Keeping It Green

The Institute of Georgia Environmental Leadership provides a forum for candid communication among activists, academics, government officials and businesspeople. Participants say the experience serves them well in tackling real-life environmental pro

Not long ago, the board of directors for a large Georgia corporation was hammering out what it thought was a fair solution to a touchy pollution problem the company was facing.

One of its executives who had completed a yearlong course at the Institute of Georgia Environmental Leadership (IGEL) placed phone calls to three members of his class who were familiar with (or part of) government environmental regulatory agencies, to get their opinions on how regulators might respond. In blunt language he was told the idea would not fly.

“He went back to his board and told them, ‘We’ve got to think of a different strategy,’” says Rob Williams, a senior fellow at the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute and the IGEL facilitator. “He held three confidential phone conversations and asked what the response would be to a move his company was going to make, and they told him. And one of the three he called came to the board to explain.”

The story, Williams says, is a good example of what IGEL was born to do.

“I don’t think that level of safety, security and honesty existed before IGEL. These are people who were on opposite sides of the fence when it came to environmental issues and they found a better option than going to court,” he says.

“What they were able to find – and I hate the term win-win – was a moderation of the two points of views that, quite frankly, came out with more benefits for each party and a more sensible solution.”

Ross King was in the first IGEL class in 2001, and has since served on the program’s selection committee and its board of directors, which he now chairs. “I do know for a fact that [through] the IGEL program the lines of communications [among] the environmental sector, the government sector, the business sector and academia have been strengthened,” says King, deputy director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “And that’s because there is a level of fellowship that has been established.”

It is that fellowship and the candid dialogue it produces that lie at the core of the IGEL experience.

IGEL is the product of an advisory committee formed in the late 1990s to explore the means of reducing rancor and lawsuits generated by the hot-button environmental issues of the times, which included everything from Atlanta air pollution to the lawn watering practices of suburbanites and the use of irrigation in farming.

To IGEL’s Williams and other students of such environmental conflicts, most of the fights seemed to end in court. “I think we all know you cannot get creative solutions out of litigation, says Williams, a seven-year veteran of IGEL.

IGEL classes are designed not just to teach the numbers and technology associated with Georgia’s environmental problems; they also teach participants to listen to opposing views and to think about how two sides of an issue can find a harmonious meeting in the middle.

In the process, it is hoped, they can also find out something about themselves. “One of the things we said to the planning committee was that we’d like to think of this as a three-dimensional model for leadership: mastery of self, mastery of relationship, mastery of action,” says Williams, who also leads participants on field trips.

But he cautions not to look for a “Dr. Phil” moment in these studies. “A lot of it sounds like EST training or ‘Let’s go off and have a sort of self-improvement weekend,’” Williams says. “But I have to say it this way: We do better when we’re in environments that bring out the best in us. And that’s what we do.”

The IGEL program begins with an application process and continues with four three-day classes scattered around the state over about a year. Tuition is $2,850 per student, which just about covers room and board. The remainder of the costs for facilities, materials and the like comes from supporters who make cash and in-kind contributions, with IGEL’s board taking great care to see that no one sponsor dominates.

About 30 or so IGEL participants begin their studies and discussions each year at the Fanning Institute in Athens. Trip topics are divided into four broad categories: air, water, land and living creatures. Personal assessment forms are filled out and submitted by participants’ co-workers or employers and analyzed by Fanning staffers. The initial class instruction centers on these personal profiles.

“We spend the first three days providing them with feedback related to their communication styles, to their leadership and to their values,” Williams says. “This is not about changing them. It’s about them understanding their relative strengths and weaknesses and how they might better apply those.”

Because so much of IGEL’s success is measured by the relationships its participants develop, much time and effort is devoted to opening broad avenues of communication, the kind that can be brutally honest.

Tough Talk

“The strength of IGEL is putting a farmer next to an environmental advocate next to an elected official next to an industrial executive and getting them to talk to one another and see issues from each other’s perspectives and get to know one another,” says Kevin Green, executive director of Atlanta’s Clean Air Campaign, and a 2003 IGEL graduate.

“There is never a shortage of good, lively discussions at IGEL, so people have the ability to take off their guarded professional hats and relax and say what’s on their minds and that fosters some very candid discussions. And sometimes things get heated and that’s OK, too, because there is a lot of passion that goes into environmental and natural resources issues, and for good reason,” Green says.

Indeed, a common refrain among IGEL alumni centers on the close bonds that develop between participants representing opposing opinions on the causes of environmental problems and how best to solve them.

