ENVS Alumna: Jenny Hoffner (C'91)

It is always a pleasure to catch up with alumni and we are so pleased to profile Emory alumna, Jennifer Hoffner, this month. Jenny's experience at Emory is a testament to Emory's commitment to a personalized academic experience. Her journey at Emory to create an experience that was meaningful, both personally and academically, is inspiring. We hope you will enjoy getting to know Jenny as much as we enjoyed catching up on all she has done since graduating.

1. How did you find the ENVS department (or rather the precursor to ENVS, HNE)?

As with so many first year college students, I felt un-tethered and uncertain about my path. Confronted with a newfound freedom where I could study or pursue any career path (seemingly), it was unclear to me exactly what to do. After a year-long search for answers, I found most compelling the awareness that at different scales there are limited resources with which to live, grow and thrive as a culture/society. This propelled me forward to engage in the study of human culture, the environment and how the two influence and change each other.

In 1988, without a clear place to pursue my interest in Emory’s classes, I first pursued my study outside the classroom, choosing to create a new student environmental advocacy group. With three sophomore friends, we created Students Involved in Resources and the Environment and quickly had between 40-60 other students working with us to make amazing things happen.  We educated ourselves and other students on issues, we implemented a student run recycling program and successfully advocated for the administration to create and fund the Emory Recycles program, we defeated a proposed bio-medical waste incinerator, and we hosted Emory’s first Earth Day event in 1989 in Lullwater Park.

It was at about that time that the Human and Natural Ecology (HNE) Co-Major was created  (the precursor to the ENVS Dept). At its core, the interdisciplinary HNE program brought together students and professors from across departments, from different perspectives to bring their experience and knowledge to study of how we as humans adapt to and change the environment and likewise how the environment adapts to and is changed by humans.  I paired the HNE program with an Anthropology major for an incredibly powerful education focused on humans, environment, transformation, and community.

2. Is there a faculty member that you worked closely with while on campus? Did you conduct research?
There were many inspiring and supportive faculty to whom I owe a debt of gratitude:
  • Carl Brown taught a HNE seminar class that explored cutting edge concepts in ecological protection and restoration. Carl was, and still is, an inspiration and a seeker always willing to provide encouragement and connections to move good ideas forward.
  • Harry Ragsdale founded the HNE program and for that I am grateful. He was an advocate for the program and for bringing diverse perspectives together.
  • Doug Samson taught Human and Natural Ecology 101, an intro course, and also served as faculty advisor to our student environmental group. He provided guidance and encouragement for our student advocacy work in the face of occasional opposition and resistance to change.
  • Peggy Barlett taught Anthropology classes that were part of the HNE course offerings and she served as my advisor. She, too, was a helpful guide providing feedback and encouragement as Students Involved in Resources and the Environment advocated for a more sustainable Emory.
3. What has been your path since leaving Emory and how did Emory prepare you for life beyond campus?
Upon leaving Emory, I was interested in human/agri-culture and sought opportunities to work on sustainable, small scale organic, biodynamic and permaculture farms and gardens in rural, suburban and urban areas.  I learned about growing food and the great need to grow and make available healthy food in urban neighborhoods that don’t otherwise have access to nutritious food.

I then pursued graduate school in Landscape Architecture (UGA) and Urban Planning (GA Tech) which was my equivalent of a human and natural ecology graduate degree.  It was there I learned about how human systems are designed, how humans alter the landscape (for better or worse), and how to more sustainably develop our human landscapes and protect and restore our natural landscapes through good/robust policy, process, and projects.

After grad school, I headed to NYC to have an adventure and it was there that I landed my dream job working to restore and protect an urban river and its communities – to find the intersections between the well-being of the river and the well-being of urban neighborhoods – both neglected, disinvested for generations.  Working on the Bronx River, I had the privilege of working with an amazing team of people representing neighborhood groups, non-profits, government agencies, businesses, and schools. My role was to bring these groups together and facilitate their collaborative work focused on restoring and protecting the River. Having been a dumping ground for years, the river was filled with derelict cars, tires, shopping carts and at the same time was (and still is) the only freshwater river in NYC and was the home to significant biodiversity as well as several prominent institutions such as the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden. Our work was to get people to fall in love with the river and commit to restore and protect it.  After just four years working on the river, we had secured 65 partners, $113 million for restoration of the river, removed 50 cars and 10,000 tires, acquired 40 new acres of NYC parkland and created a non-profit to continue the work and ensure community leadership in the effort.  The work continues today coordinated by the Bronx River Alliance in close collaboration with community partners and the NYC Parks Dept.

After a short stint as a bureaucrat and then as a new mom, I was fortunate to begin work in Atlanta with the national non-profit, American Rivers. More below.

4. How long have you been with American Rivers? What do you do and what is most rewarding about your work?
My work with American Rivers started nearly 8 years ago in the midst of an historic north Georgia drought which saw the drying up of rivers and reservoirs. It was the second such drought in seven years and panic had set in along with calls for moving the state line and prayers for rain on the steps of the State capitol.  Real solutions were needed and not forthcoming. American Rivers, working with the Georgia Water Coalition and partner groups, advocated for legislation that later became the Georgia Water Stewardship Act which required implementation of water efficiency measures in communities across the state and put Georgia among the most progressive states in water efficiency policy in the country.

Most of my work at American Rivers has been focused on finding ways for both rivers and people to have the water they need to thrive.   Using water efficiently leaves more water in the river and is a proven, cost-effective way to get people’s needs met at the same time. I am proud of my work to advance water efficiency in Georgia and the southeast overall and specifically on the Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 office’s Guidelines on Water Efficiency Measures for Water Supply Projects in the Southeast.   

Most recently my work at American Rivers has shifted to a broader focus on the policies and projects at the local, state, regional and federal levels that restore and protect rivers.  Our good work includes programs that focus on dam removal, hydropower reform, plumbing our cities to restore the water cycle, and engaging communities in their rivers through blue trails.  It’s rewarding work connecting people to their rivers and protecting and restoring rivers for current and future generations to enjoy.