Rebels, Outlaws & Storytellers at AASHE 2013
Maybe it was the proximity to the Country Music Hall of Fame, or inspired by the late night live music, but the energy and ideas at this year’s AASHE Conference & Expo in Nashville were reminiscent of celebrated inductee Johnny Cash, described as “part rockabilly rebel, part campfire storyteller, part outlaw in black.”
“Resisting authority, control or convention” as rebels do, the dialogue at AASHE 2013 steered outside the established lines when addressing higher education resiliency and adaptation. Solutions like collective organizing, involving underrepresented communities, and modeling innovative resiliency were focused on breaking new ground and creating change at the root level.
And much like Cash’s stark baritone, we hope the voices of the AASHE 2013 storytellers will resonate with the higher education sustainability audience long after leaving the Nashville stage.
If you’re ready to channel your inner Johnny Cash, here are ways that this year's presenters suggest defying convention to create real change toward climate resiliency and adaptation in your campus community:
Break one small rule every day.
While finding ways to improve the world’s food system, controversial author, journalist, and food policy expert Raj Patel challenges presumptions and isn’t afraid to protest against some of the most prestigious international organizations - even those he has worked for in the past.
As this year’s keynote speaker, Patel kicked off AASHE 2013 with these words of wisdom: “Break one small rule every day.” What may seem like a small rebellion—jaywalking, or reading the last page of a book first—is part of a larger mentality of questioning the norm that will foster the dialogue and collective organizing needed to create resilient communities.
“We’re encouraged to be individual green activists by doing things like buying fair trade coffee, but part of the problem is not having had experienced joys of organizing and feeling more empowered than ever before,” says Patel. “Being denied that experience stymies the imagination.” So collect your fellow rule breakers and make change in your community!
Involve the un-involved.
“Next time you go to an environmental event and you look around and don’t see people of color I want you to take note,” AASHE 2013 Student Summit keynote speaker Markese Bryant told the crowd.
As a student at Morehouse College, Bryant experienced inequities in the environmental movement firsthand. Though 71 percent of Black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, most students on campus didn’t know that the American Clean Energy and Security Act and COP 15 were taking place in 2009. “300,000 students of color who are representing the communities most impacted by climate change were not in the conversation in 2009,” says Bryant. “So we can’t be surprised that we didn’t have the political power to address the issues we needed to.”
Now, as co-founder of Fight for Light, Bryant works to prepare HBCUs and their students for full participation in the emerging green economy. “What I want you to do,” Bryant told the students in the room whom he refers to as the Make It or Break It Generation, “is really understand the unique position and role you must play to ensure that this movement is resilient. The reason why you all are Make It or Break It Generation is because if we allow these current trends in environmental movement to continue, to allow people of color to be disengaged and unsupported, than we are going to fail.”
"The reason why you all are Make It or Break It Generation is because if we allow these current trends in environmental movement to continue, to allow people of color to be disengaged and unsupported, than we are going to fail.” - Markese Bryant
Make allies of your adversaries.
Inspired by questions raised at the AASHE 2012 conference in Los Angeles, “Beyond Sustainability” panelists from Western Michigan University, Oklahoma State University, Appalachian State University and Warren Wilson College explored the challenges and opportunities at the growing edge of campus sustainability. The session addressed how sustainability professionals can sustain their ability to be creative and succeed, how collaborative networks can support campus sustainability efforts and each other as valued peers, and what higher education sustainability success ultimately looks like across the industry.
One major takeaway was to build relationships to get your goal accomplished, even if they are not a natural fit. Jane Talkington, sustainability mercenary at Oklahoma State University, encourages us to talk to adversaries to find out what we have in common, and work to move forward as allies.
Kill the silos.
As president of Unity College, Dr. Stephen Mulkey has pivoted the curriculum to focus on the “what’s next” of environmentalism, sustainability science, and the transdisciplinary (collaborative) approach to ecological problem solving. In 2012, Unity became the first college in the nation to divest from fossil fuels in what was a unanimous vote by the College Board of Trustees.
