My name is Taylor Tolton, and I was a graduate student at Widener University. I was in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, and this is my story about studying sustainability while at Widener. It all started with a study abroad experience in Mexico. I applied for a spot in the Women and Development in Latin America course and got to travel for credits my very first year here. Little did I know, this experience would spark something so significant that I would never again ignore the importance of sustainability.
After the trip to Mexico, I enrolled in the Sustainability course offered in my program. It was during this class that I learned the bulk of what I know about our environment, the interconnectivity of everything that takes place in this world, and the significance of my, and everyone else’s, impact on the planet. Additional courses from my program that touched on the topic of sustainability are Self & Society and Dominance, Resistance, & Construction of the Self. The sources I was assigned remain relevant in this confusing and controversial time, and I still rely on many of my research findings to guide my current, daily choices.
My program, as well as many others at Widener, offers opportunities to get involved with sustainability initiatives on campus. I had the opportunity to promote sustainable thinking to fellow students during university-sponsored events, co-facilitate a workshop that featured a section on sustainability, and now I am contributing to the sustainability webpage with this story, which I hope will inspire readers to start writing their own! Fortunately, my experience studying sustainability did not end here, and I do not plan on stopping any time soon.
For the culminating capstone project required in my program, I was drawn toward focusing on sustainability education in urban communities such as Chester, PA. I have been made aware of the desperate need for a shift in worldview, which starts with becoming educated about the environment, interconnectivity, and impact (just like I had learned). Education happens in all areas of life, and creative place-making, an arts-based approach to community development, makes it possible to not only learn about environmental issues, but also investigate and invent solutions to these types of problems faced in one’s community, country, and world. This project, like my story, is an ongoing process that includes learning about current sustainability projects and applying them to my research, teachings, and my own way of life.
Sustainability Around the Globe
In January 2015, I studied abroad in Puebla, Mexico. The trip was ten days, and was focused on learning about women and development in Latin America. I attended the trip with six Widener students, one student from another university, and four Widener faculty members who helped to make this trip one to remember. The first stop on our trip took us to the eco-tourism lodge Kakiwin Tutunaku, located in the remote, mountainous village of Huehuetla, situated to the north of the city of Puebla, in Puebla, Mexico. The empowered Totonac women of Huehuetla taught us about their journey towards economic and social freedom as well as the numerous environmental techniques they use to maintain the grounds of their eco-tourism lodge.
They shared stories about why sustaining the environment is important to them and how sustainability is incorporated into the actions they take to preserve their indigenous culture. We were shown examples of the sustainable grounds-keeping techniques they employed, including composting, rainwater collection, conscious consumption of local vegetation, and a natural waste-filtration system that recycles water. Additional methods of sustaining the environment are found in their cultural practices such as their traditional cooking techniques, natural healing methods, and preservation of the Totonac language, which acts as the forum for passing on the sustainable customs of their culture.
One of the two service projects that we took part in involved learning about the Lorena wood-saving stove. This is a stove–developed and designed by the indigenous women of Huehuetla–that burns less woods and reduces the amount of smoke that would pollute the homes in which it is built. Part of what participants paid for the trip went towards purchasing materials needed to build one of these stoves in the home of a local family. We were given the chance to hike to the location of this home, manually mix and prepare the materials needed for construction, and then observe and assist with building the Lorena wood-saving stove.
This was one of my favorite parts of the trip because we hiked through an indigenous coffee plantation. While hiking, we heard about the much more sustainable method of using shade to cultivate coffee-crops as opposed to processes that deplete the land’s nutrients, leaving it unusable for future farming. One of the farmers even pointed out two adjacent mountaintops, one of which was brown and bare, and the other, green and forested. The now tree-less mountaintop, he explained, had been bought out by a large coffee-growing company, and they grew coffee unsustainably until nothing more would grow. The forested mountaintop was still in the hands of the indigenous community, and, according to the farmer, they did not plan on selling or diminishing this sacred land of theirs any time soon.
Our second stop of the study abroad trip to Mexico was in Cuetzalan, also located to the north of the city of Puebla. Here we stayed at the Hotel Ecoturístico Taselotzin. This hotel is owned by Socias Masehual de las Comunidades de Cuetzalan, another women’s cooperative made up of empowered Nahua women who have overcome many obstacles in their community in order to establish this now 18-year-old lodge. This was a place where we got to relax and enjoy the tranquil and healing effects of nature. There were plenty of opportunities to walk through the hotel garden and observe the plethora of local flora, receive a traditional egg cleansing or a massage given by a curandera (local healer), or experience a temascal (indigenous sweat lodge). We even took a trip to a nearby cave and went on a guided tour through this mysterious and magically preserved underground haven. I will never forget the connection I felt between myself and the environment in this place.
Finally, our group spent some time in the city of Puebla, where we visited the headquarters of Xasasti Yolistli, a capacity building NGO that is associated with many of the women’s cooperatives based in the Puebla region of Mexico. There we learned about various micro-enterprises supported by this organization, including Mopampa. Mopampa is a collection of women’s cooperative that is producing and selling their own homemade, organic food products. Food products include wines, jams, and Chil-sec salsas.
