that people in the organization can take advantage of.  So, if you’re a fellow, you can talk to other fellows in the city you’re placed in, your mentor, your supervisor (and, possibly, the colleagues of your supervisor).  And if you are applying to become a fellow, you can talk with the fellows who are in organizations that you’re interested in.

What is your hope for the future of Princeton AlumniCorps?

I’m very excited about the prospect of turning Princeton AlumniCorps into the organizational destination for Princeton alums to get meaningfully involved in community service.  The work that John Shriver and Bill Leahy have done in developing the Community Volunteers Program to establish compelling channels for alumni to get involved is going a long way to making this a reality.

Announcing TAN Placement Numbers for 2010-11

Program Fellows Interns
Adelphi Community Fellows Program (Internships) 18
Bucknell Public Interest Program 28
Carleton Project 60: Developing Civic Leaders
Center for Public Interest Careers at Harvard 28 26
Colorado College Public Interest Fellowship Program 7 13
Dartmouth Partners in Community Service 11 12
Northwestern Public Interest Program 19 0
Princeton Internships in Civic Service 65
Princeton in Africa 26 0
Princeton in Asia 132 13
Princeton in Latin America 15 0
Princeton Project 55 (A Program of AlumniCorps) 51 0
Princeton ReachOut 56 2 0
Stanford Public Interest Network 11 0
The John and Mimi Elrod Fellowship (Washington and Lee) 10 62
University of Colorado Public Interest Internship Experience 0 8
Subtotals: 312 245
Total Interns and Fellows: 557

Community Volunteers Program Launches

By John Shriver, Program Director

On October 13, Princeton AlumniCorps, in conjunction with the Princeton Club of Washington, held our first Community Volunteers outreach event in Washington DC, bringing together over 25 alumni for a rousing discussion around board service and how to best get plugged into the nonprofit sector. This event was a wonderful opportunity for the AlumniCorps community to engage a new group of Princetonians around our vision of civic engagement and leadership; it was a great start as we begin to reach out to nonprofit organizations and identify their needs at the Board level.

Alumni from the '60s, 70's, 80's and 90's gathered in Washington, DC for the launch for AlumniCorps' newest program.

Panelists Bill Richardson ’73, Dick Walker ’73 and Hilary Joel ’85 shared from their personal  experiences working and volunteering in the nonprofit sector, and offered advice to alumni looking to lend their skills in a new way.  As a precursor to the networking event Princeton AlumniCorps hosted November 15th with representatives of local nonprofits, this was a heartening first step for Princeton AlumniCorps newest program! Board member and facilitator, Arthur McKee ’90, closed the panel discussion by saying, “I hold this organization as a sacred trust bequeathed to us, the younger generations, by a truly inspiring group of individuals. It is up to us to continue to carry and lead their legacy through programs like Community Volunteers.”

For more information on the Community Volunteers Program, email Program Director John Shriver at jshriver@alumnicorps.org