Aimée Christensen

Founder Sun Valley Institute for Resilience

Why were you inspired to found Sun Valley Institute for Resilience?

Following a twenty year career working on solutions to our global climate and related planetary challenges, I moved home to Sun Valley for family reasons. As I continued my firm’s global advisory work, I was increasingly asked to get involved with local matters including by Sun Valley Economic Development to join the Steering Committee for the annual Sun Valley Economic Summit as well as by local decision makers to work with others to advance local energy development made possible by our significant solar and other renewable energy resources as well as expertise from the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. By engaging locally, I realized that the work I was doing globally to address climate change was also needed - urgently - at home.

When the 2013 Beaver Creek fire scorched over 100,000 acres across the west side of the Wood River Valley including parts of iconic Bald Mountain, it cost at least $40 million in immediate economic losses, choking visibility in Sun Valley down to one block, forcing evacuations and blocking both of the two roads out of the valley for a time.  The destruction shook our community awake to the many threats to our home. We were at risk not only from direct shocks like fire, but also from indirect, mounting stressors that were undermining us over time: outdated water laws, extended drought, increasingly unpredictable weather, and domestic and international economic volatility. Our mountains, climate and relative isolation make Sun Valley a special place, but the same factors also leave the region vulnerable to shifts in the global economy, climate change and external disruptions to our imported food and energy. And so we realized we needed to try to get ahead of those threats in a comprehensive, systemic way.

We founded the Sun Valley Institute for Resilience with powerful support from local leaders including longtime sustainability leader and philanthropist Julie Wrigley, Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith, and policymakers including city and county leaders. We were fortunate to also have the support of global leaders including the Rockefeller Foundation who saw the potential to build a community-scaled model for resilience alongside their global efforts including 100 Resilient Cities and provided a major grant upon our founding.

The Institute aimed to strengthen our community by identifying regional threats and leveraging policy leadership, public engagement and community investments to turn risks into opportunities and build enduring quality of place.

What does community resilience mean to you?

To me, resilience is the ability to withstand a shock and to come back even better. Community resilience is grounded in science and data and in culture and relationships underpinned by trust. We need to understand the data and science of our resilience: the economic, social and environmental factors that materially impact the region’s overall quality of place. We also need to assess and strengthen the culture of resilience and ensure we have the relationships and organizational systems in place to provide resilience in times of crisis and always. From the Sun Valley Economic Summits, city and county comprehensive plans, and feedback from community members, the Institute began to assess our local community resilience data and science. We simultaneously launched specific programs targeting areas of urgent gaps: to make our energy and food systems resilient. We aimed to shift them from being brittle and insecure, environmentally harmful, and an economic drain on our community, to assets that diversify our economy, create quality jobs, benefit our air, water and land, while also empowering residents, businesses and policymakers to be part of building community resilience.

What SVIR work are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the Institute’s transformative leadership that engaged and inspired our community to make resilience a guidepost for regional priorities as well as the Institute’s programs that directly improve our community resilience.

We framed resilience as environmental, social and economic and sought to find strategic leverage points that could turn our risks into opportunities. By bringing together local and global experts and leaders including at our Sun Valley Forum, Community Resilience Workshops, and in the Local Food Alliance’s Food System Strategic Plan process, the Institute has helped to bring a resilience lens to strengthen our community’s future in our rapidly changing world. In our early Institute programs focused on energy and food resilience, we turned to data and science as well as a critical community involvement to shape and implement them.

Through the Institute’s programs we are also driving capital into resilience, such as: Solarize Blaine (which led to over five times the solar installed as the previous year and over $1 million invested), $5 for Farmers (which drove increased local food purchasing), Friends of the Farmers Market (which helped get the market online and supported $70,000 in local farmer food sales during the pandemic), and the Impact Idaho Fund (with a $400,000 pilot financing food and farm needs). These investments in local energy deployment and local food production, processing and distribution benefit our environment, social equity and economic prosperity.

Finally, I am particularly honored that the Local Food Alliance chose to integrate with the Institute, becoming a program of the Institute in 2016. As a founding Institute board member, Local Food Alliance co-founder Ali Long brought her systems thinking about food to the systemic approach of the Institute and together we built out a systemic strategy for community resilience.

Looking back, what is your favorite SVIR moment?

My favorite SVIR moment is actually three moments: the first was in April of 2019 when our friends at Political Climate, a respected global podcast, were shocked when they heard about Idaho’s leadership on energy: they knew progressing energy and climate solutions can be challenging in our state. In spite of that, the City of Boise and Idaho Power had each just announced commitments to 100% clean energy (by 2035 and 2045, respectively). The role that the Institute has played in support of advancing clean energy has included pioneering the Solarize approach in our state, advocacy with state and regional decision makers, with the utilities, with the Public Utility Commission, and has meant that it isn’t just advancing our community’s energy resilience - it is also reverberating far beyond, including informing other communities’ Solarize programs, from Pocatello to the Treasure Valley.

The second favorite moment was in the spring of 2020. After hearing about our regional food efforts, the Rockefeller Foundation asked the Institute to submit a Food System Vision Plan from Idaho to compete in their global competition held in partnership with Second Muse and OpenIDEO. The Institute's incredible team, including staff, interns, board members and advisory board members, came together guided by the trusted reins of Food Program Director Amy Mattias, and produced a powerful vision for a resilient future for our region. Food was at the center, but it included energy, water and land, it included equity and justice, climate and biodiversity, and the recovery of Idaho’s iconic endangered salmon. This vision became a global semi-finalist, one of just 67 out of over 1300 chosen for such a designation. Most importantly, this vision continues to hold a powerful role guiding forward the work of the Institute, and collaborators far beyond.

Finally, my third - and perhaps most momentous - favorite moment was when I transitioned out of the role as founding Executive Director. I am so grateful that the vision we had has evolved into an impactful organization that now has the leadership in a new ED and new board co-chairs and a growing board to capably steward it forward, already building a new path, informed by its history, and inspired by a clear vision for and commitment to its future.