Reflections on the Life of Kirby Edmonds

Many members of the Ithaca community have worked hard to bring the environmental and social justice movements together in common cause. They understand the crucial need, as I wrote recently, “to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice.”

No one grasped this necessity and worked harder and more effectively to accomplish this difficult task than Kirby Edmonds, who passed away on August 22 from complications of a heart attack he suffered in July. None of us who worked with Kirby — and there were a lot — doubted that he would recover and rejoin us at the table (in the form of Zoom most recently) to help us carry on. His sudden death came as a tremendous shock and left a huge hole in the soul of our community.

Among his many leadership roles, Kirby was Managing Partner of TFC Associates (Training for Change), Senior Fellow and Program Coordinator of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and Coordinator  of the Cradle to Career collective impact initiative. Most recently, he had helped to organize the Tompkins County COVID-19 Food Task Force, established to ensure that those in need have access to food and that food producers stay in operation during the pandemic.

Kirby spearheaded the effort in 2011 to launch the Building Bridges Initiative, whose goal is to create a “socially just and ecologically sound local economy” in the Tompkins County area. The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) joined with many other organizations and coalitions to be part of this effort, and Kirby met most recently in June with the TCCPI members, along with longtime community activist Anne Rhodes, to discuss the current status of the Ithaca Green New Deal, in which he also played a key role.

Kirby knew in his bones that the old notion of top-down, command-and-control leadership was no longer effective or desirable in a world facing complex, interrelated, and seemingly intractable problems. In his profoundly calm and wise fashion he modeled a new way of exercising leadership, one in which a leader created the space to build a network of relationships, inviting people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions.

“If we really want to solve these problems, then we’ve got to find new structures to work on them,” Kirby said in a 2017 interview. As Irene Weiser, coordinator of Fossil Free Tompkins, observed upon news of his death, Kirby “brought us Building Bridges. In so many ways, Kirby was that bridge.” Connect and collaborate were his watchwords.

Dismantling structural racism and poverty, establishing food security, affordable housing, and good paying jobs, and ensuring that our environment and climate could support the generations that come after us: these were the driving forces in Kirby’s all-too-short life. Equity, justice, inclusion, stewardship, and wisdom: these are the values that animated his actions.

Kirby was our very own John Lewis, who once declared, “We do not live on this planet alone. It is not ours to hoard, waste, or abuse. It is our responsibility to leave this world a little more clean and a little more peaceful for all who must inhabit it for generations to come.” As did Lewis, Kirby left us a vision and blueprint for building a better, more just world; now we must bring about the fulfillment of that vision and blueprint, keeping Kirby close to our hearts and never forgetting what he stood for as we do so.

Covid-19, Species Collapse, and the Climate Emergency

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic comes word that the collapse of thousands of wildlife species sparked by the climate crisis could take place as early as the next decade if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. Just as unsettling: this collapse wouldn’t happen in a long, slow slide, but rather would be far more abrupt than previously thought.

As Alex Pigot, a scientist at University College London and co-author, told a New York Times reporter, “For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they’re not. Then, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already fallen over this cliff edge.”

Recent coral bleaching events suggest that ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans may already be underway. Photo by ARC Centre of Excellence licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

The study, published in Nature earlier this month, examined more than 30,000 species on land and in water to determine when climate change would dramatically reduce population levels and what the pace of those changes would be. The scientists identified the hottest temperature that a species is known to have survived and then projected when that temperature would be reached under different emissions scenarios.

The bad news? Abrupt collapse of tropical ocean ecosystems could begin “before 2030” and “spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050” at the current rate of emissions. On the other hand, if global warming stays below 2 degrees C, the number of species endangered would decline by 60 percent and the number of ecosystems exposed to catastrophic collapse would be limited to less than 2 percent.

The benefits of what one of the researchers called “early and rapid action” on limiting greenhouse gas emissions could hardly be clearer. The extinction of vast swaths of species upon which human survival depends would be avoided, although many people and species would still be vulnerable.

