Director of Sustainable Communities at the David Suzuki Foundation
Julius is currently the Director, Sustainable Communities at the David Suzuki Foundation. He leads the Foundation’s work to address climate change in cities across the country. Most recently he was the Project Manager, Climate Change and Sustainable Development for the City of Richmond Hill, leading the City’s Climate Change Mandate which includes developing a Corporate Climate change Framework and a Community Energy and Emissions Plan. Prior to joining Richmond Hill, he was the Supervisor, Climate Change at the City of Mississauga where he led the City’s climate change adaptation and mitigation, and community energy work. Prior to joining Mississauga in 2012, he worked with Infrastructure Ontario (formerly Ontario Realty Corporation) where he worked on energy management, climate change, corporate social responsibility and sustainability plans. He has a H.B.Sc in physics and math from the University of Toronto.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
I lead the Sustainable Communities team at the David Suzuki Foundation. Our focus is on climate action within cities, municipalities, communities, and governments. We push for city governments to implement plans to address climate change. From the social impact side, we do have a growing focus on equity and how equity is built into the intersection with climate action, and what that might mean during the transition to a low carbon, resilient economy and society.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
I’ve spent all of my career working on sustainability and climate change. Up until three months ago, I worked solely in the public sector. I worked at the provincial level here in Ontario for six years and then I spent nine years working in municipalities with a focus on leading the development of climate change plans. I led the development of both Mississauga’s and Richmond Hills’ climate change plans and so it’s interesting now to be on the nonprofit side, working from the outside to support and move the same work forward in a different way. I’ve gained a lot of technical knowledge from those roles about things like; how to calculate Greenhouse Gases? What are they? Working on the strategic planning side of things where we looked at how to actually conceptualize a plan and get actions and talk to stakeholders and bring people on board? All of that experience is very relevant to the work that I do currently.
How did you enter this space?
I like telling this story and I always laugh when I tell it because I always say that I didn’t choose sustainability, sustainability chose me. Basically, what happened is when I was coming out of school, I had student debt and I needed a job. I had worked at a place for a number of years as a summer student and they gave me a full time job where I did a lot of clerical work and reporting. It just so happened that the department I was supporting was the one that had all of the energy management and sustainability responsibilities under it because the organization managed the province’s real estate portfolio. At that time in Ontario, the Green Energy Act was coming into power and this led the government of Ontario to really start trying to figure out what its carbon footprint was and how they take action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At that time I thought that I would go back to school because as a physics and math major, my plan was to get my graduate degree and work in academia. It was really that math background that led to people feeling like I would be able to do the GHG emission calculations which was how I started working in the space. Additionally, the department I worked in was tasked with doing a sustainability report so I ended up co-leading the development of that report. The rest is history, I have worked in the space ever since.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I originally really wanted to get on the academic track. I’ve always been interested in the theoretical side of physics, and I have always been a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan so I had always seen myself taking a few years and then going back, hopefully getting into do a master’s and possibly a PhD to do research around physics or getting some kind of industry job in physics. I felt that this was the path because a lot of those types of jobs require upper level degrees. So that was always my plan but then when I got involved in this, I saw how interesting and cutting edge the work was and it aligned with my values while allowing me to have an impact.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
There’s been a lot of movement over the last few years and so there’s more opportunities than ever for people to get involved with organizations, especially in the nonprofit space, and have a real impact. There is a real opportunity to bring organizations together to address issues and move the bar. That’s part of the reason why I was really excited about this role, because it presented the opportunity to drive change and to work with others in spaces that are a lot more flexible than my previous roles in government. It is very different from the government because the government moves at a particular pace which is much slower than a snail and so the opportunity to create connections and innovate and be a part of that large change that is not at an institutional level was really exciting for me.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
There is a perception of people who work in the sustainability space, and especially people who work in the nonprofit space, as just radical tree huggers and that is just not the case. I approach this work from a very practical place and from a very technical place. I am a scientist by training and that very much influences my approach to this work and there are many people in our organization who are like that. We have lawyers, policy experts, and scientists, so you can see that there are people who bring many different approaches to the work and it’s not just people who have chained themselves to a tree. There are those who approach the issues from a grassroots level and that is important but it is also important to recognize the other approaches that people take to the work. Throughout my career I have worked to establish myself as a technically sound, smart, informed, and trained person and not just someone who is there to shout at them to do things differently to change the planet. Often you are the only person in the room who is focused on the environment and so the people you are talking to will try to block you out because of the perception they have of people who work on climate change so it is important to show up to those meetings and be able to build a sound case to make progress.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
A typical work day varies a lot because the nature of our work is working with stakeholders, communities, community groups, and politicians. There is a policy side to the work and there is a research side to the work so days can vary quite a bit. You end up shifting between worlds a lot, having conversations and working to build connections with stakeholders. I’ve often said that my main role is as a translator. I translate information and solutions for people so that they can take action. In my current role which is more of a leadership position, part of it is supporting my team to help them do the work that they’re doing. On top of that there is the typical project management side of things, so I work with budgets and timelines to make sure all of our projects get done, while also helping with the daily running of the organization alongside our leadership team. The actual daily tasks could consist of meetings, both internal and external, writing, conducting interviews, forming strategies, etc.
