Greenpoint Innovations: Visualizing a Better Future

Interview by T.K. Mills  -  Images Provided by @GreenpointInnovations
Photo-Credit-greenpointinnovations-by-stephendonofrioPhoto: GreenPoint Innovations - Stephen Donofrio

2020 will be marked in history by the torrent of crises that plagued the global community. Yet despite the seemingly endless bad news, there are those who strive to show us what a better future could look like. 

Earlier this Fall a team led by Stephen Donofrio, the founder of GreenPoint Innovations, organized a mural to be painted in Hunter Point Park in Long Island City along the waterfront. The mural was painted by Federico Massa a.ka. Iena Cruz, winner of the GreenPoint EARTH 2020: Screens2Streets ‘Streets’ Award competition, with the assistance of local artist OuterSource, utilizing Smog Armor, an eco-friendly spray paint. The large-scale thought-provoking mural is intended to visually demonstrate how human activity impacts nature, and to inspire viewers to reflect upon how they can help create a a cleaner environment.

I sat down with Stephen Donofrio to discuss GreenPoint Innovations, bringing the U.N. and local stakeholders to the table, and painting a symbol of a better future.


T.K. Mills: Could you tell me a little bit about what path brought you to starting Greenpoint Innovations and what the company’s mission and projects?

Stephen Donofrio: My background is mostly in climate policy, corporate sustainability, and responsible investing. I jumped into that early on in my career. I really wanted to work, day to day, with purpose and intention in mind, but also trying to tackle climate change in whatever way I could.

I found the arts world a few years ago, via public art, by meeting a couple of artists who aligned with our interests in wanting to tackle climate issues and raise awareness, but we were doing it in very different ways. My job was and is storytelling, trying to work with companies, investors, and other groups to help the economy become more sustainable. Individuals, people, small businesses, local communities is where my focus is now. The problem is often that climate change feels like such a distant, literally atmospheric, type of issue that people really couldn’t configure out how to grab on to it – it’s less tangible.

So, we put our heads together and created the first kind of project, which led into Greenpoint Earth, called the Greenest Point. And we got really lucky by having a great team and meeting some amazing artists like Faile, Askew1, and Vexta. We went from dreaming up a concept to having an idea for one mural – a collaboration between Askew1 and Vextra. And then by talking to our local assembly-person in Greenpoint, we met a building owner who had a wall at a park in Greenpoint. And that's when we met Faile.

And it all just came together. I mean these projects are definitely not easy. They require a lot of coordination, a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of people involved, a lot of partners. I don't do this on my own. It's not just me and the artist. There's a whole kind of team of people that are part of the collaboration. But what I’ve really enjoyed is being able to work in climate change, using an entirely different part of my brain and my work life, to engage with artists who have an incredible ability to turn these concepts into something that has public appeal.

 photo just_a_spectator Photo: @just__a_spectator

T.K. Mills: I’m sure you’ve noticed the trend of street art becoming involved in more purposeful endeavors – as opposed to just art for art's sake. [Stephen’s Shirt reads: ‘Art plus Purpose.’] How do you feel that art can help connect people to that greater purpose?

Stephen Donofrio: The philosophy that we've had from the beginning was that there’s got to be a call to action in some way. It doesn't have to be explicit, like sign this petition and it’ll save X amount of emissions from going to the air. This is why we call them activations and not just mural projects, because we try to harness the project itself being sustainable and having a sustainability message with a solution as a partner, as part of the activation.

In the beginning, the first year, we did this really cool add-on. We had a solar power company, Brooklyn SolarWorks, who joined into the initiative. They put up solar panels in the building next door to where the mural was, a huge water tower in Greenpoint. We then put up green lights which were donated to us by Philips Lighting. We had a lighting design company, Reveal Design, help with rigging the lights along the water tower.

So, you have the mural that's attracting people to the whole storyline and then you have a solution that's providing an example of how we can be more sustainable. We’re seeing the choices before us.

