The City of Sitka is taking steps to become more “sustainable” with a newly created commission and staff position. Over the next year, they’ll be tackling three goals: developing a renewable energy strategy, investigating how to reduce the amount of garbage shipped off the island, and planning to shift the city’s vehicle fleet to electric.

KCAW spoke with Sitka’s first ever Sustainability Coordinator- she’s been on the job for around 8 months, learning the ins-and-outs of city hall and defining the role. A marine biologist, Bri Gabel previously worked at aquariums and museums, specializing in science communication and jellyfish. Now she’s bringing that expertise to city government. 

GABEL: My name is Bri Gabel and I am the Sustainability Coordinator for the City and Borough of Sitka. I’ve been doing it for about eight months. I grew up in the Seattle area, actually probably closer to Tacoma, in reality. In late 2021, my partner got a job up here, and we decided to come up. The first part of 2022, I was finishing up a $25 million museum expansion for a children’s museum in Everett, Washington. This position popped up, it seemed really interesting. It timed itself that right as the museum opened, I was able to start this job, and so now I’m up here, very happily full-time, finally. It’s been a bit of a process, but I’m here now, and I’m helping form this new position. So this was a really exciting opportunity, and I’m having a great time so far.

KCAW: I know the role is new, so it’s probably evolved, even in the last eight months, as you’ve been kind of figuring out what the day-to-day of the sustainability coordinator looks like…Can you give me sort of a general “day in the life” of a sustainability coordinator?

GABEL: No, not really, because every day is just a little bit different. But something that has become clearer as time has gone on is…with the insane amount of federal funding that has come out to support a plethora of projects backed mostly around climate change, but can be applied in many different ways. I never thought I was gonna say this, but there’s too much money. There’s too much money out there. So, being thoughtful about what I recommend going after and putting energy into is really important.

So early on, a lot of my job was simply just learning for the process, right? Now that I’m kind of shifting out of that initial learning phase, I can kind of see where the city’s at, and where they’re positioned to receive some of this money, and what they need to actually be primed and ready for it.

KCAW: You mentioned that your early work was with marine animals, marine mammals?

GABEL: Actually, jellyfish specifically.

KCAW: I wonder it was from an environmental standpoint that got you interested…have you been interested in climate change? Is this job tapping into any like long term interests in your in your life?

GABEL:  As we tackle climate change, and all the other issues that are happening in the world, [it] really starts at a communication level. And the science behind it can be really tough. Something I’ve always enjoyed, and I’m good at, is that science communication aspect, and trying to get people to be engaged. To me, that’s just one of many barriers in this space, but it is the barrier that I am best suited to help bring down. So that is kind of the angle I am coming from.

Our climate affects everything. Our sustainability affects everything, because it is so overarching. So even though my background doesn’t quite fit, I have found that since I have been explicitly working in this sustainability space, it is highly interdisciplinary. I have met people who have backgrounds in social work, in electrical engineering, in political science. There’s no one-size-fits-all background for this work, because it is so broad and sweeping, which is great, because that means a lot of voices at the table, but also means there’s a lot to learn.

KCAW: What’s your favorite thing about working at city hall so far?

GABEL: While everybody has different things that they are working on, their intention is always the same, right? And at the core of that is making Sitka a livable community for all. And that really does show.

No one says, ‘No Bri, we don’t want to be sustainable,” right? Everybody wants to do it. Everybody’s in different places for it, and have different levels of understanding of what it means and how it can be done. So just being that little bit of an assistance to help either reshape or, again, provide that new perspective, I think has been really well received, and it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed doing.

Bri Gabel is the city staff liason for the Sustainability Commission- learn more about the commission and its goals here.