Energizing the Community
National Urban Fellow Carissa Faña-Ortiz ’02 studied the sustainability efforts of Seattle City Light
by Lauren Davidson
April 1, 2010
When Carissa Faña-Ortiz ’02 came to Dickinson from Puerto Rico, she was one of only a handful of minority students. “At the time, programs for students of color were very limited,” she says. “Now there are a lot, like the Posse program, and the school is doing a wonderful job recruiting these students.”
Carissa Faña-Ortiz ’02 came to Dickinson from Puerto Rico, studied abroad in Toulouse, France, and majored in international studies—all perfect ingredients for the career she had planned in international development. After a stint in Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant for Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, Faña-Ortiz decided to pursue a graduate degree that would give her a competitive edge in the international-development field. What she found was the National Urban Fellows (NUF) program.
“I wanted a program that would give me practical experience and the academic background of a graduate degree,” she says. “I fell in love with the NUF program when I saw all of the amazing things I could do.”
The competitive program enables minorities, people of color and women to gain leadership-development experiences plus earn a master’s of public administration. It starts with a semester of classes at Baruch College in New York City, followed by a nine-month mentorship placement, then a final semester at Baruch. Faña-Ortiz was placed with the electric company, Seattle City Light, in Washington State in fall 2008.
“Seattle is a mecca of the environmental movement,” Faña-Ortiz says. “Coming from a different perspective, I saw right away that the environment is part of their culture. I noticed immediately how different it is from the East Coast.”
Faña-Ortiz spent time observing and talking to people in the community, in local and state government and in the company.
“I wore a lot of hats,” she says. “I worked with senior management to understand the intricacies of City Light and the bigger picture of how an electric company works. I was a liaison between the utility and community looking at policies within the conservation-resources division. That was my main responsibility—working with community outreach and finding out how you get the community more engaged in energy conservation.”
What she found was that City Light was on the right track. The company had some outreach initiatives in place, like distributing free compact-fluorescent light bulbs and low-flow showerheads and it offered rebates and discounts on products. But there was a disconnect.
“Certain pockets of the community, especially low-income and migrant families, were being forgotten to some degree,” she says. “Not a lot of people talk with these communities and try to engage them in the environmental movement or explain to them why this is important. It’s not a high priority for people who are struggling to make ends meet or dealing with language barriers. You have to put things into perspective at every level.”
Last May, Faña-Ortiz presented her recommendations to the company’s senior management, encouraging them to reach out to these communities in more tangible ways, specifically with a career-readiness program for at-risk youth in Seattle that will educate and energize young people and diversify City Light’s potential workforce. And while the organization was unable to implement any new outreach at the time, due to budget constraints, Faña-Ortiz believes it will.
“I didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know and have research and statistics on,” she says. “They were looking for someone with an outside perspective and a passion, someone to connect the dots, and that’s what I was able to do.”
Having completed her master’s last spring, Faña-Ortiz returned to the D.C. area last fall and is a freelance consultant while contemplating her next move. Even though she’s pursuing international-development jobs, she knows sustainability is the career path of tomorrow.
“Renewable technologies are the future of green jobs,” she says. “There’s a lot of potential out there in green buildings, utilities and education. It’s a huge window of opportunity.