A Real Awakening
Providence St. Joseph Health’s Richard Beam has a vision for environmental stewardship.
You can hear the passion in his voice when Richard Beam talks about environmental stewardship. He speaks excitedly of encouraging senior leadership, mobilizing caregivers and supporting volunteerism in the community. “There has to be an opening of your heart and a changing of your mind to create a cultural shift to a greener attitude in everything we do,” said Beam.
With more than 40 years’ experience in energy and environmental-related fields and 22 years as senior energy director at Providence St. Joseph Health, Beam has had plenty of opportunity to be an advocate for sustainability. But in May 2015, something happened that gave him a renewed focus and the spiritual encouragement to redouble his efforts: Pope Francis released his encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, calling for “swift and unified global action” to combat the environmental problems facing the world.
The release of the encyclical polarized Catholic health care in general and Providence specifically, said Beam: “It hit Catholic health care like ton of bricks, and it really resonated with our group. It spoke about how we take care of each other and how we take care of the earth, and ultimately was the genesis of the movement to push Providence to do more in the way of environmental stewardship.”
As a Catholic health care system, Providence St. Joseph Health has long considered environmental stewardship a key part of its mission, but Beam saw the encyclical as an opportunity to urge senior leadership to respond to the Pope’s call to action.
And the response was overwhelming. One hundred senior leaders signed a proclamation in support of Beam’s environmental vision, and in November 2015, Beam was named the health system’s first chief environmental officer, tasked with not only responding appropriately to Pope Francis’ call to action, but also addressing concerns senior leadership had over how to add environmental stewardship to Providence’s overall mission to create healthier communities.
Beam’s personal journey to Providence St. Joseph started with the self-described latchkey kid running around the streets of Philadelphia following the death of his mother. A fortuitous agreement between his father and the school district allowed him to transfer to the Milton Hershey School in rural Pennsylvania. In a single day, he went from a disadvantaged section of a major city to the pastoral environs of rural Pennsylvania, where he lived at a local farm—going to school during the day and working in the barn early mornings and evenings. “It was a real awakening for me,” said Beam. “I loved the nature around me and the beauty of living on the farm—blue sky and the clean water. Even at a very young age, it was something I was very aware of and grateful for.”
When he graduated at age 17—footloose and fancy-free, and without any real guidance—he bought a car for $25 and drove to Southern California, where he ended up in a very polluted and smoggy area. “I remember asking myself, ‘Why are we living in this stuff, and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?’” said Beam.
After two years, he joined the Navy and was sent to Vietnam. His service had a profound impact on how he viewed the environment: “I wasn’t in a rice paddy carrying a rifle, but I was close enough to see the ravages of war, particularly on the environment.”
After using the GI Bill to further his education, Beam’s life experiences percolated inside him as he chased the American dream—being a consumer and living “the good life.” Then, in his 40s, he had an epiphany. “It was an intentional thing with me,” Beam said. “I have always felt very strongly in my heart that for anyone to live a successful life, you have to understand your internal feelings, and they have to match your external actions. I cared deeply for the environment, and I wanted to make sure my external actions were aligned with how I was feeling.”
It’s been a driving force ever since. Beam joined the health system in 1995 as an energy manager and has enjoyed roles of increasing responsibility, all centered around the environment and sustainability. In his latest role as chief environmental officer, Beam hit the ground running, developing and implementing a strategic plan for environmental stewardship throughout the organization. “I am initially trying to establish a baseline metric for our environmental footprint,” he said. “A big part of what we are doing here is accountability. We want to own our environmental footprint and mitigate the negative effects within the communities we serve.”
Providence is a complex organization, with more than 100,000 employees operating more than 800 facilities across seven states. Beam has identified the areas in which the largest reductions in Providence’s environmental footprint will be realized, and is working to ensure they support environmental stewardship policies. “Price is, of course, an important factor, but I add an environmental focus to make sure they not only meet the existing standards, but also now include environmental metrics as well,” said Beam.
“One thing we say a lot around Providence is: ‘Because it is the right thing to do.’ To succeed with saying, ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ you have to change the metrics we all agree are important and change the financial model so it’s not business as usual.”
According to Beam, the core strategy can be stated simply: creating healthier communities. “We have an obligation and a strong desire to be a leader in creating a healthier community by our own actions and creating our own healthy environments in our facilities, as well as throughout the community,” he said.
Along with targeting a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions and a 50 percent overall decrease in waste, one goal Beam is particularly excited about is establishing a green revolving fund to finance future environmental stewardship projects. Providence’s senior leadership is very interested in the idea. “If you are talking about sustainability, here is a good way to do your financing of these projects in a sustainable way,” said Beam.
From urban streets to pristine farmland to smog-choked metropolis to devastated war zone, the path to Providence St. Joseph Health System has left Beam with a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish, as well as optimism for the future.