Leading the green team

August 13, 2012
Raina Delisle
Terri Rutty

From a green team volunteer to director of environmental sustainability, Terri Rutty has built a department and a career at the YMCA of Greater Toronto.

“It’s more of a lifestyle for me now, it’s not a job,” says the MA in Environment and Management (MEM) student. “It’s what I’m passionate about. It’s what I enjoy, so it’s not really work to me.”

After working as a flight attendant for nearly a decade, Rutty, who holds a bachelor of science in marine biology, decided it was time to follow her passion and pursue work in the field of ecology. She worked in Vancouver for two years as marine mammal interpretation specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium and as a whale watching naturalist. At the aquarium, she also volunteered as chair of the environmental committee. When she moved back to her home of Toronto, she landed a contract as the regional co-ordinator for the youth eco internship at the YMCA, joined the organization’s green team and ending up chairing it.

“That’s when I realized this is what I like to do. This is what I’m passionate about,” she recalls. “I enjoyed my job at the aquarium, but I wanted to have greater impact.”

The YMCA green team was very successful in six months, Rutty says, and so she approached her manager and said: “Look what I’ve done for you for free, imagine what I could do for you if I worked full time.” He said that’s exactly what he’d like to see happen and a year later, in December 2010, he hired Rutty as environmental co-ordinator. Just a year and a half later, she was promoted to director. Rutty says she’s lucky her boss, the vice-president of property management, believes in the value of her role.

“A lot of organizations do not have a full understanding of what a director of sustainability needs to do for that paradigm shift,” she says. “If you want to change people’s behavior, it has to be a little deeper.”

Today, Rutty is responsible for developing and implementing environmental initiatives for the YMCA of Greater Toronto, which serves more than half a million people and is the largest in North America. One of her recent initiatives is a worm composting bin pilot project, which was funded in part by Royal Roads’ SAFE Fund, which supports sustainability initiatives and projects led by staff, students, alumni and faculty on and off campus.

“The SAFE Fund was an amazing opportunity to use a little bit of money and make it go a long way,” Rutty says. “Part of my job is to come up with projects or activities that highlight all of our values, engage the community and have an educational and environmental piece.”

The worm compositing project involved setting up a system at the central YMCA, which is home to an alternative high school, a child-care centre, a newcomer resource centre and a health and fitness centre. Students of all ages participated in a workshop about worm composting.

“The really rewarding part is to see when the students make the connection,” Rutty says. “They can see their lunch turn to compost and then they get to put that compost back into the garden that they’ve helped to build – it’s really rewarding to see that light bulb moment, when they make those connections. They’re so proud that they’re really eliminating a lot of waste from the landfills.”

Rutty says the project was designed so it could be easily replicated by other YMCAs and other institutions. The Durham YMCA (east of Toronto) is already in the fundraising stage to establish its own compost station and Rutty expects others to join the movement. 

In addition to her work at the Y, Rutty promotes sustainability as a volunteer for organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Jane Goodall Institute. This week, she will be presenting a Royal Roads class project that explored the campus food system at the National Student Food Summit in Toronto.

“I’m going to present on how students at universities with predominantly distance learning can tackle their food system even though they’re not on-campus full time,” she explains. “As students, we have to be included and we have to take part, but there has to be more of a connection with the community that’s on campus the majority of the time that will actually be able to physically get things done.”

The food security project is one of a few Rutty has taken to the next level. She says one of the major perks of studying while working full time is that she’s been able to tailor her class projects and papers to issue of importance at her work and actually implement her recommendations. For example, she did a paper on changing workplace behaviours – such as printing and recycling – to be more sustainable. She presented her paper to her supervisor and changes at the YMCA were quickly made – printers were switched to double-sided and defaulted to black and white and employees’ garbage cans were downsized.   

MEM program head Chris Ling says the program is designed to help students like Rutty make positive change in their organizations by giving them the time, space and support to explore strategic questions. Rutty is an exemplar MEM student, he says, as she has a lot of experience and is empowered to do research that will benefit the YMCA and her own professional growth.  

“Terri is very dedicated,” Ling says. “She’s one of those people that’s very engaged in the questions of sustainability and, more specifically, how to apply them in a practical context. She is very focused and very keen to use her abilities to further the organization.”

“The past two years at Royal Roads and the YMCA couldn’t have been better,” Rutty says. “I’m advancing my position – I don’t think I would have gotten this promotion so quickly if it wasn’t for Royal Roads. At the same time, I think I bring a lot to the program, sharing the work that I do.”