2018 AASHE Conference - Interviews with AASHE Leadership

2018 AASHE Conference - Interviews with AASHE Leadership

Expected to draw approximately 2,000 participants, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE’s) annual conference is the largest stage in North America to exchange effective models, policies, research, collaborations and transformative actions that advance sustainability in higher education and surrounding communities. The 2018 AASHE Conference will be help October 2-5 in Pittsburgh, PA.

In this episode we learn about AASHE and the upcoming AASHE conference by interviewing two members of the AASHE leadership team:

  • Julian Dautremont-Smith, Director of Programs

  • Meghan Fay Zahniser, Executive Director

Julian Dautremont-Smith Complete Interview:

Tell us a little bit about your personal life and what led you to be doing the work that you're doing today?

I got into this work really in high school. I got really interested in sustainability. I picked Lewis and Clark College in Portland based on Portland's reputation as a real sustainability leader. When I arrived at college, I got involved in a number of efforts to improve sustainability on the campus and did a greenhouse gas inventory with an economics professor. And this was before it was very common. We published a guide that others have used now on how to do a campus level greenhouse gas inventory. It's obviously outdated, but that was really my start in looking at campus greenhouse gas emissions. I also led this campaign to buy offsets to make the college meet the Kyoto protocols targets as a campus.

Anyway, that was my first foray into the campus sustainability world. As a result of that experience, I was at the founding meeting for what became AASHE, and so I've been involved, in some way, from the beginning. After I graduated from college, I went abroad for a year and when I came back, I was lucky enough to get a position with AASHE. I was the second employee and worked with AASHE for five years before leaving for Grad school at University of Michigan. Then I worked for a couple of years as a chief sustainability officer at Alfred State College in upstate New York. I worked for a year at a consulting firm that does sustainability in higher ed before coming back to AASHE in my current role as director of programs.

Anybody who's working in sustainability in higher education is definitely familiar with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). But give us just a real quick overview of AASHE and what kind of work you're leading.

AASHE grew out of another organization called Second Nature, which is another organization that does a lot of work in this space. They got a grant to create a western regional network around 2002. They brought together a meeting of people who are active in campus sustainability. I went to that meeting as a student and formed this regional network. Over time we realized there was a need for an international association or professional association for sustainability practitioners in higher ed, which is different than what Second Nature was doing.

So we expanded our scope and became independent and held the first conference in 2006. Our main role is really that professional association type of work. We do all kinds of things to help members learn from one another, and that really is our core work, is connecting members to one another so they don't have to reinvent the wheel on their own campuses. So, the conference is a key part of that. We do regular webinars and workshops that provide other opportunities for members to connect. We have an online resource center. We do an awards program to recognize particularly strong work. And then our flagship program is something called STARS, the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System. It's a tool that colleges and universities use to measure their sustainability performance and report on it. So all the reports are public and you can see how an institution scored the way they did. You provide a whole bunch of information and that translates to a score that then translates to a rating. So, you can be a STARS Gold or STARS Silver campus, similar to the LEED standard in that respect.

A lot of great programs being led at AASHE. The STARS program has been very successful. I remember taking Hawaii Pacific University through that assessment when I was there back in 2012. Let's talk about the AASHE conference today. When's the conference coming up and where's it going to be and what can attendees expect?

Conference is going to be October 2-5 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this year. The goal when we put this conference on is to provide thought provoking and empowering sessions on the full range of topics in campus sustainability. Everything from curriculum to engagement to waste reduction to diversity. We really try to have a comprehensive view of sustainability, and we want attendees to walk away both with new ideas as well as knowledge of how to implement those ideas. The conference is structured around that. So, you'll have an opportunity to hear from several hundred campuses on the work that they're doing and how you might be able to do something similar at your campus.

And would you say it is geared more towards students, faculty, staff, or kind of a mix of all?

It's really a mix. Part of our role is trying to make sure those different stakeholder groups are working together and there has been, unfortunately, kind of a divide in many ways between the academic community and the operational community. But we see real benefits to greater collaboration. And so at our conference, we really do try to bring both groups together. Students obviously are key drivers of sustainability in many campuses, so having them come in and empowering them is also a key goal of the event. That said, the core group of people who come to the conferences, are probably the paid sustainability staff - someone who's hired by an institution of higher ed to work on sustainability. But we do have a good number of faculty and students as well, a smattering of administrators in other roles in higher ed and then a good chunk of business representatives and nonprofit representatives that work with higher ed institutions on sustainability in some way.

Do you know about how many people you can expect this year or how many people came last year?