If you see a parallel here to the coronavirus crisis, you’re not alone. Early and rapid action, where it has taken place, has saved thousands of lives. But in those parts of the world that waited too long, once the infections took hold and multiplied  exponentially, it was too late and disaster ensued

So what will it be? Do we take the necessary steps now and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that keep us alive or do we continue to avoid making the hard decisions and fall off the cliff edge? It’s a stark and unavoidable choice. The one positive thing that could come from the current pandemic, an event that has taken nearly 165,000 lives so far and inflicted widespread economic suffering, would be the wisdom sufficient to make the right choice about the future of our planet.

Campus-Community Collaboration in the Age of Climate Distruption

Few institutions are better positioned to provide the leadership required to avoid runaway climate change than higher education. Indeed, it is hard to see where else the necessary leadership will come from if universities and colleges don’t step up to take on this responsibility. Not just any kind of leadership will do the trick, however. It must be collaborative, adopting an ethos of cooperation and mutuality rather than top-down hierarchical structuring.


Cornell University

Universities and colleges in the United States historically have been crucibles of social change and laboratories for new ideas and creative solutions to some of society’s toughest problems. What is new is the scale of the problem and the threat it poses to human civilization. Simply providing models of sustainability on campus will not suffice. Universities and colleges can become truly sustainable only if they adopt the perspective of “ecosystem awareness” and work with the communities around them to become sustainable. They must commit to dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of campuses and become examples of ecological integrity, social justice and economic health. Beyond that, they must collaborate with the larger community and, in so doing, enable solutions to be scaled up and replicated.

As Michael Young, president of the University of Washington, argues, higher education must go beyond greening the campus. “For colleges and universities — especially public ones — engaging with our communities is fundamental to our mission,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to turn our universities inside out — that is, to take the wealth of ideas percolating on our campuses into our community, whether that community is across the street or across the globe.”

TCCPI seeks to lead the way

New York’s Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), at which I am a coordinator, was inspired in particular by similar efforts in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Oberlin, Ohio. It seeks to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic, social and environmental health. With a population of about 100,000, Tompkins County includes three American College and University President Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) signatories (which also happen to be among the top employers in the county): Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College. In addition, the city of Ithaca, the towns of Ithaca, Caroline and Danby and the county all have made formal commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the county calling for a decrease in emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and establishing an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

TCCPI has leveraged these climate action commitments to help mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort, expand the production of renewable energy and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The coalition, launched in June 2008, currently consists of local leaders from more than 40 organizations, institutions and businesses in the county, organized into five sectors: business, education, local government, nonprofit and youth. Each sector has a representative serving on the steering committee, which tracks the progress of the coalition’s projects and sets the agenda for the group’s monthly meetings.

The most immediate way in which TCCPI has adopted a collaborative model of leadership and sought to be a “leader-as-host” is to provide an ongoing forum where local leaders can come together regularly, share their progress and challenges and brainstorm collectively about ideas and solutions. In some cases, it’s hard to imagine how the outcomes resulting from these meetings would have emerged without years of building trust and thinking collaboratively. For example, the Tompkins County Planning Department and EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) never had worked together in the nearly two decades since EVI was founded. Yet, at a TCCPI meeting in June 2010, the group came up with the notion of the planning department and EVI’s joining hands to submit a proposal to the EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant Program, which seeks to highlight community efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The grant proposal, submitted the next month, outlined a strategy for disseminating to the larger community the important lessons learned at EVI about shrinking one’s carbon footprint and developing ways that the county could incorporate these key principles into its planning for future development. EPA awarded a $375,000 grant and work began in February 2011. Two model developments, one at EVI and another at a pocket neighborhood downtown, already are underway, and the county has proposed a third development near the regional medical center. All are designed to highlight innovative approaches to “creating dense neighborhoods that enhance residents’ quality of life while using fewer resources.”

