Leading the Future: Linda Cheung
This is the third installment of Exygy’s ongoing interview series Leading the Future: Her Point of View. We hope to uplift present-day changemakers who are moving the needle at the intersection of equity, social impact, and technology. They deserve our continued recognition. Originally inspired by Women’s History Month in March, we’re excited to extend the celebration of women leaders outside of one month into ongoing conversations, reflections, and inspiration. This series is hosted by Roshen Sethna, Civic Partner at Exygy. Watch the full interview here.
This time around our phenomenal guest is environmentalist Linda Cheung, Founder and Creative Director at the nonprofit arts organization Before It’s Too Late. In this interview we talk about behavior change, activism, and using technology and art as a means to educate the public on climate change.
Sethna: Please tell us a little bit about your organization, why you founded it, and the broad strokes of the sector it’s in.
Cheung: I founded my nonprofit organization Before It’s Too Late (BITL) in my second year at MIT Sloan Business School, so that was four or five years ago now. And after I graduated, I moved to Miami to launch it as a real nonprofit registered 501c3.
Before It’s Too Late basically looks at this issue of climate change, which will require radical de-carbonization of the world. In order to do so we need cultural change. We need a change of paradigms in terms of the way we relate with our world, how we build and integrate sustainability into everything, and the values that we have in how we measure success. How do we try to ignite some of that cultural change within our society, within everyday people? We approach that piece of the puzzle not only to be better educated about environmental issues, but also want to be part of that change. We use art as our main tool to really think about that piece, the education, and the cultural change, that would be required in order to decarbonize the world.
We focus a lot of our work here in Florida. Some of the projects that have formed and taken off are the public murals. In general, we get hit up for different opportunities. “How do we use public art as a way to communicate some of these environmental issues?” We also get involved with schools’ educational programs.
Sethna: What are the highlights of the projects and programs that you’re working on right now?
Cheung: I’d say two big types of projects I’m working on now are augmented reality murals about the environment (and public art in general) and the Earth Week Challenge. With augmented reality murals, we currently are working on this cool project with the Miami-Dade Public School System where we launch a series of augmented reality murals that highlight the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG). There’s 17 of them and we’re about to launch the first mural at South Pointe Elementary School in Miami Beach, in which we engaged a group of students from different schools within the Miami-Dade Public School System to be part of the process of designing and creating this mural.
We have students who are learning Unity programming, for instance, helping with the AR programming aspect of it, or creating animals in 3D art. Some of the younger kids are using Tilt Brush to create the 3D coral reef. We have kids from four grade-levels – second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade – each assigned one of the UN SDG goals. We’re highlighting four UN SDG goals in the mural. TThe main theme of this mural is Goal 14: “life below water” because it’s in Miami Beach, but we’re also highlighting goal number 13, which is “climate action,” and goal number four, which is “quality education,” and goal number 15, which is “life on land.” The kids were the ones who voted on which goalsones to highlight. For each grade they created a skit around what this goal means for them. The high school kids help out by filming and producing those videos, which will be highlighted in this mural.
Sethna: You mentioned in the beginning about political will and leadership. Do you hope to inspire people and instil education that will push them to take on broad systems change?
Cheung: Yes, that is the hope. I recognize that everyone’s different and it’s not everyone’s calling in life to become an environmentalist. But by doing this you realize, “Well, these are the ways that I could contribute.” Then you decide, “How much do I want to be?” Because you could just be a sustainable person in your own life and do your bit to educate your friends and family around you, but maybe you’re not an activist and that’s fine.
One of the things I like to talk about is this ripple effect of your ability to, as an individual, really be part of the movement. You’ve got your inner circle, which is just you, then you’ve got your immediate family and closest friends, and then you’ve got whatever organization you spend a big part of your time in. Maybe it’s your school or the company you work at. Then you’ve got your local community. Then maybe you want to get involved in state or federal government or international type work.
Some people say, “The more important thing is systems change. We need policy change because that’s scalable. You need big companies too.” But I actually think that it’s not like you can only have one or the other. “Oh, Let’s only focus on grassroots.” Or “Let’s only focus on policy.” I think both are absolutely necessary and dependent on each other. You need different people as part of the movement, working on anything they can best contribute to and want to work on.
Sethna: What’s one surprising thing you’ve learned since starting your organization?
