Helping communities save money and the environment

Feb 28, 2011

We continue our What’s Working series today with guest Sarna Salzman. She’s the Executive Director of SEEDS, or Seeking Ecology Education and Design Solutions.

SEEDS is a non-profit based in Traverse City that acts as an energy consultant for local businesses and municipalities. In addition, SEEDS hosts the northwestern Michigan branch of Youth Corps, which gets kids involved in projects such as cleaning up parks, organizing gardens, and spreading awareness about environmental issues. Last but not least, SEEDS works with local school districts to develop after-school programs aimed at ecological awareness.

With their consulting work, Salzman says SEEDS is currently working with twenty local units of government on projects aimed at increasing energy efficiency.

“We leverage some grant funding to come into those municipalities and we’ve undertaken a baseline analysis of all their energy consumption, and then we’re in the middle of creating action plans with them. So, buildings were chosen to have comprehensive audits done, and then we picked projects to implement.”

While initially leveraging grant funding is an important aspect of SEEDS’s consulting work, Salzman says that the best part is seeing how far that money can go.

“Each local unit of government has gotten 40,000 dollars to do some implementation: upgrading lighting, or HVAC systems, and things like that. And then, the cool thing is that the savings accrued from those energy investments then are reinvested into new energy-saving upgrades. So it’s kind of like a revolving loan fund, which is something that we’ve really taken a lot of learning from the City of Ann Arbor.”

Whether it’s consulting with local municipalities on energy consumption or working with schools on enriching after-school activities, Salzman says that SEEDS’s greatest asset is its ability to connect public assets to benefit the community.

“I think that the best work that we can do is to synergize with the people who are around us. And that makes all of our resources more valuable. So we bring certain things to the table: an ecological perspective, we ask good questions, we work with people of all ages. And then we find out what other people are bringing to the table and kind of help to knit that all together.”

Salzman admits, “That’s kind of an esoteric answer,” but adds that it’s important for communities to focus on their strengths rather than only their deficiencies. She says this approach differs from community planning that has gone on in the past.

“It’s like asset-based community development, which is a different model than some of the older, traditional forms of development that focus on problems. We like to focus on solutions. What do we have in the communities that we’re in that we can build and make stronger and connect to other things that are strong in the community. So we focus on the assets rather than the problems.”

As for their work in local schools, Salzman says it’s all about passing on ecological values to the next generation.

“We are in more than ten local middle schools and high schools in northwest Michigan. And we’re providing SEEDS-style after-school programming for them. It’s really fun. It’s a chance to share all the ecological principles we’ve learned from our ancestors with the youth of today. So we’ve got culinary clubs, and we’ve got gardening clubs, and we’ve got green teams. And, along with that, there’s a lot of academics that are embedded into the curriculum.”

Even though SEEDS focuses their resources on the northwest region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Salzman says she’s optimistic about the entire state’s future.

“I have very high hopes for the state of Michigan. I think there are organizations and people like us in every community in Michigan. And I think, even though our population seems to be decreasing, I see a lot of people moving back home to Michigan. I think that a lot of Michiganders have left the state and learned some awesome things and we all get homesick and want to come back here. And because we’re a peninsula, we’re so well connected to one another that it’s really easy to do this kind of community development.”

Eliot Johnson - Michigan Radio Newsroom