On November 8, a group of four Harvard Resource Efficiency Program REPs joined 141 other college students involved in sustainability from 16 colleges and universities as far away as New Jersey and Vermont to learn and discuss their programs and initiatives. The Student Sustainability Leadership Symposium (formerly the Eco-REP symposium) is designed by sustainability staff from schools across the Northeast to bring students together to share ideas, resources, and best practices. This year’s program, held at Connecticut College in New London, CT offered students nine different workshops, as reflected on by Freshman REP, Maggie Powell.

Sitting around a large, circular table chatting with other student leaders from universities throughout New England at the Student Sustainability Leaders Symposium, I was struck by the differences between our School’s sustainability programs and the unique problems we encounter within those systems. From fostering a sense of common purpose within a large, urban campus to increasing involvement at a small liberal arts school, the day-to-day challenges of my peers and I appeared to vary widely.

However, by the time I stepped onto the bus to make the trip back to Cambridge I was buzzing with excitement. I felt a strong sense of connection with the other students as we brainstormed new projects and swapped ideas about events and awareness campaigns. What changed over the course of the day? While the structures and idiosyncrasies of our respective schools remained the same, I realized that we all shared a drive to improve our communities and a passion for engaging with and educating our peers.

While the structures and idiosyncrasies of our respective schools remained the same, I realized that we all shared a drive to improve our communities and a passion for engaging with and educating our peers.

At the workshop led by students from Brown University, there was healthy and pertinent dialogue about the need for diversity in the sustainability movement. We participated in a privilege walk, in which everyone started at the same point and took steps forward or backward based on their answers to statements relating to privilege based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation.

We then discussed how the movement is stronger when all voices are included and when sustainability includes social justice, as well as environmental concerns. Finally, in small groups we addressed different ways to make sustainability at our schools more inclusive, from partnering with different student groups on campus when planning our events to improving the course titles and descriptions of environmental related classes so that they accurately represent the course work and do not exclude certain groups of people.

...the movement is stronger when all voices are included and when sustainability includes social justice, as well as environmental concerns.

Additionally, Murvi Babalola from Tufts University led a workshop on community-based social marketing. The Eco-Rep program at Tufts employs many of the ideas from environmental physiologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. Murvi spoke about different types of people, ranging from enthusiastic “pioneers” to apathetic “followers,” and how different methods are needed to motivate these people to change their behaviors.

One big idea that I took away from the workshop was that people who are not environmentally conscious but practice green habits are more likely to develop sustainable values. As student leaders, it is our job not just to educate our peers on why they should care about the environment, but also to make sustainability as convenient, economical, and socially normalized on campus as possible.

As student leaders, it is our job not just to educate our peers on why they should care about the environment, but also to make sustainability as convenient, economical, and socially normalized on campus as possible.

A recurring theme throughout the day was thinking about our own personal definitions of sustainability. It was fascinating to hear different takes on the concept. The various definitions, I believe, reflected our different backgrounds and challenges. However, they also all contained a common thread: we seek to build a society that respects human rights and uses natural resources responsibly, in order to ensure the viability of our global community and planet.