Her first year on the job didn’t go as planned.

Mindy Granley started as sustainability officer for the City of Duluth two weeks before COVID-19 prompted shutdowns across the state.

Before that, Granley worked for 12 years as sustainability director at the University of Minnesota Duluth, doing similar work, but at a different scale and with a different demographic.

Along with sustainability, her work with the city focuses on economic, social and environmental issues and how those intersect and impact Duluth’s people.

“The hardest part of taking a new job in a leadership role is, some people look to you right away, and they’re like, ‘What’s the answer?’

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“I’m here to help us get to the answer,” she said.

While it hasn’t been the year she expected, she has been hard at it, working on grants, expanding Duluth’s network with other areas around the state and cities around the Great Lakes.

She has worked with Minnesota Sea Grant, Ecolibrium 3 and Ready North, and is working on a sustainability assessment of the Lincoln Park neighborhood that is looking at accessibility, such as sidewalk ramps.

Duluth is a climate refuge city, and that makes us part of a national conversation.

People are watching what we do here to adapt to the climate of our future, what we do to set up our energy transition and how we can handle energy use, Granley said.

“It’s like having a cheering section of people from across the country because everyone loves Duluth, and they want to see the lake be kept in great quality, and they want to see Duluth succeed,” she added.

Granley took time recently to answer some questions.

City of Duluth sustainability officer Mindy Granley cross-country skis in her free time three or four times every week. "It's my break from everything, and I don't have to talk to anyone when I'm here," she said. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
City of Duluth sustainability officer Mindy Granley cross-country skis in her free time three or four times every week. "It's my break from everything, and I don't have to talk to anyone when I'm here," she said. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Q: What led to your work in sustainability?

A: My background in water quality and watershed protection was a good training ground for sustainable thinking. Water is a reflection of all the things that happen around it, and under it, so balancing human development and natural systems is key to its protection.

Q: Did growing up in Minnesota influence your professional trajectory?

A: I grew up just north of Duluth, in Canosia Township. My two sisters and I were often told to “go outside and play.” This meant a lot of tromping around trails and wetlands in the woods.

Watching the wetland and plants behind my house change over the course of the seasons — and through dry and wet years (wet years were the best because we could ice skate in winter!) — helped me understand both the beauty and the operational efficiency of nature’s systems.

Q: Name some takeaways from Year One in your position with the City.

A: Oh, I don’t know about this one. I suppose one takeaway is that despite a very busy year, I still have so much to learn!

Q: What are Duluth’s most pressing issues regarding sustainability?

A: One thing Duluth will need to tackle as a community is our energy use. We live in a cold climate, and we burn a lot of fossil fuel to heat buildings. Energy efficiency comes first, and will be a huge way to reduce carbon emissions in our community.

Q: What’s your vision for Duluth?

A: I like the vision presented in the Imagine Duluth Comprehensive Plan of a connected, resilient, accessible, sustainable, fair and healthy city. My hope is to play a role in helping find practical and meaningful solutions to save energy, reduce carbon emissions and prepare our neighborhoods for a changing climate.

Q: How can people support this work?

A: Nobody needs to be perfect, but we all need to try to do something. There isn’t just one way to work on this issue, and everyone has a strength.

For some, it is to get involved: bring sustainability ideas to the groups and organizations that you are already connected with around town. Or join a City Board or Commission and bring your sustainability ideas there. Email or call your city councilor about sustainability issues you care about in your neighborhood. Thank a local business owner for having compostable take-out containers — and then order from them again!

Bring your own bag to the store. Carpool. Recycle, compost and simply waste less stuff. Purchase things carefully. Talk to your friends and family about climate change. Choose energy- and water-saving appliances. Ask about the heating/cooling and water bills before you buy or rent a home.

City of Duluth sustainability officer Mindy Granley said she frequents the cross-country ski trail in the evenings while the trail is lit. "Somehow, skiing under energy-efficient lights seems to fit the job," she said. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
City of Duluth sustainability officer Mindy Granley said she frequents the cross-country ski trail in the evenings while the trail is lit. "Somehow, skiing under energy-efficient lights seems to fit the job," she said. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Q: What are some ways to involve kids in healthy environmental practices?

A: For kids, it is simple: Get them outside, and be curious!

Duluth has so many green spaces to play in, and simply observing how nature changes throughout the year on a regular walking route can be a fun way to talk about the environment. With my kids, I get them involved in simple actions, too; to turn off lights in the house, to compost their food scraps after meals, and how to identify buckthorn in our yard that needs to be removed. My spouse and I try to get them outside a little bit most days.

Q: You’ve traveled quite a bit. Tell me about a couple of inspiring experiences from the road.

A: I spent a couple of summer months in Nunavut, Canada, in the high arctic. One of my favorite moments was climbing a hill and looking down on a herd of musk oxen.

Once they smelled us, they immediately surrounded the youngest, newest member of the herd to protect them (a baby musk oxen whom we had nicknamed “Poppy”!). Seeing how the herd looked out for the most vulnerable among them when they smelled a potential threat, it was beautiful.

Q: Advice for others who may be interested in sustainability as a career?

A: Bringing your sustainability values into a traditional role at any company or organization is an important thing to do. This work can happen in any sector or any scale, so bring up ideas wherever you are. Many young professionals are looking for places to work that align with their values. Integrating sustainability into an organization can be a good way to attract new talent.

Q: If you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, (and COVID safely) who would they be?

A: Bono, Sting and Beyonce. We’d talk about how music inspires people to change their lives and the world around them.