Cheung: I’m constantly surprised by how little people know about this topic. I’m communicating it constantly, I’m bored hearing myself, and I would think, “Oh, maybe this is boring for someone to hear.” But then I’m reminded when I meet a new group, “Well, actually no, for a lot of people there’s new information still.” I’m always reminding myself, “This is still new information.,” and “How can I keep the message to its core and be simple?” I often want to go and be like, “Let’s talk about this thing out here.” You know? But it’s like, “No, let’s stick to the basics and the core.” So whenever I do public art, I really try hard not to communicate too much and just stick to the most important, essential core.
Sethna: On your website you’d mention this partnership with MIT and other research institutions. What does that look like? Are you partnering to implement the research they’re putting out in your projects or for something else?
Cheung: I was part of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Certificate Program and, actually, BITL was seed funded from that. I co-founded it with two of my classmates in the same Sustainability Certification Program. It’s called the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative. So because of that, I have this relationship with that group.
They don’t have that many people out here in Miami from MIT Sloan or MIT, even. So, sometimes the school likes to be in touch with me because they see that I’m doing cool things out here. I worked with them a couple of years ago. They hosted their annual Sustainability Initiative Board Conference here and I actually organized it for them. Last year I was actually working with them on their EN-ROADS climate simulation model which, by the way, is really awesome. They have a think tank, a nonprofit organization, that spun out of that same group (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative). Like how I’m kind of a spin-out nonprofit.
The nonprofit think tank that developed the En-ROADS simulation model is called Climate Interactive. They basically created this really powerful simulation model tool that projects out to year 2100. It basically puts this question in your hand, “How do we try to limit global warming to less than two degrees or less than 1.5 degrees?” These are the goals that we have with the Paris Agreement, these are the global goals. Right now we’re on a trajectory to exceed 3.5 degrees of warming by the end of the century, even with all the actions we’ve taken so far. We’re not yet taking enough action to be under two degrees in this simulation model. You can Google “En-ROADS simulation model,” and it’s free for anyone to access.
You asked me before, what are the solutions for decarbonizing society? Well, there’s 18 levers right here (in the simulation model), all the major ways to decarbonize society and if you push it and see how much we reduce deforestation? How much do we try to increase energy efficiency in the buildings and industry sectors? You do that and then you see what that does to the projections of the greenhouse gas emissions into the end of the century if we’re able to bring that curve down into less than two degrees. So yes, I do like to be involved, stay in touch, and have a good relationship with the Sustainability Initiative Department.
Sethna: You do so much work with a variety of people whether it’s artists or students. What are some of the best approaches that have worked to engage the community and bring more people in? Are there things that you’ve seen that help people onboard into the community?
Cheung: It’s really trying to meet people where they are and not having such high expectations. Because I can care about this issue a lot and sometimes feel disappointed in people for not caring as much, but that’s not really effective. I have to be understanding of where they are. Part of the reason why I do these different tools like art and public murals is because people are open to looking at art. It’s taking this big, heavy topic and then making it maybe more interesting, or beautiful, or emotional. The thing is, they’re usually more open to receiving it in that format, rather than having a serious conversation. That has always been my challenge, or mission, or goal. How can I find ways to get more people engaged by making it more emotional, something they can feel or connect to, or making it more interesting? Relating it more on a personal level or even giving them just a piece, just what they need, not trying to inundate them with all the information. And even with the Earth Week Challenge, I’m only asking you to take one week of your life to focus on learning about the issues and actions you can take.
Sethna: How do people find you and your work?
Watch the full interview. Stay up-to-date with Linda’s work by visiting the BITL website, or connecting with her on LinkedIn! Take a look at our past installments with civic tech researcher Cyd Harrell and Futurist Vanessa Mason.
Who are you honoring during Women History Month? Use #LeadingTheFuture and tag us on Twitter @exygy with your response! Stay tuned for more Leading the Future: Her Point of View interviews coming soon.
About the Interviewer
Roshen Sethna is a Partner at Exygy with experience in organizational leadership, digital innovation, and product management. She has guided Exygy’s top civic sector clients in implementing user-centered and agile methodologies. Her clients include the Judicial Council of California, San Francisco Unified School District, Center for Effective Public Policy, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Roshen also led the Exygy team to design and build an open-source, digital, affordable housing platform that is being scaled across four jurisdictions in the Bay Area.