People to Watch 2012: Melissa Everett, Ulster County Executive Director at Sustainable Hudson Valley, Kingston and Rosendale, NY
Meet Ulster County environmentalist Melissa Everett, one of our people to watch in 2012
Photographs by Teresa Horgan
Most of us want to live in a sustainable Hudson Valley, but only one of us actually runs an organization that goes by that name. In fact, as its only full-time employee, Executive Director Melissa Everett is Sustainable Hudson Valley. But since she can’t do it all herself, she sees her role as getting all of us to sign on to her mission, which is (as stated on her Web site) “to speed up the shift to a low-carbon economy with high quality of life for all.”
But Everett approaches this goal from an unusual direction. “We do a lot of things other organizations do, but we do them differently,” she says. “The difference is about accessing human potential. We have done a lot of education and fomenting of new ways of thinking.”
Everett has a Ph.D. in sustainable development, earned from Erasmus University in the Netherlands. Her studies focused on social and human rights issues from the perspective of populist movements. “It was about people crossing boundaries, dissent, the journey of conscience, and what makes people active citizens,” she says. “I looked at the psychology of social movements.” Her thesis research, which she is now turning into a book, examined “community turnarounds” and the role of social relationships: “What makes people say, there is an injustice here that I just can’t let go.”
One of her biggest projects is the 10 Percent Challenge. “We challenge you to cut energy use by at least 10 percent, and to get 10 percent of your coworkers, citizens, or social network involved,” she explains. So far, she has convinced 14 local governments — with a total population of more than 100,000 — to sign on. “Participation is the real challenge,” says Everett, 58. “Social movements are really hard. People try to make change without making waves, but if things are too convenient and easy, it’s boring and people fall off. The 10 Percent Challenge is an effort to mobilize the community without being boring.”
She wants to make it personal as well. “It’s about word of mouth and role modeling,” she says. “Get your local school board, your college, your faith community, or your garden club to look at what a 10 percent reduction would mean for you.” She says one garden club created rain gardens, and the Warwick school system found stimulus money to fund an environmental science teacher. “It’s all about finding out how you can contribute uniquely,” she says.
Originally from Hagerstown, Maryland, Everett lives in Rosendale. She majored in biology at Trinity College in Hartford, and was one of the original 1,000 presenters trained by Al Gore in the Climate Project. She has written three books and numerous articles, and has lectured both locally and abroad.
Based in Kingston, Everett helped launch SHV — which was created as an education and networking organization — in the late 1990s. It was a disjointed organization at best — “we all thought we were starting something different,” she says. She became executive director in 2004 and, with the help of a board of directors, began to focus on clearer initiatives. In the following years, SHV helped cofound the Hudson Valley Climate Change Network; lead Ulster County’s Legislature’s Global Warming Advisory Committee; create Clean Energy Technology Training Resource Centers in five counties; and convene numerous summit meetings on climate change and green economic development.
“We are a catalyst,” she says. “I believe that change comes from conversations that matter. It’s not just about outcomes but about listening to the levels of possibility that exist.”
What does the future hold? That’s hard to predict. “SHV has a mission statement and sense of self that evolves,” she says, “but it is always about emerging environmental issues and economic opportunity. We will choose projects that will bring new ways of thinking into the community.”
Although she enjoys swimming, roller-blading, hiking, and other “noncompetitive” outdoor activities in her spare time, Everett is most fully devoted to her work. “My work is my play and my closest friends are professional colleagues who know how to make the work fun and human,” she says.
And she is equally committed to the region. “The Hudson Valley has the potential to become a center of excellence for education and training in sustainability,” she believes. “There is a convergence of opportunity here that is huge and unrecognized.”