“I like to do different things at the same time,” Dana Stein says. “It’s rewarding.”
For some people, that might mean taking up gardening on the weekends or playing tennis after work. But Stein’s roving interests have led him to a life that’s chock full of much more than just hobbies: he runs a thriving non-profit, advocates for the environment as a state delegate, where he acts as deputy majority whip and a member of the environmental matters committee. And for fun last year, he wrote a novel.
The book, Fire in the Wind, came about because Stein was troubled by the fact that when he spoke with high school students about the dangers of global warming, many didn’t seem concerned at all. Stein figured that this might be because it was hard for them to imagine the impact of melting ice caps and increasingly extreme weather patterns. “It’s hard for them to visualize, because it’s too far over the horizon,” he explained in a recent phone conversation. But without formal training as a scientist or teacher, how could he make the issue relevant for them?
Fire in the Wind was born out of just this frustration. It took Stein four or five months to draft the initial version of his dystopian environmental novel, which imagines a near-future America (the novel is set in 2036) where climate change has led to widespread flooding, an internal refugee problem, and a radicalized environmental movement.
The fact that he’d never written fiction before didn’t stymie Stein, perhaps because he has a long history of jumping into new ventures with enthusiasm and vigor. A graduate of Baltimore County public schools, Stein went on to get the Ivy League trifecta — degrees from Harvard (B.A. in government), Columbia (law degree), and Princeton (Master’s in public affairs). But after several years practicing law in D.C., Stein found himself drawn by a new opportunity — the chance to do hands-on work with young people in some of Baltimore’s struggling neighborhoods.
Civic Works, the non-profit that Stein helped found in the early 1990s and continues to run today between stints in Annapolis, is an urban service organization along the lines of a hometown Peace Corps. Civic Works corps members gain skills — in green construction, in urban farming, in entry-level healthcare work — while at the same time serving their communities.
When asked which of the many Civic Works programs he’s most proud of, Stein cites Project Lightbulb, for which corps members go door to door in low-income neighborhoods, offering free energy efficient lightbulbs and other small — yet crucial — green home improvements. “Not only are you helping the environment,” Stein notes, “but you’re lowering costs for the homeowner.”
Notably, Civic Works aims many of its greening projects at low-income neighborhoods, primarily those surrounding the organization’s home base in Clifton Park. One of the message implicit in Civic Works’ projects is that working to improve the environment isn’t just a luxury activity for rich people with enough time and money to spend on organic produce and home weatherization. In fact, since much of the burden of environmental problems gets shifted onto the urban poor, it only makes sense to involve them in the solution.
Along these lines, Stein cites another Civic Works project, the Real Food Farm in Clifton Park, as another of the program’s successes. “We’re responding to a direct community need,” Stein says, pointing out that the area around the farm is what’s known as a food desert, meaning that residents don’t have access to fresh, affordable, healthy food. The farm doesn’t just provide the produce the neighborhood previously lacked; it also gets local residents involved and invested in the growing process. Tyler Brown, who runs the farm, praises Stein for “creat[ing] a real vision for what the next step is in developing Baltimore into a city that’s on the cutting edge of sustainable practices” and f’or “really taking a chance on following through” not just on the farm, but on a whole host of issues.
But then there’s the whole other side of Stein’s life: his political work. “I guess what unites [these different projects] is commitment to community and to service,” Stein muses. He was elected to represent the 11th District (Northwest Baltimore County) in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2006, with the goal of affecting change on a broader basis. As he describes his particular projects in the legislature, it becomes clear that his experience with Civic Works informs his work in Annapolis. He serves on the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee, through which he’s helped enact legislation to promote renewable energy, set up the Maryland Clean Energy Center, and enable counties to adopt the international green construction code.
Most recently, Stein has found himself surprisingly compelled by an issue he’d previously had no particular interest in: ensuring that Maryland citizens are financially literate. After the real estate collapse, bailouts, and financial crisis that marked 2008, Stein says, “I realized that maybe we need to study how well students and adults in Maryland are educated in financial topics.” So he set up a task force, made some recommendations, and eventually developed a financial literacy curriculum that will be a required component for public schools in Maryland starting this fall.
But do all the committees and task forces and lists of recommendations that make up the life of a legislator ever feel, well, slow compared to the work he does at Civic Works, where accomplishments are clear and concrete (more than 2 million pounds of trash removed; 25,477 trees planted; 21 playgrounds built)? For Stein, it seems, the two kinds of work balance each other out nicely. “Civic Works has a significant impact in certain areas. In the legislature, the impact is perhaps not as deep, but it’s broader,” he says.
And, in the end, for Stein all the work is just his attempt at making the world a safer, greener place for his wife and two young daughters. “I probably have always been a bit of a workaholic,” Stein admits. “But it’s great to be able to do work that you find personally rewarding.”