One Black Woman’s Vision for the Re-Formation of the Sustainability Movement and of Herself

After nearly 20 years as a senior executive at the U.S. Green Building Council and in the green eco-chambers of its global marketplace, I resigned the week before Thanksgiving to very intentionally refocus and revive my work and myself to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion to the center of the sustainability and global green building movement. This is why.

I am the 00.1%. I am a Black woman executive in sustainability, and I am a licensed minister of the Gospel. From both of these perspectives, I can share that Monday through Friday and any given Sunday, the green movement’s major events and everyday meetings look just like houses of worship all across America — they are segregated and not diverse. Segregated, despite the fact that both were established to be epicenters of healing and of bridging community.

Since 2003, I have found my purpose and calling in the mission of the sustainability movement by advancing the health, vitality, and the triple bottom line. I built Greenbuild as the tent revival of the global green building movement and led it to become the largest award-winning green conference and expo in the world. My role as an executive gave me a platform for driving sustainability into the hospitality, conference, and events sectors in every major city where Greenbuild traveled — with many thanks to the tens of thousands of attendees, thousands of exhibitors, thousands of volunteers, and millions of dollars the conference attracted for its hosts. At Greenbuild’s height, the USGBC reaped a financial windfall from more than 28,000 attendees, 1500 exhibitors and sponsors, 700+ global speakers, and 500+ media outlets in attendance annually. Attendees had access to more than 15 football fields of the clean energy economy’s products and services representing hundreds of billions of dollars aggregate value. As a result, USGBC sold Greenbuild in 2014 to Informa Expositions as a part of its efforts to establish separate events in China, India, Europe, and Brazil.

But what I privately experienced was different. At least once in each new city, while waiting for a first in-person meeting in some hotel or convention center lobby, my hospitality counterparts would assume my white interns or co-workers were me and that I was their assistant. I was outwardly patient, but inwardly thought, “Surely, such innovation and potential growth can be trusted in these Black hands!”

Greenbuild International Conference & Expo l Los Angeles, CA

Standing in line waiting to hear President Obama as the keynote speaker for Greenbuild 2019 in Atlanta was the catalyzing moment for me, both as a green building industry leader and a movement evangelist. We had first presented diversity as a central theme nearly 15 years earlier, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina at Greenbuild 2005. Embracing diverse leaders and perspectives was the intent, but it wasn’t realized. Persistent challenges stifled the development of a flourishing, inclusive community where a culture of belonging could thrive. This was powerfully evident in 2019, where so few people of color were present to hear the powerful message of leadership and hope from President Obama in the historic City of Atlanta! Neither were there recognizable advances in more diverse ownership of the products and services on display in the expo hall.

I recognized that the future of our sustainable and clean energy economy will only be re-claimed when diversity, equity, and inclusion are evident in everything we do. Diversity, equity, and inclusion became my personal strategic imperative, and that became the driving force for my work within the sustainability industry.

Greenbuild International Conference & Expo l Washington, DC

Scripture states, “Write the vision and make it plain.” Ten years ago, I wrote down my vision. I committed that I would:

Use the powerful sustainability experience and knowledge I gained to inspire, mentor, and sponsor young women to dream and achieve beyond stereotypes and circumstance to obtain a better life and purpose.

And that’s what I did. In 2012, with overwhelming industry and movement support, I introduced and led the Women in Green leadership platform to accelerate our unique influence as women in driving climate change solutions. Today, the Women in Green platform is offered all over the US and in 10 countries. The program has moved beyond mentorship to sponsorship, and has attracted a new global bench of young women leaders tackling issues of concern such as the human health agenda; #metoo; economic empowerment and equity; the power in our collective voices; the strength of our Democracy; purposeful leadership; building a culture of courage; and celebrating our SHEROES!

Greenbuilding Brasil l Conferencia Internacional E Expo

Female leaders lead differently, often in the background, and we get the job done — moving people and systems forward impactfully from a nurturing and co-creative foundation. We must continue to accelerate the call to come from behind the curtains, the back offices, and the shadows to give voice to our hard work in building the sustainability industry and movement.

