Students finding their sustainability voices

This year, Franklin Pierce students took part in a “shout-out” to kick off a campaign called “Voices: Engaging Communication in Sustainability” being conducted by the student-run Pierce Media Group. Funded by a New England Campus Sustainability Forum mini-grant, its goals are to empower students with technical and professional skills to help them “find their voice” in sustainability. Students are demonstrating the role of media in shaping a culture, while promoting awareness and participation in campus sustainability. The short clip filmed that day is being incorporated in public service announcements for broadcast on campus television, radio, print, and social media, helping to get the word out on campus and beyond.

In classrooms, first-year Composition students are exploring food and sustainability by sharing stories, researching the sustainability profile of their favorite foods, and deliberative dialogue. They are discovering how food choices and experiences are shaped by culture, economy, and messages accumulated throughout our lives. In March, these students will create a collection of concerns based on what they have learned, and throughout April they will engage in hands-on and service learning activities to address environmental, social, and economic issues around food.

These programs have prompted good and thoughtful questions about what “sustainability” really means. The word represents an array of cultural, economic, sociopolitical, personal, and even spiritual perspectives. Its connotations and permutations are complex to say the least. I often hear students talking about how they can become “more sustainable” or what we should do as a university to make our campus a more “sustainable” place.

Sustainability can be seen as a measurable goal to work toward, and many programs, projects, and titles have been created with this imperative in mind. However, this use can be problematic in that it holds sustainability out as a goal that takes too much time, money, or willpower to be achieved in our lifetime. What I try to communicate with students and colleagues is that sustainability can be framed as a process, a context, a lens, a value, an impetus, tool, leverage point, or a practice; I have seen “sustainability” used as all of these things in my field. It’s a very dynamic word.

Like many terms, it can also be abused. There are interesting articles and healthy conversations being shared among the professional community about the pitfalls of using “sustainability” carelessly. Green-washing is one such example; this is a form of spin in which a company’s marketing or public relations team purports an image of upstanding environmental citizenship while in truth the company’s products or practices are anything but. On the one hand, this practice is driven by increased consumer demand for “green” products; on the other, it has the potential to render the word meaningless.

What does “sustainability” mean to you? What images, stories, and experiences arise when you hear the word? Renewable energy? Organic agriculture? The local economy? Social justice? Does it matter who uses the term, or where? What should people ask themselves when considering whether a place or a practice is “sustainable?” For me, the answer can only be found within the context of the community that’s looking for it.

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