Alumni in ENVS

David Nifong (17Ox 19C) paves the way for young change-makers as Decatur’s Energy and Sustainability Manager

By Easton Lane 25C

Environmental science is all about making a positive impact on your community, city, country, and even on the world. Decatur’s Energy and Sustainability Manager, David Nifong, has lived that experience. Just two years after graduating Emory University with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences and Community Building and Social Change in 2019, he became the Energy and Sustainability Manager for the City of Decatur, seizing an unprecedented opportunity to affect positive change at the city level. Tasked with nothing less than propelling an entire city to a zero-emissions, renewable clean energy plan by 2035, the path forward is no doubt daunting, but one that Nifong thinks young change-makers like himself are up for.

Nifong’s involvement with the environment and government began from an early age, as his father was an officer in the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and his mother worked as an accountant for the state. Between numerous trips to national parks and an extensive exposure to different kinds of government work, the foundations for an environmental policy career were present early in Nifong’s life, but he had no expectations that it would be his major path until he began his tenure as an undergraduate at Emory’s Oxford Campus.

“I didn’t know [environmental sciences] was always what I wanted to do, and then I got to Emory,” Nifong says, “I was given a lot of books about environmental thought, and those kind of drove me to think that it was what I wanted to do.”

Among his highlights during his time as a student on both the Oxford and Atlanta campus, the classes “Understanding Community,” “Urban Public Policy,” and “Environmental Thought” most impacted Nifong’s enthusiasm for environmental sciences, revealing that environmental sciences was a truly interdisciplinary area of study. From philosophy to public policy, Nifong notes that he “subconsciously made a point to focus on taking classes that were cross-listed in the directory.”

The interdisciplinary focus of Emory’s environmental science courses prepared him well for the internship opportunities he embarked on during his time as a student, and from his point-of-view as a working professional, Nifong continues to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary approaches: “Being able to synthesize different theories and ways of thinking from different disciplines and applying that to a project is really critical to move us in the direction we want to go.” Every skill-set has a place within the environmental industry—everyone is a piece of the sustainable future’s puzzle.

To begin contributing to sustainable efforts, Nifong participated in internships and degree-based programs during his college summers, developing his practical skills as a Conservation Policy Intern at the Nature Conservancy and taking part in a 10-week practicum through Emory’s Community Building and Social Change Fellowship. Within the practicum, Nifong studied affordable housing on Buford highway, developing the essential ability to generate applicable policy recommendations based on geographic information systems and surveys.

Nifong’s undergraduate experiences culminated with a fellowship at Lead For America, an organization “created to give young people an avenue towards working in their communities and having a meaningful impact,” in Nifong’s words. At Lead for America, Nifong was granted the freedom to work on his own projects, doing meaningful work as a young person and proving that, if given a chance, young people entering the workforce are capable of making positive, tangible progress. Nifong hopes that his early professional success will inspire other companies to give young change-makers a chance, and hopes that in the future, more people will be afforded the valuable opportunities he had.

While Nifong was a fellow at Lead for America, the City of Decatur began looking for candidates to assume their first ever position dedicated specifically to sustainability and energy policy, according to City Manager Andrea Arnold in an interview with Nifong’s community building and environmental background fit the bill, and soon the 25-year-old found himself as the first Energy and Sustainability Manager of Decatur.

As one would imagine, Nifong’s position is not a quiet one: from implementing the City’s clean energy plan for zero emissions by 2035, establishing a new compost collection system to reduce landfill waste, working with Agnes Scott College on their joint climate resilience plan, developing mitigation strategies for areas suffering from the urban heat island effect, and doing state-level advocacy work on behalf of the City’s clean energy goals, City employees wear “many different hats in one day,” as Nifong says. All of these efforts are first steps on the path to a sustainable future, one that Nifong knows encompasses so much more than shifting to clean energy—it requires a shift to sustainable living, in all forms.

“It’s really great to be able to do such meaningful work at where I’m at in life,” Nifong says, “I’m really grateful for it.” Nifong’s journey to this position might have involved environment-focused and policy-focused internships, but he is the first to admit that in order to start building towards one’s desired professional future, one must first keep their eyes wide open and embrace great opportunities, even if they exist outside comfort zones.

“Know that your career path isn’t going to be a straight line and it’s going to take some turns, enjoy the turns and focus on what you can do to make your community, state, or globe better,” he says.

As communities like Decatur are starting to notice the significant positive impacts young environmentalists can create at the highest levels, environmental science and all of its interconnected fields never fail to hold purpose. Like every job or full-time commitment, Nifong notes that “There are going to be these moments of profound burnout, and you’re going to have to find a way to refocus and get back in there. Having that goal is so important.” For him, the work he does as the Energy and Sustainability Manager of Decatur is the embodiment of that purposeful goal, as his work is its own reward.

Although a sustainable future is a daunting, highly complex pursuit, we can take solace in the fact that young change-makers like David Nifong are already doing everything in their power to make the world a better place, and with every graduating class of Emory students, there are many more change-makers on their way.