In 2011, a fledgling program called the STAR Community Rating System was in trouble. The director was resigning and stakeholders were losing hope after a three-year development process. Who would be willing to take on this challenge Hilari (Benson) Varnadore ’97, that’s who. She saw impending disaster as an opportunity to “take this huge project to the finish line.”
Now the Executive Director of STAR Communities, Hilari made use of the experiences she had honed throughout her career in environmental nonprofits and government agencies. She secured funding and incorporated STAR Communities in the District of Columbia. Today, the Rating System and its associated programs help communities across the United States and Canada measure the impact of their local actions, achieving community-scale results that make a difference.
How did Hilari get from Unity College to a position that allows her to work with municipal leaders at this broad level? The trajectory speaks volumes about her dedication and skills. After earning her degree in environmental policy at Unity, she went on to graduate school at Northern Arizona University. During Hilari’s time out West, she held positions with the Grand Canyon Trust and the Nature Conservancy; her research was focused on Growing Smarter Act implementation and community resilience in the Arizona-New Mexico mountain ecoregion.
A native of Maryland, Hilari was delighted to return when she was offered a job in her home town running a nonprofit called Community Commons. This led to a government post as Principal Planner for Frederick County and, ultimately, a position as the county’s first Sustainability Director. These formative experiences made her realize that she could be most effective by employing a systems thinking approach to environmental problems, coordinating across agencies and “breaking down silos.”
Hilari modestly describes herself as a generalist, but she has the training to focus on specialized problems such as land use, energy management, and water resouces planning. The STAR Community Rating System she currently administers is similar to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Both have developed sustainability standards under the guidance of the U.S. Green Building Council. Hilari notes that she wishes she could be at Unity College now because of all the improvements that have been made since she graduated. We hope that she’ll come for a visit soon so that we can show off our LEED certified buildings. It would certainly be useful to know how we measure up to a STAR rating.