Another project growing out of TCCPI discussions is the installation of photovoltaic arrays at numerous sites in the county, including several county government buildings, businesses and higher education institutions. In the area of energy efficiency, TCCPI has worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) to support the establishment of the Tompkins County Energy Corps, made up of students from Cornell and Ithaca College who carry out informational energy audits for homeowners, share information with them about state and federal incentives and encourage concrete steps to improve their residences’ energy performance. TCCPI also has worked closely with CCETC in rolling out a countywide campaign, “Get Your Greenback Tompkins,” to raise awareness about the importance of energy savings.

In these latter two instances, TCCPI shared its own financial resources to help launch the projects. In other cases, it has lent its social capital to help projects obtain the necessary financial capital. Two original members of the TCCPI steering committee serve on the founding board of Black Oak Wind Farm, an 11.9 megawatt project just outside Ithaca slated to be in production by the summer of 2015.

The first community wind project in the region, Black Oak has raised its seed capital of $1.82 million from about 110 local investors. The TCCPI network provided a crucial resource in reaching out to many of these people and persuading them to invest in the wind farm and purchase power from it.

What’s next

TCCPI’s latest initiative marks perhaps its most important effort yet to be a “leader-as-host.” The coalition is working with downtown Ithaca property owners to form a 2030 District, a public/private partnership in which property owners and managers come together with local government, business and community leaders to provide a model for urban sustainability through collaboration, leveraged financing and shared resources. Across the country, 2030 Districts are being established to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions targets called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning.

The bottom line? TCCPI embodies the next logical stage in the higher education sustainability movement. It not only promotes collaboration among the local higher education institutions, but also encourages engagement with the community at large in a democratic process. It seeks to draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention, and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address intractable problems. With its emphasis on campuses and communities partnering to address climate and energy issues, TCCPI — like the Oberlin and Grand Rapids models it was based on — provides a framework for multi-sector collaboration that holds out hope of a brighter future for all. It demonstrates that job creation, energy security, more resilient communities and responsible stewardship of the environment are not mutually exclusive.

There is no silver bullet, no magic wand, which can make the immense problems confronting us go away. A necessary if not sufficient condition, though, is that we move from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and acknowledge the truths of interdependence and mutuality. In an increasingly secular world, universities and colleges are among the few institutions that have the capacity to promote this broader, long-term understanding of where the human experiment must head.

Note: This piece was orginally published by and can be found here.

TCCPI Receives Cornell Sustainability Award

In honor of Sustainability Month, the Cornell University President’s Sustainable Campus Committee presented the second annual Partners in Sustainability Award to the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) on Friday, April 29, 2011.

The award recognizes TCCPI for its ongoing partnership in regional carbon reduction strategies. Cornell cited TCCPI as an effective partner in the regional effort to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. “By recognizing groups that partner with higher education institutions to advance sustainability, we build on the successes of research and teaching, and acknowledge that we must also bring together practitioners and leaders throughout the world in support new policies and practices,” Daniel Roth, Cornell University sustainability manager, said.

Cornell’s Partners in Sustainability Award is given each year to one or more recipients who have made significant contributions to the sustainable development of New York State and the Cornell campus through collaboration with Cornell University. The 2010 recipient was the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) for its leadership in statewide energy conservation and renewable energy initiatives.

Gary Stewart, director of community relations at Cornell University, wrote in an Ithaca Journal op-ed earlier this week about how collaboration among the varied members of the TCCPI coalition is at the heart of its organizational culture. As he observes, “TCCPI represents the spirit of new-era democracy, with bigger-business advocates sitting next to Snug Planet, with large-scale power generators conferring with EcoVillage, or with Tompkins County Solid Waste having the opportunity to compare notes with Museum of the Earth. TCCPI sessions are about partnerships and progress in Tompkins County.”

Partnerships are the key to building a more sustainable future. Only if we harness the power of the network will we effectively address such issues as climate destabilization and clean energy. Especially in the context of the current national and international stalemate on climate policy, it is clear that communities must take up a collaborative effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and adopt renewable energy technologies. TCCPI is honored to receive the 2011 Partners in Sustainability Award from Cornell University.

