Meet the Next American Vanguard: Emma Berndt

Each Monday, we invite you to meet a member of the Next American Vanguard, a group of the nation’s brightest young urban leaders. This week: Emma Berndt of the Clinton Climate Initiative.

Emma Berndt.

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Next American Vanguard is the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders. For two days in May 2009 and 2010, two such groups of leaders had the opportunity to network with each other, engage with experts in their field, hear from seasoned changemakers and jumpstart their ideas for improving cities. But the Vanguard’s work continues year-round in the government offices, nonprofits, corporations and communities they work in. Each Monday leading up to the 2011 conference, which will take place in May, we will feature an interview with a member of the Vanguard. To learn more about eligibility, click here (the application period will begin in early 2011). To read a recap of the 2010 event, click here.

Emma Berndt, Assistant Director, Finance, Clinton Climate Initiative

The Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) is a program of the non-profit William J. Clinton Foundation. CCI works with governments and businesses around the world to create and advance solutions to the core issues driving climate change.

What is your typical workday like?

Emma Berndt: It really varies and could include anything from modeling financing scenarios for energy efficiency projects, including street light and building retrofit projects, to creating presentations examining specific energy efficiency opportunities, to actually presenting to city governments or building owners.

Why do you do the work you do?

Climate change is one of the most pressing global issues of our time. It is a thrill to be able to work with individuals from all over the world to address this problem in ways that make economic sense and produce economic benefits.

What is your proudest achievement?

As part of my role at CCI, working to promote the adoption and scale up of energy efficiency projects with a specific focus on ensuring that finance isn’t the barrier to getting these projects completed, this year I got to present an analysis I prepared that examined the California street light market and the opportunity for switching to more energy efficient technologies to the California Energy Commission.

Who in your city inspires you the most?

Chicago, where I live, is such a dynamic city with so many people doing lots of good work that it’s hard to choose. One person who I am inspired by is Hahn Pham, Director of Operations at Climate Cycle. Climate Cycle works with Chicago schools to install solar systems in the schools and at the same time educate children about climate change and clean energy. The idea is to develop a new generation of leaders in sustainability in a very hands-on way. They organize an annual solar schools bicycle ride to fundraise for the cost of installing the solar systems. And, they just expanded their operations to San Francisco.

What is your favorite thing to do in your city?

On the weekends one of my favorite things to do is head to the Green City Market (which fellow Vanguard member David Rand helps to run), a large outdoor farmers market in my neighborhood, and pick up some vegetables and other treats—not necessarily in that order!

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

Understanding how we define notions of the public good and implement coordinated solutions to large urban issues drives my interest in urban planning. I am still in awe of large public works built for public use and enjoyment, such as subway systems, public parks and swimming pools, and especially of the vision, cooperation and dedication that has to be shared among so many people in order to get these large pieces of infrastructure built. I read a great book by Clifton Hood called 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York about building New York City’s subway system. It’s a fascinating story that describes the efforts of a lot of different people, including initial leadership from the very top—Mayor Abram S. Hewitt (1887-1888) was the first in New York City to make the case for government investment in rapid transit.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

Understanding what motivates others. There can be all kinds of compelling reasons to invest in energy efficiency projects beyond the environmental benefits—and understanding just what these reasons are from the point of view of someone else is essential for success.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

When I gaze into my crystal ball things tend to look a little fuzzy. But, in general I hope to be working on creative solutions to pressing urban issues that require a coordinated response (the public infrastructure of the future!) with a team of people that are energetic, curious and always eager to learn.

What would be your advice to young people who want to make a difference in their cities?

Go do it! No, really. That may sound flip, but I think that engagement is key. Just talking with others in your city about ideas for how to make a difference is a great first step.

How would you define the “Next American City?”

A technologically sophisticated, well designed, endlessly textured and varied urban landscape that functions as an engine of growth and an incubator of ideas and creativity. A place that inspires and that people are proud to live in and call home. An always evolving moving target.

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Tags: chicagogovernancenext city vanguardbill clinton

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