peter nicholson casually dressed and smiling.

Professional Background

  • Music: Cofounded Eos Orchestra, a professional ‘‘progressive classical’’orchestra (NYC); directed communications for the Oberlin Conservatory and Orchestra of St. Luke's (NYC); board member, eighth blackbird ensemble.
  • Sustainability: Founding principal of Foresight Design Initiative, one of the first exclusively sustainability focused design/innovation firms in the country; work with a variety of institutional clients on diverse projects related to natural resources, climate, food/ag, community development, etc.

Q&A

What elements of your personal and professional life would be helpful to you in your service as a trustee?

I've been fortunate to experience Oberlin in a variety of capacities: student, staff member, consultant, volunteer, and affiliate group leader of Oberlin Lambda Alumni and EnviroAlums. For the last five years, I've kept in touch with the concerns of prospective students through a sustainability-focused summer program that my organization has hosted on campus for diverse high schoolers. I’m also the father of a young teenage daughter who is the product of Oberlin friendships that evolved into family. By regularly hosting current students for Winter Term and summer internships, and hiring them to help lead our summer program, I've enjoyed keeping in touch with subsequent generations. My regular visits to campus have kept friendships with professors, administrators, and townspeople current and alive. As is perhaps obvious, Oberlin isn’t so much a place to me as a rich conglomeration of diverse people. It would be a meaningful and fulfilling experience to employ my professional experience in classical music, sustainability issues, innovation, and nonprofit management to serve this community that I’ve gotten to know from different angles. 
 
What do you spend your time working on and thinking about?

Every day I work on highly collaborative projects striving to address complex challenges that impact the diverse residents of my city and region, whether it be around more equitable community development, food and agriculture topics, or proactively strategizing around better meeting water and energy needs. The work is intense and requires constant learning and assimilation of new skills. Like when I was a double-degree student, I’ve found it essential to balance work responsibilities with exercise, yoga, and recreational activities to maintain my physical health and mental sanity. I think about the future a lot, how to bring about a more vibrant and resilient one, which strikes me as an essential trait to service as a trustee.

What else do you want your fellow alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?

There is no single issue impacting Oberlin, and no single solution to the increasingly intense pressures it is experiencing. New approaches and perspectives will need to be considered, pursued, and integrated. Understanding and responding to the systemic nature of these challenges is essential. Foresight, innovation, and well-considered decisions will position Oberlin as the bold leader it has been, and we all hope for it to be for the benefit of future generations.

What attracted you to Oberlin?

I initially wanted to attend a college with a downhill ski team! However, my desire for an institution at which I could pursue music performance and liberal arts with equal vigor eventually became my guiding criteria. Oberlin offered that and something more. I remember it striking me as a place where important issues were considered and from which compelling careers had begun. It still strikes me that way. Despite its lack of adjacent, snow-capped mountains, it nonetheless produces graduates that strive to make an impact, at whatever scale and sector, whether it’s in the sciences, arts, humanities, or business world. I wanted to be part of a community like that, and still do.

What about Oberlin resonates with you today?

I’ve returned to Oberlin frequently over the last several years. Hosting summer and Winter Term interns for more than a decade, and hiring some, has also kept me in contact with several generations of students, including those there now. This will sound cliché, but there is no other way to say it: what resonates with me most about Oberlin is the drive to make the world a better place. That value has endured. My work is predominantly focused at the intersection of innovation and sustainability-related topics like renewable energy, food systems, and equitable community development. I’m drawn to insightful change-makers. It doesn’t matter if the alum is a librarian, politician, investment adviser, nonprofit leader, or prominent classical musician (and I know some of all of these). Oberlin has remained relevant by fostering meaningful engagement with the world.

Tell us of one specific instance in which you wished to understand someone with different values from yours. What happened?

Two summers ago, I taught a student in my organization’s high school summer seminar that was different from me in just about every way possible: age, race, class, and the part of Chicago in which we each live. Over the two-week course, held at Oberlin, I made a few missteps out of a desire to help him feel comfortable and accepted, presuming that I understood him. My teaching assistant, to his credit, had the tact to take me aside after one such experience and provide very direct and useful feedback that I took to heart. Sensitivity to difference is an ongoing pursuit that requires humility, discipline, self-reflection and awareness, and a sincere desire to not just learn, but to also respond. I often switch between Fox News and MSNBC while exercising at the gym to better understand the rhetoric of each, and perhaps to really confuse anyone who may be noticing. I know from the experience of my innovation work that if judgment supersedes understanding, change and progress is often thwarted.

Service on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees represents a significant commitment of time and effort. What draws you to this service?

The same impulse motivates me to this service as to my daily work: helping people and institutions identify and realize their potential. This vocation deeply reverberates with me. Oberlin is a powerful place because of its capacity to nurture talent across many fields, including in its professors and administrators. In the decades since I was a student, Oberlin has continued to sustain an impressive track record, perhaps because it doesn't take its mission and purpose for granted. As we know from the current budget deficit issues, colleges like Oberlin are facing myriad increasingly complex pressures. Innovating in ways that are aligned with the institution’s history and values, perhaps to a new degree, will become essential to remain relevant, viable, and vibrant. I resolutely believe Oberlin has as bold a future ahead of it as its history behind it. Achieving it, however, isn’t assured and will require a multitude of skills and perspectives. I hope that my background in design, innovation, sustainability, and music might contribute a useful piece to this larger effort.

Share an Oberlin experience that shaped who you are today.

Just one? There have been and continue to be so many! Perhaps the most profound “Oberlin experience” I’ve had has been having a daughter with two fellow alums. Creating a non-traditional family isn’t and wasn’t done lightly. My daughter lives with and is primarily raised by her two moms, with regular visits and some input by her two dads and a large cadre of grandparents. From the start, it was a process that required navigating many unknowns and unexpected developments, not all of them easy. Going through those experiences, however, has forged some incredible bonds that wouldn’t have formed otherwise. Before this journey, I had never considered being a parent, or having friends become family, or having elements of myself so vividly reflected back to me by an offspring! While aspects of classes I took, like Creative Writing, Black American Lit, Architecture, or the History of the American Industrial Revolution, still inform my thinking and the way I teach and lead, and friendships that I made as a student and a young alum still enrich my daily routine, the underlying “Oberlin experience” is the same: challenging and broadening horizons in order to lead a more robust and meaningful life.


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