Creating New Spaces for Connecting in New Ways

As more than one study has determined, we have the means at our disposal to move into a clean energy world in which the power of the wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources is tapped and runaway climate change is averted.  The latest of these reports comes from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which earlier this month released an investigation surveying the already existing technologies that, in combination, could make this happen.  The critical missing components are the necessary policies that would drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

I get up every day and do the work that I do because I want to help create the public pressure and culture of collaboration that will make these changes occur.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because I believe each one of us has the responsibility to be a subject in history and not just an object of history.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because there is no silver bullet, no magic wand, that can make the immense problems confronting us go away.  The only thing that will work is to escape from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and embrace the truths of interdependence and mutuality.

Understanding these truths and harnessing the power of the network is at the heart of what makes Second Nature so effective.  The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) are both products of this approach to change. They are collaborative efforts to create the conditions for the emergence of a new paradigm, one that involves a shift from the mechanistic, atomistic solutions of the industrial age to the organic, interconnected web of the digital age.  They are part of the largest social movement in all human history, what Paul Hawken calls “the blessed unrest.”

The overturning of the old paradigm will only happen if we intentionally and strategically create what Gibrán Rivera refers to as “the spaces for connection.”  Collaboration, inclusivity, and mutual respect make it possible for us to move upstream, where the real solutions are.  As Rivera puts it, “By re-inventing the ways in which we come together we begin to live in the world we are trying to build.”  Second Nature, together with the generous support of the Park Foundation, have provided me with the invaluable space not only for connection but also experimentation, the opportunity to reinvent myself as a social entrepreneur and explore new models of partnership and change such as the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI).  And for that I will always be grateful.

Note: This post originally appeared in Second Nature’s blog here.

The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability

How can the digital revolution and the new social media it has spawned nurture the development of democratic sustainability? By democratic sustainability I mean a social and political process that engages citizens as active agents of social change in the complex task of balancing economic prosperity, effective environmental stewardship, and social justice. As Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest, the democratic sustainability movement has emerged “from the bottom up,” becoming “the largest social movement in all of human history.” It “grows and spreads in every city and country,” writes Hawken, “and involves virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils.”

Moving toward democratic sustainability has less to do with technology than a massive change in human consciousness, one that encourages systems thinking and transforms the relations of people to each other and to natural world. Nonetheless, tools are necessary to facilitate this task, and the rise of the Internet and digital technology has provided us with new and potent means to do so. As Hawken observes, “There have always been networks of powerful people, but until recently it has never been possible for the entire world to be connected.” Even as we acknowledge the “other side” of the Internet—its potential to splinter thought and concentration, take time away from reflection, and exacerbate a growing nature-deficit-disorder among youth—its unprecedented ability to construct global movements beckons.

Community is the essential concept underpinning sustainability. Whether an ecosystem or social system, the dynamics of interconnectedness and interdependence are what make growth and health possible. In medieval society, the cathedral embodied this understanding of what was known at the time as the “Great Chain of Being.” An awe-inspiring structure, the cathedral by its physical presence affirmed the vertical hierarchy that held medieval society together, and its construction gave individuals in the community a clear and compelling sense of their place in the world and the links that bound them to each other. “Building a cathedral,” says Robert Scott in The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, “entailed an ongoing, difficult, yet energizing form of collective enterprise in which people could take enormous pride and around which they could rally a community.”

In the 21st century, instead of the Great Chain of Being, the World Wide Web is the predominant social metaphor. We are moving, as Thomas Friedman puts it in The World is Flat, “from a primarily vertical (command-and-control) value-creation model to an increasingly horizontal (connect-and-collaborate) creation model”. We have yet to discover, however, the digital equivalent of the cathedral-building experience. Although organized along a different axis, we still need “an instrument for creating, strengthening, and extending forms of communitas,” says Scott, if we hope to create a sustainable civilization.

