Leah Johnson didn’t have cable TV until her freshman year of high school. Even after the box arrived, her parents enforced a one-hour-per-day rule for screentime. As she puts it, “They weren’t huge fans of technology.” So Leah spent much of her free time seeking out fun in other ways, which inevitably led her outdoors and into the natural landscape around the Twin Cities suburb where she grew up.
“Our version of forced family fun was to go hiking or to tromp up and down a muddy river,” Leah recalls. Forced or not, apparently her parents’ approach worked: as a 7th grader, Leah decided that she wanted to make the natural world part of her career, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Currently a junior majoring in Biochemistry and Environmental Studies (and considering a possible triple-major in Botany), Leah found her path into environmental work on campus almost immediately. She had already decided that it “wasn’t enough to just care about the environment; I wanted to do something.” So she toured the Student Organization Fair, where she discovered the ASM Sustainability Committee booth. Soon thereafter, she showed up at a meeting, and before she knew it, she had been named Outreach Coordinator.
The Sustainability Committee is a sub-group of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) that focuses on identifying and addressing ways for UW-Madison to advance its environmental sustainability practices. Among other initiatives, the committee is developing plans to work with Housing and Dining to give sustainability presentations in the residence halls.
Since becoming Outreach Coordinator, Johnson has moved quickly up the ranks. A couple of semesters later, she was named Vice Chair of the Sustainability Committee, where she worked closely with former chair, Billy Welsh. Leah was tasked with new management and decision-making responsibilities—and learned about the tricky yet satisfying transition from “being the person told what to do and telling people what to do.” She also saw increasingly good retention: overfilled tables and returning faces indicated a strong and consistent interest on campus in sustainability.
Today, as the newest Chair of the Sustainability Committee, Leah has several goals, but they all fall under one broad priority: to infuse sustainability into the normal, everyday fabric of campus, so that it feels “easy” to live a greener life. The challenge she finds is not resistance to sustainable practices on campus; after all, many green changes can be almost invisible. “No one cares about the tiny delay in automated lights in bathrooms and common areas,” Leah points out. “No one says, ‘this split second of darkness is terrible.’ And the energy saving benefits are enormous.” But there are other strategies by which sustainability on campus could be a made a given rather than an option.
For instance, Johnson is keen on pushing forward an ambitious plan to add a three-credit environmental course requirement for all new students. The designation would be broadly understood—a student might opt for a course on media and environment, for example, or environmental ethics in business, or poetry about the natural world. “Whatever it may be,” Leah insists, “we want all students to have that experience of environmental education and start the conversation about sustainability now, as undergraduates.”
Implementing such a fundamental change to the undergraduate curriculum is an uphill climb, and not everyone Johnson has spoken to is enamored of the course requirement plan. While both peers and professors have expressed support for the concept, they often have suggestions for different ways it should be done. “One good idea has been to do a pilot project, say with L&S Students,” Leah related. “I think that would be great, and might help us gather some useful data. But I want to make sure that it’s a stepping stone to the next point, not the end point itself.”
Ultimately, Johnson is determined to help make the UW a standard-bearer for sustainability, and she’s optimistic about the University administration’s recent statements in that regard.
“I’m excited that the Chancellor is already interested in sustainable education on campus. At the same time, we’ve fallen behind in terms of our sustainability efforts among other Big 10 schools.” A environmental education requirement, she suggests, would not only reduce that difference; “it would make us look really good.”
For specific questions about the committee or information about getting involved, contact Leah Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Nathan Jandl