Interview With Max Lerner, Founder of GROW Externships

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
Max Lerner

Max Lerner is the Founder and Executive Director of GROW (Green Revitalization Outreach Workforce) Externships, a nonprofit organization that provides paid externships for disadvantaged and underrepresented developing professionals interested in careers in sustainability, climate justice, environmental science, and similar fields. Lerner has more than 20 years of experience developing green roofs, urban farms, environmental policies, and infrastructure for New York City and beyond. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, policy, institutions, and behavior (EPIB) from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College. For high school, he attended School of the Future, a magnet school in Manhattan that encourages students to focus on academic growth beyond standard regents testing. 

Food Policy Center: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Let’s start with what initially sparked your interest in environmental science and sustainability. Were you passionate about these topics before starting college?

Max Lerner: Yes! School of the Future, where I attended high school, has a regents waiver that allows students to take only some of the normally mandatory New York state standardized tests, and instead gives students time to focus on a research project each high school year. Based on my academic performance and interests, for my 9th grade project I was selected for an internship with NASA to coordinate a year-long paid research project focused on constructing a green roof pilot on top of School of the Future. (The reason why this high school project was serious enough to warrant NASA’s collaboration was because at the time, in the early 2000s, there were plenty of systems in Europe that verified why green roofs were good, but very few systems in the U.S. to verify their impact here. The data we produced was foundational in helping to verify the local and national benefits of green roofs.) 

It was a thrilling experience to spark active change in the field of environmental science and inspirational to see the potential for a greener New York City. Even back then I knew that this work was my true passion, and I’ve been pursuing this field on a professional level ever since!

FPC: Could you tell me a little bit about GROW Externships? How did you come up with the idea for the program? 

ML: I came up with the concept of GROW after years of mentoring hundreds of people across my various environmental roles and realizing that there was a clear gap in the environmental workforce roadmap. Although there are ample volunteer opportunities for developing professionals to build out their environmental work experience, gaining true career traction depends primarily on having access to an incredible amount of time and many connections. Both of those things are directly related to having financial support, which supremely reduces the diversity of our work sector. It was clear to me that the greatest support that I, as an individual, could contribute to the broader field of environmental sciences was to create a more accessible pathway to career traction for underrepresented groups who are not independently wealthy enough to be able to volunteer and network indefinitely until jobs materialize. 

Upon researching how to do this, I discovered that the kinds of paid short-term training opportunities I envisioned were effectively nonexistent. So I founded GROW Externships to fill that vital gap. Giving paid work experience and meaningful network building to people new to this workforce without creating too taxing of a long-term commitment was the solution I invented. Our program allows for a broader range of developing professionals to have the opportunity to make grander strides in the job market while, at the same time, providing them with a wonderfully unique and paid experience. Our externships also create financial access to travel opportunities that allow trainees to explore unique environmental hubs around the planet. This, paired with making sure the work itself is independently designed and in-demand by the wide variety of GROW’s stakeholders across the globe, allows us to ensure maximum impact for our efforts, serving both people and the planet at the same time.

FPC: The program focuses on reaching underrepresented groups, such as people of color and the LGBTQ community. How do you reach these groups? Why do you think it is important to diversify the environmental science workforce?

ML: It is important to diversify every workforce, but it is of specific topical importance to diversify the environmental science workforce because major decisions for the planet are being made based on the expertise of the environmental scientists of the world. For this process to be coordinated in an ethical and representative manner, the workforce itself must be representative of the broader planet. Otherwise, we’re preventing some groups from participating in that decision-making process. 

Because the environmental sciences are a relatively new field in the grander scheme of the working world, there isn’t a truly formal path to becoming an expert in it. Therefore, opportunities like GROW, which exist outside the formal job market and focus on paid experience targeted primarily to underrepresented groups, are critical for ensuring that this sector is properly represented. It is not a simple thing to focus on tailoring opportunities to specific demographics, especially because GROW is still new and not incredibly resourced itself. But, thankfully, we have a solid track record of organic growth, wonderful partners, and phenomenal alumni who help ensure that we are getting a steady stream of interest so that we can do our best to help those who would benefit most from the opportunity.

FPC: What are the biggest challenges that grassroots sustainability projects face in different parts of the world? What else can be done to address these issues?

ML: Funding and, by extension, labor – but primarily funding. Many world-class sites, phenomenal initiatives, and legendary leaders in the sustainability sector grapple with funding issues. It’s not enough to merely create a solid solution – a project requires funding and people to execute the work; often over long periods of time, if not indefinitely. This dedication is challenging to maintain, especially because most initiatives start small, but, thankfully, we are a global world, and frequently global interest in local issues help spark far-reaching resources and support. It is our goal to see that GROW’s efforts offer an accessible bridge to address broader global environmental challenges, such as popularizing the organic food movement and supporting land management challenges in Japan, stemming and repairing damage within the extinction epicenter of the planet in Hawaii, fighting the evolving problems of climate change in Costa Rica, and helping to plan a post-coal future through case studies in West Virginia. Even if people are not able to support these causes directly with labor and/or funding, creating a broader  awareness among the general public still helps advance this work’s priority in the grander scheme of managing environmental issues. If nothing else, we should be happy to share our successes to demonstrate the inherent value in making these global sustainability  initiatives more broadly known.

