Timing, passion result in new role for Sustainable Claremont director

When passion meets purpose, big things can happen. And for Stuart Wood, the new executive director of Sustainable Claremont, timing was everything.

Mr. Wood joined Claremont’s leading environmental nonprofit just as the group was in the early stages of planning the city’s Earth Day and Arbor Day festivities. As the 36-year-old was wrapping up a part-time grant-writing position with nonprofit Shoes That Fit, he had no choice but to jump in with both feet.

“I thought I had a sense for it,” Mr. Wood said about Claremont’s busy civic life, “but I didn’t. Everyone is really engaged, which is good.”

Before joining Shoes That Fit in early 2018, Mr. Wood was head writer for EcoAmeria’s cities program, “Path to Positive Communities.” The goal there was to work with city leaders in developing effective communication tools to present research to communities about ways to pursue climate solutions.

Effective communication about climate change has been a focus of his work—his PhD dissertation at Claremont Graduate University was titled “Knowledge Perception and Misinformation: A Case Study of Climate Change Denial in the United States”—and he’s done conference and poster presentations on the topic in Washington DC, Ireland, Sweden and here in Los Angeles.

“Early in my PhD program I became interested in environmental issues, but through exposure to people like Bill McKibben and the divestment movement, I focused more on climate issues,” he said.

He hopes to enhance communication in Sustainable Claremont’s already booming programming for projects like the Green Team, which hosts monthly events drawing as many as 100 residents to plant trees on a Saturday morning. This level of community engagement isn’t something Mr. Wood takes for granted.

“There aren’t very many cities where people will show up on a Monday night to talk about trees,” he said. “I recognize there is a lot of anxiety about the types of trees we’re planting and watering schedules. If nobody tells them, we’re left with a breakdown in communication. That’s a very important element of Sustainable Claremont—the leg work is talking to people.”

Sustainable Claremont has grown tremendously the last few years, after former executive director Steve Sabicer worked to develop programs and expand the group’s reach. They now have three part-time employees, two interns and Mr. Wood, who works part-time.

Although its a beautiful setting, he admits the Freeman Allen Resource Center at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden can get cramped at times, especially during weekly meetings with city staff like Cari Dillman and deputy community services director Dave Roger.

“Dave is great. He is such a valuable resource we need in the city,” Mr. Wood said. “I’ve learned so much from him.”

Prior to embarking on his nonprofit career, Mr. Wood was in academia, teaching courses at the University of La Verne like “Justice, Sustainability and the Politics of the Environment” or “Urban Environments: Living in a Global Society.” He abandoned teaching after a major surgery in 2017, which made working in a room of 200 people every day too great a health risk.

As a high school student, Mr. Wood was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC, a chronic, slow-progressing liver disease with no treatment or cure. It’s extremely rare (only about 29,000 have it in the US) and the only treatment at this point is a liver transplant.

He was chronically sick and in pain prior to getting his transplant on July 9. 2017 or, as he calls it, his “second birthday.” At the highpoint of treatment, he was taking as many as 70 pills a day to keep PSC symptoms under control.

“Recovery is it’s own job,” he says.

Mr. Wood waited five years on a transplant list when doctors finally called him in. After accepting it might have been 10 years or longer to find a match, he knows he’s lucky.

After a previous transplant prospect didn’t go through, his initial thought when they called he and his wife Stephanie to Cedars Sinai was that it wasn’t actually going to happen.

But the surgery was successful, and after what he calls “acute rejection” followed by a 17-day hospital stay, he was back home in La Verne, ready to spend time with his now two-and-a-half-year old daughter Roony and to return to teaching.

“I was ready to shift from academia to nonprofit. Shoes That Fit was looking for someone so I thought, ‘New liver, new job.’ The academic/nonprofit thing works because it’s all about passion,” he said. “It’s about individual action. Whether it be trees, organs or shoes, we need to pick our passion, because people can make a difference.”

It felt like a natural transition to Sustainable Claremont five weeks ago. With his focus firmly on nonprofits and his experience and passion for environmental issues, he knew the change was a perfect fit.

Ultimately, Sustainable Claremont’s success is in its volunteers, he says. His goal now is to help the organization focus on how it will spend its time and energy in the future.

He still has some catching up to do, starting with getting through Arbor Day this Saturday and Earth?Day on April 14, but he’s excited about pushing Claremont to the forefront of sustainability.

“If Claremont can’t be an example of ambitious climate policy, who can?” he said. “Let’s be that voice for the city and the region. That’s my goal—to create a replicable model for other cities. And we have that already with Sustainable Claremont.”

To join the effort, email Mr. Wood at stuart@sustainableclaremont.org.

—Kathryn Dunn



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