And the Beat Goes Green

Makeda Dread Cheatom is the executive director of the WorldBeat Center in Balboa.

Makeda Dread Cheatom is the executive director of the WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park
Photo: World Beat Center.

The San Diego Green Building Council matches volunteers seeking hands-on project experience with nonprofits looking to green their facilities.


When volunteers brainstormed ways for the WorldBeat Cultural Center to conserve water, they didn’t recommend installing any fancy new toilets or complicated recycled-water systems. Their proposed solution was decidedly lower-tech. “We realized that the center was actually saving a ton of water by bringing porta-potties in for events,” says Tanya Goyette, a volunteer who worked on the WorldBeat project. “We just said, ‘Bring in more porta-potties. You’re doing a great job saving water.’”,

Several dozen volunteers like Goyette helped WorldBeat, a multicultural arts organization located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, to examine not just their water usage, but also their energy consumption, their waste and recycling processes, and other practices as part of the center’s application to obtain LEED for Existing Buildings certification. The San Diego Green Building Council connected the volunteers to WorldBeat through its Green Assistance Program (GAP), which helps under-resourced nonprofits to incorporate sustainable elements into their existing buildings.

The program also gives volunteers the chance to work on a green building project—experience that can be invaluable for people just beginning their careers or making a shift toward sustainable development. “We’ve had an overwhelming interest in the program,” says Renée Daigneault, interim executive director of the San Diego chapter. “We have a mix of people who have been doing this for 20 years and want to give back, people transitioning careers, and students or emerging young professionals that want to get hands-on experience working on a project.”

Until recently, that sort of project experience was necessary to even sit for LEED professional credential exams. As of this summer, that requirement has been waived, but the newer test directly assesses knowledge about project skills, meaning that hands-on experience is still a near-prerequisite to obtaining LEED credentials. Ravi Bajaj, education manager for the San Diego chapter, says he expects volunteer interest in the program to remain high, despite the change in the testing requirement.

Since GAP was started in 2010, volunteers have worked with five different nonprofits. WorldBeat, the first, has already received LEED certification, and another project has been submitted for certification. The San Diego chapter’s staff is only large enough to lead volunteers through one project at a time, and, Bajaj says, the process is more like three projects at once: educating a nonprofit about the importance of LEED certification; educating the volunteers about the LEED process; and managing the actual project.

The WorldBeat Center provides ongoing programs and services that nurture the spirit of children, the elderly, and everyone in between to create unity within diversity. Photo: WorldBeat Center.

The WorldBeat Center provides ongoing programs and services that nurture the spirit of children, the elderly, and everyone in between to create unity within diversity.
Photo: WorldBeat Center.

Bajaj says there have been inevitable hiccups—the largest occurring when a food bank participating in the GAP program couldn’t obtain LEED certification because a tenant in its building wouldn’t cooperate with the process. “It’s really important to have your ducks in a row when you get started,” Bajaj says. “We learned that lesson the hard way.”

But the volunteers’ efforts on the food bank project weren’t wasted. Although the building couldn’t be certified, volunteers still helped the organization to formalize its operations policies and tweak them to make them more efficient and environmentally friendly. The food bank reduced its waste output by obtaining a machine that automatically opens cans of expired food and empties them—keeping the recyclable cans out of landfills.

Even before perusing LEED certification, the WorldBeat Cultural Center had some solar panels, and staffers took great pains to recycle as much as possible. But the GAP program helped the center to formalize its processes and make decisions on upgrades,” says Makeda Cheatom, executive director and founder of the organization. “Instead of being a bunch of people trying to save the earth, they put us on track.”

As a result of the program, WorldBeat installed LED lighting and solar tubes, cut down on bottled water, and began purchasing more recyclable materials—moves that have lessened the center’s environmental impact and have saved it thousands of dollars per year. Although the nonprofit organizations are responsible for their own capital upgrades, volunteers do what they can to point them in the direction of rebates and potential sources of donations. And so, WorldBeat did end up getting a fancy new toilet, after all—a waterless urinal donated by someone who worked on the project.

“You get 50 to 70 people working together, and they know people,” says Goyette. “They have resources that they can tap into, and they can help organizations get the things they need.” The vision we have for the future is that our buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation. Our community are the experts in green buildings. If we can help other non-profits lighten the burden of designing, constructing, or operating their buildings, then they can better focus on their mission–while we focus on ours: to inspire, educate and collaborate within our community to transform our built environment toward true sustainability. This is about social equity, economic return and environmental responsibility. For more on the Green Assistance Program click on this video

WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park, San Diego, CA