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Co-Creating a Sustainable Economy–Our Conference Takeaways

By November 11, 2019July 23rd, 2020No Comments

Here in the Office of Sustainability, the goal of our internship program is to transform our student interns into sustainability practitioners who are equipped to lead others in solving the sustainability challenges our world is facing. One of the most powerful professional development experiences we provide is the opportunity to attend the premier conference for sustainability in higher education. Hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the 2019 conference’s theme was Co-Creating a Sustainable Economy. The diversity of interests from those in our office resulted in a wide range of takeaways from the conference, which we would like to share with you.

Benjamin Boehle: Design Specialist, Student Staff

The greatest takeaway I got from attending the AASHE conference was the amount of support for sustainability and like-minded peers I met. This incredible opportunity to hear from world-class speakers and countless people I could learn from was such an eye-opening experience. While there may be much resistance in areas that are still with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, there is also a feeling of hope that was left upon me. This feeling of striving to do better to correct these global climate issues is a powerful, life-changing amount of inspiration and drive. The takeaways given back from AASHE and the attendees were wonderful and I hope each year there is a growing number of advocates and activists for sustainability.

Beatriz Carmona: Data Analyst, Student Staff

Prior to attending AASHE, I wasn’t aware of how widespread campus sustainability offices are around the nation. Interacting with other sustainability interns, from offices in small community colleges or large land grant universities like us, was incredibly refreshing. I focused my sessions mostly on zero waste packaging ideas and food waste repurposing, and it was great to learn how other campuses have implemented fresh, student-sparked ideas in their spaces. Both of the keynote speakers also charged me with change-making energy. Varshini Prakash spoke about her experience as an undergraduate that led her university’s successful fossil fuel divestment campaign, and more recently co-founded the Sunrise Movement which has helped raise tremendous public support for the Green New Deal. Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of the first planet-wide climate change movement “,” shared touching images of people from all corners of the world who feel the impact of climate change much more quickly and severely than many of us here do. The conference has provided me with a multifaceted testament to the saying “one person can make a difference”, and a reminder that if we all do our part, what we can accomplish is insurmountable.

Taylor Kraabel: Employee Engagement Coordinator, Student Staff 

Perhaps the most thought-provoking and worthwhile session I attended was “Green in a Red State: Working in Conservative Environments”. Initially, I assumed this session would be a haven for sustainability advocates from conservative environments to air our grievances and frustrations. However, I found this to be largely untrue. Instead of griping about all the things we could not do or change, the session focused on appealing to our audience and methods to reduce the many stigmas around sustainability. One of the major topics of discussion was the general miseducation we encounter when we talk about sustainability. It is a common misconception to think sustainability is simply about recycling, reusable water bottles, etc. when in fact that does not even begin to cover sustainability’s scope. Brainstorming and sharing with others on how to promote the wellbeing, economic, and social aspects of sustainability was incredibly beneficial.

We also discussed the idea of utilizing the systems already in place at our respective institutions to promote sustainability in a way that appeals to our cultural climates. For instance, several universities have adopted creative ways of promoting the Sustainability Compass and giving students a say in what sustainability initiatives the university undertakes. The opportunity to discuss our sustainability efforts with like-minded individuals provided new perspectives to problems and innovative ways to incorporate sustainability in our conservative environments.

Patience Ray: Communication Specialist, Student Staff

At AASHE, I learned that sustainability isn’t only about the environment or saving the planet. It’s also about renewable energy and savings, healthy economies and individuals, protecting our agricultural resources and staying ahead of the competition. Pursuing renewable technologies as a university will give us the education and “the knowledge to work wisely and train [our] minds and [our] hands to work skillfully.” Sustainability is Auburn’s path to a bright future. AASHE helped me understand that sustainability should be at the root of every decision. Our research and what we invest in as students and as a university is what will make us leaders and changemakers in the ever-evolving social and financial markets. And if what we invest in builds a better world for all, we will be known for our “honesty and truthfulness.” I’m inspired to believe in a university that sustains its community and looks to the future. Because we can be a university that truly “believe[s] in [our] Country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is [our] own home, and …[we] can best serve that country by “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with [our] God.” We believe in sustainability–it’s in our very creed. “And because Auburn men and women believe in these things, I believe in Auburn and love it.”

