Swarthmore College Students and Staff Work Toward a Hopeful, Sustainable Future
“What is it that you want? And why are you here having this conversation with us?”
That blunt inquiry, amidst a discussion with Swarthmore campus community members of the College’s Zero Waste efforts, has helped me clarify my priorities. I’m not sure my answer was so concise, but it went something like: “I’m here because of my children, so they can have clean air to breathe, clear water to drink, healthy food to eat, and a promising future. I want to make our environment less toxic for rich and poor alike. I’m appalled at how my actions contribute to pollution, and I want to be part of solutions. I want to do things differently and better.”
I don’t have all the answers, but I try to live by what my mentor, author Frances Moore Lappé, taught me nearly twenty years ago — that “hope is what we become in action” and that while data and statistics matter, what’s most critical is that we take action to create a better future. I’m inspired by the incredible work being done by faculty, students, staff, and alumni of Swarthmore College.
The Zero Waste initiative is one example of how we try to “walk our talk.” We aim to divert at least 90% of College trash from the incinerator in Chester by first reducing, then composting or recycling. The effort involves changes in how we move waste, inform our community, and what we consume. Student “Green Advisors” hand sort our compost, which we send to Kitchen Harvest at Linvilla Orchards. Students also created “Worthmore,” a free store that collects reusable goods and shares them with the College community.
Town and Gown Collaborations
Through local merchants and the Borough’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), many areas of partnership have emerged for the campus and community to partner. When I moved to Swarthmore in January 2016, Sue Kelly was chair of the EAC. She remains a tireless worker and a steady presence at College sustainability events, and community liaison to our Sustainability Committee. She recently reflected on the rewarding ways she’s working with students.
“The President’s Sustainability Research Fellows (PSRF) program was the start of my interest in sustainability initiatives at the College. The students take on incredible challenges and are so willing to share their newly acquired knowledge and skills obtained as a Fellow with the community. We are now working with students on projects such as how to maintain Little Crum Creek Park, strategizing waste reduction in local businesses, and involving students in town and regional environmental groups and initiatives.”
The PSRF program is a collaboration between the office of President Valerie Smith, the Environmental Studies Program, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and my Sustainability office. The program matches motivated students with staff and faculty mentors to research, develop, and implement projects in a year-long course and associated internship. Students hone their skills in collaboration, gain valuable leadership experience, and make meaningful contributions to advancing sustainability.
Since the program’s founding in 2016, our Fellows are doing all we could have asked and more: redesigning our waste system, developing a Crum Woods Restoration and Stewardship Plan, launching greenhouse gas reduction projects, and partnering with community members to envision a resilient, vibrant downtown Swarthmore. As students learn, lead, and innovate, they apply their knowledge to pressing needs and produce replicable solutions for our campus and beyond.
Carbon Charge Initiative
The College is committed to to keeping fossil fuels in the ground and sharing what we learn with others. Facilities Management has long been a leader in energy efficiency and in helping people make good decisions on a daily basis. The College is currently designing new energy systems to increase the use of renewable energy and reduce energy consumption — all as we build toward our commitment of being carbon neutral by 2035.
Swarthmore is a leader in higher education for its internal carbon charge, which levies a fee on campus departments for their greenhouse gas emissions and uses the funds for efficiency and renewable energy projects. President Smith was the second college president in the nation to publicly endorse carbon pricing, and has called on her colleagues across the country to do the same; 47 of them have joined in this effort so far. We helped launch an Internal Carbon Pricing in Higher Education Toolkit, along with Yale University, Smith College, and several non-profit organizations, in order to share our models with other schools and help advance carbon pricing legislation.
These are some of the ways in which Swarthmore College is working towards a more sustainable world. While we know that we cannot change the course of history alone, we are proud to be part of the greater Swarthmore community that is committed to positive change locally and beyond.
Aurora Winslade is Director of Swarthmore College’s Office of Sustainability.