Note: To read the complete article see “The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability,” A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, no. 25 (Spring/Summer 2010): 208-15.

A New Era in Higher Education?

What does it mean to be “boldly sustainable” in higher education? That’s the question that my former Second Nature colleague Andrea Putman and I set out to tackle in our 2009 book on how the sustainability movement could transform colleges and universities. A revitalized sense of mission, more sustainable communities, and leadership that addresses the complex, interconnected problems of our time, both in the academy and in the world at large: these are the hallmarks of what could be a new era in higher education.

“Occasionally something different happens,” writes Peter Senge, “a collective awakening to new possibilities that changes everything over time—how people see the world, what they value, how society defines progress and organizes itself, and how institutions operate.”[i] If colleges and universities can demonstrate how to cultivate a sense of collective responsibility for the good of the whole, they will not only bring about a long overdue transformation of higher education but also create the possibility of a more sustainable civilization.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center at Oberlin College

Educational institutions that ignore sustainability or treat it as one more thing to stir into the mix, rather than an approach that transforms everything, will find it increasingly difficult to compete. Sustainability should be seen as the central organizing principle, a core strategy in an intellectual, social, and cultural sense.[ii] And it should be recognized that these three strands – the intellectual, social, and cultural – can not be unraveled and separated without undermining the capacity of education to be an effective force moving forward.

Sustainability as a core intellectual, social, and cultural strategy means acknowledging that we have an opportunity and imperative to reinvent our relationship to the world, even as that world is remaking itself as a result of globalization, technological innovation, the rise of the knowledge economy, and profound demographic shifts. We can no longer think only in the short term, and we can no longer waste natural resources or take the environment for granted. We must learn to care about the needs of the global society as much as those of our local community, realizing that our families’ well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of the planet. Sustainability, as David Orr puts it, is a “design challenge like no other” based on the proposition that “humans are embedded in a network of obligation and are kin to all life.”[iii]

A commitment to sustainability will result in a more holistic and purpose-driven education. “There are two types of education,” John Adams shrewdly noted. “One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” But are these two types mutually exclusive, or can we bring them together in a new synthesis? Viewed through the lens of sustainability, it quickly becomes clear that we must. Today’s students will not be able to build a more sustainable society if they are not prepared do both. They must be able to ask the important questions, grasp the big picture, and commit to an ethos of stewardship (“how to live”) at the same time that they acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and professional training to make a real difference in the world (“how to make a living”).

It is clear, in other words, that we must arm students both to dream and take action. As Orr puts it, we must “present a sense of hopefulness to students, and the competence to act on that hope.”[iv] Such an education should involve experiential, project-based learning that connects the classroom and the larger world, and it should foster whole-systems thinking that focuses on the interactions between human and natural systems.

Perhaps the most important impact that educational institutions can have on efforts to meet the challenge of climate disruption is to shift the current dominant narrative from one that emphasizes the problems and barriers to one that underscores the vast potential of human ingenuity and creativity.[v] “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas,” John Maynard Keynes observed, “but in escaping from the old ones.”[vi]

By letting go of ideas that have outlived their usefulness, we clear the space for fresh perspectives to emerge. Higher education, more than any other institution in our society, can generate the intellectual, social, and cultural capital to escape the gravitational pull of the old, dysfunctional ideas and behaviors that have brought us to our current impasse, launching us into a new world of hope and opportunity. In the current age of climate change, the need for such transformative leadership has never been greater.[vii]


This essay is adapted from Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change (2009). For more information about the book, click here.

[i] Peter Senge et. al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 5.

[ii] Michael Crow, “American Research Universities During the Long Twilight of the Stone Age,” elaboration on remarks delivered at the Rocky Mountain Sustainability Summit, University of Colorado, Boulder, February 21, 2007, p. 3.

[iii] David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 10-11.

[iv] Quoted in Marci Janas, “Ancestry and Influence: A Portrait of David Orr,” September 17, 1998.

