By Kimberly Y. Choi, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member at UMD Environmental Finance
Since I had never conducted an interview before, when that part of my work duties came around, I
went to the library for advice. One book I found instructed on wresting answers out of important,
busy people. Quite a different one, purporting to be about “psychosocial interviewing,”
recommended getting interviewees comfortable with opening up and asking them to tell stories. It
was with those books in mind that I approached the Green Teams of two Maryland towns.
Extracting answers from them turned out not to require any wresting; they were eager to share
their experiences of learning about the Sustainable Maryland program and helping their towns
take part. On the other hand, I followed Hollway and Jefferson’s advice and phrased my questions
as requests for stories. Instead of “What difficulties does your Green Team have?” I had them tell
me about the projects that were the most challenging. Instead of asking, “Why do you participate?”
I asked for particular satisfying moments.
In response, they told stories I enjoyed hearing. The “satisfying moments” were particularly
memorable: I heard about projects that turned out successful, the pride and unity Green Team
members feel at events, residents’ delight at projects close to their lives, children appreciating
Not everything Hollway and Jefferson recommend when interpreting interviews is relevant to
studying Sustainable Maryland, but one approach in particular is quite important: namely,
identifying the possibly-unconscious meanings and narratives that underlie people’s stories. One
Green Team member framed municipal sustainability efforts in terms of responsibility to one’s
community. Someone from a different town had a narrative of figuring out what it meant to be
‘green.’ Throughout her stories, she and others came to new understandings of greenness, made
manageable on a small scale, shed of the suspicion the media sometimes impart. To her, gaining
support for the environmental cause is often just a matter of speaking about greenness in a new
It might seem at first that stories might be less useful than traditional interview material, but in
fact there was much to learn from these underlying meanings. I learned, for instance, that one
concept important in Green Team minds is that of the government caring about its people.
Implicit or explicit in many stories was the idea that sustainability goals indicate governments’
concern, and that the common ambition brought staff and residents together. Patterns like this
one—and I’ve only just begun the analysis phase—teach us what makes some communities and
individuals so active in sustainability pursuits and puts us on the way to encouraging more.