From a work life balance perspective, the David Suzuki Foundation has a four day work week, and it has for a very long time. Having that extra day off is great because it serves as an extra day during the week that I can decompress and dedicate my attention to my family. The days tend to be a little bit longer when we are working with one less day during the week but I am very protective of my time with my wife and my son, because I think it’s really important to spend time with them. Outside of my work at the David Suzuki Foundation I am working with a group to start our own nonprofit and we are in the messy building phase so that takes a lot of time and effort as well.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
Being only three months into my role, navigating the relationships and the way in which the organization and people interact and integrate has been the most challenging part for me. Part of that is because I spent almost all of my career in public service where I knew exactly what each person did and who they could connect me to in different departments. It was all very structured whereas in my new world, everything is very fluid. A lot of people are just making it up as they go in terms of how they interact or connect, or work together, or what they’re working together on or not. The possibilities are endless and so the different realities are endless and so I am navigating that understanding to find both my own place as well as our organizations place in that system. Figuring out how to work together is a constant piece of the puzzle that I havent had to deal with previously and so that has been challenging. Luckily I think it aligns well with my skill set and working within an organization that is all about building those connections has been great.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I want to continue to grow as a leader. Part of what brought me to the David Suzuki Foundation was the opportunity to be in a focused leadership role and so I want to continue to grow into more senior roles. Where that might be or what that might look like, I don’t know. I really think that I have a lot to contribute from a strategic perspective and the conceptual part of this work and up to this point I’ve done a lot of the technical work so my goal is to now do more work from a leadership position.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
Strategic acumen or competency is important because our work needs to be very intentional in terms of how it is going to work, how it will work with other things, and how we work together with others. Additionally, because of the nature of climate change and sustainability, there’s a lot of thinking about strategy related to how things fit together in terms of the work itself. For example, how do bike lanes fit into roads and streets and how do people use them? How does that all fit together? How do you create solutions that take it all into account? I think number two is having an interdisciplinary way of thinking. I think most people have specialties or they focus on one area but it’s really important to learn and understand how things work in other fields and other areas, because very few of the solutions that will address the climate crisis come from just one particular field. Using the bike lane example again you need to bring together people from different backgrounds to make it an effective solution. You need road engineers to design them properly and you need to understand how people use them and move through space so you would also need someone with a behavioral science background. You need a variety of specialties coming together because ultimately, it doesn’t matter how great the solution is if nobody is using it. Understanding how everything and everyone works together is important. That leads to the third skill I think is important which is interpersonal skills. You need to know how to work well with others and how to build coalitions and connections because it is critical to bring together people at all different stages of belief in the seriousness of climate change in order to tackle these issues.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
I think it is important but also not important at the same time. If you look at an organization like the David Suzuki Foundation, I work with people from all different backgrounds. There are people who work in Law, there are people with biology and ecology backgrounds, there are people with a background in communications, and there are people who have worked as political organizers. So all of them have different backgrounds but they are all an important part of the David Suzuki Foundation. So in that sense there are opportunities for everyone and your specific degree does not matter as much. One thing that has started recently that was not as prevalent when I was in school is the rise of sustainability related degrees in all different fields. That being said there is still not a specific sustainability degree for every specialty although that may change. As those programs begin to form, I think there will be a rise in the number of graduates entering the workforce with those degrees. With that increase there may be a shift to prioritizing hiring people with those degrees but even in that scenario I do think that there is a place for everyone to contribute irrespective of their degree. There will always be people who look for very specific specializations but within the space as a whole I think there is a place for everyone.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
