Deepening Our Commitment

SU launches Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability to respond to the most pressing challenge of our time

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Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2013-01-28

Seattle University has launched the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., announced to the campus community last week.

"I look forward to the many contributions the center will make, both here on campus and beyond," the president wrote. "Seattle University has a long tradition of leadership in sustainability and environmental justice and many of our faculty members in virtually all disciplines have been recognized as influential scholars on environmental issues. The center will bring these minds together to address the most urgent question of our time-how we as human beings can more responsibly and equitably steward the planet on which we live. By engaging in this important work in a deeper, multidisciplinary way, our own educational mission will be enriched and Seattle University's impact on our region, nation and world will be strengthened."

PhilThompson_100ver2"The Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability's primary goal is to promote scholarship by faculty and students and support them as they engage with others in the community on projects," says Phil Thompson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, left, who has been named the center's first director.

The center is getting right down to business.

"One of the ways that the center is going to support both student and faculty research is to provide fellowships each year," says Thompson. "This year, in February, we're going to have a call for proposals. We're also going to have a group of faculty among those fellows who will meet every quarter and share ideas and work collaboratively. And then we're going to sponsor presentations and workshops that those fellows will help with."

One of a Kind Approach

The Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability (CEJS) is distinctive in two ways, says Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Wismer Professor of Gender and Diversity Studies and associate professor of theology and religious studies, and environmental studies. Moe-Lobeda was part of the team of professors who planned the center and are now leading its implementation.

"One point of distinction," she says, "is that our focus is not only on environmental sustainability but environmental justice. Environmental justice exposes and addresses the injustice based on race/ethnicity, class, gender, and nationality that is inherent in environmental degradation. Climate change, for example, may be the most far reaching manifestation of white privilege and class privilege yet faced by humankind. Caused overwhelmingly by the world's high-consuming people, climate change is wreaking death and destruction first and foremost on the world's impoverished people who are disproportionately people of color," she continues, citing the example of Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately impacted people of color.

"Some people would say that the great moral challenge of the 21st century is to create a sustainable relationship between humankind and the planet. We would affirm that but say that it is not adequate; the challenge is to create a sustainable earth-human relationship marked by social justice," says Moe-Lobeda.

Another characteristic that makes SU's center different from those at other universities is the multifaceted approach it will bring to the study of sustainability and environmental justice.

"We have a very clear commitment to being interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, to crossing the boundaries of different colleges and schools," Moe-Lobeda says.

"We're convinced that the challenges of sustainability with justice will not be met by disciplinary knowledge working alone. At this point in history, universities are responsible for enabling people to construct new questions and new knowledge that grow out of provocative conversation between different fields of inquiry. For this reason, we hope that every school and college of Seattle University will bring its intellectual resources to the table of inquiry set by the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability."

A First for SU

The center is the first "Center of Excellence" to be launched at SU. These centers were conceived as part of the Academic Strategic Action Plan

Planning for the center was underway for nearly two years and involved the collaboration of many faculty across the university. Joining Thompson and Moe-Lobeda in the effort were Gordon Miller (Environmental Studies/Arts and Sciences), Carl Obermiller (Marketing/Albers) and Jennifer Sorensen (General Science and Environmental Science/Science and Engineering). After a review of nine other proposals, a panel of faculty and staff led by Nalini Iyer identified the CEJS as having strong potential for engaging faculty, students and our external partners. 

The center is also an important step forward in greening SU's curriculum, a key priority for the President's Committee for Sustainability. Charged with carrying out the Presidents' Climate Commitment, which SU signed in 2007, the 25-member committee is leading the campus-wide effort to integrate sustainability into more of the university's curricular programs (while doing the same with co-curricular programs and significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions). 

Carl Obermiller, professor of marketing in Albers and co-chair of the President's Committee for Sustainability, sees the center as a natural progression for the university. 

"Seattle University was an early signer of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment agreement," says Obermiller. "Social justice has always been at the center of our mission…[and] many on this campus have been engaged in CEJS-relevant teaching, scholarship and work for years because these values and thinking are second nature [at SU]."

Reaching out

The center intends to actively engage with the community, globally and locally, through a combination of proven and new initiatives. One example Thompson cites of an existing project that will now fall under the center is the urban farm project in Renton through which students in the Environmental Studies program are employing sustainable, pesticide-free practices to grow thousands of pounds of produce annually for local food banks.

Another example is the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's partnership with the Bullitt Foundation, which is constructing the world's greenest office building just a couple blocks from campus at 15th and Madison. "We're going to have students monitoring the building's performance. All of the building's grey water (water from sinks and showers) will be treated by a wetland on the third floor balcony. The students will do the water-quality testing that the Department of Health is requiring."

(The Bullitt Center's building may be more than a focal point of the partnership between the university and the foundation. At this writing, Thompson reports that "The university is currently seeking to house the CEJS in the Bullitt Center." Stay tuned for more information.)

The possibilities are limitless for the center to develop new partnerships, whether across the globe or right here in our community, says Thompson. "Another thing I'm hoping the center will be able to do is strengthen Seattle U's outreach to K-12 students-working with students in summer camps and even throughout the school year on projects that are meaningful to them and their communities."

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