Debbie Raphael

Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon

Director, SF Department
of the Environment


Debbie Raphael is a lifelong science buff with a mission to prove that science can improve the world. Following her appointment by Mayor Ed Lee last May, she follows in the hallowed footsteps of Francesca Vietor, Jared Blumenfeld, and Melanie Nutter as director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. It’s her dream job. Known for its cutting-edge policies, San Francisco is considered the international beacon for environmental trends. Visiting delegations from around the world routinely study the department to learn how we get it done. A UC Berkeley graduate, a lover of nature, and the mother of two grown children, Debbie relies on yoga to help decompress. Whether at the Capitol in Sacramento or at City Hall, she is known to use yoga-centering analogies to express managerial strategy.

How did you get interested in environmental affairs?

I grew up in Southern California; I’ve always been drawn to science. Perhaps it’s in my genes, as my father is a physicist, but I was the type of kid that would dissect frogs on the kitchen table. Our dinnertime conversation often circled around how to solve problems. In the late ’70s at UC Berkeley, I studied ecology—that’s what it was called back then. I went to graduate school at UCLA determined to get a research PhD, just like Dad. My lab work focused around the impact of elevated CO2 on plant growth, so even then we were well aware of climate change. We called it the “greenhouse effect” and were interested in its potential impact on plant growth. But I learned that I didn’t want to be a research scientist but to try to change the world through my interest in science. I left with a master’s degree.

Prior to coming back to San Francisco, where were you?

In 2011 I was tapped by Governor Brown to be the director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, a state agency of about 1,000 people. There, I implemented the groundbreaking Green Chemistry Law, which we call the Safer Consumer Products Program, the first of its kind in the world to identify safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in consumer products. But I had left my heart in San Francisco. When Mayor Ed Lee called me when the position came available, I didn’t have to think very long. I’m meant to be working at the local level for a city that has a progressive heart and a commitment to real change.

This is your dream job?

Yes, it is. For me, the reasons go back to graduate school, where I learned that I am not a specialist but driven to try to solve a much wider array of environmental issues. This job allows me to delve into issues from climate change to electric vehicles, to green building, to zero waste, to toxics reduction, to biodiversity, and more. The department was formed to have a broad perspective, to work with other city departments, the larger community. We work with the private sector, both residential and commercial, to achieve our shared goals.

This is an environmentally ultrasensitive city. Does that make your job simpler or more challenging?

More exciting. San Franciscans will not be satisfied with incremental change, with a mediocre attempt at addressing environmental problems. San Francisco is the ultimate incubator, not only for tech but for environmental policy. If we can’t do it here in San Francisco, then who else is going to do it?

This kind of change just happens better at the local level, no?

Indeed. It’s an important trend that is being recognized globally—that real environmental changes happen at the level of the local govDebbie Raphael Director, SF Department of the Environment BY ROB SIDON ernment. This is the language that is coming from the United Nations in preparation for the big climate talks in Paris in December. You’re seeing the word sub-national in the documentation around climate change. This jargon basically describes the trend: cities will play an important role in meeting carbon-reduction goals.

San Francisco has the most beautiful confluence of factors. We have a residential sector of passionate environmentalists with an expectation of boldness from their city government. We have a business community that is unafraid to challenge itself to change; they’re unafraid of new technology. We have elected officials in our mayor and our board of supervisors who understand this opportunity to make a difference and to lead. We have a broader civil society of nonprofits stationed here who want to be part of the solution. Those four pillars make San Francisco a phenomenal laboratory for change.

Do you field calls from mayors around the world on how to do it right?

You bet. All the time. We have delegations of cities from all over the world coming every week. We have so many requests for our staff to travel to other countries to tell them how to get it done. Of course, we can’t meet all those requests because we have our work to do here, but we invite people to come to us. In fact, the US Conference of Mayors is going to be here in June, and we will be inviting mayors from across the country to walk and ride with us to learn about some of our programs. We want to engage those mayors in a conversation. What can we learn from you? What can you learn from us? Because at the end of the day, it’s the cities that are going to save the planet.

I imagine you get visitors saying, “Ah, you can pull that off because it’s San Francisco,” as if this were the ultimate outlier.

That definitely happens a lot, and what I say is we are not that different from other large cities. We have an incredibly diverse population. Two-thirds of our residents rent, two-thirds live in multifamily buildings. We have dense population centers with people that don’t speak English as their first language. We have all the same challenges of many urban centers when it comes to crime and homelessness. I challenge any city to say that it can only be done in San Francisco. I don’t believe that’s true.

How do you want to leave your mark?

One of the reasons I took this job is that this particular mayor, Ed Lee, has a tremendous heart and a history of working in the area of social justice. I asked him, “What do you want from me as director?” He said, very simply, “I want you to make environmentalism inclusive. I want all those fantastic environmental benefits that the city has put forward to be felt by every San Franciscan in every neighborhood.” We have to make sure that it’s not just the people who can shop at Whole Foods that reap the benefits of environmental initiatives and policies we’ve put in place.

That speaks to me deeply, this idea of equity and a responsibility, a moral responsibility of government to make sure that everyone in our community has the same opportunities to live a healthy life and to contribute to the health of this planet. That is the mark that I want to leave. I want at the end of my tenure for people to say that environmentalism in San Francisco is not just for the elite—it is for everyone, and here are hundreds, thousands of examples where that became real.

What makes you happy?

When people who aren’t the usual suspects proclaim or act in an environmentally friendly way.

What pisses you off?

Litter pisses me off. I just don’t understand the psyche of the person who litters. I just don’t understand it.

What are some of your hobbies, favorite things to do?

I’m a pretty intense person, so when I look at the things that I love to do in my spare time, they are almost always letting off steam and decompressing. I love being in nature to decompress. Hiking, yoga, being with friends.

Where do you practice yoga?

The Jewish Community Center [in San Rafael].

What do you get out of it?

Oh my goodness. I think I need it for my mental health. I become centered. I feel much more capable of tackling difficult challenges. I find I use yoga analogies a lot at work. For example, I tell my staff, “We need to get good at Tadasana” [tree pose]. That standing pose is so important because if you can stand firmly on the ground with all the points of your feet making contact and be in balance, then you’re able to lift a leg and an arm and get into some crazy variations. But until you can stand, you can’t really stretch yourself into the more challenging poses.

I say the same thing for my organization, whether it was at the DTSC at the state, or the Department of the Environment here. I say, “You have to make sure that we can stand first, stand solid, and then once we know we have confidence, then we can start to stretch.” That gets to my core philosophy of management.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.