(L to R) Jerry Tinianow, Jamila Rockette, Sonrisa Lucero, and Mayor Michael B. Hancock.

This week, we speak with Sonrisa Lucero, sustainability strategist with the Office of Sustainability of the City and County of Denver, where she’s worked for three years. Sonrisa is a Denver native passionate about awakening people of all ages and backgrounds to the benefits of adopting sustainable ways.

Sonrisa1. Tell us about you and the Office of Sustainability, and the social change you are trying to achieve. 

“I am a proud Denver native. I grew up fishing and camping in the mountains and am the granddaughter of migrant farm workers. These elements of my heritage give me a strong connection to the land and to nature. I sought a profession that would help protect the environment while providing for people. I became interested in trying to curtail climate change; my degree focused on energy resources economics and policy, specifically transitioning the economy from being fossil fuel-based to renewable. My current position with the Office of Sustainability is great because I am interested in policy and in bringing sustainability to scale; I get to work at the level of the city economy—even better that it’s my hometown!

“The Office of Sustainability gets to work across all of the city agencies. The mayor’s charge for our office is to work at scale, i.e., make the broadest possible impact. We help convene, coordinate, lead efforts and more. We also strive to elevate and empower the many sustainability champions working throughout the city already. Our work’s success is measured by impacts to the poor, working and middle class members of our community and the generations ‘we’ll never meet.’ Social change in this field means doing right by future generations, that Denver is a more equitable place that’s going to be healthy and thriving on into the future; a place where everybody is able to realize their full potential.” 

2. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?

“You have got to be the kind of person who loves a challenge to do this kind of work. The harder the challenge, the more intriguing and fun to work on it!

“No one day here is ever all good or all bad. You can have some of the best successes in a single day and receive some of the worst news the same day! There’s always some good to look at in the day. We participate in a variety of projects all at the same time, supporting them in many different ways—therefore we can always find a success to celebrate. We also have a lot of great people in the city who deeply care about sustainability, so we support each other. If we could only succeed, we could make a big positive difference for our community. To try and make our own home a better place—it’s personal.”

3. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break new ground in a traditional field?

“Know yourself, know what you want and what you’re trying to achieve. You’re going to get tested in so many ways, it may be impossible to see what the path or progress to your goal is going to look like—don’t lose yourself, stay grounded in what you want to achieve. There is no correct path, so you have to be nimble and flexible to take the opportunities that arise. Also, you have to meet people where they are. You can’t expect others to already know what you know, or to do things how you do things—you have to be creative in finding ways to align their interests with your objectives. Unearth why they would want to do what you want them to do.”


4. What book do you recommend to everyone you meet and why?

“I recommend The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. It’s all about having the courage to follow an idea, follow a dream and persist even through setbacks. You realize the universe will both test you and conspire in your favor when you go after your dreams. Your dreams may lead you to unexpected places, but you wouldn’t go on the journey without the dream.”

5. How have you worked with JVA, and how has that helped your organization?

“JVA provided facilitators for our roundtables and summit breakouts for last year’s Sustainable Denver Summit. They were partners in designing our agendas and approach for how we would run the summit. The mission of the summit was to engage the community in taking ownership of our 2020 sustainability goals and identifying the ways they want to participate in helping to achieve those goals. It’s an action-oriented summit, not a learning-based conference: learn how to roll up your sleeves and how to get your hands dirty to help with efforts for a more sustainable Denver. On the day of the summit, our programming centered on what individuals can do, while pre-summit roundtables focused on what organizations can do to help with our 2020 goals. JVA helped improve our model and design for the summit and helped connect to a different audience than what we have had in the past at these events, too, by bringing in more organizations focused on social issues, beyond just those focused on environmental issues.”

6. What else would you want to share with us that we haven’t asked?

“A lot of folks see sustainability as this unapproachable word, or they have a preconceived idea of what it means: environmental protection or “being green,” etc. The biggest thing I try to get people to recognize is: We all know what “sustainable” means. We are just trying to create a sustainable community, where people can thrive–not just today or tomorrow, but over a long period of time. If you care over a longer time frame, you take a broader perspective on what is important when making today’s decisions. If people could connect more with that concept, they might not react to issues of sustainability with apprehension, but instead see that it’s in their children’s and future generations’ best interest to take these steps—and thus, it is something to want to be a part of.”

Read other Changemaker Profiles here!