Learning That 'Progress is a Product of Compromise'

By Julius Graefe ‘16

During my third year of study at Colby-Sawyer College, 2014-15, I enrolled in the annual Third-Year Community Based Research Project, a course tailored specifically to junior Environmental Science and Studies program majors. Prior to enrolling in this course, the bulk of my undergraduate studies consisted of learning via traditional lecture and classroom discussion, with little exposure to any “hands-on” learning.

The third-year project really presented itself as the first – and ultimately the most fulfilling – opportunity I had to engage in learning through a practice-based approach. Together with fellow environmental classmates, the project that I participated in was dedicated to commencement of the Franklin revitalization efforts, which came to fruition over the course of that year.

Julius’ Community-Based Research (“third-year”) class in Franklin, NH with Professor Harvey Pine and Todd Workman of PermaCityLife.

Julius’ Community-Based Research (“third-year”) class in Franklin, NH with Professor Harvey Pine and Todd Workman of PermaCityLife.

When I first arrived in Franklin, NH, I recall meeting with Todd Workman (the present Executive Director of PermaCityLife), who immediately propagated the idea that Franklin was a blank canvas with untapped potential. Yes, Franklin was a struggling city with an economically depressed downtown. Todd declared that the depression could be shaken through innovative intervention. From the start, Todd encouraged us to delve into creative thinking, with the intention of developing a shared vision for the transformation of the downtown. Putting financial practicality and the possibility of implementation aside, what did we, as individuals and as a group of millennials, think constitutes a sustainable and vibrant city center?

I believe that some of the preliminary exercises that Todd conducted generated a significant amount of excitement for the project, and students were not only quick to conceive ideas, but were also eager to proceed to the next phase of designing strategies for the realization of such ideas.

Initially, the objective of the third-year research project was to compile a list of recommendations that would inform the municipality’s 2014 update to the city’s Master Plan. Some of the most important sections of the Master Plan include the vision statement and the status of economic development. While our group provided recommendations to the city in each of these areas, it also consulted and represented the forthcoming nonprofit, PermaCityLife. As a student researcher for the Franklin Falls revitalization initiative, spearheaded by PermaCityLife, I had the opportunity to collaborate with municipal leaders and local agencies to not only draft proposals for recommended action, but to also carry out their implementation.

One specific area that our group focused on was improving upon the city’s existing civil infrastructure (e.g. transportation, stormwater, waste management, and energy systems), by pinpointing areas for improvement based on sustainable practice. For example, public transportation initiatives were a key component of the greater city’s revitalization efforts since no modes of minor or mass public transportation existed in Franklin. I had the privilege of working with local transportation authorities to introduce a city plan for the development of a multi-modal system of public transit. I was able to expand upon the city’s cycling infrastructure by establishing a route that merged two previously disconnected bike trails through the downtown area. I also devised a transit plan for the development of potential bus service from Franklin to Concord, NH. I consulted the NH Department of Transportation, which agreed to sponsor and fund a “Franklin to Concord Public Transit Feasibility Study.”

Working with the City of Franklin and PermaCityLife during my junior year allowed me to apply classroom learning to what evolved into a professional consulting experience. The third-year project provided me with an ecology-like glimpse into the nature of the interactions that occur between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. My experiences in Franklin taught me, quite literally, how to be an advocate for whole systems sustainability; a system comprised of social welfare, personal wellbeing, economic vitality, and ecological integrity.

The main takeaway from the project is that progress is a product of compromise between two or more entities, in which respective costs and benefits are closely analyzed and reconciled. What was humbling to me is how stakeholders in Franklin were able to come together to create change for a positive, environmentally and economically cohesive future.

Certain governments have brought environmentalism to the forefront of political consciousness, while others have deliberately given preference to economic interests at the expense of the environment. My educational experiences, led by those in Franklin, have highlighted how governments and their legislation can effect change, and how laws, policies, and innovative solutions can be crucial determinants in the emergence of a transformed culture, wherein economies and the natural world flourish together.

The class meeting with various stakeholders in the town.

The class meeting with various stakeholders in the town.

I am now attending the University of Connecticut School of Law because I am committed to furthering the development of environmental and energy policy through the legal process. I see great purpose in pursuing a Juris Doctor, as it will provide me with the skill set that I need to address some of the greatest policy challenges of the 21st century, including those combating climate change.

Through my work and personal experiences, I have witnessed the devastation that the lack of environmental regulation has caused in our world, and I worry about the future. As someone who is privileged enough to possess this knowledge, I see no other option than to direct my resources and energy into fighting for environmental change. I am prepared to change both the policies and culture that drive environmental exploitation, and to build upon the progress that’s already been made.