Max Chen Brings National Attention to the Greening of Greensburg

Cornell University School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, May 1, 2012

In 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was devastated by a tornado. Four years later, SC alum Max Chen helped to bring Greensburg's "green" recovery to national attention on the PBS Nightly Business Report (June 16, 2011). Here's Max's story:

I was dead set on becoming a psychology major. My parents, friends, and all my teachers thought that I would eventually become “that famous psychologist that they once knew.” That is, until I attended Cornell University Summer College. I attended CUSC to take two courses: one in psychology, the other in business.

I certainly learned a lot from the psychology course; however, it did not affect me the way that the business course did. That summer, Professor David Taylor, who taught my business course, showed my class An Inconvenient Truth. As the founder and leader of an environmental community service group, I was captivated. Professor Taylor inspired me by showing the impact businesses can have on society. He also introduced me to Professor Van Es, who shared her first-hand experiences of how students changed the world through creative entrepreneurship. From then on, I forgot about becoming a psychology major and changed my plans to study business.

Currently, I am a rising sophomore at The George Washington University. I plan on majoring in business administration with concentrations in international business and business, economics, and public policy. Because of that inspiring business course that I took at CUSC two summers ago, the topics of business that interest me most are corporate responsibility, creative entrepreneurship, and environmental sustainability.

In January 2011, I attended a Friday Forum at GW. The speaker was Frank Sesno, founder and host of Planet Forward, which curates online videos about sustainability. I e-mailed him afterward to tell him that I was going to a town named Greensburg, Kansas, with the GW Alternative Spring Breaks program. Leveled by a tornado in 2007, Greensburg is now rebuilding itself as one of the "most sustainable" cities in America. I asked Frank if he'd be interested in having me do a project on Greensburg for Planet Forward.

At that time, I just really wanted to get people to know about the really cool things going in Greensburg. I believe that Greensburg has a huge message for the world with its story of rebirth through determination, love, and positivity. Resisting the initial response to rebuild back to “normal,” Greensburg decided instead to build back better: in an ethical and economic manner regarding sustainability. In the words of the town court's judge, "Normal is just a setting on your washing machine." Currently the town has more LEED-certified buildings per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.

With Frank’s help, I connected with people at Planet Forward, who taught me how to film. So on my trip to Greensburg, I shot a lot of film, especially interviews with townspeople. When I arrived home, Planet Forward helped me edit my footage.

Eventually, we put together a nearly four-minute clip about Greensburg and published it to the Planet Forward website via YouTube. Disappointingly, not a lot of people watched it. I e-mailed Frank again, explaining to him the importance of Greensburg's story and its relevance to the recent tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, and the earthquakes in Japan.

Frank was inspired and pitched my story to the Planet Forward team, and in turn Fuzz Hogan, the executive producer of Planet Forward, pitched it to PBS. PBS liked it, and the next day the Nightly Business Report ran a Planet Forward-produced feature about Greensburg's phoenix-from-ashes story, using clips from my original video.

Needless to say, I was incredibly excited. I never dreamt that my project would get featured on national television; I just wanted to help spread the word about the amazing stuff that is happening in Greensburg because they have so much to teach the rest of the world. It was really cool that I got featured on the Nightly Business Report. I'm so glad to have been along on this unbelievably surreal experience--and also that I can now watch myself on Hulu and download a video of myself from iTunes!

Addendum: At the end of 2012, Max was featured in the IBM executive report "Connected Generation: Perspectives from Tomorrow's Leaders in a Digital World" (page nine). Congratulations, Max!