A Brief Backstory of SustainAbilities

By Patricia Lamas

What spawned the SustainAbilities program at St. Olaf? I was asked to write on this topic, although my own role was only briefly attached to the overwhelming activity that has continued to accelerate this summer. It is not even clear who had the idea first, but I do know that Professor Jim Farrell and fellow student Zac Rakke had something of this nature in mind all along. To make a long story short, 2010 graduate Amy Kasch created the JC Sustainability Handbook as part of the senior project for her individual major,Psychology of Social Change. When its implementation faltered the following fall, I saw a prime opportunity for the senior project for my own individual major, Social Marketing and the Environment. The objective? To take the ideas in Amy’s handbook and make sure they happened, one way or another.

After a few Junior Counselor surveys, Area Coordinator interviews, and supplementary projects such as designing a Green Room Certification application and a behavioral benchmarking tool, it was soon apparent that the most important ingredient to a successful sustainability program would be teamwork. Would several diverse and energetic minds not be better than a single one running in circles? Already, some of the project’s most productive hours were those spent bouncing ideas around the “Ideals to Action” and “Campus Ecology” classrooms and a gathering hosted by the Activism for Social Change Network. One lesson from this experience is that perhaps in any situation, the sooner you can break from theory into real conversation, the better.

About halfway through the year, the idea for a “sustainability representatives” program surfaced. Other schools had them; why didn’t we? The concept was something like a Hall Council Environmental Representative, but with more formal responsibility. It was also something like an RA, but without those pesky extraneous RA duties that took attention away from teaching sustainability. Duty rounds? How about tours through the natural lands instead! Fortunately, Director of Residence Life Pamela McDowell seemed to be on board with this project before I ever mentioned it to her.In a surprisingly brief series of meetings, Pamela, Zac and and I drafted an operating structure, a job description and an application. Before we knew it, we were interviewing for a coordinating position, and the program quickly took on a life of its own. Along with the diligent efforts of CURI researchers Tyler Nielsen, Andi Gomoll, and Lauren Kramer, this year’s team of sustainability representatives has created their own vision, goals and culture from the very ground up. Clearly, the energy, ideas and talent were already there. All that was needed was a framework to set things in motion.