January 2023 marks 20 years since the founding of the Austin EcoNetwork by Brandi Clark Burton.
Interested in getting involved in Brandi's climate action work? Send her an email at email@example.com.
This month marks 20 years since the founding of the Austin EcoNetwork by Brandi Clark Burton, my friend and mentor. Keep reading to learn more about her incredible service to this community over the years… and what she’s up to now.
The year was 2003. The place was Casa de Luz, an oasis located a mere stone’s throw away from downtown Austin.
A group of environmental leaders had gathered there with one question in mind – What can we collectively do to be more successful?
It was an important question to ask. Even though the city had long held a reputation for being eco-friendly, there were major gaps. Austin had no comprehensive plan for fighting climate change, most residents lacked easy access to single-stream recycling or composting, and the vast majority of our electricity still came from fossil fuels.
By the end of the day, this group of 45 or so environmental leaders had identified three key areas for improvement…
Better digital communication
More social interaction
Physical center/hub for the local environmental community
Heading up this meeting was Brandi Clark Burton, a lifelong Austinite with a passion for bringing people together to do good in our community.
Brandi seized on these three goals, focusing most intently on the first one – better digital communication. It can be a bit hard to imagine now, but at the time, building a website was a huge undertaking. There was no WordPress, Mailchimp, or Google Calendar.
“The environmental community still communicated like cavemen,” Brandi recalled. “There really was no coordination or collaboration.”
So she started with a Yahoo Group and called it The Austin EcoNetwork.
Before this, the only real “environmental updates or announcements” in town came from George Cofer (founding Executive Director of the Hill Country Conservancy & EarthShare of Texas). He would periodically forward interesting emails to a list of environmental leaders he had saved on his Outlook account, that is, until it crashed and the list was lost forever.
Again, it was 2003.
But Brandi took up the task of keeping the local environmental community informed with a dogged sense of diligence and professionalism. Over the next 10 years, that 100-person Yahoo Group grew to a website and newsletter with over 7,000 subscribers. In the newsletter, Brandi would share information about local green events, volunteer opportunities, job openings and local news updates.
“I had so many people tell me that our calendar and our newsletter was their social-planning calendar. I had so many nonprofits tell me, gosh, so many of our volunteers came from your postings,” Brandi says. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”
And not only was Brandi writing about these events for the EcoNetwork, but she attended a lot of them herself. For years, if you went to an environmental event around town, you could expect to see Brandi there, clipboard in hand, trying to grow the network of people in Austin who loved our city and wanted to get involved in improving the environment.
This is something Brandi has always been good at. She’s a community-builder and a connector.
I know this firsthand, because when I arrived in Austin in 2013, in my early 20s and without any community in a city that was completely foreign to me, I found the Austin EcoNetwork… and it led me to where I am today.
At the time, I was fresh out of journalism school and didn’t know anyone in Austin. But I subscribed to the newsletter, started attending the community events, and learned more about the city that I now call home.
I liked what the EcoNetwork was doing so much that I eventually started working there. It was in the fall of 2014, when Austin was about to hold its first-ever 10-1 Council elections and 78 candidates were running for 11 local offices. Brandi worried that with so many people running, it would be hard for the public to really learn about the candidates, or discern who cared about the environment, so she launched an ambitious initiative called the Election Navigator Project, and I came on to help out.
With crowdfunding support and a lot of help from volunteers, we were able to interview (on-camera) almost all the candidates running, create infographics (with basic info about the candidates), and gather the answers to all the candidate questionnaires sent out by local environmental orgs and put them together into one publicly-accessible, searchable database.
After starting out as just an intern, I eventually became Editor-In-Chief of the Austin EcoNetwork and Brandi, a serial social entrepreneur, went on to do lots of other projects in our community. She still maintained a connection to the EcoNetwork, but graciously trusted me to take the lead in the next chapter of the organization.
And then, in 2018, the two of us sat down to ask ourselves a question that Brandi had first asked the environmental community nearly 20 years before – What can we collectively do to be more successful? Are we serving the community as best we can?
And we decided that we could be doing more. Instead of just sharing eco news to the eco community, we could try and grow our local civic community more broadly. We could take some of the lessons we had learned from the Election Navigator project and the info we had gathered from years of watching City Council and local activists and make local government more accessible to all.
And so, we started a 2 year process of reimagining what the EcoNetwork could be and in 2020, officially retired the EcoNetwork and launched The Austin Common.
And again, Brandi entrusted me to take the lead and here I am today, Editor-In-Chief at truly my dream job.
And once again, Brandi still lends her support to make The Austin Common thrive and succeed.. But most of the time, she’s off dreaming and scheming up her next big social impact project, which is just about to launch.
The focus? Climate action, in particular, within the small business community.
“The timeline is getting very short, inside of which we can meaningfully take action that will stave off true disaster here on the planet. So if we can demonstrate one local community getting engaged, in motion, taking this seriously, collectively, that’s what I’m interested in doing next,” Brandi says.
“I really want to not only activate a local community, but start to tackle the 99.9% of businesses in America that are small businesses,” Brandi says, explaining that big companies and corporations have Chief Sustainability Officers and whole teams dedicated to reducing emissions, but small businesses really don’t have any resources at their disposal.
And as Brandi says, if Austin (and America) is going to achieve its climate goals, it needs small businesses to get involved.
“I’m committed to creating content, like we did with the Election Navigator, in a variety of formats, that speaks to small businesses,” Brandi says. “Like, how do you be green as a coffee shop? Hair salon?”
To kick it all off, Brandi is working on putting together a summit for local community and business leaders (to be held sometime before Earth Day). The goal, like everything Brandi has done in her career, is to inspire people to “get in action, be excited about it, and feel part of a collective.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the summit or Brandi’s climate action for small businesses work, send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org .