by Chris Killian
Dana Bourland has been uttering that African word—which translates to “I am what I am because of who we all are”—often these days.
That’s because Bourland, a 1994 graduate of Kalamazoo College, is in the business of building community, and she believes that what’s good for one should be good for all.
For her, perpetuating justice is paramount, and she “walks that talk” in the work she does as Vice President of Green Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners Inc., a Columbia, Maryland-based nonprofit that increases access to affordable housing for people across the nation.
“It’s a basic human right to have shelter,” Bourland said, sitting just steps from the Quad on a sunny Homecoming Saturday. “Justice comes when we all acknowledge we are in it together. We shouldn’t disadvantage those who don’t have as strong of a voice as we do.
“The big question is how do you make places work better for people who have the least. My work now is all about that. How do we make strong, resilient communities and be smart about the resources we use, both natural and human?”
One of the most important and effective paths forward in that quest is to tap into the sustainability revolution, Bourland said. At 40-years-young, she is still endowed with a fiery intensity for creating well-run, sustainable, vibrant communities and cities.
Think of Bourland as a modern-day Jane Jacobs, who many consider the mother of the sustainable city movement.
Ensuring that new buildings and homes are built with environmental and resource sustainability in mind is vitally important, Bourland said, but, almost surprisingly, it’s not the most important green initiative.
Retrofitting existing homes with energy efficient measures, like new windows, insulation and compact fluorescent bulbs, can go a long way in helping low-income families with their utility bills while at the same time decreasing the use of natural resources used to heat and light a home.
“The poor pay four times more on their utilities than affluent homeowners,” Bourland said. “They really have the most to gain by living in a place that’s healthy and affordable.”
A native of Chicago, Bourland and her family moved to England when she was 2 years old. The family then returned to the United States when she was 10, settling in Boston and then outside Minneapolis.
Bourland has no trace of a British accent, which, she admits, was erased by her family during American dialect lessons prior to their return to the States.
“Yeah, they got rid of that,” she quipped.
When the quest for a college began, she looked at several small East Coast schools, many of which offered field hockey, which Bourland played.
Then a mailer from “K” arrived in the family’s mailbox.
“My dad insisted that we visit the campus,” she said. “And when we did, I fell in love.”
As is the case with many prospective students, it was the K-Plan that convinced her—and a special visit by a coach.
“The more I read about the K-Plan and that intersection between being on campus and getting out into world [Bourland studied abroad in Mexico], the more the place totally appealed to me,” she said. “Plus the Hornets had a field hockey team, and the coach came and had dinner with us!”
Bourland graduated from “K” with a double major in political science and art—a far cry from the mathematics degree she originally sought to pursue, but hardly an atypical liberal arts pathway. Then it was off to the Peace Corps in Belize where she served in several YWCA programs and spent her weekends with women potters in a nearby Mayan village, making pottery with clay right from
"Justice comes when we all acknowledge we are in it together."the ground.
She came back in 1997, and two years later—at age 28—had a master’s degree (urban planning) in hand from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.
She went to work for the Northwest Area Foundation, a community development agency, in South Dakota and, later, around Yakima, Washington. She helped farmers and others who were struggling to make a living off the land develop new ideas to remain self-sustainable. Some of those ideas included new paradigms of what community means.
“We tried to empower community, to figure out what they wanted,” Bourland said. “How were they farming and what were possible alternatives? Wind farms? Other ideas? We provided tools to them; they were the experts. The work was difficult, but they came up with good ideas and implemented them. I really enjoy the concept of community and city making. Some places work and some places don’t.”
When asked to elaborate, Bourland said, “Places that work are inclusive, local, and have a flavor all their own. They’re places where you never forget where you are when you’re there. I do a lot of traveling, and there are some places where I go and I forget where I am because it all looks the same. But when I visit places that work I say to myself, ‘Sweet, I’m here!’
“Not only that, but those places are also the most resilient. They have the future in their hands because of that authenticity and they can figure out how they can change and grow over time.”
Kind of like Kalamazoo College?
“’K’ is a place that’s like that. I had lots of opportunities over four years there. The classes are small, and there’s a strong sense of community here. It’s real.”
Photo - Dana Bourland '94 returned to campus for Homecoming 2011.