Sustainability advocate balances family with environmental and economic causes

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Stacey Champion is one of the downtown community’s hardest working advocates for sustainability. She draws inspiration from her childhood in Minnesota and everyday interactions with her kids. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

Downtown Phoenix Voices is an ongoing series of profiles on the many diverse and inspirational voices in the downtown Phoenix community. To read the last installment in the series,
click here.

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Stacey Champion, who is among the most visible and hard-working advocates for sustainability in Phoenix, sums up her goals with a simple mantra.

“You have to educate people as to what the issues are, you have to inspire them through effective storytelling to make them actually care and then you have to teach people how to infiltrate the system to make effective change,” she said.

Champion was born and raised in Minnesota, where her family had deep roots.

“My grandparents and my great-grandparents lived in rural southern Minnesota,” she said. “Our family homesteaded the land; Ulysses S. Grant’s name is on the deed to our property. They were farmers.”

Her Minnesota upbringing instilled a deep appreciation of the importance of environmentalism. She recalls joining her mother at Earth Day gatherings and seeing friends’ Earthship homes, built from recycled materials and decked with solar panels.

“When I was little, every summer we would go camping on the Gun Flint Trail in northern Minnesota by the border with Canada,” Champion said. “Minnesotans are very into outdoorsy stuff and conservation. If you grow up with people teaching you about nature and why it’s important to protect it, it’s engrained in you.”

Echoing her pioneering heritage, Champion has been a lifelong nomad, living in Chicago, Los Angeles, Maui and Sedona before finally settling in Phoenix. All the while, Champion sought out “any kind of social justice cause” she could, including environmentalism, women’s rights, the Chiapas movement and war protests.

Champion gained firsthand experience with environmental issues when she lived in a contaminated “sick house.” Champion and her then-husband purchased the house and later discovered an inch of larvae-infested water in the wall space between their kitchen and bathroom, exposing them to mold and bacteria. Champion began to suffer from migraines and seizures, and her son was diagnosed with asthma and had to use a breathing machine because of the exposure.

Her family was out of the house and living in an RV for eight months. But Champion did not waste the time. She began to meet with environmental experts and attend conferences on the issue. She obtained certifications from the Indoor Air Quality Council and used this expertise to serve as an expert witness on a construction defect case in Arizona. She still uses her scientific knowledge to assist with environmental problems.

She formed Champion PR in 2010 to work with companies involved in sustainability or renewable energy, and in January joined the national public relations firm Strategies 360.

Champion has done advocacy work for sustainability in the Arizona legislature. She said Arizona politics, like that of many states, has a conflict between a “more progressive urban core” and more conservative areas outside major cities.

One of her biggest fights came when Arizona Senator Judy Burges introduced Senate Bill 1507, a bill that proposed to prohibit the United Nations’ 1992 Rio Declaration, a non-binding document with 27 guiding principles of future sustainable development and which forms the basis of Agenda 21. The language of the bill would have disallowed state government spending on any sustainability projects.

“Until we don’t have such an extremist legislature, we’re gonna keep seeing weird shit,” Champion said.

Sandy Bahr of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club worked closely with Champion on the project and spoke of the inspiration she drew from Champion.

“She is constantly challenging apathy,” Bahr said. “Every community needs a Stacey Champion.”

Champion said her sense of balancing environmental and economic concerns informs her worldview, giving her a “big picture,” practical perspective on issues.

“At the end of the day, people need to feed their families, right?” Champion said. “In a perfect world, I’d be a trust fund kid and be able to run around and work to save the world and not have to worry about money. I’ve been fortunate and able, through just working my butt off really, to tie all those pieces together.”

In addition to her public relations work, Champion has her hands in a broad array of social work. She is on the board of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona and organized a screening of the documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” in August to promote sex education. She participates in ASU Downtown’s community encounters class, which engages freshmen in Barrett, the Honors College with downtown businesses and issues.

She is the director of PARK(ing) Day Phoenix, which will mark its fifth anniversary this month and has grown in participation and press recognition since its inception.

Champion also founded Rogue Green, a networking event for members of the green community. Since Rogue Green started four years ago, the networking event has been held on the first Thursday of almost every month. Its fourth anniversary was Sept. 5.

“Rogue Green was started because I was frustrated that all of the green network events were in Scottsdale, and a lot of the people who came weren’t really involved in the industry and were just there to shove a business card in your hand. There wasn’t a lot of content.”

Jenny Poon, owner of Co+Hoots and a fellow Minnesota native, collaborated with Champion on Act on Climate Phx, a July 31 conference on climate change that drew a crowd of 150 people to Civic Space Park with red umbrellas to raise awareness about climate issues.

“She’s a fireball,” Poon said. “She’s one of those women who just gets things done. She’s a high producer and when she says she wants to get something done, it happens, and there’s not many people you can say that for.”

Champion said her work ethic is driven by learning to use her ADD to her advantage, jumping effortlessly from one project to the next. But she draws her deepest inspiration from her kids and the “human moments” she experiences supporting her causes.

“Our lives are so short in the grand scheme of things,” Champion said. “How do you see things that are messed up and not react? Most people take themselves far too seriously. More people need to pay attention to kids because kids are natural caretakers of the earth. They’re not jaded yet, they’re pure and good and see good.

“When you’re dealing with politics and special interests and big money, there are days when I want to beat my head against the wall,” she said. “But how do you then go home and look at the kids you brought into the world and not at least try to make your small corner of the universe better while you’re here?”

Contact the reporter at bkutzler@asu.edu