As we talked about earlier, one of those three key skills is interpersonal skills. I’ve interviewed people who had really strong technical backgrounds, but I knew I could not put them in a room with others and that they would not be able to build coalitions so I didn’t hire them. So I think that’s a really important skill that I look for in the people that I hire. Personally, I also look for a certain amount of selflessness. I feel like I have a good read on who is trying to promote themselves and who is trying to promote the good work that they’re doing. There is a definite distinction between those two phrases and I’m personally going to look for the latter over the former. There’s many people that I’ve encountered who are interested in doing work to promote themselves and not interested in doing good work. It’s important to be interested in doing good work and working with others to do good work especially in a team environment. There are some jobs where you don’t need to work with others but in the work that I do, and in the teams that I’ve built in the past and my current team, working with others is a really important part of that work. Thirdly, I look for someone who can think systematically and see the bigger picture. The work is very interdisciplinary and so you want somebody who can think systematically and can draw connections among themselves and among the different areas of focus within the space. The final trait would be curiosity. I look for someone who wants to learn about as many different things as possible because again, this line of work requires the ability to make connections and understand how different specialities can work together to form solutions.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
The one thing that I would do differently based on where I am now in my career trajectory is I would have started looking to get onto the management track earlier in my career. Early in my career I really felt strongly that if you show up to work and do a good job, you will move up the ranks. Only in the last three years trying to move up the ranks have I realized just doing good work is not going to do that for somebody like me. With that in mind I would have been a little bit more proactive earlier in my career and worked on getting the training or experiences that would support that move up the ladder. In terms of my best career advice, the one piece of advice that I often give people is to get your foot in the door. That is how I started my career and the example I use is that when I worked in the city of Mississauga, in the six years I was there, we had probably 8 to 10 admin assistants, which is pretty high turnover for a position, but the way the position was staffed, it was often staffed by either temporary staff or new people in their career. Of those 10 people, probably 7 or 8 of them went on to careers in the city, and a few of them had careers on our team. In all likelihood they would have never gotten those opportunities if they weren’t inside the city because people now knew them, knew the work that they did, knew how good they were and then hired them. I remember one case in particular where there was an external candidate and an internal candidate that were very close in terms of their skill set. One of them was one of our admins and the other person was external and the internal person was successful because there was that level of trust and that understanding of not only knowing what skills they had, but also having already seen how they work. Having seen this I often tell people that if you have a goal to work at a specific company, do not shy away from applying for jobs there that will get your foot in the door and open up new realms of possibilities for you once you are inside the organization. It is significantly cheaper to hire somebody internally than externally so it gives you a leg up in that sense as well. Additionally, I would tell people to not sell themselves short. For example, we see that women will not apply for a job unless they feel they fit 100% of the job description and on the flip side men often will apply for the same job even if they feel they only meet 30% of the job description. This is true for people of color and other minorities as well in terms of their belief that they need to be an exceptional candidate in order to even apply for a job. My advice is to not be your own barrier and not to say no to yourself. I’ve written job descriptions where I’m not quite sure what I want or need and so part of the hiring process is figuring that out. If you don’t put your name in the hat, the person hiring can’t figure out if you are the person that they need. So if there is a job that interests you and if you think you have the skill set needed, apply and don’t sell yourself short, don’t sell your skills short. You may be the right person for the job but if you never apply, you’ll never know. For people just entering their career, it is also important to note that the people hiring for those roles understand that you are not coming into the role with no training requirements. For entry level roles, they are not hiring a 15 year veteran so you need to recognize that the person that is hiring is expecting to invest in you. Often people just coming out of school will see a job description that asks for 1-3 years of experience and it is important to realize that what that means is they just don’t want somebody who has no schooling and never worked. That’s really what 1-3 years means. It does not mean you have to have 1-3 years of direct working experience in that job to be qualified. It is simply a benchmark that indicates they are looking for a certain level of proficiency and expertise. When you are just starting your career there will be very few jobs where you hit every aspect of the job description criteria but you may have other experiences that the person hiring does not even know that they want. The important part is to bring that curiosity I mentioned earlier because once you are in the door, they just want to see that you have the desire to learn and progress and make a larger impact. They don’t need you to be the complete package right away.