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Clubs and initiatives have stumbled, but sustainability still lives at UWRF

April 4, 2018

UW-River Falls has been working hard to put itself on the map in terms of sustainability for a number of years.

In 2013, the Environmental Corps of Sustainability club was created for the purpose of pressuring the UWRF chancellor and board of directors to divest – or pull money and assets – from the fossil fuel industry. Last fall a new sustainable justice minor was launched on campus that exposes students to sustainability on a trans-disciplinary level. In March, it was announced that UWRF had earned the gold rating in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

“Now, that doesn’t mean we’re done,” said Greta Gaard, a UWRF professor and coordinator of both the sustainability faculty fellows and the new sustainable justice minor. “We have lots more to do.”

ECOS in particular has hit a bit of a stumbling block this semester. Up until the end of last semester, the club was doing fine; they had a lot of members, hosted bonfires and were having weekly meetings. However, club president Natasha Horsfall suffered a concussion recently and has found herself unable to focus on keeping ECOS active.

“Reflecting on that,” Horsfall said, “I should have been training people to handle different responsibilities and keep ECOS connected so if I can’t do it or I graduate, ECOS will still have a presence.”

There are other factors playing into the situation. Horsfall pointed out that the subjects ECOS wants to bring to the public eye are difficult ones to talk about, and it takes a lot of work to get people to engage.

“That can take an emotional and time-consuming tole on our members when trying to work with campus,” Horsfall said. “Activism is a full-time job that you don’t get paid for and have to do after a long day of school (or) a long shift at work and with a group of people who all have different schedules.”

Connections between clubs, she added, are also not as robust as they could be. She said she’s noticed a high number of sustainability clubs on campus over the past couple years. However, not all of them are very active or easy to reach.

“This spreads the clubs very thin and makes it hard to collaborate,” she said. “Honestly, I wish the leaders of these clubs would get together and talk about collective goals for the university and each of our members.”

Gaard, who is also the adviser for ECOS, brought up a lot of the same points as Horsfall when asked why the club has fallen off the map. On top of these issues, she pointed out that communication between ECOS and faculty like herself has broken down lately. The sustainability faculty fellows, for example, regularly hold meetings where they discuss and make plans.

“The students are invited to come to those meetings,” Gaard said, “and they are not coming.”

However, it’s an understandable lapse of communication, Gaard said. Like Horsfall, she brought up the fact that activism is a time-consuming, full-time job. ECOS members are not paid for their work in the club, and so they have to find the time and will power to act on a volunteer basis.

“This is the first time that leadership has fizzled,” Gaard said, “and it happens.”

A handful of things could be done moving forward. One that both Gaard and Horsfall brought up was a more consolidated office of sustainability on campus. This used to exist at UWRF; it was called the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, and it did things like collecting information for the STARS report, planning sustainable facilities and giving faculty trainings on how to better incorporate sustainability into coursework. At the time, it was run by its creator, Kelly Cain, and two additional office staff.

In 2015, UWRF underwent a state-mandated budget cut of $1.7 million, and programs across the board had to be cut. The three positions working with the SCISCD were split up and reduced to a half-time sustainability position that was coupled with facilities (Mark Klapatch) and a quarter-time position centered around planning curriculum (Gaard). The SCISCD, meanwhile, moved off-campus and became an independent organization simply called the St. Croix Institute.

Many initiatives – like the STARS rating system – have held on through the work that Klapatch, Gaard and others have put in. According to the AASHE website, only 31.2 percent out of around 300 rated institutions that submit STARS reports get the gold rating that UWRF earned. The only higher rating is platinum.

Unfortunately, other things like monetary incentives for faculty to participate in the sustainability training program went away with the SCISCD. The effect, Gaard said, has been to create a “closed system” around the idea of sustainability. Fewer people get involved because they don’t realize how all-encompassing the concept is.

UWRF also lost momentum with its Climate Action Plan from 2012, which had aimed primarily to eliminate or offset greenhouse gas emissions from UWRF as much as possible. The end goal was to be at net zero by 2018.

“Unfortunately, while they were formally adopted and signed by the Chancellor, not much action has been taken due to the budget cuts,” said Mark Klapatch, UWRF Sustainability and Custodial Supervisor. “We have actually gone backwards from what the plan laid out for campus. We have reduced our spending on renewable energy specifically in the form of UWRF purchasing renewable energy credits.”

The effect, he went on, was to reduce UWRF from a “leader” in sustainability efforts among colleges and universities to more “middle of the pack.”

Bringing back a more consolidated, centralized office of sustainability, Horsfall said, could be a great help to sustainability efforts on campus. A full-time sustainability director and an actual office in the Involvement Center could help clubs come together to collaborate. Gaard said she agrees – such a thing could also help promote visibility for sustainability initiatives.

In the meantime, Horsfall and Gaard have some plans for ECOS and overall sustainability efforts on campus. ECOS has been working with Student Senate in the hopes of getting the Green Fund put in place, and the club has set up a petition on its website calling for UWRF to divest from fossil fuels. The newly-formed sustainability justice minor is also a chance to promote the multi-dimensional nature of the issue.

Next semester, ECOS is also hoping to work with Gaard on an “eco bus tour.” The idea, Gaard said, would be to load a bunch of people onto a bus and drive around River Falls to look at all of the sustainability efforts going on around town, such as the solar garden and Eco-Village.

The audience they hope to get on the bus would be faculty and freshmen students interested in sustainability. These interested parties would be accompanied by faculty and students from UWRF who are already involved in sustainability. By mixing everyone together, Gaard said she hopes this will serve to connect people to programs that they might be interested in.

“This would be a really positive opportunity to get students aware and involved from the beginning,” Horsfall said.

Moving forward, Horsfall said that she would like to see more support from the university on working towards divestment, full time staffing of the sustainability coordinator and food waste composting. She also said that there are a lot of people who are passionately concerned about sustainability who need to be working closer together to make the system more efficient.

“This will happen through unification of clubs, intersectional collaboration and letting people know that their presence and individual passions at River Falls matter,” Horsfall said.

ECOS will be hosting a regathering bonfire near the end of the semester. All are welcome to attend, Horsfall said. ECOS can be found through their Facebook page @fossilfreefalcons, their website at http://act.gofossilfree.org/act/university-of-wisconsin-river-falls or their portal on Org Sync.

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