Voices in the Wilderness

Dan Schreibman ’86 • Caroline Choi ’90 • Sam Stein ’04 • Liz Gannes ’04 • Esther Cohen ’79 • Diarmuid O’Connell ’86

Dan Schreibman ’86
The Way to Play
New approach to playgrounds may get kids to forget the swing set and monkey bars.
About a decade ago Schreibman was looking to build a play set for his older daughter. He wasn’t inspired by the choices—the familiar slide-swing combo, the wooden fort, the pirate ship. “All of the product was exactly the same, and not particularly attractive,” Schreibman tells DAM. “I wasn’t moved.” Eventually, the management consultant settled for a traditional set, but through the years he noticed that his daughters spent little time using it, preferring instead to make their own fun with cardboard boxes or by the pond in the family’s New Jersey back yard.

A thought began germinating: How could he create a playground that fosters the creative play kids seem to enjoy most? Schreibman eventually launched Free Play, a new studio that has developed a line of abstract structures that look more like art than playground. Although studies have found that playing with unstructured materials such as tires, blocks and sand can be beneficial for a child’s social and intellectual growth, standard American playgrounds tend to be sterile and prescriptive, Schreibman says. They’re designed to avoid litigation and injury rather than foster creativity. “I wanted a playground that looked like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” he says. “So the idea became this sort of sculptural art that also provides children with as many sensory experiences as possible, with no functionality to the equipment.”

True to Schreibman’s intentions, Free Play’s four play structures don’t resemble anything you’ll find in a schoolyard—yet. The pieces, which cost $30,000 to $55,000 each (about 50 to 65 percent more than traditional structures), can be arranged individually or together. There is the Maze, a boxy blue structure filled with holes, like giant cubes of Swiss cheese, that can be adjusted and arranged like blocks. The Weeping Willow consists of a dense canopy of brightly colored ropes dangling down to swing from or climb on. Cornstalks is a similar concept, except the 6.5-foot tubes stick up from the ground and gently sway when brushed against. Finally, there is the Ant Farm, a massive polycarbonate structure that supports suspended climbing tubes to scramble around or hide out in. “They are all very much climbable structures,” Schreibman says. “We used a lot of interesting textures and surfaces to really make it an experience. It creates open spaces where kids can hang out and play.”

Designing playgrounds is a major change of pace for the Dartmouth religion and goverment major, who has spent two decades working as a consultant, and until recently had never worked in design or landscape architecture. “I probably missed my calling,” Schreibman says. “But at least I found it later in life.”

Despite his lack of formal training—and with help from New York City-based LTL Architects—Schreibman’s idea has taken off. After launching in 2013, Free Play debuted its first playground this spring at a new FIFA soccer stadium in the United Arab Emirates. The studio has about two dozen other projects, primarily for commercial spaces, in the pipeline. Educators, he says, are particularly excited about the project. “They feel like we are filling a much-needed gap,” he said. “It’s never going to replace traditional playground equipment, but where there is interest, the interest is tremendous. It’s just a lot of fun.”
—Grace Wyler

Caroline Choi ’90
Charged Up
“Energy efficiency saves customers money, and a real driver for efficiency is to reduce your carbon footprint,” says Choi, vice president of integrated planning and environmental affairs at Southern California Edison (SCE). The 17-year electric utility veteran is responsible for developing SCE’s energy and environmental strategies as well as maintaining strong relationships with key environmental stakeholders and advocating environmental initiatives in SCE’s service territories. “Many of our energy policies are targeted at reducing the environmental impact of energy by utilizing renewable resources and building stricter codes around consumption,” she says.

Since 2013 SCE has been procuring 21 percent of its energy from geothermal, wind, solar and biomass sources—delivering more renewable energy to its 50,000-square-mile territory than any other investor-owned utility in the nation—and Choi is working to bring that to 33 percent by 2020, as mandated by the California Renewables Portfolio Standard. “Whether we try to build consensus around the cap-and-trade market design, conduct joint experiments with the U.S. Department of Energy on battery storage, or promote the electrification of vehicles through customer engagement—we want to help progress California in having a cleaner environment, cleaner energy and cleaner technology,” says Choi. “That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.”

With so many actors and priorities on the scene, balancing energy production and environmental conservation can be a challenging task—one Choi says she enjoys. “Energy and environment are inextricably related on so many different levels,” she says. “I love working on these issues because they’re as complex as they are important.”
—Minae Seog ’14

Sam Stein ’04
Political Animal
In a moment that he says “still puzzles political historians,” Stein became the first online reporter to ask a question at a presidential news conference when Barack Obama called on him in 2009. (He asked whether the president supported a proposal to investigate actions of the Bush administration.) Stein, who has been part of The Huffington Post’s Washington, D.C., bureau since it was established in 2007, is now senior political editor and White House correspondent. He was brought along to the online news outlet by veteran reporter and Columbia Journalism School professor Tom Edsall. “People considered us as a place that just took other people’s journalism and rehashed it,” Stein says. “We had to show that we were doing original reporting and that we were doing it really well.” Stein, who previously worked for Newsweek and New York Daily News and is a regular on Morning Joe, moved to HuffPo when the country was in the midst of two contentious political primaries, one between Obama and Hillary Clinton and another among several Republican candidates. “There was just a never-ending stream of news coming out,” he says, “and a never-ending demand for more news.”