Ferrell Sullivan: Outreach Coordinator, Student Staff

This was my second year attending AASHE. Just like last year, it is a burst of energy, ideas, and shared goals. One of my favorite things I felt enlightened by was the constant stream of new and interesting ideas to reach out to students and the community. Whether it’s catapulting pumpkins after Halloween into a compost, starting a Free Store to encourage students to reuse and donate rather than landfill their own items, or creating a vulnerable conversation on campus about what students think, know, and feel about climate change. AASHE gave me excitement instead or nervousness to speak up to our very conservative board of trustees about changing how our campus implements sustainability and how they need to be transparent with their spending. I feel back up by hundreds of others that it is possible that I can make a difference on my campus especially with student power. This year also inspired me to get more creative with diversifying our events, reaching out to certain niches of people within our campus such as an idea of giving out menstrual cups to the women on our campus to start a conversation on waste. This year really gave a sense of clarity that everything we do, everything we shift, every conversation we start really does matter, but we need to do more.

Mike Kensler: Director 

Each year when I attend the AASHE conference, I am struck by the collegial, collaborative, mission-driven energy that permeates the conference.  Sustainability work requires facing many deeply troubling conditions and trends for people and the planet. At the same time this work requires resilience and openness to finding new ways of thinking and acting that can transform our world for the better.  This conference provides the opportunity to openly acknowledge our deepest concerns, and mutually acknowledging our fears is a healing experience.  At the same time, I always leave reminded of this community of colleagues and learn of exciting innovations and accomplishments on campuses and in communities around the world.  I leave buoyed with a new sense of possibility and resolve.  AASHE Executive Director Meghan Fay Zahniser reminded us, “Just because it seems impossible today doesn’t get us off the hook.”  Exactly.  Staying on the hook has for many brought new realities into being that were once deemed impossible.  Nelson Mandela is one who would know.  He said “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  The conference theme this year was Co-Creating a Sustainable Economy, one that creates wellbeing for all.  All of us in the office returned re-energized to stay on the hook, contributing what we can to make a sustainable economy a reality.

Jen Morse: Outreach and Communications, Staff

One of the most inspirational sessions for me was a panel on ‘Cutting Through the Noise’, or how to get your sustainability-related stories heard by a broader audience. One of the panelists was from SUNY Geneseo’s top communications office. Similarly to Auburn University, they have many stories to share related to their work around the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Their communications office compiled videos, news, projects, and initiatives of the college and alumni from across campus and throughout the world, dating back to 2011. Using ArcGIS they created an interactive storytelling map where visitors can view stories and media by location around the globe or by the SDGs. While hearing initiatives and results from a multitude of universities at the conference was very uplifting, I especially found inspiration from those of SUNY Geneseo. The effort of framing their accomplishments around the SDGs was executed by their central communications office. While their sustainability office did have a role to play, this amazing interactive interface would not have come to be without the insight and support of upper their administration and central communications office. Here at Auburn we are also working to address the SDGs by becoming a member of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). More about Auburn joining the SDSN and connections to the university’s strategic plan are shared in the March 2019 Director’s Corner: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are ‘No Little Plans.’

Amy Strickland: Program Manager, Staff

I had the opportunity to participate in a special type of session at this year’s AASHE conference called a “Deep Dive.” In this session, we spent about 4 hours hearing from and brainstorming with leaders from Procurement offices at two major research universities. By spending so much time on one topic and with subject matter experts, those in attendance gained a nuanced understanding of the role and responsibilities of Procurement professionals and how sustainability can enhance and support their work. Given the many intersections between sustainability and matters related to procurement, like the supply chain, costs of ownership, and disposal concerns, it’s easy to see how our office can work hand-in-hand with our Procurement professionals to advance both Auburn’s economic interests, but also support key advances around the Sustainability Compass.

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