Last year, we did another project where we had a hybrid-electric vessel company come in that transports produce throughout the Long Island Sound, but it’s hybrid-electric. So, imagine all the ferries on the East River using an entirely clean system, not diesel, no fumes, no noise, silently transporting itself and people up and down the East River in a clean way especially if when they're docking they can plug into a renewable power source to charge up and do more emissions-free trips. The mural we did last year was along Newtown Creek, so we brought people from the U.N. and from other parts of the Climate Week on to the boat and showed them the mural from the water. 

We've been very minimal in terms of waste. And in the grand scheme of things, these projects are pretty low impact.

 GreenPoint Innovations

Photo: GreenPoint Innovations - Stephen Donofrio

T.K. Mills: Can you tell me more about this project specifically; what was the ambition for this activation and how did it come together?

Stephen Donofrio: This project had been in development for about a year. We first partnered with local environmental non-profit Newtown Creek Alliance and got some funding from the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute — where they provided some initial funding to do a mural to help educate this Long Island City community about Newtown Creek. We ended up evolving that concept because we were supposed to paint this for Earth Day back in April. COVID hit and then everything kind of happened. And because we've always done projects during climate week, we figured, well, let’s kind of mold it together.

Then over that course of time, we ended up getting into conversations with the U.N. SDG action campaign with the climate group team. And it created this other concept which was during COVID, you know, the economy that we depend on for our projects, for our activations, the accretive economy was most impacted by loss of work.

And so, for me, it felt like the responsibility of Greenpoint Innovations was to give back in some way. Now, we don't have the huge budgets that bigger companies might have. So, we couldn’t do huge amounts of money, but we provided 10 $500 awards for artists who submitted virtual art to us, so creative works in their own place. We had about 100 submissions from all around the world that were talking about climate solutions. And so, we awarded 10 artists, among them was Iena Cruz.

The judging committee was made up of people from the U.N. and from the local Long Island City community. We had a diversity of opinions and perspectives. Ultimately, the consensus was that we needed to select an artist who has committed their life work to environmental issues and raising awareness, and has created large scale works.

 GreenPoint Innovations

Photo: GreenPoint Innovations - Stephen Donofrio

T.K. Mills: Shifting to a broader perspective, what do you think are some of the most direct ways people can push the world in a better direction?

Stephen Donofrio: Across the board, it's important that we hold sacred facts and science. There's been too many decades of work gone into understanding the science of climate change, understanding what drives climate change whether it's burning of fossil fuels to deforestation.

If we can respect the facts and respect science, then it allows us to come to terms with the fact that we all have to improve the way we not only live our day-to-day lives, but the way we decide to, select what types of products we buy; what types of lifestyles we want to live; where we invest our money; it’s about the types of companies we work for; if you’re building a home and ensuring that the timber that’s being used comes from a sustainable resource. I mean these are decisions that we have to make on a daily basis, and I believe this shouldn’t be a part of politics. You know, this is an everybody issue. The future of our local communities depends on the decisions that we make, and it shouldn't be for a political game that climate change is discussed.

To give an example, some questions we ask ourselves on a project are; where are our your potential emissions coming from, what are our sources of environmental impact, in a project like this. So, first it is about understanding, evaluation, awareness. Then as we do the project, how can you minimize your impact along the way? And then afterwards, once you've been able to calculate your carbon footprint, we can invest in purchasing offsets to neutralize the unavoidable carbon pollution. 

 GreenPoint Innovations

Photo: GreenPoint Innovations - Stephen Donofrio

T.K. Mills: What are future ambitions you hope to achieve, both in the short term and in the long term?

Stephen Donofrio: I guess COVID taught us there’s a lot of things you can’t plan. So, planning for 5 years now when we're not even through this pandemic, I don’t know. My hope is that we’ll be able to do more projects like this, and find ways to continue to educate with the partners that we have. Typically we’ve done about one project like this per year. I'd love to do more. To find ways to have these be murals healing for communities especially going through COVID.

Kids were going back to school when we started this mural. It was really a silent moment where the school was reopening, the community was reopening, and we were painting this mural that has a message about building a better future. That's what we need to continue to strive for in our messaging, is how do we actually build that better future collectively, not politically, not in a partisan way, but just as one national and global community.  

GreenPoint Innovations

Photo: @just_a_spectator
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