As part of the second service project associated with this trip, I was asked to translate a video made by one of the women’s cooperatives, which promoted their Chil-sec salsas and highlighted the sustainable and egalitarian methods employed in the production process. With the help of Dr. Beatriz Urraca, director of the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies program and associate professor of Spanish, I translated the video from Spanish to English so that the story about this group of Nahua women who worked for economic empowerment could be shared as an inspiration for spreading sustainability and social justice. Through this experience, I learned even more about the importance of sustainability in indigenous societies, and I now recognize how much we have to learn from studying other cultures.
Sustainability in the Classroom
The sustainability course offered in my program is taught by Dr. Loyd Bastin, associate professor and chair of the chemistry department. This is a course designed for non-science majors who have an interest in learning the “ins and outs” of sustainability. The class was discussion-based and usually consisted of students reading an assigned book section or article prior to class and then convening to sharing our ideas, questions, or concerns about the topics at hand. We covered everything from alternative energy, ecosystems (e.g. land, air, water), space pollution, synthetic chemicals, self-sustaining cities, fracking, politics, systems-thinking, big business corporations, personal action we can take, and much more.
One of our first assignments involved calculating our ecological footprint, otherwise known as our own environmental impact on Earth. It turns out that it would take more than 1.5 Earths to sustain my lifestyle if everyone on Earth were to consume goods, energy, and resources at the rate that I do. This was an eye-opening realization–because I had already started taking sustainable action, such as recycling and carpooling–and I was encouraged to research additional opportunities available for me to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
The most interesting lesson from the course involved learning about the chemistry that went into the different types of energy sources. We learned why natural gas, oil, and even coal are still used today even though their extraction methods and byproducts are so polluting. It is much more efficient and less expensive to produce these sources of energy, whereas renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, geo-thermal, hydro, and biomass methods, are costly and difficult to capture. While much of what we learned about was disheartening, we held on to hope by bringing up how far we have come in terms of creating more sustainable methods to produce energy.
Our course ended on a high note as each student presented a research paper that was required to be practical and applicable to our current environmental situations. I focused on researching sustainable action that would benefit urban communities such as those of northern Philadelphia. I had to research the challenges of creating a sustainable environment in such an unsustainable area, but this also led to understanding opportunities for community involvement as well as looking into greening-initiatives already taking place. I learned so much important information in this sustainability class, and I am grateful for the chance to gain confidence as an advocate for sustainability initiatives.
Self & Society and Dominance, Resistance, & Construction of the Self are MLS courses taught by Dr. Bretton Alvaré, associate professor of anthropology. The later course focuses on power struggles between various groups of people around the world. We read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman (2004) as a way to become informed of all the hidden practices and secret agendas between our own government and U.S. and international corporations. Environmental racism is a major consequence of many of these practices, and it was in the Self & Society class that we learned about specific instances of this in the city of Chester.
One paragraph from my reflection paper written after reading the beginning of Confessions of an Economic Hitman reads as follows:
In an interview, Perkins affirms that he does believe our government has the ability to turn this manipulative mess around and actually work to build up developing countries and help the poor etc. (Perkins 2004), but my question is, how? These first 86 pages have opened my eyes to the extremely close ties between the U.S. government and the destructive companies sucking the life out of countries most in need of help. So how does one go about changing the minds of the power-hungry corporatocrats?
For the first time, I was informed of the unfair exploitation of laborers by companies competing to find the most desperate populations. This, which is only made worse by the lack of regulations requiring accountability on their part, is unfortunately very common. Connections between companies, organizations, and individuals are purposefully made difficult to follow so that no one ever gets to the bottom of the chain of production to punish those doing the most wrong. This easily applies to companies displacing groups of people and seriously polluting the land.
Self & Society ended with a message about experiences of environmental racism in Chester. We read about Zulene Mayfield and the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL)―a grassroots organization formed in 1992―who fought for protection against environmental injustices such as excessive waste plants and soil burners built right in residents’ backyards. It became obvious that waste management companies are happy to profit from our environmental illiteracy, which demonstrates the need for sustainability education more than ever.
A few lessons I learned from these classes are to research the brands that you buy from to ensure they use sustainable, fair-trade practices, to be more conscious of consumerism habits, and to take action by joining movements fighting against environmental racism. Learning about these few examples was all the motivation I needed to keep striving for a sustainable lifestyle, and I will continue to look for opportunities to get involved in groups and organizations that I know focus on sustainability and justice.
