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Our Moment Is Now

Swarthmore’s Office of Sustainability is ready to go

Melissa Tier ’14, Swarthmore’s sustainability coordinator, keeps a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on her shelf.

“The history of life on Earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the Earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight,” Carson wrote in words first published in 1962. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.” 

Carson’s words and her scientific research have long inspired Tier, from her summers visiting one of Carson’s research sites in southern Maine to her postbaccalaureate work at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions to her return to Swarthmore last June.

As excited as Tier was to be back, memories of challenging Swarthmore moments were still fresh in her mind—her junior year had occurred during the turbulence of 2013.

“As a young alum, I was nervous about managing the Office of Sustainability given some of the tensions around student activism I had experienced earlier,” she says.

After all, when it comes to sustainability, stakes—and passions—are high. The Board of Managers’ decision not to divest, for example, inspired a variety of protests, including a Parrish Hall sit-in. 

What Tier found, however, was a campus still passionate about sustainability, but with a diversity of activities and projects underway, many inspired by those times.

That’s one of the many reasons why she was eager to welcome Aurora Winslade, Swarthmore’s sustainability director, who arrived in January.

“I feel privileged to be here,” Winslade says. “There are many opportunities, and Melissa and I are ready to support the community to make the most of them.”

 

AS A TEENAGER in Southern California, Winslade volunteered at a local organic farm, which inspired her to take an ecology course as a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

“I was exposed to how challenging—globally, societally—the environmental issues we face are,” she says. “It was life-changing for me to realize that everything we care about is built on the foundation of a functioning ecological system, and that this system is in danger of being unable to support us without significant changes in how we live.”

Thus inspired, Winslade joined Matt St. Clair ’97—then a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley—and other young leaders across the state to help establish the University of California sustainability policy. In addition to co-founding a number of student programs that continue today, she went on to launch UCSC’s sustainability office, found sustainability policies for the University of Hawaii, create academic programs on sustainable community food systems and sustainable facilities management, and spearhead statewide initiatives to help Hawaii reduce energy consumption. 

She heard about the Swarthmore position from St. Clair, who is now the director of sustainability for the University of California’s Office of the President. 

“Aurora is an amazing fit for Swarthmore because she comes to sustainability from a social justice lens,” says St. Clair. “She’s a unique combination of a visionary and a doer who is constantly learning and growing.”

While Tier will focus on community engagement and Winslade will take a top-down approach, their roles will overlap, inform, and complement each other locally, nationally, and beyond. 

One of the first and largest of their responsibilities is to implement the sustainability framework adopted by the Board of Managers in September. 

“It is important that we have this framework to guide our building projects as the College increases enrollment and expands its square footage. In addition to showing what’s possible in terms of energy, buildings, and storm-water management, we are already discussing how to expand it to include additional sustainability areas such as landscape and waste management,” Winslade says. “We have a great starting point with building and energy guidelines from the framework, the College’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035, and the many projects already underway at the College. I look forward to helping us meet our existing targets and to expanding our goals, establishing clear metrics, and integrating sustainability into all aspects of campus life, learning, and operations.”

 

STUDENTS WILL BE key to the success of the Office of Sustainability, and Tier and Winslade will serve as the center and supporter of Swarthmore’s environmental groups. That includes the now-formally institutionalized Green Advisor (GA) program, with 30 residential GAs last semester. They support sustainable lifestyles among all campus members and manage the College’s public and residential compost system. (Swarthmore is one of the nation’s few campuses where students manage campuswide composting.)

“Sustainability is becoming a more meaningful part of residential life,” says Tier, “which is a really exciting new norm.”

 Students are also working with the Office to examine broader College waste issues, like fridges, lamps, and furniture left behind when students leave in May; creating consistent signage; and reducing overall waste. 

They also organize tours to Chester, where campus waste is incinerated, and help the community grapple with the social and environmental consequences of its trash. Others, with financial and logistical support from the College, attended the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris or are helping revitalize Swarthmore’s community garden.

As students, Tony Lee ’15 and Erik Jensen ’15 led the installation of an electric charging station and solar panels on Field House Lane, which enabled the College to become a partner through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Workplace Charging Challenge. 

The Office has also delivered a slate of sustainability-related programming, including co-hosting Eban Goodstein, head of the environmental policy program at Bard College, as well as hosting the Green Advisors’ annual audit to analyze Swarthmore’s waste disposal. In June, the president’s staff will convene for their first Sustainability Leadership Retreat, to be facilitated by Leith Sharp, the director of executive education at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Global Environment. 

Ultimately, Tier and Winslade want Swarthmore’s sustainability changes, both short- and long-term, to be integrated into student learning, literacy, and leadership opportunities so that every alum, wherever they go next, will do so empowered and equipped to create changes of their own.

“We try to think of our work within the term ‘just sustainabilities’—coined by environmental scholar Julian Agyeman—so it’s about more than environmentalism,” Tier says. “It makes sense that the Swarthmore community would be interested in something this broad, interdisciplinary, and tied into real action and real benefit for other people.”

