I have led the Office of Sustainability at the University of Illinois at Chicago for more than eleven years. I came into this role as I was working on my Ph.D. with a focus on sustainability in higher education and with years of work experience, mostly in environmental compliance. In spite of my great excitement to be offered this opportunity, little did I know how ill-prepared to take on the role of Associate Chancellor for Sustainability.
Motivated by my mission to save the planet one university at a time, I dove right in. Much of my work in the early years was building stakeholder buy-in, events, and planning. Interspersed were pilot projects. Every couple of years I managed to gain a new staff member. Although I was disappointed when my position was moved from reporting to the Chancellor to the Vice-Chancellor for Administrative Services, it did offer new opportunities for project implementation. My staff and I developed work arounds, always trying new ways to accomplish our goals but often hitting roadblocks.
Throughout the years, I acquired a whole new set of skills my education had not prepared me for. I gleaned a lot from AASHE by attending pre-conference and post-conference workshops, as well as presentations about how my peers did their work. I always come back with renewed energy and new ideas about how to move forward. New skills included how to write grants, develop budgets, facilitate groups and planning processes, work within and outside the system, conduct surveys, use social media, plan events, publicize events, and more. I created programs, I raised consciousness. I said “yes” to almost every opportunity that came my way. I succeeded and I failed. I was overwhelmed.
Even after all that time, I still felt like advancing sustainability at a university was a very messy process and lacks a framework. I was told I do “missionary work.” So when the opportunity to attend a REFOCUS workshop last summer came through with AASHE I thought I’d give it a try. REFOCUS aims to elevate sustainability within an organization by showing its inherent value to achieving the organizational mission. The framework helps leaders to smartly balance adopting typical sustainability projects with projects that build new capabilities and can increase the importance the organization places on sustainability over time. The experience gave me the opportunity to look at leading our program from another perspective as part of optimizing and better communicating the value I bring to the organization. It helped me set priorities and gain support from supervisors and campus leadership.
It also led to a very direct and very beneficial conversation with my new supervisor about how he sees my role and his in sustainability. This conversation led to a much clearer set of expectations as to his role in championing sustainability to the upper administration, how he viewed the role of the sustainability committee on campus, and increased my confidence that the requests my office makes for policy changes, programs, and funding will be seriously considered. REFOCUS provides the framework for understanding that structure and how his leadership and mine interact to create capacity. That support continues to be played out as we work together to advance projects.
Following the workshop, I participated in a four month-long applied learning program that, along with the guidance of a personal coach, ensured I was able to effectively apply what I had learned. The elongated experience gave me the opportunity to work more deeply and to interact with my peers in a way that attendance at one workshop or conference doesn’t. The exploration of the project led me to think more about the new PR position we were filling and what is the importance of the marketing and reporting of results that the role would have. I always imagined that someone working on an energy conservation campaign would be developing a message about actions that building occupants can take to save energy. However, it’s really more about telling the story of our successes and building credibility for the program.
Sustainability professionals need a lot of tools in their toolbox. There is no perfect educational or work experience to get you there but REFOCUS is one that I highly recommend!