Sustainability on Campus
As part of the practicum portion of my Creative Place-making course, led by Dean Sharon Meagher of the College of Arts & Sciences, I was offered a chance to co-facilitate a Food and Creative Place-making Workshop, which was available to individuals from the Widener and Chester community. This workshop took place on campus and featured talking points from Judy Wicks, renowned advocate for local and sustainable food-business alternatives. Not only was I able to attend meetings set up to develop the topics of the workshop, I was given the task of designing interactive activities that would be performed by workshop participants. Some of the activities included a walking tour to the tower garden housed in Kirkbride Hall, a table talk about local community gardens, and open dialogue during a coffee break where WU Brew was served. Through this experience, I witnessed the beginnings of many sustainability-centered programs and projects that grew from the connections made at this Food and Creative Place-making workshop.
Probably one of the most pivotal moments of my time at Widener was meeting Jeannine McKnight, senior editor at Widener University. Jeannine was a fellow student in a majority of my classes, including sustainability and creative place-making. We shared a common interest in sustainability and both dedicated ourselves to spreading knowledge and opportunities to take sustainable action. One of my most significant opportunities came after I was employed as Jeannine’s student assistant for the 2016-2017 academic school year.
In October 2016, a flash sustainability event took place in the University Center. During this event, students were interviewed by an NBC10 news crew about their perspectives on the presidential election as it related to the environment and sustainability. This was (and still is) a relevant topic that I was happy to be involved with. My responsibilities included collecting information from students so that they could be entered into a t-shirt drawing. The only requirement was that they listened to my short spiel about being conscious of the environment and sustainability when casting their votes for the 45th president of the United States.
It was this small but powerful opportunity to truly advocate for our environment that made me feel like I can and will make a difference in this world. This was the first real-life situation in which I was able to share my knowledge about the need for sustainability, and it felt great! I had a few meaningful discussions about each political party’s stance on sustainability with fellow students and even Widener faculty and staff. Even though the tactical outcome of this event was a short news clip and a t-shirt hand-out, the part that I was proud to be involved in was raising awareness about our environment and the need to think and act more sustainably. I spoke with more than 50 people that day, which may not seem like a significant number, but every single person impacts this planet. If I somehow inspired just one person to make more sustainable decisions in their future, then I’d consider my efforts a success.
In my attempts to reach even more individuals with my message advocating for sustainability, I am writing this piece to demonstrate the many means available through Widener to act on a call for environmental activism. My program is meant to be interdisciplinary, making it perfect to study this topic, but sustainability can really fit into any major or subject area! There are many opportunities on campus, in the classroom, and in the community to get involved in sustainability initiatives. The work being done by students and professors ranges from hands-on, greening projects to researching best-practices. All efforts help us move towards solving the many environmental problems we face today.
Sustainability in the City of Chester
Living sustainably is more than a passion or hobby for me. It represents an undeniable need to be more conscious about my decisions and choose alternatives that are healthier for the Earth. Widener has provided abundant opportunities for me to learn what I can do personally to be more sustainable, and my capstone project has provided a forum for me to act even more proactively in spreading ideas about sustainability education.
My capstone will investigate ways to create connections to community projects and programs that address the lack of sustainability education, specifically in urban communities. The research will also consider environmental racism as a relevant factor. An example of a community project addressing the lack of sustainability education is the Boundaries & Bridges project–taking place in the city of Chester, PA. Boundaries & Bridges supports the success of various community gardens in Chester. The community gardens foster programs that get community members working with their environment and educate them about sustainability and how to combat the systems that generate environmental racism. Focusing on sustainability education (in and out of the classroom) has led to a healthier, more empowered community.
The all-encompassing aspect of creative place-making is what makes projects such as these so beneficial for communities like Chester. As an example, the Tiny Food Forest Wagon–a Boundaries & Bridges project in the process of being proposed and implemented in Chester–is a creative place-making project that focuses on sustainability education and incorporates knowledge of food systems, wellness, and African American history in its attempts to combat systems that perpetuate environmental racism. It is an excellent model for the type of sustainability education approaches that make hands-on activities a major part of the program. Creative place-making is one method of creating a sustainable movement in communities, like Chester, which are working to initiate positive change and educate their citizens about the environment.
Without the guidance and support of my civically engaged mentors at Widener, I would not know about all of the amazing sustainability initiatives already taking place in Chester. My capstone advisor, Dr. Patricia Dyer, Writing and Linguistics professor and Director of the Writing Center, has been especially helpful in connecting me to current sustainability programs in Chester. I am grateful to have been educated about these ongoing projects that I can learn from and become a part of. The goal of my capstone is to foster support for these endeavors so that more can be enacted in other communities in need of sustainability education. By spreading knowledge about the environment and plans for sustainable action, it is possible to remain optimistic about the future. It has been an honor to collaborate with community and university members to include sustainability in plans for community development.
Because of my experience at Widener, I can confidently say that I am equipped with the knowledge and know-how to lead my own sustainability initiatives in the future. I have had opportunities to work in all sorts of settings and forums, which I know will be an asset as I begin to apply for positions that integrate sustainability into development plans. I hope this blog has inspired readers to take that first step and register for a sustainability class, join the Sustainability Club on campus, or get involved in a sustainability project going on at Widener and in the city of Chester. Everyone makes an impact on the Earth, how will you make sure yours is a positive one?