The Green Queen: Sustainability Coordinator Laura Sohn
Here at Superfly, we treat every day like it’s Earth Day. Led by Bonnaroo Sustainability Coordinator Laura Sohn, the team works year round to make sure we’re able to keep The Farm clean ‘n’ green while giving the Bonnaroo community a chance to engage with nonprofits, sit in on gardening workshops, and learn more about how to incorporate this mindfulness into their daily lives.
We caught up with Laura to talk about her experience with the festival, some of her proudest accomplishments, and what makes Roo fans unique.
How did you get started with Bonnaroo?
Well, this is going to be my ninth Bonnaroo, but only my seventh as sustainability coordinator.
I came to this position with a community organizer background after being involved with a social justice nonprofit called Appalshop that preserves Appalachian culture. I worked there for many years before I moved to Knoxville and got a job with Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment. I was his assistant for a few years and after year two, I took over the greening and sustainability initiatives for Bonnaroo.
The Farm and the outdoors are an essential part of the Roo experience. Have environmental efforts been important from the beginning?
Our staff comes from that Grateful Dead world where environmentalism and making sustainable choices was ingrained, so they’ve been doing it for most of their lives. That dedication is part of why coming in as an organizer works. On the second year of the festival, we required that all of the vendors use compostable food items. They were doing this way before it was prominent and trendy.
There’s always so much happening on The Farm. How do you connect with fans who came for music, comedy, and everything else Bonnaroo has to offer?
We try to educate people year round, letting them know that these things will be taking place when they’re at the festival. I think Clean Vibes does an incredible job. The fans know it’s important to us, so it’s important to them. That relationship definitely goes both ways.
It may not be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but it enhances the experience. No one wants to walk around a site full of trash!
Are you ever surprised that so many fans want to pitch in?
I don’t even believe it sometimes! I think everyone understands that we can’t have that many people at an event like this without each fans helping.
I’m sure they carry that feeling with them after the lights go up and the festival is done. When have you noticed your work making an impact?
Last year I noticed this cute, forty-something couple among the class participants at the Learning Garden. The team told me they ‘ve been attending every workshop for years now, participating and bringing in their own seeds. It just goes to show that we make an impact with every little project we do. We might only get 30 or 40 people at each session, but seeing a couple like that incorporating the lessons in their daily lives is a great feeling.
I’m sure. What are some other highlights from over the years?
The Bonnaroots dinners, which we do with Oxfam and Eat For Equity, are one of my all-time highlights. Walking up and seeing 100 people sitting down in the middle of the festival for an hour to break bread with each other was amazing. Rick Farman (Superfly co-founder) and Rich Goodstone (Superfly co-founder) were there, so a few fans were able to sit next to them and talk all about the festival.
We also have permanent solar panels that generate 50 kilowatts that dumps back into the grid, which has been really exciting. It took about five years to get it done, and next year they’ll have paid for themselves. The refillable water stations are also a major accomplishment, since they’re tied into wells on The Farm. We don’t have to truck in extra water or anything.
All of these efforts are possible because we own the property. Most festivals don’t, so that allows us to do some pretty great things.
As you keep hitting these new highs, what’s next? I’m sure you’ve got something up your sleeve…
We’re always planning! My personal goals include permanent improvements for the Planet Roo area to make it more of a gathering spot than it already is. I’d also like to work on the lighting on site too, replacing some of those high-energy lights that are running all weekend long.
We’ve talked about what happens at the festival, but what’s your job like during the rest of the year?
We’re always communicating with the fans to let them know what we’re up to. There are also the incredible partners like The Plastic Pollution Coalition, Oxfam, and Eat for Equity. For me, this job absolutely works because of the other people involved. We all rely heavily on each other to share ideas and make it exciting and current.
What’s the experience like for the partners who are on The Farm for the festival? It has to be pretty different from what they’re used to…
It’s definitely unique. Most festivals don’t allow them to come for free, but we really want to give them a platform to engage with the fans. Our fans must all be incredible people, because so many of them take time from their busy schedules to visit Planet Roo and learn from those partners.
Nine years later, I’m still absolutely amazed every time we open the gates. We are so lucky to be supported by this incredible community of people. They all have a good time and enjoy themselves, but there’s a lot of depth to what happens on The Farm.