Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
This month’s guest was Trisha Bauman, CEO & Founder, TJBauman, based in New York City.
Tell us about your history and how you got to be where you are now.
My path has been long and circuitous. I started in urban economic development work, focusing on “livability”, which was a term that preceded sustainability. During and after college, I worked in Washington D.C. on policy and public/private partnerships, on the research, insights, and strategic communications side.
At age 25, I did a radical pivot with my life. I went full-time into the performing arts as a professional dancer in contemporary dance. I had studied dance as a hobby most of my whole life, though had little professional-level training. I was fortunate then to have a career with international dance companies, mostly based in France, and touring around the world. About 2006, I was thinking about transitioning my career out of dance and into pro-social impact work, which is what I was always passionate about and what I had done earlier. This was just about the time that the issue of climate change was growing significantly within the mainstream media.
You were immersed in this creative process. How did that inform how you approach sustainability?
It has informed my work in so many ways. As a dancer, I always approached my work from an investigative, research place. I engaged critical thinking and innovation to what we were addressing and how we were addressing it. I got very involved early in my career as a dancer leading creative development and interdisciplinary workshops and trainings and seminars. That experience, combined with international performance, really changed how I was thinking about problem-solving. A lot of it has to do with “thinking outside of the box”, not taking standard approaches to problem solving.
Tell us about the work you are doing now, and what you think the leverage points are?
All of these threads have come together. We have immense challenges now. I work in strategic communications for sustainability impact with businesses and NGOs. This involves multi-layered problem-solving, collaborative processes, and looking at a blank page around how things can happen differently. How do you communicate and interact with other people, other organizations, other players, other stakeholders, so that there is a sense of shared understanding that this is important and we need all hands on deck — so that everyone feels a sense of commitment to the shared process and through a lens of shared values.
Are there core themes that you see as communication problems throughout industry or NGOs?
The most common area where I see challenges across organizations, as well as internal to organizations, is the ability to get out of patterned ways of seeing something and to see who and what are important to consider in a certain situation. In sustainability, you need to widen your view and see that this is about interrelationships and you’re always addressing a systemic issue. The agility to go up and down, from high level to granular. How do you communicate the larger impact but through the specificity of whatever is being addressed?
In this partisan environment, how much is this about communicating to a base versus convincing others that may not know about, or agree with you about, these issues?
This really depends on the organization. For NGOs, you’ve got advocacy and activist organizations where there is, in part, an educational role – helping people understand these issues that are so complex. They need to take facts and science and technicalities and communicate them easily, and show the possibility for creative response and solutions.
For companies, you have the whole variety of responses. Some companies are embedding sustainability and ESG into the core business strategy and value proposition. They talk about their work from the standpoint of how they are actually moving the needle on these issues. Then you have other companies that are more in a place of speaking to the vision or the sense of values around these issues, but it’s more talk than action. Then there is everything in between.
There is such enormous change happening, and such enormous change that needs to happen — and not a whole lot of time — so how the responses are playing out have been quite varied.
Rational arguments around sustainability tend not to work as well as in the past because of the increased emotional response and resistance to science. How can a non-traditional, feminine, leadership strategy be used to break through some of these barriers?
There are several aspects to this question, but I think they do add up to a whole.
From purely a business standpoint, either for a given business or on a macroeconomic level, the business/economic case is loud and clear. So you can use data and analysis to persuade, because the business case is absolutely clear. There is no ambiguity around that. So for building a case, the ball’s in our court.
The other aspect is that the sustainability response we need — as a community, a society, an economy — is so multiple and dispersed across all aspects of the society, both in terms of issues and problem solving, but also in terms of engagement. For that kind of breadth of reach and persuasion and inspired engagement, the communication has to be more than just “facts”. It has to be because people have a felt understanding — this is where I want to be putting my energy, this is what I want to prioritize. Even though it may be uncomfortable for various reasons, because it may not be what I’m used to, it actually is a much more important goal that I’m inspired to invest in. That part is about emotional resonance and shared values. So vision, values, and the felt understanding and commitment.
There is a narrow cultural space in our society for women to communicate that kind of resonance of values and meaning. Within that, in terms of women’s leadership, we also know that women leaders are more collaborative than men leaders, and are perceived as better communicators in terms of both frequency and quality, and better listeners – which is an important part of communication. The “360” research data indicate this. These behaviors and characteristics are critical to being able to innovate and drive change across stakeholders and disciplines, both within and outside of an organization. These kinds of skills around collaboration, listening, communicating, and the trust that that engenders, are intrinsic to being able to solve problems through the sustainability lens.
We also know, research indicates, that issues such as pro-social impact, sustainability, and employee engagement are more important to women than to men when they are choosing where they want to work.
So there is a lineup here. Women are more aligned with the motivation and behaviors needed for effective innovation in sustainability. And the data demonstrate that having gender diversity in leadership and problem solving yields better outcomes.
