This week’s interview is with Fahmida Ahmed, the Manager of Stanford University's Sustainability Programs. I first got to know Fahmida (virtually) while she was working at UC Berkeley as their Sustainability Specialist when we participated in a webinar on creating a greenhouse gas inventory sponsored by NACUBO.
In her current position, Fahmida leads the campus sustainability programs at Stanford University where she co-chairs the Sustainability Working Group, connects the Sustainability Working Teams, coordinates implementation of sustainability projects, supports Stanford’s long term climate and infrastructure planning, and manages the office’s communications and community relations programs. Before joining Stanford, Fahmida served as the campus Sustainability Specialist at UC Berkeley, where she steered sustainability related strategic efforts and managed their climate program.
Continue reading to hear what Fahmida is currently working on, where she sees the biggest room for growth in the campus sustainability field, and other insights she has had working on campus sustainability.
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What campus sustainability initiatives are you working on at the moment?
I am designing and implementing various sustainability programs through the Sustainable Stanford initiative
. The governance includes co-chairing the Sustainability Working Group
, connecting the Sustainability Working Teams, and coordinating implementation of various sustainability projects. Assisting with Stanford’s formal climate
plan is a large portion of my portfolio, and I also manage Sustainable Stanford’s communications and community relations programs. This year, some of the key milestones would include the delivery of the Stanford Climate and Energy Plan, a campus sustainability assessment, key pilots in individual action based programs, several campus wide events, and engaging the student body in a systematic and productive fashion.
How did you get started in campus sustainability?
I made a conscious decision at the beginning of the millennium to align my career with my long standing passion for environmental policy and action. I left my career in high tech and went back to graduate school to get more direct training in environmental policy, law and management. During my graduate school experience, it was evident that campuses are a unique and influential hub for sustainability and environmental action. I relish the energy, integrity and promise of a learning environment and think it is a privilege to have a career at such a location.
What campus sustainability success are you most proud of?
I am happy with many of the successes that I directly helped transpire, and am particularly proud of the ones that others accomplished as the result of this interaction.
At UC Santa Barbara
, a group I worked with created the first ever climate action plan in the UC system with all the elements of planning that you see documented today.
The Cal Climate Action Partnership
experience at UC Berkeley
was particularly enlightening, and I was privileged to receive the guidance to help deliver the UC Berkeley emissions target along with the outreach and momentum that brought the campus together on climate action.
Now, in my role as Manager for Stanford’s Sustainability Programs I am very pleased with the breadth and depth the Sustainable Stanford program has reached. I believe Stanford is on the leading edge on holistic sustainability – in infrastructure, innovation, campus engagement, and in implementation.
Has there been community collaboration between the University and the sustainability projects on campus?
The Stanford Sustainability Program has worked with the Planning Office and County of Santa Clara on a Sustainable Development Study that brought to attention the issues of growth and environmental sustainability. There are several projects that happen between the neighboring community and the researchers at Stanford. An illustration of those close partnerships is Stanford’s commitment to both generate and disseminate green-building knowledge and best practices. As an example, the Santa Clara County Main Jail North will receive a $1 million energy study and retrofit from Stanford
under an agreement that will provide researchers a living laboratory for advancing energy-efficiency modeling.
In what area(s) do you see the biggest room for growth in the campus sustainability field?
I like to think of it in terms of breadth and depth. Campus sustainability, as it manifests in campus operations, has really expanded in its definition. Professionals in this field are expected to understand, integrate and articulate topics ranging from social equity to green jobs, from retrofits to grey water discharge, from education to empowerment. There is no shortage of growth and proliferation in this field, meaning it has reached a pretty wide range in breadth. I like to bring back the question to depth and focus, and campuses being able to identify points of its unique contribution, to align its core expertise with core focus, to make the maximum impact. So ironically, I think the biggest room for growth in campus sustainability is bringing back the focus on action, implementation and laser focus intent on the strategy that would accomplish that mission.
How are you incorporating the social dimensions of sustainability into your work?
Slowly but surely. We are placing a big emphasis on education and outreach to serve as a platform for social interaction and awareness that leads to action. We believe a culture of sustainability is possible by demonstrating to individuals and their respective departments/schools that individual action can make a difference – in conserving precious resources, in educating each other, and in sharing the broader benefits of environmental sustainability. There are pilots happening at building levels, that will inform a more consorted and instructional effort on sustainability demonstrated in individual action. Students, building coordinators, grassroots leaders will all play a role in this. However, these processes can be labor intensive, so we are really curious to see how the pilots and their stats turn out.
Is there a particular insight (learning experience or “ah-ha” moment) you have had working on campus sustainability?
Good question – I have several favorites. One - campus sustainability is about the ‘campus’ and ‘sustainability’. My good mentors guided me early on to show that in this profession individual gain plays a distant second. In all the projects that I have seen be successful in the long run they all share the fundamental signature of the cause being at the forefront of the activities that follow. In relation to this, it is critically important to recognize and promote all those who pave the path and contribute to a projects’ fruition. Two – one person/leader/coordinator does not have to do everything. The more one leverages and allows others to complete a task and flourish, the better it is for the campus. Three – it is very important to stay optimistic and not despair in temporary loss of projects, momentum or even focus because the campus (or any institution) experiences ebbs and flow.
Are you involved in efforts to advance sustainability in the curriculum at Stanford?
Not directly yet, but our strong partners at the academic institutes are. Faculty know best in how to design a curriculum and we are trusting partners in giving feedback on what us practitioners see in the fields in terms of topic popularity, need and explanation. At Stanford, the Woods Institute
is leading that charge.
In what ways are students involved in your work?
At UC Berkeley, students played a critical role in research, data gathering and analysis behind various studies. At Stanford, I see the same potential and more because of their entrepreneurial nature. Our program already has multiple internships and communications with the key Research Institutes where we regularly present and receive their research to inform our strategic plans on energy
and green buildings
. We hold town hall meetings and weekly office hours to hear their perspectives and connect related issues. We have a yearly Green Fund
that funds up to 10 student-led and faculty sponsored projects. Students are the neural network of this campus, so it is important to tap into, understand and leverage that network for all aspects of our work, especially for a lean organization that sustainability offices tend to be.
How are you approaching the issues around carbon offsets and or renewable energy credits (RECs)?
Given the annual costs and regulatory uncertainty, RECs, allowances, and carbon offsets are not treated as primary building blocks to Stanford’s Climate Plan at this time. While a solution using carbon instruments may be theoretically possible it involves considerable risk because the long term availability, quality, and cost of carbon offsets/allowances is unknown and highly speculative. Instead, diversification of campus energy sources, perfecting direct access to open energy markets, and decoupling university energy supply from the volatilities of fossil fuel markets to the greatest extent possible offers a better long term strategy for supporting the university mission.
What advice would you give to others in your position who are just getting started?
Assuming this is about career advice – align your expertise with your interest, gain expertise or on-the-job training in the areas where there is a vacuum, and then align your interest and skills with the job. Sustainability is fundamentally a service oriented career, so to do well in that career one should think about what they bring to the table for that institution and how they can make a difference. If the alignment is not there, then the career and the individual behind it might take a few turns before finding the strategic leverage.