Q&A with Kimberly White, Executive Director of Keep Cobb Beautiful
We talked with Kimberly about her passion for recycling, the importance of a dedicated community, and the moment she fell in love with the sustainable lifestyle.
You have been working in the field of environmental sustainability for nearly nine years now. What made you decide to make it your career?
I initially went to school for international relations; I wanted to be an attorney. As part of my program, I had to live and study abroad, and I picked Spain. When I lived there, I became acclimated to their lifestyle, and the Spanish culture is very big on conservation. For example, when you stay in a hotel there, the key card is a slot in the wall that operates all the electricity in the room. When you leave, you can’t waste electricity, because you have to take that key card with you to get back inside. Everything—the whole country, not just the cities—is accessible by train, and people don’t really have dryers in their homes. It’s such a juxtaposition to the way we live in America, and I wanted to do something about it.
I had one year left in college at that point, and when I returned I saw a posting at Agnes Scott, my alma mater, for a sustainability fellowship. I applied and worked really closely with the women’s groups on campus to put together a project to increase sustainability at our school. I learned everything I could about recycling and environmental causes while there, and after that point, it’s all history. I’ve been in the industry ever since, and I really love what I do.
That’s awesome! Tell us more about the work Keep Cobb Beautiful is doing in the community this year.
We've got our hands in everything. We decided to fulfill each one of the pillars that we focus on in Georgia to the best of our ability. For litter prevention, we have about 184 groups signed up for the Adopt-a-Highway program. We work actively to get them supplies so it's easy for them to participate. We recruit churches, schools, community groups, HOAs—anyone we can. We do a lot of educational programming, especially in schools. We also do a lot with waste reduction and recycling. We have recycling drop spots, our new Hefty EnergyBag program, and school recycling programs. We do community beautification projects in parks and schools, and actually have an agreement with the Cobb County School System to plant trees on school property—we have three plantings coming up the next three Fridays in a row! We partner with local gardening clubs, and recently were chosen to participate in the AmeriCorps VISTA project through Keep America Beautiful—it’s a federal program that identifies food insecurity zones, and shortly we’ll be creating gardens that businesses and community members will maintain. For water protection, we participate in Rivers Alive cleanups and events like Sweep the Hooch. We also partner with the water department to educate people about water protection, quality, and safety.
Why do you think getting the community educated and involved is so important?
Most of our affiliates have limited staff. We’re the driving force behind a community's environmental participation, but typically, we only have one to three staff members, and they don’t always work full time. That’s why it’s really important to get communities involved—we have effective resources in active citizens, and they directly benefit from participating in our programming. So much more gets done when we do it together.
What have been some of the most rewarding moments in your career so far?
It's always been really important to me to build good positive relationships—with county staff, other affiliates, the business community, local elected officials, people in general. Each day that I come to the office, I feel that I'm doing really important work, and it fulfills me. Nothing that we do is too small or too large. Sometimes you see impact on a grand scale, like when you have 2,000 cars coming to a recycling event in two hours, and other times you have small intimate affairs, like when a couple of Girl Scouts came in to learn about recycling.
About a year ago, I was a guest speaker in a sustainability class at Agnes Scott. I told the students to never box themselves in, and that you never know where you’re going to be. Look at me! I didn’t know I was going to enter this field at the start of college, but I’m really glad I did. When we were at the Capitol a few weeks ago to speak with our legislators, a young lady walked up to me and brought up that very same visit—she took what I said that day to heart, sought out the Keep America Beautiful world, and she’s now an intern with Keep Smyrna Beautiful. It’s very rewarding to me to be able to impact the lives of young people and inspire them to seek careers in sustainability.
What do you look forward to in the future? What further impact do you hope to see in Cobb County?
I would love to see the Hefty EnergyBag program rolled out to all of our residents, and want to further expand our recycling drop spots. My next endeavor will be glass recycling. I’m also really excited to see the VISTA program make a difference for community members living at or below the poverty level. Being able to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables is very important. Really, I want to get everybody on board and make recycling mandatory for this county. I think it’s really important to get to that level—it will be different, but we just have to push forward and get there.
Any advice for people looking to make their communities cleaner, greener, or more beautiful?
Absolutely. Just start small! If you're not doing any recycling at all, start recycling bottles, cardboard, and soda cans. Even something as small as that can really make a big impact. People who change the world start with sowing one small seed, and something huge comes out of it. Take Earth Day—everyone knows what it is now and celebrates with all sorts of festivals and cleanups, but at one point, it was just a handful of people who thought they could make a difference. It’s important to get involved in your community in any small way that you can. If you love gardening, join a gardening group. Go and plant some trees for a school or a park and watch the joy in children’s faces as they help you and watch that tree grow. They can go back and say, look what I accomplished. It’s amazing work to give back by volunteering. We can all do something.