When you’re approaching a problem, how do you balance educating about the problem with showing the solution? People can become tired of hearing about problems, problems, problems.
That’s a really important point. The problem needs to be conveyed for what it is, but if you stop there, it doesn’t inspire and engage the behavior that will bring about the solution. Research indicates that messaging that shows the positive impact of taking an action, is more effective in changing behavior than just pointing out the problem or showing the negative impacts of not taking action.
I think it has to be both. There is an education aspect so that the problem is understood. And it has to carry the solution side, and also the real cases of positive impact. It needs to be communication that empowers your audience. They need to know that they can make a difference, and all together we can make a difference.
How often are you brought in for something specific but then have the opportunity to address the breadth of the organization’s strategic communication?
There is usually not a radical transformation from one day to the next regarding an organization’s overarching communication strategy and messaging. It’s incremental. Increment by increment is how change happens. Sometimes you get dramatic pivots, but they invariably come when you’ve got a CEO who’s committed to do something and is skilled and able to persuade a board and the C-suite to go in that direction.
Sometimes bringing positive internal stories to the leadership can help to pivot and then strengthen the company’s performance, in part because team members are part of that story, and in part because we know that these stories inspire employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. They also help drive external stakeholder development with the organization.
How do you address the two different audiences: Those who care and those who don’t?
The separation between audiences who care and those that do not care is shrinking rapidly with the upheavals from COVID-19 and from the increasing social awareness and expression around values, identity, social justice, and economic inclusion. In addition, there is a whole wave of communication around climate change, sustainability, and environmental degradation that is happening through channels and communication spheres that haven’t normally addressed these issues. So this view of two audiences doesn’t pertain anymore. It’s now more of a gradation in levels of familiarity, knowledge, engagement, and commitment.
Of course there is a percentage of the population that does not believe that we’re facing these kinds of challenges, but it’s a distinct minority. That minority is also shrinking with changing demographics in this country. You see that with Millennials and Gen-Z. This is also regarding social issues beyond climate change, like gun control, environmental justice, or equity and inclusion. This is in correlation with age. So, as younger populations move into the workforce and the economy, you’re getting an increasing percentage of people who are not only knowledgeable, but who care about changing in positive ways these social and environmental issues.
How do you communicate the “non-low hanging fruit” to the general audience as well as to leadership — those problems that are not as visible?
That’s a really good question, especially because we live such media-saturated lives today. You are implicitly dealing with a burned-out audience. And with COVID, there’s also more stress. This lowers peoples’ threshold for stretching their imagination in new directions. The messaging around single-use plastics, for example, is often involving these horrific images of what’s going on in the Pacific Ocean — the plastic patch, the garbage washing up on island beaches. For some audiences, that messaging could be very effective for inspiring behavior. For many, it’s just overwhelming.
A touchstone for communicating issues like this is to bring something home to where someone is actually living. With any of these issues, there are examples in every community. Bringing messaging to the community level, the sphere where your audience is. Often when we see these images and storytelling around global impact, it just becomes overwhelming and disempowering because it looms so large. Being able to bring it to the community level, to the level of the street, to the day-to-day experience of your audience, can be an effective way.
Another way is to show positive community engagement. Local efforts can be very inspiring. If there is a successful sustainability initiative involving a group of people, leverage the power of the crowd and their networked groups. That’s one way to build momentum.
I hear several themes emerging — the critical importance of systems thinking, empathy, shared vision and values. It is so interesting to think about these themes in the context of your work in strategic communications for sustainability and your experiences as a contemporary dancer.
The kind of work I was doing in contemporary dance was multidisciplinary, implicitly — it included visual artists, designers, sound artists, and dramaturges. Nothing is coming from an established canon of building-block elements. It’s a blank slate at every second of the game. A piece is only ever created because you’re improvising in real time. Through the improvising, you’re starting to see how you’re going to tease out content. It’s about improvising, pivoting, and empathy — being able to feel into where someone is coming from. Where is their imagination and why do they care about it? That’s implicit in the creative process when working collaboratively, interdisciplinarily.
Is there empathy in strategic communication? User experience design — UX in a web-based medium — is implicit in any kind of communication, and certainly in strategic communication. There’s an interaction. You have to think about who you are seeking to reach, and what they care about. Why would they care about what you want to bring to them? When you can get a sense of why they might care, because of who they are — not because of who you want them to be — that’s where you can start to get some common terrain to be able to move forward.
There’s a lot of frustration right now in the United States, and sometimes bordering on despair, around the chasms in this country on so many issues. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that we have so much more in common than we have differences. To be able to find resource in that, and to be able to think creatively and generously from that place as well. I think generosity is another key aspect to it, too. Generosity fuels creative thinking and connection. It’s not a unilateral sense of generosity — where person A gives to person B — but a generous felt sense of connection to what you value and how it might be relevant to all of us. Even if someone sees a different solution or a different path. It’s a practice.
Thank you, Trisha!