Planting the Seeds of Change at Yale

Photo illustration of Brenda Naegel, director of staff recognition and engagement at Yale University
May 13, 2024

Almost any Yale employee hired within the past decade will recognize Brenda Naegel as the friendly ambassador who leads orientation sessions for newly hired staff.

Lesser known are the deep roots that Naegel has in campus sustainability at Yale and the many ways that her contributions continue to bear fruit.

Naegel is director of recognition and engagement in the Office of Public Affairs and Communications (OPAC). In that role, she leads Yale’s employee service recognition programs, develops strategies for team-building activities, and hosts orientation for nearly 1,200 new staff members annually.

Her career at Yale began in 1991 working for the dean of the graduate school. But her “sustainability journey,” as she describes it, started in 2004 when she accepted a communications position in procurement that allowed her to influence the university’s purchasing of office supplies.

“At the time, Yale School of the Environment came to procurement to say, we would like to see Yale use less paper. Can you help us?” Naegel recalls. “I started to learn about what was wrong with the paper we were using, the advantages of using recycled paper, and about how we could communicate this back to the university community.”

Around that time, the university established the Office of Sustainability and Naegel became an early partner in its work, helping develop some of the first green purchasing guidelines. Over the years, she has served as a university Green Team member and manager (instituting sustainable practices in shared workspaces) and a member of the Sustainability Leaders Program, participating in monthly sustainability trainings and bringing the learnings back to her department.

She has also been a consistent champion for Green Certification programs on campus, ensuring that events she organized— including the high-profile Long Service Dinner to recognize staff members—met key sustainability criteria. She provided valuable input on the Green Workplace Certification program and consulted on a recent update to the Green Events checklist—a tool to make it easier for planners to create (and be recognized for) lowering the environmental impact of gatherings at Yale.

For Naegel, care for the natural world is a deeply held value that took root in childhood on family camping trips and in Girl Scouts. At Yale, she has worked to put those beliefs into practice by reaching out to colleagues across the university—building buy-in for new sustainable projects and programs.

One of her most significant contributions has been the Staff Service Recognition tree-planting program, which allows Yale employees celebrating milestone anniversaries to have a tree planted on Yale’s campus in their honor, in lieu of a tradition gift from a catalog. In the decade since the program launched, volunteers have planted 101 campus trees to honor milestones for 418 staff members. Naegel herself selected a tree—a sugar maple planted along the Farmington Canal Trail—for her own 25th anniversary.

“Brenda is a champion of weaving sustainability into her work because she believes in her core that it is the right thing to do,” says Anna Pickett, development and outreach manager at Urban Resources Initiative, Naegel’s partner on the tree-planting milestone program. “This recognition project was her vision in 2013 and she brought together all the actors to bring it to fruition.”

More recently, in spring 2023, Naegel led the effort that earned Yale “tree campus” recognition from the National Arbor Day Foundation—the result of a nine-year effort by a core group of staff members from the Office of Sustainability, Facilities, OPAC, URI, and Yale School of the Environment..

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be part of this Yale community that shares this core value,” Naegel says. “To be able to weave together my skillset and my passion to make an impact has been very profound.”

Each month, Yale Sustainability features a ‘Sustainability Champion of the Month’—a student, staff, or faculty member who is working to advance sustainability on campus and beyond. If you know a sustainability champion at Yale, email and tell us about them.