Parents with Purpose: Polarization Reducer Alison Cretney

As lab manager of Alberta based Energy Futures LabAlison Cretney brings together 60 leaders of diverse backgrounds and perspectives around the challenges and opportunities Alberta’s energy sector is facing. For Cretney this incredible role in an organization creating very real change in Alberta feels just right. “I feel like I’m on a path,” she says. “I feel the most hopeful I have in my career because I’m just so inspired.” We spoke with Cretney about that path, and how she balances purpose and passion as a mother of two (ages five and eight).

What exactly is the lab all about?

Bringing people together to find solutions to the issues around energy, the economy, and the environment. The participants in the lab include oil and gas executives, utility company executives, community leaders, Indigenous leaders, clean-tech companies, and NGOs. We’ve got both very left-leaning, and very right-leaning people, and they’ve essentially now spent a couple of years together doing the hard work of really trying to understand energy systems in Alberta and developing a vision for the future of energy in the province.

The lab was born from a need to address the really intense polarization that had been in any conversation of energy and climate for a long time. It was very much like, “It’s us versus them. You can either have climate action or a thriving economy, but there’s no way you could possibly have both.” Which presented all of these false choices, and that’s really been keeping things stuck. And so, the intent with the Energy Futures Lab was to bring together all those diverse views in one room and to really commit to spending time together to understand one another’s viewpoints and to, in some cases, agree to disagree. But also find a whole multitude of points of agreement. We now have a shared vision for what energy looks like in the province in 2050, and this incredibly diverse group of people have launched dozens of collaborative projects together to move towards that vision.

Why did you start doing what you do?

I’ve always been involved with working in energy. I took an undergrad in engineering, and that was in Alberta, so it’s sort of just where do you end up -the energy sector. I became quickly disenchanted with the work I was doing, and ended up working for the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, for more than 10 years. During that time I went to Sweden to do my masters in sustainability leadership, and when I was there I was exposed to all these different ways of doing multi stakeholder convening work, and saw how that could work in Alberta.

I also became more familiar with The Natural Step, which is the organization I work for now. I joined them just over three years ago, just as they were getting the Energy Futures Lab off the ground. There was this moment of, “This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do, and here’s an organization that’s just starting to work in this area.” The Natural Step had never worked in the energy space, but had been laying the groundwork for launching what is now the Energy Futures Lab. So here was this energy focused, multi stakeholder, convening project in Alberta. It was the perfect fit. It felt like all those different elements that I’ve been working on in my career just came together. This is what I was meant to do.

What does this work bring to your life?

I feel like I’m on a path. This is an alignment of what I’m good at and what is needed, and it is seeming to have a positive impact on the world. I feel connected to my purpose.

Why is this work important?

Because of the way it brings together such a diverse group of people together to solve these problems. People who are environmentally friendly have been painted as this type of persona that doesn’t resonate with other groups, but really, anyone who is a parent really cares about the future. On a personal note I feel the most hopeful I have in my career right now and that’s because I’m so inspired by the participants in the Lab and the type of things they’re able to do together.

Has parenthood changed how you view your work?

You know it’s funny, all those cliches we hear about becoming a parent have become true for me. Certainly having kids has made the work I do just feel that much more urgent and important. I heard somebody say once, “Of course I have hope, I had children.” Bringing children into this world is a hopeful act in some ways because it’s saying, “Yes, we can build a world that people are going to want to live in.” I want to be part of creating that for them.

What do your kids think about what you do?

My daughter’s a pretty studious kid. She’s very curious and she asks a lot of questions. I remember a couple of years ago, I’d maybe been working on the Lab for about a year, and had all these old name tags from an event that were blank. She scratched out the logo and she put Kids’ Energy Future Lab on there, and made a whole little booklet of what was going to happen at the Kids’ Energy Future Lab. And she was so proud of herself, showing me all this stuff about the Kids’ Energy Future Lab she’s going to start. My husband also works in a similar line of work, but he’s in communications and graphic design, so she’s very aware that there’s work you can do to contribute and to make the world a better place. That, I think, is at the level she of what she thinks about what we do. She is very supportive of us doing the work, but she’s sad about how much it takes mommy away as well.

My kid’s school is very much a parent participation type of school. For the first couple of years my daughter attended, because I was relatively more new to the job, I wasn’t able to go in. She’d say, “Mommy, why don’t you come?,” and was talking about all her friend’s moms that do at the school. I felt so guilty about it, and wondered, “Am I missing out on the best part? She actually wants me there.” This year I blocked it out on my calendar and I go in for an hour on the weeks I’m at home, and it’s been lovely. I feel like maybe I’m striking that balance where it’s a little bit of time, but manageable within my week.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?

It’s so easy to look externally, but in order for any of us to really show up in a way that contributes positively, we have to look after ourselves. As a mom, there are always so many pressures and pulls for us to look after other people, and to put other people first. The reality is that we need to look after ourselves in order to even be able to do that in a way that has a really positive impact. That contribution might just look like being an amazing parent, who is there for your children in a really present way. Or it might look like that, and connecting with some other element in your community or in your kids’ school – but it doesn’t have to be this big externally focused project in order to have meaning.

And are you looking after yourself?

Well, I don’t get enough exercise. I try to build it into my life, but the reality is generally I’m a bit of a weekend warrior even though I live in the mountains and I have all these trails five steps from my door. There’s so many competing priorities for our time. I do have a daily meditation practice, that I started 10 years ago — pre-kids — but honestly it was becoming a parent that really made me commit to it. I had this sense when I got pregnant and had my daughter that I could really lose myself in this. It made me really fierce about it for a number of years – my meditation had to happen. I had this sense that I have to do this or I was going to disappear.

Over time it’s been helpful to think of my body in some ways like having an extra child. That it is up for me to take care of, and if I can direct even a portion of the level of love and nurturing and attention that I give my kids day in and day out, if I can direct some of that towards myself, even if just for a few minutes a day, I feel like that allows me to be so much more just connected, and present for my kids and for the work that I do. I try to squeeze it in late at night, although I sometimes fall asleep in the middle.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

I feel like I’m so focused on my home life, kids, work, that I can go months and months, and months, without connecting with my friends. It’s brutal. My friends are incredibly important to me, but I guess it’s just right now they can’t be at that same level. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about this whole idea that we can do it all, because if we can, things have to fall off.

What’s been hardest about what you do?

Traveling for work, especially when my kids were younger. It’s getting easier now that I can Skype them, we can actually have a meaningful connection that way. But when they were younger I would think, “Am I damaging them by being away?” It wasn’t really that rational, especially given my husband is very caring with them. There was definitely some guilt around it. It’s amazing how much guilt can go along with motherhood.

I travel afair bit, a couple of times a month sometimes, and there’s always this sadness between me and them about that. I have to remember to communicate to them that I’m really excited to go, because when I’m out in the world that’s the work I really love and want to do, facilitating workshops and engaging with people.

What other moms do you admire?

While I don’t feel like I see them that often, I do feel incredibly blessed to be in my social circle. There are so many amazing moms that I interact with, who approach parenting from a conscious place, who put a lot of thought into how they want to parent. But really ALL moms to some degree, because now as a mother I understand so much more what’s involved, and the intensity of the job. It’s hard for anyone to know what it entails until you’re in it. I have deep respect for moms in general.


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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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