"Educational programming in sustainability is essential for the salvation of the future of our species and the future of higher education. Sustainability education will not only serve humanity, it will also serve our institutions," he told the audience during his AASHE 2013 plenary.
Above all, as higher education considers resiliency and adaptation, Mulkey advocates that administrations adopt a transdisciplinary approach to solving problems and finding solutions: "We must kill the silos."
Play an unexpected tune.
During his closing plenary, Vice President of Sustainability at Interface George Bandy shared the trailer for a film titled “Landfill Harmonic.” The movie follows a garbage picker, a music teacher and a group of children from a Paraguayan slum who are creating instruments made out of the world’s garbage that ends up in their communities.
Bandy left the stage asking: "What music will you play?”
The Sustainability and Sound plenary also encouraged sound as an important component of sustainability. Through the frame of ecomusicology (the interdependency of music, nature and culture, and intersection of non-human and human sound worlds), panelist Jeff Todd Titon (professor emeritus of music at Brown University) advocated for the soundscape analysis: “We have planners who plan for the beauty of campuses, we shouldn’t just consider the visual and tactile; we should consider sound...sounds can help us connect to place… [and] can be an indicator of what’s going on on a campus.”
Adapt the measurement.
Raised in Humboldt County, Green For All Director Of Education and Outreach Julian Mocine-McQueen had an idyllic childhood spent swimming in rivers and exploring the countryside. But he was always one step behind his cooler cousins in West Oakland, Calif. "They were hip to MC Hammer and we were stuck on the Fat Boys," he joked. But when his cousins went to jail for trying to rob a jewelry store, he understood why his father, a former police officer in West Oakland, moved to Humboldt "to allow his kids to be kids as long as possible."
As a student organizer at San Francisco State, Mocine-McQueen worked to bridge the gap between underrepresented communities on campus and the policies affecting them. That's where he became involved with Green For All, which works to develop an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty, and create communities where kids can be kids as long as they want to be.
Through is work, Mocine-McQueen has found that while problems like poverty and climate destabilization are massive, "we have all we need right here and that’s each other." If measurements for sustainability reflect what it's like to be a person in that community, then we have the opportunity to "build a network of a shared understanding of the problems, and a shared understanding that the solutions will require and include all of us. Solutions that are based in the community."
Mocine-McQueen encouraged the AASHE network to make sure that the conversations about sustainability reflect the needs of the community. "If we’re able to turn to each other and share solutions, we can make the changes on our campuses and communities to be thriving, truly sustainable, resilient, and where kids can be kids as long as they need to be."
"If we’re able to turn to each other and share solutions, we can make the changes on our campuses and communities to be thriving, truly sustainable, resilient, and where kids can be kids as long as they need to be." - Julian Mocine-McQueen
Change the Conversation.
When MIT looked at projections from the 2013 National Climate Assessment, it found that the sea level rise for the Boston Harbor pretty much covers the campus in the next 100 years. Though campuses have already begun to mitigate for climate change, said Second Nature Director of Climate Resilience & Educational Programs Sarah Brylinsky during the "Roadmap to Resilience" session on Tuesday, higher education should be moving toward a state of resilience.
With heavy downpours increasing in the U.S., and some regions expected to experience two to three times more days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit than is average today by 2050, strategic conversations in higher education should be focused on anticipating, preparing, recovering and responding to impacts. "We now have to plan for existing in 100 years," she says.
And not only plan to exist, says Brylinsky, but also play a critical role in preparing society for climate destabilization: "It's the responsibility of higher education to provide the appropriate education, model resiliency innovation, and be a good neighbor."
We know that lots of conversations happened offstage as well. What takeaways do you have from AASHE 2013? We’d love your comments!
We'll be posting videos of AASHE 2013 keynote speeches in their entirety, and presenters are uploading their materials to the AASHE Resource Center. Stay tuned to the AASHE homepage for updates on when these are available. If you'd like to upload your presentation, you can do that here.
We look forward to seeing you all in Portland next year for AASHE 2014! Save the date for October 26-29!
A big thanks to AASHE 2013 field reporters Chris Pelton, Monika Urbanski, Seann Sweeney, Nikia Johnson and Bob Erb!
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