By Dyana Bagby
As a child, Stephanie Stuckey Benfield took walks along Cumberland Island beach with her father, Georgia Congressman Bill Stuckey.
It was on this stretch of land with her dad – and also while boating on the Okefenokee Swamp and while camping with her family – where Benfield learned to love the outdoors.
“My father was in Congress representing South and Middle Georgia. We had a home there [on Cumberland Island] and spent every summer there,” Benfield said.
Rep. Stuckey, a Democrat from Eastman, drafted the federal legislation ensuring the protection of Cumberland Island from development and keeping its natural habitat unharmed. He was also instrumental in pushing through federal legislation to protect Okefenokee Swamp in the 1970s.
Watching her father work to conserve the land he loved made a significant impression on Benfield.
“My father was politically involved in environmental issues. I remember him advocating on these issues. And we went outdoors a fair amount. Being around that gives you an appreciation for nature at an early age,” she said.
As the Director of Sustainability for the city of Atlanta, named to the post in April by Mayor Kasim Reed, Benfield has taken her love of the outdoors and has fashioned it into a career of working to conserve and preserve the city’s, and the state’s, natural resources.
Before heading up the city’s Office of Sustainability, Benfield, who is an attorney, served three years as the executive director of GreenLaw, a non-profit organization providing legal and technical support on environmental issues. (“The perfect marriage between my love for the environment and my love of the law,” she said.) Before that, Benfield was a well-known member of the state legislature, where she represented a portion of DeKalb County for 14 years.
“My mom was very active and volunteered a lot in the community. My parents showed me that you could take your passion to the next level. Growing up in that environment — it never occurred to me that I couldn’t run for office,” Benfield said.
When Benfield took office in 1999, she knew she wanted to focus on brining about change in three areas that she cared deeply about — women’s issues, family issues and the environment.
“I was very mindful of representing my constituency. My district included Emory and Decatur and both are hubs for environmental activism,” she said.
Her past experience set her up to work for the city of Atlanta, Reed said.
“Stephanie Stuckey Benfield has distinguished herself in her advocacy for sustainability and our environment from her time in the Georgia General Assembly to her leadership at GreenLaw. I look forward to working with Ms. Benfield to keep Atlanta on the path to being one of the top sustainable cities,” he said in a statement.
Benfield’s and Reed’s relationship goes back to when both were legislators. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1998.
Benfield credits the mayor with being able to form alliances with unlikely groups – such as Gov. Nathan Deal and the business community – by making good economic cases for sustainability.
“I see Atlanta as this blue dot in a state of red where environmental issues can move forward,” she said. Two other Georgia cities – Decatur and Roswell – also have sustainability directors.
In September, the Atlanta City Council unanimously passed a Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. Also, in the near future, the city plans to purchase 20 electric vehicles for city employees to use; currently, the city has two donated electric cars. About 200 city buildings now are being retrofitted for energy and water efficiency through an energy and savings contract as well.
But it is in the area of solar energy where Benfield sees Atlanta being a leader for the entire state. Benfield said she aims to install about 1.5 megawatts of solar power in city-owned buildings.
“I think the city of Atlanta can serve as a leader on solar energy and really help advance the solar industry in the south. Good, clean energy is good for business, saves money and creates green jobs,” she said.
And while her job is about finding ways to conserve the environment, Benfield makes sure to find time also to enjoy the natural resources Atlanta and Georgia have to offer and to enjoy the great outdoors with her husband and two children, as she did as a child with her family. Because being outside, communing with trees and rivers and family, is what makes the work worthwhile, she said.
“I just find it therapeutic to be outdoors. I enjoy camping, hiking, paddling,” she says.
For the past several summers, she and her husband and two children have participated in Paddle Georgia, a project of the Georgia River Network, where people paddle for eight days and over 100 miles on different rivers.
“Being outside, with clean air and water, is where you can interact with others on a real and human level, when you don’t have the usual distractions you have in usual work day – you don’t have cellphones or TV or computers,” she said.
“I love not only to be able to be out in nature but to be in nature with my family.”