Interview with Craig Johnson Part I: MNHS Green Team Flashback

This interview was conducted by Yixuan Cai, our Summer 2015 Sustainability intern. Yixuan co-wrote this post with Shengyin Xu. It was edited by Samuel Courtier.

Craig Johnson at James J. Hill House

Craig Johnson: “Through the lens of Sustainability, we can take a close look at how people did things in the past and contrast them with how they do things today. All of the MNHS programs might have greater relevance when evaluated in light of the big Sustainability issues of our day—climate change being foremost.”

Craig Johnson gives us a history of the Green Team at MNHS and tells the story of Sustainability’s evolution from brown bag topic to strategic priority.

Sustainability is a strategic priority at MNHS thanks to the collaboration of a few passionate individuals who assembled to form the MNHS Green Team in 2008. Craig Johnson, a founding member, played an instrumental role in the transformation of the Green Team's early successes, like the "Green Team Tips" e-mail campaign, into institution-wide commitment to sustainable practice.

Craig began his career at MNHS in 1977 as an interpreter at Fort Snelling. From 1984 on, he held various positions at James J. Hill House, becoming site manager in 1994. In 2015, Craig decided to leave MNHS to focus on another of his passions, theater. Before moving on, Craig was kind enough to sit down with Yixuan Cai, our Summer 2015 Sustainability Intern, for an interview at James J. Hill House. Craig gave us a retrospective on the origins of the Green Team and the evolution of the Sustainability initiative at MNHS.

The Green Team Takes Root

Craig described the early days of the Green Team and some of the first questions that were raised.

“We started just getting together doing bag lunches and stuff like that to talk about things and to share ideas about how to change and move further. We had questions like: Can the Sustainability initiative become institutionalized? Do we want it to do that? What are the different ways that could happen? We quickly realized that there are a number of different layers to look at: What is our business operation? How are we using our space—are we using it in a sustainable way at all? Are there ways we can be more green as a workplace environment?”

He commended Laura Salveson, Director of Mill City Museum, for her vision and willingness to take the lead.

“Laura Salveson almost immediately became the Green Team's unofficial head. Mill City Museum had already been developed with the aim of stepping more consciously into Sustainability. Laura saw that Sustainability issues like river use, agricultural sustainability, and food waste management fit directly with the content of Mill City. The museum provided a natural springboard. Laura took the driver's seat and found many others who were happy to go along.”

For more on Sustainability at Mill City, check out our interview with Dan Hansen, Mill City facilities maintenance technician.

Sustainability Branches Out

Craig recalled his excitement over the enthusiasm and support generated, both inside and outside the institution, by the Green Team's efforts.

“The Green Team started out as a group of site managers within the Historic Sites division, but quite quickly, others expressed interest. This was one of the most encouraging things early on. People who represented a broader community—people like Sarah Beimers and Natasha Wiener from the State Historic Preservation Office—got involved. People from this community were giving out major grants and designations for historic districts. Sustainability would start being built into their culture and their language, so it was a priority for them. Then people like Karen Nichols, who is responsible for most of the facilities operations at the history center, got involved. People from Marketing and PR were saying, ‘This is good! People should know about it!’ and they got involved to help us communicate and get the message out.”

With growing interdisciplinary support, the Green Team was able to turn Sustainability into a strategic priority at MNHS, leading to Shengyin's position. As Sustainability and Capital Projects Manager, Shengyin further expanded initiative's scope, engaging with the wider Sustainability community.

“We found an opportunity through Legacy funding to create a Sustainability office and hire a manager full-time. Laura and I worked together pretty closely with other members to write a job description and push it through management committee. That became Shengyin's role, and it’s now recognized within the institution. The Green Team went from just being an interested group to being an institutional priority. Shengyin proceeded to take the mission beyond the institution by presenting to the broader community. Whenever an opportunity bubbled up, we moved forward.”

A Green Team from the Ground Up

We asked Craig if he had advice for those wishing to start a Green Team at their own institutions.

“First of all, I would say don’t wait for the institutional management to decide that. A Sustainability initiative can bubble up on an individual level within a work unit between like-minded colleagues who just share the interest. Hopefully that interest will be supported, since a Sustainability initiative fosters good citizenship and confers obvious benefit in terms of good PR and money-saving for the organization. So the management should be able to just encourage it. Say things to people like: ‘Let’s get a happy hour together!’ ‘Let’s do a brown bag lunch!’ ‘Does anyone want to speak up about operations in your site or your work unit?’ ‘What are three sustainable things that you’ve done?’ and you'll get that energy going; people will start thinking about Sustainability.”

Craig further emphasized the grassroots nature of successfully starting a Green Team.

“The whole green team and the sustainability movement is something that came up through individuals coming together with a shared concern, not from taking orders from above.”

Greener Pastures Ahead

Craig is passionate about communicating with people, and in many respects, communication is the unifying element of his career. Not surprisingly, his hopes for the future of Sustainability at MNHS center on the potential of our programs to convey the wisdom of sustainable practice to our visitors.

“We get back to that whole question of, "What is in the historic content that we are talking about?" We can look at and evaluate the sustainable models within that content. How can we push those Sustainability ideas out a little bit more so maybe they can be branded? For example, if we do a tour of the Hill House, can we incorporate sustainability or climate change? Is there a way to talk about those issues at Fort Snelling or Kelley Farm? If we are doing a butter churn, can we examine whether it is carbon-neutral? How can sustainable practices be highlighted in programs we're already doing so that they can be branded, marketed, and communicated in a way that says, ‘Get it? This is a sustainable practice!’ Letting people know that we are doing these things is what the Green Team has been all about.”

In Part II of this interview, Craig discusses Sustainability at James J. Hill House along with sustainable practice in his personal life. Check back next month!