 

A PORTION OF TIER and Winslade’s time is spent in construction meetings, ensuring that designs meet or exceed sustainability standards that will ensure the College’s new buildings are roughly equivalent to LEED platinum or better.

“It’s important for alumni to know we’re doing that as part of regular, daily conversations,” Tier says. “We’re also in the process of determining exactly how we measure compliance with the framework and creating our own internal verification process.” 

To better help the College take responsibility for its carbon emissions, the Office of Sustainability also established a carbon charge, a fee initially proposed by a group of faculty and staff and recently approved by the Board. Launching in the next fiscal year, it will create a source of funds for campus projects to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. This development will put Swarthmore at the forefront of this issue, joining schools like Yale and Princeton in establishing an internal tax on carbon. 

Another responsibility of the Office is reporting to external groups, like the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and Second Nature, to keep track of the College’s greenhouse gas emissions and various data metrics. 

Despite all these developments, not every community member may feel satisfied with the speed or direction of progress, to which Winslade and Tier say they understand and are open to suggestions and input. 

“Across our community, we may not all agree on every point, but I believe we can all agree there’s much work to be done and endless opportunities to change,” Winslade says. “If we come together where there are shared goals, we can make a difference and continually improve.”

This is an auspicious time, she believes, since President Valerie Smith came in last year supportive of the mission and potential of the Office of Sustainability and eager to build upon the groundwork laid by former president Rebecca Chopp, who signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and convened a committee to write the College’s first Climate Action Plan in 2010.

In fact, the enthusiasm of Smith and other Swarthmore leaders was a key factor in Winslade’s decision-making process.

“I saw that shared commitment when I came in for my interviews—that thoughtfulness, passion, and engagement—so Swarthmore felt like a place where I would be welcomed and able to have an impact,” she says. “This is a great place and a great time to be doing this, in large part because of the foundation laid by the people who came before.”

Citing previous administrators and sustainability professionals as well as students and faculty, staff and alumni, protesters and activists, Winslade and Tier are honored to be charged with the privilege and responsibility of charting Swarthmore’s course going forward while looking back.

“Even though the Office is relatively young, it’s building on a long tradition,” Winslade says, “from Quaker roots and the preservation of natural land; to the students, faculty, and community members who’ve taken action; to the ingenuity of the operational staff who have helped Swarthmore achieve
some of the most impressive energy-use reduction numbers of our peer institutions.”

What’s done here echoes around the world and into the future, something neither member of the Office of Sustainability takes lightly.

“We’re grappling with solutions to real ecological problems implemented on a practical, day-to-day level across communities, countries, and the one planet we have,” Winslade says. “Being a part of creating and implementing those solutions at a place like Swarthmore is one of the best uses of our time Melissa and I can imagine.” 

Green Philanthropy

Recycle. Compost. Use public transportation. Go vegetarian. Add “green philanthropy” to the list of ways you can express sustainability-related values.

Swarthmore’s newest green philanthropy giving option was created in December, when the Board of Managers established the Fossil Fuel Free Fund. Together, three Board members—Elizabeth Economy ’84, Gil Kemp ’72, and Christopher Niemczewski ’74—contributed a total of $100,000 to launch the fund.

“I am delighted that the Board has taken this important step, a step that reflects the College’s strong commitment to sustainability,” says Economy, the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director of Asia Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Donors may also make gifts of any size and endow named scholarships, professorships, or summer research opportunities under the Fossil Fuel Free umbrella, which will be managed separately from the College’s general endowment investments.

The original “green giving” option, of course, is the Swarthmore Fund. 

“Swarthmore Fund donations are not intermingled with the endowment,” says Karl Clauss, vice president for advancement and alumni relations. “Swarthmore Fund gifts are applied exclusively to current, annual expenses, including financial aid, programming for students, and maintaining campus facilities.” 

You may also designate Swarthmore Fund gifts specifically for sustainability initiatives. One possibility is the President’s Climate Commitment Fund, established in 2012 by Jonathan E. B. “Jeb” Eddy ’63 and Edith Twombly Eddy ’64.

It supports such initiatives as the reduction or offsetting of carbon or other greenhouse gas emissions; innovative replacements of less-than-efficient technologies, systems, and devices; student summer research opportunities; technology to enhance or expand the reach of educational activities; and course development, workshops, and speakers.

The Carbon Neutral Weekend Fund was established during the 2007 Alumni Weekend to make the event more environmentally responsible, but accepts gifts at any time. Most recently, the money raised supported major retrofitting for energy-saving lighting.

Finally, you may also make gifts of any size to the College’s general endowment fund in support of sustainability efforts such as the Lorax Fund for Environmental Sustainability. Established in 2007, it supports activities that move Swarthmore College and its community toward a more environmentally sustainable future. 

Get Involved!

Join the Swarthmore Sustainability Network on LinkedIn

Read the Sustainability Framework

View the White House Act On Climate Plege Signed by Valerie Smith

Attend/Address a Sustainability Committee Meeting

Check out the Office of Sustainability Website

Contact Aurora and Melissa