Allison Cunningham is recognized as a Legendary Leader Volunteer at USGBC’s Convergence.
By Alexandra Pecci
When Allison Cunningham worked as a volunteer for CHaRM, Atlanta’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, her task was not a glamorous one.
“My job was to sort through batteries,” she says. That was in addition to helping to galvanize and organize other U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) volunteers for a monthlong commitment to help the newly opened facility sort through the old tires, mattresses, herbicides, pesticides, paints, and other hard-to-recycle materials that had been dropped off there.
When it comes to her volunteer work, Cunningham is a get-your-hands-dirty, lace-up-your-boots kind of person. She does not want to simply organize and talk about an event: “I want to be at the event,” she says. “It’s rewarding to actually be doing it, boots on the ground, and getting out there and talking to people.”
That hands-on work ethic is why Cunningham, LEED project reviewer and senior project manager, for Ecoworks Studio in Atlanta, is the Legendary Leader award winner for this year’s Convergence Volunteer Awards. Cunningham has worked with USGBC Georgia for six years as both a member and chair of its outreach committee.
Cunningham’s work with the Atlanta Falcons organization to revitalize neighborhoods around the stadium helped establish the Lindsay Street park—the first public green space in Atlanta’s Vine City. Bottom: Allison Cunningham with founder and executive director Peggy Whitlow Ratcliffe.
The fact that the Legendary Leader award is given to a long-time USGBC volunteer who has demonstrably invigorated the community with their ideas and energy is fitting for Cunningham, who has been passionate about ecology for nearly her whole life. “The environment has always been important to me, as far back as a I can remember,” she says. “There are little things that I can remember over the course of my life, before I even knew I would do this as a career.”
As a little girl, Cunningham was excited by a call to action in the children’s magazine Highlights to save the rainforest, and as a fifth grader, she tried mightily to start a community compost project in her small Indiana hometown. “I never did get that community compost started,” she says with a laugh.
Her environmental work has been more successful in the years since. After graduating from Purdue University in 2008, Cunningham went to work for Atlanta-based sustainability consulting firm Ecoworks Studio, which specializes in working on atypical buildings, such as sports centers like Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will be home to the Atlanta Falcons when it opens in 2017. “We try to be at the forefront of what’s going on in the sustainability industry,” Cunningham says.
It was Carlie Bullock-Jones, founder and principal of Ecoworks Studio, who nominated Cunningham for the Legendary Leader award, describing her as reliable, passionate, energetic, thoughtful, committed, altruistic, and a true team player. “She’s definitely not the one to toot her own horn,” Bullock-Jones says. “Whether it’s her work or her volunteering, she does whatever is necessary to get the job done.”
Bullock-Jones pointed to Cunningham’s tireless work on more than 60 outreach events in the community. Cunningham is particularly passionate about partnering with other organizations that share USGBC’s mission and goals, whether it is organizing the “Sustainable Black Communities” panel presentations with the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists, or bringing a sustainability angle to URBANfronts, an annual American Institute of Architects event that brings local art to unleased storefronts.
This local work is important to Cunningham because it differs from her professional projects, which often have a larger-scale, national, and sometimes international, impact. In her volunteer work, by contrast, Cunningham says she wants to work closely with the people and places she calls home. “It’s important to me to be impacting my community directly and bringing awareness to my direct community that I live in,” she says.
This focus on making a difference at the community level is also reflected in Cunningham’s longtime service on USGBC Georgia’s outreach committee. Although Bullock-Jones says that Cunningham has often been encouraged to pursue more advanced leadership roles in her volunteer work, she has long opted to stay active on the local level where she can be part of the day-to-day work of making her community a better place. “That’s just another testament to her character,” Bullock-Jones says. “It’s where she feels like she’s been most passionate and impactful.”
Perhaps nowhere is this marriage between large-scale projects and small-scale community more evident than with Cunningham’s work with the Atlanta Falcons organization, which is committed to revitalizing the neighborhoods around the stadium. Cunningham’s work to team USGBC volunteers with the Atlanta Falcons/Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s annual community day of service helped establish the Lindsay Street park, the first public green space located in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta. It is a project that Cunningham is particularly proud of, and it is work like this that drives her. “It’s not just about buildings,” she says. “It’s about the community. It’s what sustainability is all about.”