FPC: How are agricultural practices in NYC different from in other cities, states, and countries that you have visited? What have you and your externs learned about farming and sustainability from other countries? What have you been able to share with them?

ML: Land access is the major difference between NYC and most other locations in the U.S. This is an incredibly expensive city, and using land for farming, of all things, is an incredibly challenging pivot to make – when it’s even feasible – granted all the other potential and conflicting uses for that land. For NYC, roofs are probably the final frontier for land access. They are mostly flat and mostly underutilized, if not completely unutilized. Beyond that, redeveloping NYC to support more agricultural sites is a battle between current use and alternate uses, and agriculture is, unfortunately, not likely to win given our population size and the value of the land itself. 

Outside NYC, it becomes a discussion of current land use and capacity for maintenance, both of which require a lot of upfront logistics as well as a true understanding of the long-term cost of such work. Globally, it’s an even larger extension of these same issues. What is the land used for currently, who controls it, are they willing to allow for agricultural use, and how will it be taken care of long-term? It is the not-so-fun truth that the long-term cost of environmental infrastructure is the real devil in the details. Even if permission and funding are secured for the short-term upfront development of a project, there also needs to be planning for the long-term upkeep of said site, which often exceeds the initial cost across the project’s lifetime. Otherwise, the project is in management freefall and almost inevitably doomed to fail. 

This is one of the critical lessons I’ve tried to impart to our trainees. The overall science around sustainability has already been largely defined. We’re generally sure how plants will perform, how to control ambient temperatures, how to improve air quality, the potential capacity of alternative energy, ways to reduce waste, the utility of composting, how nature can help to maintain the constructed environment, and so on. The goal for new professionals entering the environmental science space is largely more about finding new ways to integrate nature, modern techniques, and evolving technologies into the built world that do not radically conflict with a place’s overall current use – and that, additionally, can be maintained for many years to come. Using a global lens, we can see numerous examples of where efforts have either succeeded or failed, and sharing the opportunity to physically visit these projects with our trainees is the best way to empower their developing careers by building upon the successes and avoiding the pitfalls of previous attempts.

FPC: If you could implement one policy regarding environmental sustainability in NYC, what would it be? Have you seen any effective policies in other cities or countries that you would want replicated in NYC?

ML: As boring an answer as it is, a flat tax imposed on any ongoing necessary processes within the city (construction, transportation, etc) to fund sustainability work for the foreseeable future would be my most strategic dream move. The challenge with basically all environmental projects is how they’ll be stewarded long-term. There’s thankfully a solid pool of growing local interest and energy around environmental matters. What’s far more difficult to project and account for, however, is what happens to a project in year 5, year 10 and year 50, which are not unrealistic timelines for environmental projects. This is certainly something we hope to be accounting for in terms of the city’s sustainability, especially on an infrastructure level. 

On a policy level, broad initiatives projecting sustainability goals incredibly far into the future are unfortunately mostly too optimistic and often lack a step-by-step roadmap, including how to maintain their stewardship for years, if not decades to come. However, a simple policy dedicating consistent funding in perpetuity would allow for reasonable planning and maintenance of the work to be done. There is no strategy more means-tested than being predictably resourced. As with most habit-building, consistency is key, and, ironically enough, ensuring that sustainability work is actually sustainable is no different.

FPC: Any final thoughts?

ML: The environmental sciences field largely hinges on an amazing community of dedicated professionals. The people in this workforce are motivated by purpose, because if they were motivated by money, they would have done the math and chosen a more lucrative pathway. And for that reason, the field isn’t incredibly large, but we can expect that people acting in this workforce generally have good morals and are dedicated to making a difference. They do not possess celebrity syndrome, they are by and large good people. Reach out to them. They will be overjoyed to receive your acknowledgement of their hard work and will do their best to help you if they can. 

Have faith in people and the planet. Although we have done catastrophic damage to the earth, it is a system that constantly mends, heals, and evolves on a timeline that we as a species cannot even begin to comprehend. With our solid and, thankfully, growing workforce, the ever-increasing public body of environmental knowledge, and our empathetic species as a whole, we will inevitably find ways to do our best to make a difference in due time. Anything you can do to help expedite that process, whether it’s just becoming better informed, if not being involved more directly, is of paramount assistance in this ongoing adjustment to maintaining people’s sustainable coexistence with our planet.


Grew up in: New York City

City or town you call home: Brooklyn in New York City, Yasugi in Japan

Job title: Executive Director of GROW (Green Revitalization Outreach Workforce) Externships

Background and education: High school green roof experience from School of the Future, Environmental Science Bachelor’s from Rutgers Cook College and Masters of Public Administration from Baruch College

One word you would use to describe our food system: Complicated

Food policy hero: Louis Pasteur, though there are many others

Your breakfast this morning: Coffee, and sometimes just that

Favorite food: Homemade pizza, it’s so simple but also so versatile

Favorite last meal on Earth: Kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi

Favorite food hangout: Diners in the U.S., Izakayas in Japan

Food policy social media must follow: The Internet of Nature @internetofnature_

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