Linking Arms at the Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference
In her opening remarks at the Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (OHESC) at Portland State University, Institute for Sustainable Solutions Director Jennifer Allen encouraged attendees to think of ways to “link arms and harness our assets together in a way that we can really move the needle on [sustainability efforts].”
With public-private partnerships that promote urban mobility, the integration of energy and sustainable design, ecosystem services work and watershed stewardship, collaboration is the hallmark of Portland State’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, which is charged with advancing sustainability research, education and outreach at the university.
A higher education sustainability conference in this region provides a unique look at partnerships that exist among public and private sectors that would normally compete with each other. For a full list of speakers and presentations, see the conference program. Slides from each presentation will be posted by the end of February.
Portland-based AASHE staff members Margo Wagner (marketing & communications) and Judy Walton (publications) attended the January 31-February 1 event, recording their takeaways on the theme of collaboration:
1. Music Provides Common Ground Across Cultural Divides in Sustainability
Portland State University professor Albert Spencer, an Eastern Kentucky native and “proud grandson of a coal miner” is working to create curriculum that will encourage sustainable energy careers in Appalachia. His approach? Bluegrass music.
When it comes to conversations about energy, there is a large cultural divide between Spencer’s urban, middle-class, environmentally-focused, liberal Portland students and the rural, working poor, conservative demographic of Appalachia. “But both places loves bluegrass!” exclaimed Spencer during his session, “Using Bluegrass Music to Power Sustainable Energy in Appalachia.”
By studying Steve Earl’s “The Mountain” and Taylor Made’s “West Virginia Underground”—“beer drinkin’, butt-kickin’ music,” as Spencer calls it—PSU students gained a different perspective and empathy for how Appalachians feel about outsiders telling them how to live and what’s “right.” Spencer hopes to take the course online for students in Appalachia to help achieve his ultimate goal of slowing the capital flight from the region.
2. Finding Common ‘Sustainability’ Language is Key to the Movement
Nichole Martin didn’t like the word “sustainability.” She felt excluded from the conversation and wondered how, as a woman of color, she fit into “this big movement about how we can sustain” that seemed full of messages about eating organic food, recycling, shopping locally and other language targeted to white people of privilege.
After talking with her parents, she realized her own connection with the word: “My parents have been sustaining for a long time. It’s called trying to survive.”
During the conference, Martin shared her experience of inviting people of color into the sustainability conversation through a series of seminars on the Portland State campus focused on race and sustainability. The goal of the series, which ended up being hugely popular, was to find common language that could lead to communities finding their own ways to get involved with the movement.
The common sustainability definition to come out of the series: “A person’s capacity to continue.”
“Exploring the social side of sustainability changed my life,” said Martin, who now serves as a program assistant for Portland State University’s Solutions Generator, which works to “inspire students as change agent leaders capable of envisioning, implementing and assessing holistic sustainability solutions on campus and in the community.”
3. Sustainability Industry Partnerships Keep Institutions Competitive
The energy efficiency industry is expanding with a national investment of $1.5 billion per year and Oregon is attracting graduates as a national/global center of excellence for energy efficiency and design, said Energy Trust of Oregon’s Fred Gordon during the session, “Energy Efficiency: Powerful Creator of Green Jobs for Professionals.”
This all sounds good but there is a current disconnect between this growing industry and Oregon’s state universities. “Here’s an industry that is a big part of the climate change solution, a space that is tailor made for PSU—we have a stake in the ground around urban sustainability—and we’re not able to meet the demand for jobs in this industry,” said session panelist Erin Flynn, associate vice president for strategic partnerships at Portland State.
In terms of national education and training, said Flynn, there are lots of technical programs at two-year colleges in the energy efficiency industry, but there is an opportunity right now to pioneer curriculum that will prepare economists, business managers and specialists in this field.
Portland State currently offers a popular smart grid course and a green building lab, and is now working to weave these disparate pieces into “something meaningful for students and industry,” said Flynn. “…the demand is clear, the industry is ready, and it seems like the kind of opportunity to be intentional about, to jump on.”
As a punctuation to this message, luncheon keynote speaker David Kenney, president and executive director of Oregon BEST (Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center), showed how connecting Oregon industry to university research teams adds value and enhances competitiveness for Oregon firms, boosts state revenues, helps the state recruit new clean technology companies, and grows and improves university research. Oregon BEST, a nonprofit established by the Oregon Legislature, invests in key clean tech research projects and facilities that can create economic impact and attract research dollars to Oregon universities. Kenney opened and concluded his talk with these words: "Some of you, perhaps not all, should become clean tech inventors, innovators or entrepreneurs. We need you."
4. Collaboration Helps Impact the Campus (Triple) Bottom Line
At Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, a collaborative effort is transforming the campus into a "living lab." With support from President Mary Spilde, faculty, staff and students are working together on projects that benefit the campus while enhancing student learning and faculty/staff research. The college's new Institute for Sustainable Practices helps connect courses (Lane CC has six sustainability-focused degree programs) with campus facilities and infrastructure spaces that become real-world "labs." Energy management and water conservation instructors Josh Manders and Sarah Whitney described three levels of student involvement with these spaces from simple tours, to data collection and monitoring projects, to analysis of "real problems with real equipment," which generates "real solutions." Mike Sims, recycling and surplus property coordinator and Anna Scott, energy analyst, described how these collaborative projects "provide students with opportunities to impact the campus (triple) bottom line."
5. Collaboration is Integral to the Student Vision of Sustainability
Developed by students from across higher education institutions in the Northwest during the conference, the OHESC Student Summit Vision includes "expectations of inclusive and collaborative decision making processes, which include students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and the surrounding communities" as part of its definition of a "culture of sustainability." Tangible actions toward a culture of sustainability as outlined in the Vision include:
- a commitment to transparent endowments, socially responsible investments, and a complete divestment from fossil fuels
- establishing a Green Revolving Fund on each campus
- developing a requirement in each major that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the field of study
- creating a system for access to affordable, healthy, and just food, which could include establishing a food pantry and/or garden plots for the campus community’s use
- mandating programs that provide a holistic introduction to sustainability for first year students, new staff, faculty and administrators, which address oppression of both people and the planet
Click here for a full look at the OHESC Student Summit Vision.
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