A sustainability “showcase”: Sustainability offices come together at the annual UW System Sustainability Meeting

Fifteen years ago, Kate Nelson was hired as the first full-time chief sustainability officer at UW–Milwaukee. At the time, Nelson had few colleagues at other universities with whom to collaborate, plan, and talk through challenges.

“It’s changed a ton,” said Nelson, whose continues to serve as the director of sustainability. “I didn’t even know who to find on campuses, and when I attempted to [find colleagues] I expected to see maybe some more people like me. There weren’t. But you know there were obviously people interested.” 

Fast forward to the present, and much has changed. On November 10 and 11, more than 60 students, faculty, and staff working in sustainability convened at the annual UW System Sustainability Meeting, which was held at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.

During the two-day event, attendees got to learn about the host school, converse about sustainability on each campus across the UW System, and help each other become better pioneers in sustainable education and practices. The first day was planned for staff-related topics and discussions, while the second was catered toward students.

The UW System Sustainability Meeting rotates each year to a different campus. 

“It’s always been a two-day approach in the past,” said Wes Enterline, the sustainability director at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. “But each time somebody else hosts the conference they get to kind of put their own spin on it. And it’s also an opportunity for that campus to showcase what they’re doing in sustainability.” 

For 2022, 10 staff members from the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability traveled to attend the entire event, while 12 of the office’s interns joined for the second, student-oriented day. 

A dozen people posing in the corner of a room and smiling
Members of the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability pose for a photo at the UW System Sustainability Meeting, held in Green Bay from November 10-11, 2022.

On the first day, staff and faculty drafted potential strategic goals and associated action items in the categories of academics, operations, engagement, and innovation and leadership. The goals emphasized system-wide cohesion, such as creating a database for all sustainability data, developing a sustainability major across campuses, and hiring a system sustainability coordinator.

The second day focused on facilitating important conversations among students about self-care and organizing. Activities included understanding emotions that attendees felt towards sustainability and its future, grounding exercises, and understanding power dynamics on campus. 

Taken together, the two days of the 2022 meeting reflected a positive evolution in coordination among members of the UW System sustainability community. 

“In the earlier stages we were sort of coming together and sharing what we were doing, but we didn’t come out of the meeting with any sort of agency to go forward and to make sort of broad changes,” said Dave Barbier, the sustainability coordinator for UW–Stevens Point. “In 2018 we sort of had a shift in that … [and in] subsequent years thereafter, we had working groups established. That has led … to a really intentional monthly call of our group. We continue to stay connected [and] not just have this one-off event every year.”

Touring UW–Green Bay and building connections

On the second day of the meeting, as ideas were flowing about the goals for the future of sustainability in Wisconsin and the UW System, a few questions arose: how do we take steps to achieve these goals? How do we organize people? How do we make lasting change? 

These questions were addressed during the second professional development section of the day, which was all about how to organize, and why. 

Jon Shelton, a UW–Green Bay professor in Democracy and Justice Studies, and Guillermo Gomez, a recent graduate from this program and Northeast Organizer for Wisconsin Conservation Voters, led the session, in which attendees brainstormed techniques they could use to achieve their own campus-specific goals.

Steps included understanding who or what groups have decision-making power, setting clear and attainable goals with deadlines, and using existing relationships to organize around each issue. Attendees shared a multitude of goals for their respective campuses such as creating more full-time sustainability positions and combating food insecurity among students, and they outlined the steps they would need to achieve the goals. 

Attendees were also able to take a step back to practice some self care techniques during the first session of the day. Not only did this session give participants an opportunity to undergo some self-reflection and relaxation, but it also fostered a greater sense of community.

Daniela Beall, the sustainability coordinator at UW–Green Bay and host of the event, shared how important it was to structure the event so that it is presented as “an opportunity to connect.” 

“It really came down to wanting to … generate ideas and I suggested that it might be good for us to set some goals,” she said. “But I really wanted to bring us together around some shared intentions and shared goals so that we could build movement towards those things because there is a lot of opportunity and a lot of power in the group.”

To close out the day, Beall led a campus sustainability walking tour of UW–Green Bay. The tour started with the First Nations Fusion Center on campus, which is there to strengthen and maintain the relationship with the indigenous communities around UW–Green Bay. 

Staff at the Center for First Nations Education shared with the tour attendees various efforts and projects both on campus and in the community. One of the more recent achievements included the graduation of the first four Ed.D graduates in the First Nations Education Doctoral program, the only such doctorate program offered in the field. At the Center, attendees also learned about the Oneida Bird Monitoring Project, a partnership between the Oneida Nation and Erin Giese, who is Senior Research Specialist for UWGB’s Cofrin Center for Biodiversity, President of Northeast Wisconsin Audubon Society, and National Audubon’s Upper Mississippi/Great Lakes Regional Director. The project is part of a larger effort to restore wetlands and native plant communities: since its inception, more than 3,000 acres of Oneida land have been restored and returned back to their native plants.

A loose circle of people in a large bright room with sports equipment on display
Attendees at the UW System Sustainability meeting tour the outdoor adventure center at UW–Green Bay.

The tour also included a green roof used to grow vegetables and produce that the campus hopes to use as a pollinator garden in the future; a campus cupboard which offers school supplies, clothes, perishable and non-perishable food items, toiletries, and household products for students in need; the outdoor adventure center that offers rental equipment, lessons on various outdoor activities, and teaches students and community members to recreate safely while respecting outdoor spaces; and the Earth Flow composting system, which was installed in October of 2020 and is used for composting food waste from the dining halls. 

Beall shared that the UW System Sustainability meeting was an especially exciting event because the sustainability staff at UW–Green Bay only includes her and one other person. This makes an opportunity to converse and come together with others working in sustainability across the state incredibly valuable.

“I’m excited to be working with this expansive team of folks,” Beall said. “Working on one campus as an office of one and two, it can be very isolating and hard, and so having that sharing of knowledge and experience is really powerful and really helpful for creating that community.”

By: Nina Delgadillo and Narayani Varanasi