The demand has not slowed, and competition has increased. To stand out, Stein says, there has been a shift in the way online reporters think about their stories. “Long-form journalism has had a semi-renaissance in the online world,” he says. “A way to distinguish yourself from competition, which is more and more people writing faster and faster, is to step back and spend a month, two months, three months, even up to a year taking a huge bite out of a topic.”

Stein’s most recent pieces have tended toward the longer side and focus on the effects of sequestration on National Institutes of Health scientists who lost grant funding and people who lost unemployment insurance. In spite of The Huffington Post’s reputation for flashy headlines, “without good reporting, none of it really matters,” he says. “If you can uncover corruption or score a fantastic interview, then you can get attention regardless of how it’s presented.”
—Gavin Huang ’14

Liz Gannes ’04
The Silicon Valley Beat
During her junior year at Dartmouth Gannes applied for a writing job at a certain campus publication. Dartmouth Alumni Magazine turned her down because she had too little newswriting experience. “I didn’t actually do a lot of journalism in college, which is kind of funny,” she says. That’s changed.

Since graduating, Gannes has been a mainstay in the tech journalism scene as a reporter for Silicon Valley publications Red Herring, GigaOM and now Re/code. Sitting at a café in San Francisco, the former linguistics major talks about her journey in the world of technology. “Some of the things I’ve written about—like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Snapchat—are some of the most used products in the world,” says the Palo Alto, California, native.

Gannes remembers writing about YouTube when it was first developed by a few guys working in an office above a San Mateo, California, pizzeria. Then the site only had a landing page. Now “it’s turned into this tremendous force of citizen journalism, entertainment, democratization of media—it’s been involved in revolutions,” she says. “Following their trajectory has been fascinating.”

Gannes says one of the more interesting parts of covering startups is watching how these companies take on established industries and corporations and seeing which succeed and why. “I get to live in a world of ideas,” she says. “And it’s a pretty fulfilling way to live.” 
—Keith Chapman, Adv’12

Esther Cohen ’79
A Simple Idea
For many people a donkey and a plow probably don’t seem like much in the way of worldly belongings. For Cohen these seemingly rudimentary possessions represent economic opportunity—and a way to escape the food insecurity and famine that affect nearly 1 billion people around the globe. As the chief operating officer for Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), the international aid arm of the Episcopal Church, Cohen has helped spearhead the organization’s Donkeys With Plows program in Ghana, which helps small-scale female farmers obtain microfinance loans that allow them to purchase a donkey, plow and a cart, with the idea that these tools will help the women boost their incomes and feed their families. “It doesn’t sound particularly innovative,” Cohen says. “That is, until you have been to Ghana and seen that the vast majority of small farmers are still using hand tools—it’s almost Stone Age.” 

Since joining the New York City-based organization in 2004 Cohen has helped expand its mission to promote sustainable community development to fight poverty, hunger and disease worldwide, managing the growth of the annual budget from $9 million to $23 million and directing a staff of more than 50 people working in 40 countries around the globe. “We look at what skills and what assets a community has and how they can use those strengths for long-term development,” she says. “The solutions that are developed have a real local urgency, and that makes them more sustainable.” 

The role has come as a bit of a surprise for Cohen, a drama and French major who received an M.F.A. in arts administration from Columbia University and spent 20 years working in theater management. “If you had told me when I was working in theater that I would be going to look at donkeys and plows in Africa, I would have laughed,” Cohen says. “Having a liberal arts education and not knowing when to say ‘no’ to things really makes life exciting.” 

—Grace Wyler ’09

Diarmuid O’Connell ’86
Driven to Disruption
As the U.S. State Department’s chief of staff for political military affairs during the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, O’Connell saw firsthand the toll that U.S. dependence on foreign oil has taken on the country’s economic and military resources. So when he left the State Department after George W. Bush’s first term, O’Connell knew he wanted to get into the business of reducing American dependence on fossil fuels. “I became more and more convinced that we have a critical dependence on oil in our economy and in our foreign policy that creates enormous constraints on our freedom of action,” O’Connell says. “I wanted to focus on a business that was involved in oil reduction, and most of our oil is used in the transit sector.”

Eight years later, O’Connell is at the vanguard of disruption in the automobile industry as vice president of business development for Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley electric car company founded by visionary tech billionaire Elon Musk. “The best thing about Tesla is that it is a highly mission-oriented enterprise,” O’Connell tells DAM. “The core of our efforts is a mission to catalyze a mass market for electric vehicles, and create a sustainable form of transportation, using solar and other renewable energy sources.”

The lead point person for strategic affairs, O’Connell has played an integral role in developing a market for Tesla’s cars, helping the company secure $465 million in federal stimulus loans to build a factory for its Model S sedan—which has since earned the highest score (99 out of 100) ever from Consumer Reports. Tesla has since paid back the government, and O’Connell is now assisting Musk in his ambitious plans for expansion, including the construction of a $5-billion “gigafactory” that will manufacture batteries for Tesla’s next generation line of vehicles.

“I think our efforts have just begun,” O’Connell said. “We’re smart enough to recognize the work that’s gone before us, but we have the opportunity to try new things. In fact, we have the necessity to try new things.”                         
—Grace Wyler ’09

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