Snowy Day

Student Guest Blogpost: Reflections on AASHE 2013 Conference

by Alyssa Church-Smith '14

Education is about citizenship.” 

This statement, from Raj Patel,  is all encompassing of what I believe our higher education institutions were created for.  They were created to be communities of knowledge and community action with the goal of producing a better society.  A better society should be one that will last beyond the current generation, while still enriching the lives of the current generation.  This society should be one that prides itself on communities of citizenry in order to achieve sustainability of its people and culture.  Unfortunately, I do not see this kind of society on a global scale, nor is it reflected at the level of higher education.  Instead of a community of knowledge and action, our higher education institutions are factories of economic worker bees, and communicate vertically within a silo of departmental missions.

Throughout my experiences in service-learning classes and my work at both UVM and Champlain College, I have found that the most change and the best sustainability outcomes come from communities of horizontal communication between different factions, where stories are shared and common grounds can be found.  As a young professional in the field of higher education and sustainability I wish to work for an institution where just such a framework can be put in place.  More often than this, institutions have a framework of silos in order to better focus on a subject and generate more work out of a department.  Through creating this culture of sub-groups in our universities and colleges, our departments have become productive but not cooperative, which is posing a very large barrier for implementing sustainability.  It is important for institutions to start bridging these silos to create a more cooperative community of knowledge and action; a community of citizens. President Stephen Mulkey of Unity College has pointed out that sustainability is a transdisciplinary topic.  This fact could not be more important to impress upon our individual departments.  A common stigma that I have faced when engaging with non-sustainability professionals in conversations around sustainability, is the idea that sustainability departments are single-minded to the point where nothing but nature matters.  What many departments fail to understand, because sustainability professionals often fail to communicate it, is that sustainability is holistic work that must recognize the importance of every kind of person, of all endeavors, and businesses, schools of thought, and other academic and social fields in order to be successful. 

During my work with the Eco-Reps at Champlain, I found that our most successful events were those where we collaborated with different departments.  The effectiveness of cooperation in order to spread a message and change behavior is not singular to my experience, it is transferable to implementing sustainability at any institution.  Storytelling between departments about their current projects and goals can be the bridge that is needed to create collaboration around sustainability.  Through conversations I have had with students, I have learned that behavior change in sustainability is about meeting people where they are at, and starting form there with change.  We need to frame sustainability in order to talk with departments and learn about their projects in order to find things that are meshing with the institutions view on sustainability and the work that needs to be done.  Conversations need to occur where departments are recognized for already supporting that mission, so their projects can be expanded for collaboration and mutual benefit between departments.  These conversations should create a network for strategic collaboration.  By using these networks to break the silos within our institutions, we can gain diverse input to create solutions that are not one size fits all. With a transdisciplinary approach that recognizes the individual importance of the work in each group, while bringing these diverse groups together, strength is provided to the projects that are created from these collaborations.

Stronger connections within our universities can create opportunities to have stronger connections with the broader community, so that our actions can aim to positively impact those communities.  Just as storytelling is important for bonding and bridging departments and university groups, it is also important for building campus-community relationships.  The citizenship that we cultivate in institutions must go beyond them, and so must the work we do.  The bridge between universities and communities is where inclusive and sustainable solutions to real life problems are created.  While doing work with community members in the Mad River Valley on an EV car-share program, I found that the issues that our students are facing are the same issues that our communities are facing, but these overwhelming problems can create apathy in both parties towards solving them. Students often have a hard time realizing a solution because they feel they have no outlet for it or no explicit context for it.  The community often feels that they do not have the resources or organization to address a problem.  When students and communities come together, these gaps are filled by giving people hands on ways to make change. Often the change we need starts at the local level, where people’s connections to issues are uncovered and so are the connections between those issues.  By starting to talk about these issues, communities and students are allowed to dream bigger than ever before. This positive visioning is the catalyst for change in our schools and communities.