We typically attract a somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 folks. So, somewhere in that neighborhood. We have been as high as 2,400. It varies from year to year depending on the location and a variety of factors, but somewhere in that ballpark. So it's a pretty big event.

The very first AASHE conference I went to was in Pittsburgh. So excited to have it be held back in Pittsburgh again. A great city and a lot of good sustainability work happening throughout that city as well. Are there tours or anything associated with the conference?

There are several. We actually picked Pittsburgh because the convention center itself has a really strong sustainability program, which is something we look for. But in terms of the tours, some of them are focused on the campuses that we work with. So there's a tour of a Carnegie Mellon, Chatham university has a tour of Eden Hall campus, where the whole campus is dedicated to sustainable living. So that's one I think is going to be particularly interesting. University of Pittsburgh's got a tour as well. There is also a tour of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden. They have a LEED platinum building there and it's just a great site to go see.

Julian, so the students, faculty and staff, if you were talking to them right now, what would you say the benefits are of the conference?

Benefits are actually pretty similar for all three groups. What we hear a lot is just knowing that you're not alone. Many folks who come to our conference are sustainability change agents, but they're the kind of isolated on their campus in many cases and there's not that many of them. So, coming to our conference is an opportunity to see there are people like you on campuses across the country, and then you get to share with them what you're working on, what your challenges are, discuss common challenges and hopefully work out a solution together. Besides meeting other folks in the field, the other main benefit is really learning from them. We really put together a program that's designed to help build those connections and bring people into connection with leading work that's happening on campuses across the country, so they can do something similar on their campus. There really is an intent not just to like go and listen, but to get some guidance on how to do something on your own campus.

One of the biggest benefits I saw was just the networking and the people that you meet. If you're a student interested in sustainability and interested in a career in sustainability, this is just an amazing conference to make contacts. I mentioned Pittsburgh was the first AASHE conference I went to, I think it was 2011, and still to this day I have friends that I met at that conference and actually have a call with one of them later today to talk about some composting projects. From all the conferences that I've gone to in corporate sustainability, higher education, government sustainability, I think AASHE has been the most valuable to me as far as making contacts and making connections that I still keep in touch with. So a huge benefit and a lot of great things to look forward to in October.

We're going to end on our final five questions. What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

In the past couple of years, I started gardening. More than anything I've done, gardening helped to make systems thinking applicable for me. So, in addition to the social, environmental and health benefits of growing your own food, I think there's a really amazing learning opportunity. Just really trying to think through the natural systems that operate in your own backyard and how to work with them to grow food. It's been a tremendous learning opportunity for me that goes well beyond what I learned in several classes on systems thinking and related topics in my graduate program. So I've become a big promoter of gardening as a teaching tool.

That's a great point. It reminds me of a previous conversation I've had. One of our past episodes of Sustainable Nation was with Matt Lynch who is the Sustainability Coordinator for the University of Hawaii system. He's a permaculture expert and he made some really great points in that interview about using permaculture skills and systems thinking that he learned from permaculture, and how that helps in his job leading sustainability in a large organization. So, definitely would recommend people check out that interview. What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

I went to a conference earlier this year, put on by the New Economy Coalition, in which AASHE is a member. A lot of work happening in the US around the solidarity economy and trying to redesign economic systems to be more democratic, more just and more sustainable. It blew me away. I was intellectually aware of some of that work, but seeing all of it come together in this conference was really exciting. What I like about it is that it's really about trying to build alternative institutions and have models for what it is we're trying to move towards. I think that is really powerful. Trying to think through, "What would a more democratic, just and sustainable economy look like? How would it work?" I really recommend folks check out New Economy Coalition. They're doing really exciting work.

What is one book you'd recommend sustainability leaders read?

Don't read the book, read the article instead. Reading widely is really important and trying to understand different perspectives. We all face information overload and I find that in most cases, reading the article or report is going to be more effective than reading the full book because you can read many articles in the same time as it takes to read a single book. Oftentimes, especially with nonfiction, if I read a dozen articles instead of the book, I come away with a more nuanced understanding as a result. So, I really recommend trying to get a diversity of input and perhaps focusing less on the full book.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in your work?

Recently I've been really impressed with a magazine called Current Affairs. Content is always sharp, funny and insightful. It's really helped clarify my thinking on a whole range of big picture issues. So, really strongly recommend folks check out Current Affairs. The other person that comes to mind that I really enjoy reading is David Roberts at Vox website. He's consistently illuminating on energy and climate issues, and I'm always eager to get his take on the latest policy proposals or report that comes out on energy and climate issues.

And finally where can our listeners go to learn more about you, your work and the upcoming AASHE Conference and Expo?

