Change comes from a sense of place – stories matter.  

We all have a memory of our favorite park growing up, or that trip to the Grand Canyon. Our surroundings move and ground us. For Obama, growing up in Hawaii helped him establish a strong connection to the natural world, thus beginning his lifelong commitment to environmentalism. 


“Everyone understands the power of place and the preciousness of our relationship to the land…rooting people in a sense of place is critical in what you’re doing.” 


And it’s not just the places that matter, it’s the stories surrounding them that help create lasting change. 


“What moves people is stories and connections,” Obama said. 


Stories matter. They create the ‘why’ that drives us to create better. 



While environmental advocates are usually the first to have the facts, Obama believes that true sustainability can only happen when we consider the needs of our neighborhoods and communities at large. 


“Your first job is not to talk, but to listen,” Obama said.  “When you listen, you learn about their priorities, values, worries. It informs your strategy for organizing.” 


In order to be truly sustainable, we must consider affordability.

Pie in the sky zero-emission goals are well and good, but how will they impact the neighborhoods and communities that must harbor these changes, and are they at all prepared to sustain them? 


“In places like California, the way building codes have been constructed, there’s almost no low-income housing in certain metropolitan areas,” said Obama. “So teachers and police officers and others cannot live in those metropolitan areas because of building codes that are so onerous that it makes construction of affordable housing almost impossible.”


Not only must changemakers consider affordability and accessibility, but they also must consider the needs of community members to make meaningful shifts.


Creating a better future is everyone’s job.

Obama believes that driving change is not just the job of policymakers and LEED designers – it is up to communities and rising generations. 


“Grassroots change among young people in particular is always going to be the key driver of change,” Obama said.


Don’t just talk about sustainability – live it.

But it’s not just what you say your ideals are – it’s what you do with them. We can march for climate change or buy recycled building materials – but what happens afterward? Action items, Obama stressed, are key. 


“It doesn’t matter what you say you believe if you’re not spending the time and energy on that thing – it’s just a story you tell yourself.”


Thanks again to Barack Obama and GreenBuild 2019 for putting together such an inspiring keynote.