OCTOBER 11, 2004

Sustainable Students seeks continued success: A new student organization seeks to change the way environmentalism is practiced
By Mark Egerman, The Tartan, October 11, 2004

Ann Wootton thinks that "students have a great deal of power." She wants to do something about it. So do Isabella Cederquist and Diane Loviglio. Together, they are the three co-leaders of Sustainable Students, one of the newest student organizations on campus. Organizations come and organizations go, but few have had the immediate success of Sustainable Students.

Sustainable Students is an environmental-project-based organization. According to Wootton, Sustainable Students is "a group of students who want to take on big projects and get them done." One of the reasons that the organization has caught the attention of so many people is that it came into being when there was already another vibrant environmental group on campus, EARTH.

Interestingly enough, Sustainable Students' origins date back to an EARTH meeting from three years ago. A small group of students met to discuss the construction of a green roof for Hamerschlag Hall. Green roofs are living systems that use soil and vegetation to reduce energy costs and improve water management.

These discussions led a group of students to pursue a SURG grant. Among these students was Loviglio, then a freshman in BHA. She began to recruit her fellow first-year BHA students to join the project, including Wootton. For the remainder of the year, this working group of students began to research the logistics of installing a green roof.

Throughout the following year, a small group of students continued to meet. Friends of theirs would join the project, but it still didn't have a name or a formal structure. Without this organizational structure in place, the group pursued issues that interested the members. Individuals focused on studying the types of birds that would frequent a green roof, or the types of sculptures that could be places in the gardens. As Wootton put it, "We got lost on the way."

While these students may not have been focused, they were beginning to receive some support from various members of the community. According to Wootton, "A few people in FMS [Facilities Management Services] were behind us and very supportive. Others didn't buy it." The group applied for, and received, an additional SURG grant to continue their study. Furthermore, they won an award at Meeting of the Minds for their interdisciplinary work.

After two years, the group had worked a great deal without making any major progress getting the green roof. Through two SURG grants and an award, the group was being recognized for what they were trying to do. At the same time, there had been no progress in the actual process of creating the roof.

It was at this point that the students decided that the only way to actually make the green roof a reality was to become a formal organization. Sustainable Students was born and the green roof project solidified. Since then, the organization has received over $100,000 in grants to build the green roof. According to Loviglio, "It's been very successful; it's happening in the spring [of 2005]."

At the same time that the green roof was becoming a reality, the founders recognized that this organization could be used to foster other long-term projects that focused on similar goals. One of the first projects the group undertook parallel to the green roof was a series of public service announcements.

Cederquist joined Sustainable Students at the beginning of her first year, when it had just become a formal organization. The group was pleased with the progress it was making on the green roof, but as Cederquist put it, "We wanted some way we could reach students so they could go home and get involved." The green roof project was a way for a small group of dedicated students to get involved, but Sustainable Students wanted to reach a larger audience.

The group filmed a two-and-a-half-minute short, focusing on recycling, that will be screened before AB films this semester. Cederquist hopes that the film will provide a humorous approach to informing students about the variety of options they have available to them and the best ways they can recycle their products.

Both Wootton and Loviglio studied abroad last semester, leaving Cederquist and her roommate, third-year history major Anusha Balasubramanian, in charge of Sustainable Students. (Balasubramanian is currently studying abroad.) Despite a change in leadership only one semester after its foundation, Sustainable Students managed to grow throughout the year, with an increasing number of students attending the organization's meetings. With Wootton and Loviglio returning this semester, the group looked to continue to grow.

At the start of this semester, the group had already accomplished a great deal. They produced a high-quality short film on a small budget, had pursued a three-year plan to create a green roof on campus, had created two gardens on campus, and had received the funding and support necessary to make it a reality. The group had grown to include over 25 dedicated members who regularly work on projects, and 50 more who contribute to varying degrees throughout the semester.

Sustainable Students decided to continue this success by focusing on three separate projects. Each group would have a project leader and all would meet independently from the others. Sustainable Students has transformed from a small group of students working together towards a common goal into a streamlined organization that operates much more like a business than like a traditional environmental group.

Loviglio is heading up the first of these projects, which focuses on composting. Composting is a process in which individuals take food waste, such as banana peels and uncooked food leftovers, and place them into a large bin. After time, the food is transformed into a type of dirt, known as humus, which is ideal for many gardening uses.

Loviglio wants this process to be practiced campus-wide: "Our goal is to get composting in all residence dorms." Her project group has planned meetings with Housefellows, Residential Advisors, and Community Advisors to discuss the plan. In addition to purchasing and placing these bins around dorms, the group hopes to work with students in these dorms to explain why composting is a better alternative than throwing away food and what types of organic waste makes the best compost (hint: don't use animal products).

The second project is headed by Cederquist. Her group is focusing on providing more local and organic foods to students on campus. For the upcoming International Festival, Sustainable Students has arranged for lunch foods to be brought by local farmers who grow organic produce. Dining Service's chefs will cook a meal for students using these ingredients. According to Cederquist, this "local foods lunch is a part of a larger goal of bringing local and organic foods into the campus dining system."

The third project, headed by Wootton, focuses on an off-campus issue. Wootton is trying to organize students to oppose a planned development for the Hays Hillside, a 365-acre plot on the Monongahela, across from Hazelwood. According to Wootton, a developer has purchased the land and plans to mine it for coal, level the remains, and build a "racecino," a combination racetrack and casino. Wootton sees these plans as unacceptable for a number of reasons. She feels that "we will be affected by having an urban coal mine, that pollution will hit us." Furthermore, there is a fear that the developer, Charles Betters, has a bad track record. As Wootton puts it, "He did something similar in Altoona, proposed a very similar plan, and then walked away and screwed the city." Sustainable Students is trying to get members of the Carnegie Mellon community to lobby City Hall to oppose this project by denying it the environmental permits it needs to continue.

Sustainable Students has been transformed from a small group of friends to a streamlined organization that is capable of accomplishing many different tasks at the same time. Yet its rise has come in the context of a complicated relationship to the campus' other environmental group, EARTH. When asked, all three co-leaders had something similar to say about EARTH. Wootton puts it this way: "Our understanding of EARTH is that it is much more focused on the education of environmental values, whereas we are focused on action, we are focused on projects."

Is it possible that a new group could spring up without any competition? According to the president of EARTH, Ryan England, yes. "We don't have one focus, we are generally environmentally focused. We do a little bit of activism, but not too much. Sustainable Students has given more energy to the activities we do."

EARTH is an old organization, so old that nobody actually remembers when it was founded. England and others feel that the rise of Sustainable Students is a positive development in a struggle they share.

Interestingly enough, none of the three leaders of Sustainable Students or the president of EARTH have been to each other's meetings all year. There is some discussion on working together, but currently, the two groups have only held events with a social focus. While it may be possible to have an environmental group focused on activism and another focused on education, there is bound to be some overlap and some contested areas. Both groups remain dedicated to working together in the near future, they have planned a series of environmental organic dinners together, the next one being this Wednesday at 7 pm in New House. The dinners are free of cost and open to everyone. Yet whether or not there can be a lasting balance between the groups will be left up to the future leaders of both organizations.