Everything you could want to know about AASHE is all accessible via our website. It's aashe.org. If you want to follow me, I am on Twitter and my handle is just @JuliandSmith.

Meghan Fay Zahniser Complete Interview:

Give us a little background on your professional life and what led you to be doing the work that you're doing today?

I've been fortunate to have been doing sustainability work my entire career, for 20 years at this point. I started doing sustainability work as an undergraduate student at the University of Buffalo. I went to a meeting about an internship to do a waste audit of the campus and essentially that's what turned my whole life and guided my whole career. So, I spent three years at the university. My title then was environmental educator, but I was a part of a team that created what's now their sustainability office. That was back in the late 1990's. I then had the good fortune of joining the US Green Building Council before anyone knew what the US Green Building Council was. That was back in 2002. I was the 10th employee at the organization, which now has hundreds of staff.

So, I rode this early wave of green building and supported the growth of the local chapter movement. I was there for almost six years and then moved to Philly where I had a short stint in the for-profit world doing some LEED consulting and education before I really came running back to the world of nonprofit. I've been with AASHE for almost 10 years now. I've held a few different positions within the organization, including STARS program manager and then overseeing all of our programs as director of programs. I have now been the executive director for almost four years.

With our podcast, we interview sustainability leaders in business, government and higher education. Pretty much everybody in higher education is always talking about AASHE. Myself, having worked in sustainability in higher education, I also quickly realized the importance of being engaged with AASHE and the resources you provide. So, before we dive into that and dive into the conference, I'd love to hear your perspective on the importance of the sustainability movement in higher education.

It's a really big task that we have in higher education lead the sustainability transformation. That's where AASHE had this vision that if we could have every graduating student from a college or university equipped with the knowledge, the tools and the skills that they need to be able to address sustainability challenges, regardless of their career path, then perhaps we'll be able to create this sustainable world that we're all really hoping for. So, we see higher education as such an opportunity for us to really create that transformation, and not just within the operational components of campuses, but really the opportunity is within crafting and molding the minds of these students that are going to learn and having a sustainability understanding, awareness of the depletion of natural resources as well as the integration of economic and social factors including equity and social justice. We're really hoping that if students are equipped and have that understanding and knowledge base upon graduating from their college or university, that we will be able to see a much faster revolution in terms of this sustainable world that we want to live in.

With many of the people I interview, we talk a lot about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how those are being incorporated in government work, in corporations and how they are aligning their strategy with the SDG's. How is this happening in higher education? How are universities and colleges using or adopting those UN Sustainable Development Goals or helping society in general move towards those goals?

From our perspective at AASHE, we felt it was really our responsibility to highlight the SDG's so that there are a lot more support of the sustainable development goals within higher education. I've had the good fortune of being able to travel outside of the United States a few different times in the past year, and the frame that is used in talking about sustainability has been the SDG's and that hasn't necessarily been my experience within the United States since the SDG's launched just a few years ago. But we're really hoping to change that and certainly I think there are a number of different campuses that see the SDG's as such a phenomenal teaching tool for students to help give them a broad and deep understanding of what is sustainability. And certainly that was what brought us to wanting to highlight the SDG's as our theme for our conference this year so that we can bring to light a bit more about these global goals and how countries, and various sectors even outside of higher education, are looking to champion the SDG's.

I think higher education has an opportunity not only for advancing SDG's, but higher education really has a role in every single one of the 17 goals. Because we're looking to create the leaders of tomorrow in higher education, there's an opportunity for higher ed specifically to play a role in advancing every single one of the SDG's. So, hopefully our conference and bringing the SDG's to a priority within the AASHE community, I'm hoping to see a lot more enthusiasm and support for an advancement of the SDG's.

Speaking of the conference October 2nd through the 5th in Pittsburgh, that city is doing a lot of great work around sustainability so it's great you have some tours lined up. But I want to hear what you are looking forward to. What are you excited about for this upcoming conference?

It's a great question and I would say, across all of the staff, the AASHE conference is really like the shot in the arm that we need to continue to feel really motivated and advance all of the efforts that we're doing to try and support our members. I think at our heart, what we try and do as an organization is we really are a convener. We're bringing folks together, and just by providing this space for these few thousand people to come and talk about sustainability in higher education, the ripple effects just by bringing folks together is absolutely tremendous.