A typical class might take a field trip to the coast to look at what Williams calls “recreational development” – the impact of coastal growth on the land, water, air and people of the region.

For the Clean Air Campaign’s Green, who was a state chamber of commerce executive when he entered the IGEL program, a trip to rural Southwest Georgia was particularly memorable.

“I was doing a lot of work on state water issues, particularly from the perspective of Metro Atlanta,” Green says. “What I noticed is that it’s often easy to dismiss opposing views as misguided arguments and never get your hands dirty. But when you walk a cotton field in south Georgia and get to know a Webster County farmer, it really brings the issue to life and you can’t help but develop a better and deeper appreciation for other people’s views; and that creates more of a foundation of understanding.”

Braye Boardman is a graduate of the class of 2005 who arrived at the IGEL program as a real estate developer with definite ideas about where he fit in the environmental debates. “I consider myself a conservationist and not necessarily an environmentalist,” says Boardman, president/CEO of Beacon Blue, LLC, an Augusta real estate firm. “A lot of times the term environmentalist can be divisive. All too often, people who are involved in conservation issues get that bad name of tree hugger.”

Boardman also serves on the Governor’s Committee on the Savannah River, a group seeking to resolve issues between Georgia and South Carolina on the use of that important waterway. “What IGEL did was give me ideas, even those like, say, in Columbus and how they are dealing with Alabama and the Chattahoochee River. I learned a lot that I can use in dealing with South Carolina and the Savannah River.”

Boardman says the communication skills honed in IGEL have benefited him in working with members of the South Carolina version of his committee. “The two committees are in the works of trying to negotiate on how we can provide an equitable and sustainable use of the Savannah River,” he says. “The Savannah River is at the top of the list of environmental concerns for Augusta. We’re looking at how we can share and manage it before we have to get into lawsuits – we don’t want to go there.”

David Eichenberg was in the first IGEL class back in 2001, and he carried its lessons not only into his job as director of agriculture conservation at the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, but also into his private life. “I do use the concepts that we learned in my everyday life and in my career,” he says. “We’re all protective of our own turf, but IGEL gave us the ability to look at other people’s turf as well to gain an appreciation of their perspectives.”

Eichenberg had recently arrived from Nebraska when he signed on for IGEL, and he found a field trip to Dalton to study the environmental impact of the carpet industry particularly enlightening. “My experience was with agriculture, and I was coming here from another state,” he says. “So when we traveled to the other parts of the state it really improved my understanding of the different challenges facing Georgia.”

Learning Lab

Developing an IGEL kinship may be the program’s greatest asset. IGEL graduates speak of their classmates and the alumni in the voice of those who have come through a life-changing event, such as combat, seeing life and career with new eyes. Almost to a person, what King calls “the IGELians” cite the frankness of classroom discussions as the forge that shaped their new relationships. “One of the mantras is, ‘What’s said in IGEL stays in IGEL,’” Green says.

Williams, the IGEL facilitator, recalls examples of the bluntness classroom discussions can generate: “We’ve had, sometimes, one individual to turn to another individual and say to them, ‘I think that’s a highly racist, biased, gender, sexist, classist, organizational point of view.’”

Such wide-open talk can only be created in a shared experience, says IGEL Board Chairman King. “You are in an environmental learning lab both indoors and outdoors,” he says. “You are spending nights on the road in various regions of the state. You are breaking bread with your peers and just have significant opportunities for fellowship. There really isn’t a parallel program anywhere else in the United States.”

Alumni say the IGEL experience continues long after their year of study and dialogue, and even when they are in an eyeball-to-eyeball dispute.

“There was a person from Georgia Power in our class and I just thought, ‘Gosh I’m not going to agree with this guy on anything, or probably even like him,” recalls IGEL grad Julie Mayfield, vice president and general counsel for the Georgia Conservancy. “And now he is a dear friend, and we still don’t agree on things. In fact, in the last year-and-a-half we went through a big battle. This Georgia Power person and I were in some very tense and often angry and frustrating negotiations; but we came out on the other end of it with the friendship still intact. I think that friendship made us more aggressive in the negotiations than we would have been otherwise.”

Many graduates are asked back by IGEL as presenters, and continue with service on the IGEL board or its selection committee. The different classes also get to know one another at events held throughout the year.

And, as expected, IGEL alumni are showing up in the forefront whenever the topic of the state’s natural resources comes up for discussion. “It has gotten to the point where if you go to any significant environmental meeting now and look around the room, you’re going to have 30 IGELians,” King says.

IGEL, say its alumni, has taken some of Georgia’s most critical environmental conflicts and removed them from the legal battlefields.

Categories: Environment, Features