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Four to be honored with Live Forward Awards at 12th annual Sustain Dane Summit

Jenie Gao

In the holiday spirit of giving, Sustain Dane will be closing out the year by honoring those who have spent the year in the service of others at the 12th annual Sustain Dane Summit, which will be held virtually on Thursday, Dec. 3.

During the event, which will take place starting at 3 p.m., Sustain Dane will be awarding four community leaders with the Live Forward Award: Jose “Pepe” Barros Hoffens of Down with Bikes; Laura LaMere of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison; Jenie Gao of Jenie Gao Studio; and Keith Reopelle of the Dane County Office of Energy and Climate Change.

Of the four awardees, three are people of color.

Sustain Dane is honoring these leaders for their work in “creating a community based on holistic sustainability: a healthy environment, a just economy, and equity & social wellbeing for all.”

Gao, who is an artist, creative director, and entrepreneur, noted that her art installations are always rooted in community engagement and community sustainability.

Invisible Work / In Visible Earth is a collaborative mural project where Jenie Gao co-designed the mural with Rhea Ewing. This is a project through Dane Arts Mural Arts for the City of Middleton painted with students at Clark Street Middle School and Middleton Youth Center. (Photo by Truzon Thao)

“I think, too often, public art and murals, in particular, get treated as kind of a salve they put on top of the community. It’s the assumptions of an organization, or of an artist to come in and change the aesthetics of a place based on their assumptions of what’s needed,” Gao noted. “The perspective I prefer to take is one where the community has a lot of input on something that’s going to have a long-term impact on the way their neighborhood is going to look and on what the outcome of the project is going to be so they get to have a lot of say and autonomy and to really share their perspectives in this. Ultimately, this final work should be representative of that community’s values and not an assumption of an outsider.”

Down with Bikes Executive Director Pepe Hoffens explains how his organization, a free bike repair non-profit, encourages sustainability both economically and socially.

“[The] first thing I did was try to connect with not only community members, but also organizations working in the biking environment,” Hoffens said. “I connected with several nonprofits here and also other community centers and made sure that what I wanted to offer could reach the right people, the right population. So, in these three years, I’ve been trying to adjust the services that we share in order to become more sustainable.

-down with bikes stand in front of Madison Baha’i Faith

“Part of these Live Forward awards is called the just economy. I really envision a biking center economy and a just the economy that not only values the customer but also the workers,” Hoffens added.

In the future, Hoffens hopes to further Down with Bikes’ economic impact.

“I would love to see a co-op of both owners [and customers.] The customers can be owners and employees can be owners. And essentially we’re all working with each other and for each other, moving forward this bicycle economy,” Hoffens explained.

Laura LaMere, the Environmental Services Manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, has spent the past two years partnering with local organizations such as The Beacon to support the local economy and improve the environment. 

Last year, on Earth Day, LaMere, in partnership with The Beacon, organized a community clean-up day.

“This is all not really incorporated into my normal duties such as it just, it’s something that drives me to do something good,” LaMere says. “Whether it’s [the] environment or people it’s something that I really strive for,” 

To encourage more environmentally sustainable practices, both Lamere and Gao are currently using environmentally friendly products for their respective businesses.  

Laura LaMere, the Environmental Services Manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison

Gao, Hoffens, and LaMere all noted their deep appreciation to receives the Live Forward award.

 “I think that to me [the award] means that Sustain Dane recognizes this work that I’m doing in the arts as leadership that extends to the broader community,” Gao said.

“It is really truly an honor and it really kind of keeps that fire lit for me to really keep going,” said LaMere.

“It’s meant a lot to me because I don’t just do this for the accolades, I do it because it’s a passion of mine,” LaMere continued. “It’s not the recognition, it’s just knowing that what I’m doing is making a difference, that’s what does it for me.”


Registration for the 12th annual Sustain Dane Summit is still ongoing and can be found on their website here.