So frankly, what I get most excited about is that energy that I get and I know that the rest of the staff get as well from our members coming together to talk through challenges, to talk through opportunities to talk through lessons learned and shared experiences. Especially in this day and age when there's no shortage of huge challenges that our world is facing, having like-minded folks coming together to support one another, commiserate with each other is a really, really helpful and nurturing environment. Every year here's at least somebody that comes up to me that I usually don't know, who just says, "Thank you for doing what you do at AASHE.". Because again, we just provide this great opportunity for our members and those change agents at universities and colleges throughout the world. These individuals come to the AASHE conference, they get a shot of inspiration and motivation so they can go back to their campuses and keep doing the good work that they're doing. So, I'm most excited just to be able to connect with our members.

For those who have never been to an AASHE conference, could you just give a high level overview of what the conference looks like? Is it a lot of keynotes or a lot of breakout sessions? What does a typical AASHE conference look like?

You can expect a couple of different keynotes for sure. Lots of exhibit hall time - meeting with our vendors, the exhibitors, the businesses and nonprofit organizations that come to talk within the trade show. Certainly, there are a lot of concurrent sessions. I'd say on the positive side there are so many different tracks that we are offering and there's something for everybody. The downside being that we often hear the complaint that there's too many good things happening at once. So, that's a tricky challenge there, but you can expect a lot of opportunities for concurrent sessions, educational opportunities, tours, pre-conference, post-conference workshops, a couple of different keynotes and certainly a lot of time in the exhibit hall.

But we're also really trying to be mindful of getting folks outside and wanting to have an experience within the city that we're visiting and trying to incorporate some wellness activities. We have yoga and we've done yoga a several different years in a row now. We're trying to get some different activities outside. I think folks can expect a conference with a lot of content, a lot of opportunities for networking and really a conference that's trying to reflect the values that we hold dearly, and offering a lot of different opportunities for not just wellness but really trying to minimize our own sustainability impact through offsets, a vegetarian menu etc. So, we're really trying to make sure that our conference is representative of our values and an opportunity for folks to learn a lot but also have some fun.

Having too many good sessions is a good problem to have. I've looked through all of those sessions and I would agree that there's a lot of great content that's going to be available and anybody who's working in sustainability in higher education, you're going to find something that you’re interested in. There's so many different ideas and topics that are going to be discussed. So very much looking forward to that conference. Again, October 2nd through the 5th. We're going to jump into our final five questions if you're ready. What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

So, I'll just reflect on my own experience. I am somebody that wants to continue learning throughout my career and I've had a number of different trainings that I've attended. The piece that I continue to find incredibly valuable is communications training. Especially given the sustainability work we're doing, we're trying to change mindsets, we're trying to change behavior and with that I think comes a requirement to have some skill around communicating.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

I think the fact that there is a lot of emphasis on equity and social justice, and the interconnection with sustainability. I think there's still the challenge of hearing the term "sustainability" and equating that with operational components - waste reduction, water reduction etc. But the reality of all of those things being really important, but the social and economic dimensions of sustainability being as important and the emphasis that AASHE has been trying to place on the equity and social justice pieces of sustainability. The fact that that's not unique to AASHE is really exciting to me because I think making the sustainability movement more personal and having it not just to be about the polar bears, that of course we are concerned about, but making it much more relatable within our communities, I'm really pleased that conversation is happening much more so now.

What is the one book you would recommend sustainability leaders read?

In my career of trying to get people to function at our best selves and to be highly effective people, a lot of the trainings that I've done and that I've experienced a lot of benefit from, and the books that I've read, come back to how I've improved my own communications. So, Difficult Conversations is a book that I have found really helped me in trying to become a better leader and communicator.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that help you in your work?

There's plenty of other nonprofit organizations out there that I look to as examples or models of how are they trying to create more value for their community, or how are they trying to be bold and inspiring to their community. But I think also just within myself to stay motivated and stay inspired, it's really a lot of focus on self-care and a lot of running. When asking about what resources I use, running and meditation are a go-to. So while it's not necessarily something you'd Google, and we try and do this a lot at AASHE, is really to try and pay a lot more attention to our health and wellbeing by prioritizing health and wellbeing. I'm hoping our staff, and anybody that we're working with, is able to be that much more of an effective human. So, those are a couple of my own tools that I use for juggling work life balance, but in addition certainly there's a number of other organizations out there that I'd like to look to and see how they're continuing to try advance the sustainability agenda.

Where can our listeners go to learn more about AASHE and learn about the AASHE conference?

The AASHE website for sure, aashe.org. That's the place where you can go find more about what we do, our conference, our programs, the STARS rating system, which is probably one of our most popular resources. We have an online resource center and a whole bunch of information that you can find on our website that I think will be useful to anyone in sustainability in higher education, whether it's faculty, staff, students, or senior leaders.