As a female leader, my pathway to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive movement has been both incremental and revolutionary. I have seen small and moderate changes such as creating a million-dollar social equity scholarship program for Greenbuild, raising $500,000 to build a LEED Platinum orphanage in Haiti, and annually bringing the best and brightest experts to convene on advancing efficiencies and health in affordable housing. What I have learned is that these numbers are small in impact, and building scale is needed to be disruptive. In order to build scale to bridge the benefits of our movement for those who have been locked out, we need BOLDER thinking and strategy. We need a re-formation. And I needed a re-formation to help lead us there.

Unico Smith Tower LEED Plaque Presentation Seattle, WA

Dr. Maya Angelou

Most of the systems I have served with my passion and purpose — Church, government, business, and NGO — have been driven from a patriarchal perspective. What I watched other women leaders do, I have replicated — dimming my voice to not seem too challenging or passionate so I could get things done. Somewhere along the way in my efforts to be acceptable, my message was watered down. Re-formation for me means designing our futures with women in leadership not feared but embraced, supported, and promoted.

My purpose in building the Women in Green leadership platform was to eliminate another generation of young women leaders experiencing what I had experienced in the ARC of my career. This leadership platform promotes the plethora of resilient, strong women leaders with a heart and spirit to transform the vision of young woman leaders. I work so that my young nieces can experience something different, and that they may thrive within the unique perspective their black and brown culture brings to their hard work in the marketplace. My next 10 years will be to drill in on the black and brown experience within our sustainability and green building industries and the re-formation needed to authentically broaden the tent.

SDG #Envision2030 Goal 5: Gender Equality

SDG #Envision2030 Goal 5: Gender Equality

As the ONLY senior African American woman executive for the USGBC since it was founded nearly 30 years ago, my hopes remain, but within a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive paradigm. ACCESS to the wealth and benefits of the community I helped to flourish is anchored to the re-formation of the sustainability industry.

As repairers of that which is broken: broken spirits, broken hearts, broken lines of communication, broken people, broken systems, broken breaches, and levees, we can literally design and operate better by re-forming the leaders of the sustainability industry. They are present already within our broader sustainability and green building community — they just need to be invited into the inner circle of influence.

What we know and understand is that performative alliances FAIL! Structural & institutional racism has resulted in a deep lack of diversity amongst sustainability professionals that is reflected across the industry. I am grateful to have completed upon my exit a 2020 listening & learning tour for centering equity within the green building community. In doing so, 30 plus sustainability champions and challengers were heard along with another 20 waiting to be heard, and all documented their pointed messages and surveys for the work to be done.

Let’s hand the roadmap visioning & strategy securely to the leaders that ACTUALLY represent the communities we desire to serve. Representation and access to the leadership table matters. It must be a re-formation that restores power, resources, wealth, and gains trust.

I have long been nurtured by many of these leaders and champions for a diverse and just green building community: Dianne Dillon Ridgely, Majora Carter, George Bandy, Dr. Atiya Martin, Rose McKinney- James, Rev. Joan Ross, Nathaniel Smith — any one of these leaders should be invited to lead the work forward along with countless others!

Acknowledging and in support of the efforts of NAACP’s Environmental Justice Program’s Center Equity in the Green Building Sector (CEGBS) initiative, National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), Emerald Cities, American Association of Blacks in Energy, and others will put us on the pathway of Re-formation that is grounded in truth & reconciliation!

Ten years ago I wrote down my vision, and that’s what I did. I am now undertaking a personal re-formation so that I can help lead the sustainability movement in a re-formation towards reconciliation and revival. That means writing a new vision to author a better future. Stay tuned for updates. You’ll hear it here first.

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More Updates Coming Soon!

After 18 years of experience and accomplishments, Kimberly Lewis knows better than anyone that market transformation begins with people. Kimberly is a catalyst

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