Elizabeth Turnbull Henry '00 Harnessing the Power of Shared Values to Take on Climate Change
In summer 2008, if you headed toward the salt marsh at the north end of the Govs campus, turned right, and climbed the hill to the maintenance shed, you would have likely found Elizabeth Turnbull Henry ‘00 with a tool in hand atop a flatbed hauler. She was building a tiny home where she would live for the next three years while a graduate student at Yale. Though the 144-square-foot structure was small in stature compared to a typical American home, it was indicative of Henry’s big-picture commitment to sustainability that eventually led to her current role as president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM).
“When I think about the arc of my life so far, it is going from a really small scale of a tiny house to working for a private company on their green portfolio and now thinking about a state,” Henry says. ELM is committed to ensuring that Massachusetts leads the nation in environmental policy by implementing a pathway to net zero emissions.
At the time of the tiny home construction, Henry was working for a residential building firm in charge of expanding the company’s green building projects. Though she knew her way around tools (having done furniture building while studying environmental policy and economics at Colby College), the Govs maintenance team was on hand to offer advice. “They brought me into their world,” Henry says. “There was also a steady stream of Govs faculty and Byfield community members drifting through or volunteering to help. I couldn’t have done it without a ‘Yes’ from Govs.” (Henry later donated the tiny home to a homeless community project when she relocated to the Boston area for work and to start a family.)
A lot has changed since then. After completing an MBA and master’s degree in environmental management at Yale, Henry landed “a dream job” as senior manager for environmental affairs at Adidas in Boston. After managing energy efficiency and distributed energy projects for the company’s thousands of retail stores and distribution centers around the world, she took on the role as director of energy, environment, and ISO (ensures the quality, safety, and efficiency of products, services, and systems) to manage Adidas’ Green Company Program.
In 2017, Henry shifted gears when she joined ELM. “Individual action isn’t sufficient; we’re not going to compost our way out of this mess. Even if every company in the world modeled Adidas’ commitment to sustainability and climate initiatives, it still wouldn’t be enough cumulatively to get us to a net zero economy by 2050. We need massive structural policy change.”
Henry grew up in West Virginia with a front-row seat for environmental issues. “My Dad was in the coal business so I certainly saw both the environmental degradation associated with that industry, but also the state’s economic dependence on it. From a formative age, I recognized that issues are not always black and white.”
She recalls the challenges of coming into consciousness about climate change. “I experienced what psychologists would now call ‘climate grief,’ the psychological response to the loss of healthy ecosystem functioning and what may be a really different future for themselves and their children. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling.”
It was at Colby that Henry began to open up. “College was eye opening as I engaged more openly about how to build a sustainable economy, how much of this should be individual, personal behavior change, and how much is actually structural.”
When she worked at Adidas in the mid-2000s, Henry began seeing companies engage in policy change in a more significant way. “It was really energizing,” she recalls. And it’s something that she values at ELM. “Think about what’s next if big companies join ELM to learn about issues on Beacon Hill and advocate for policies. It’s really powerful when you have Stop and Shop with you on lobby day supporting a plastic bag ban. It’s not just me, the environmentalist, saying we need it.”
Four years after joining ELM, Henry reports that “It’s been a really great ride that has stretched me profoundly.”
When it came to building her team, Henry followed a leadership approach she practiced as captain of the Girl’s Cross Country team at Govs. “Cross country can be a hard and lonely sport — you’re running alone — but it’s also in some ways the ultimate team sport. I didn’t want it to be a place where if your 5k time was 29 minutes you didn’t feel like you had a place. I wanted the team to be welcoming.”
She took leadership cues from coach David Abusamra P’93, Faculty Emeritus. “Coach Abusamra didn’t favor the fastest runners, but he was aware of how much people were investing themselves in the activity. If your heart and soul were in it, that is the level of personal best that was encouraged and embraced.”
At ELM, Henry follows that same philosophy. “I try to create a culture of respect, inclusivity, and shared purpose. I try to find ways to allow people to continue to grow and progress in the context of a small organization.”
Just a few years after Henry joined ELM, it became clear that she was in the right place. In April 2021, she was named #34 on Boston Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential Bostonians. She was also a member of the 2020 Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40.
“Building trust, rapport, and common ground — finding ways to build shared value through projects — is fundamental to making progress,” Henry says. “In terms of policy thinking, there are ways to create a whole lot of co-benefits around human health and air quality jobs through a clean energy transition. Instead of focusing only on how many parts per million of carbon dioxide are in the atmosphere, for example, we also highlight quality of life issues.”
Henry considers individual states as “laboratories for federal policy innovation,” noting that Massachustetts leads the nation in environmental policy.
“Federal members of Congress are always looking to see what's working in the states, so there is a chance for Massachusetts to do for climate what it has done for initiatives like healthcare and marriage equality,” Henry says. “At this point, we are focused on achieving a net-zero economy by 2050, and doing so in a way that could potentially be replicable.”
In January 2019, ELM took the lead on the coalition for the roadmap bill to reach that goal. A major milestone came in spring 2021, when Governor Charlie Baker signed a comprehensive climate change legislation calling for the state to achieve net-zero by 2050 — one of the strongest state-level climate bills in the country, according to Henry.
When asked about advice for institutions, particularly schools, that want to be more sustainably responsible, Henry responds, “A little bit of tough love” because of the learning curve to become a fossil fuel-free campus. “Nobody knows all the right answers and that can be uncomfortable.”
The mother of three sees a mutual benefit for schools willing to “lean into that discomfort” by leveraging young minds. “Students who are in your care now will be only at midlife by 2050, still in the prime of their career. It could be a crucial moment, having students work with the faculty and trustees on not just decarbonizing the campus but thinking through the endowments and the curriculum. Could you imagine being a 15-year-old being pulled into that process? Institutions need to create a culture of learning together.”
Schools also need to be good role models, according to Henry. For example, implementing a capital plan that is aligned with climate science. “Living values and engaging students is hard, but climate change is one of the most important social issues in history.”