Sonam Detso: Environmental Specialist

Will Eley, Green Jobs Program Manager at PEA, interviewing Sonam Detso, Environmental Specialist at Forsyth County’s Department of Environmental Assistance and Protection.

If you are interested in a green career, and want to learn more firsthand from green professionals in our community like Sonam, join our Triad Green Jobs Network here


Will Eley: Sonam Detso! PEA and I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to speak with us about your work as an environmental regulator and public servant. And we know it’s rare for people to hear directly from someone, like yourself, who is quite literally at the front lines of environmental protection–our air, land, and water. So, we are excited to learn more about your background and the impacts you are making here in WInston-Salem/Forsyth County. 

For our audience, and especially those who are thinking about future careers in clean energy, climate action, and/or public service, could you tell us about your “environmental origin story"? Where and when does it begin for you? Light bulb moment? Or, a steady-enough stream of formative events and experiences?

Sonam Detso: First of all, thank you for inviting me to speak on this topic! I think I always knew that I had an interest in environmental stewardship and in public service. I majored in environmental science for undergrad, but I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with that degree. Then junior year of college, I took a course on global environmental politics, and that class really put a lot into perspective for me. I was starting to connect the dots between environmentalism, civil rights, social justice, housing, and the list goes on. Where I had previously viewed these as more siloed movements, I was realizing how interconnected everything was, and that was really what galvanized me to pursue a career that would lead me to the intersection of these various matters.

WE: That really resonates with me a lot. My green career began incidentally, more or less, as a volunteer on a transit equity campaign, well before I had ever heard the word ‘climate change.’ But history and injustices accumulate, right, just like carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. And like you, I began recognizing those intersections and working with others to break down those silos–the most impactful things we can do as green professionals and members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County community; to recognize that our transit future is our housing future is our equity future is our climate future. These are all political problems, which means that they can all be solved by people taking focused, collective action. 

Tell us about a best day on the job for you. Say, a day when you felt your impact hit on all of those intersections? One of those good days that keeps you coming back. 

SD: Oddly enough, it’s more the “bad” days that keep me coming back - “bad” in the sense that you see those different themes intersect in real time, right in front of you, but it feels so much bigger than you, and you suddenly feel very helpless in the face of this overarching, all-encompassing thing. With something like an open burning case, for example, we often see multiple factors at play - 1) Lack of education - open burning is a practice that many folks (especially in more rural communities) have been taught by the generations before theirs, and they simply haven’t been informed of the environmental and health risks that it can pose; 2) Lack of resources - there are those who can’t afford regular garbage pick-up services and/or don’t have the means and fees to transport their garbage to a disposal site themselves. 

It’s in those cases where having to penalize someone for breaking the law, while knowing that there is often some nuanced rationale to their actions, makes me want to do more to eventually change those practices. To work on implementing systemic changes that prioritize preventative - and not punitive - measures, environmental education, and public services that improve people’s quality of life. 

WE: Thank you for kinda, um… rejecting the premise of my question! It’s important to be honest about how environmental, public service, and climate justice related work isn’t always “joyful,” in the traditional sense. It’s, of course, necessary and fun to partner with others to effect change at scale, but collective work can be uncomfortable, difficult even. But that’s okay. 

Your sobering response reminds me of an anti-TED, TED talk by the theorist Benjamin Bratton, in which he speaks to the dangers of pursuing easy, feel-good solutions to systemic problems: “...if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don't work, and don't invest in things that don't make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems.”

It’s that “all you have to do is remember to turn the lights off” trope within the legacy environmental movement. Well, I always remember to turn the lights off. However, the planet is still warming, and now I sometimes can’t take my toddler daughter on a walk because a wildfire 4,000 miles away has made our local air dangerous?  The light switch plan alone didn’t work! You are reminding me of how important it is, especially while on the green job hunt, to do one’s homework: is the organization I’m interested in working for as impactful as advertised? Does their definition of ‘sustainability’ match my own? Where can I be most impactful? Maybe it’s even in a role that isn’t explicitly environmental? And this is why 1:1 informational interviews with green professionals are so important while you are on the green job hunt.

Besides your public service work day in and out, what else is keeping you focused on the larger historical picture? Is there a perspective rattling book or article you can recommend to folks who are thinking about joining us in this critical decade of systems-level climate action?

SD: It’s quite simple, really: I want to have a future. I don’t want to worry in 40, 50 years whether or not I can take my grandchild on a walk. And I don’t want to worry about whether children now will have a future or not. With the fate of this planet looking bleaker by the day, it’s only becoming increasingly important to collectively reject the current system and make a seat at the table for those who are the most impacted by climate change but have been kept at the margins for the longest. 

I really recommend Carbon by Kate Ervine -  it critiques individualistic and consumption-focused practices born out of globalization and discusses the limitations of the methods employed today to decrease carbon emissions. Ervine is emphatic in her opposition to many market-based solutions to environmental issues that result in further corruption and a larger gap between the wealthy and the poor. 

There’s also an article by Michael Maniates called “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” This was written in 2001 and still resonates - reading this again today, I’m able to see how little the response to our environmental crisis has changed. This article does such a great job of showing how handicapped individualized responsibility is as a response to climate change. Bottom line, in his words: “Think institutionally.” 

WE: Sonam, thank you so much for your time, your public service, and for reiterating the critical importance of “thinking institutionally” with us today. We all look forward to taking collective, climate action with you moving forward. 

Oh, and P.S.: I forgot about my shameless plug: Sonam, you told me that you have a renewable energy side hustle, working with People’s Solar Energy Fund–a new friend of Piedmont Environmental Alliance’s that is committed to building community-led solar energy projects in BIPOC and low-income communities. How did you find out about their Solar Leaders in Community program?

SD: Through PEA! I saw that the opening was posted on PEA’s Instagram story and it looked really interesting to me. I wanted to know more, so I went to PEA’s website and navigated to the Green Jobs Opening where the position was linked and here we are today.