[v] William E. Easterling III, Brian H. Hurd, and Joel B. Smith, Coping with Global Climate Change: The Role of Adaptation in the United States, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, June 2004.

[vi] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York: Harcourt, 1964), p. viii.

[vii] See Alexander Astin and Helen S. Astin, Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change (Battle Creek, MI: Kellogg Foundation, 2000), pp. 8-16 for an excellent discussion of the principles of transformative leadership.

Why “Boldly Sustainable”?

When my co-author Andrea Putman and I decided to write Boldly Sustainable, our 2009 book on the higher ed sustainability movement, it didn’t take us a lot of time to come up with the title. We knew right at the outset that we wanted to take a holistic approach to sustainability and make clear why it should be a strategic imperative for higher education. We wanted to emphasize how sustainability could create new opportunities for colleges and universities and renew their sense of purpose.


In addition, we knew it was important to strike a balance between the conceptual and the practical. We wanted to provide campus leaders with concrete steps that could be taken to advance sustainability on their own campuses. At the same time we wanted to show how sustainability could help move higher education beyond a mindset still largely rooted in the late 19th century.

The title of our book clearly signals that sustainability is not something that can be pursued in a half-hearted, ad hoc way. It can’t be tacked on as an afterthought and it shouldn’t be viewed as marginal to the “real” business of colleges and universities. Building a culture of sustainability can have a positive impact not only on the biosphere, but also the institution’s financial bottom line. As we observe in the book, “Sustainability is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing.” Those institutions that successfully implement sustainability will make the organizational and pedagogical changes necessary to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

For those implementing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) at their institutions, viewing sustainability as a core strategy for institutional transformation helps keep the big picture in focus. For the ACUPCC to be successful, it must be framed in a way that places it squarely inside the mission of higher education. That means seeing the ACUPCC as a tremendous opportunity to connect theory and practice and learning inside the classroom with learning outside the classroom. It means transforming colleges and universities into communities of learners, not just communities of the learned.

Boldly Sustainable provides context and perspective, but it also offers specific examples of how institutions can advance the sustainability, energy, and climate protection agendas. Sustainability coordinators and those overseeing the implementation of the ACUPCC will find plenty of information on such issues as monitoring energy performance, LEED standards for new and existing buildings, clean energy, water conservation, transportation, recycling, and purchasing. They will also discover effective ways to shift teaching, learning, and campus life in ways that will promote a more sustainable future. And, of course, no book on sustainability can overlook the challenge of financing new initiatives. Energy performance contracts, power purchase agreements, revolving loan funds, renewable energy hedges, and student fees all get their due.

We hope that this combination of vision and action will inspire and motivate more campus communities to adopt the ACUPCC and encourage those that already have to meet the challenges inherent in this ambitious commitment. Clearly, we are at the beginning of what will be a long conversation; as Robert Frost writes, there is “no way out but through.”

New Roots for a New Day

“Now,” observed President Barack Obama in his Inaugural Address, “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” Hearing these words, I found it hard, as one of the leaders of New Roots Charter School, not to think of recent debates in our community.

 Too often in the face of economic downturns and fiscal crisis we are urged to put aside new ideas and fresh thinking. “We can’t afford to do this now,” “maybe later,” “a terrible time to start a project like this” are common refrains in times like these. Yet this is exactly when new ideas and fresh thinking are called for. It is exactly because times are tough that we should be encouraging new approaches to educating our future leaders and the work force of tomorrow.

The commitment of New Roots to innovation, creativity, hands on learning, and interdisciplinary problem solving will provide students with the skills and tools they need to succeed in a world where, as President Obama puts it, “the ground has shifted beneath them” and many of the old assumptions no longer hold true.

Education to get ready for this new world, as the sight of Obama taking the oath of office underscores, cannot be a luxury for an elite few. Hence the commitment of New Roots to serve a broad, diverse student population, especially those who have struggled in a large school environment and require individual attention to flourish. Too many of our youth have talents, interests, and abilities that go unrecognized and unsupported in traditional high schools.

New Roots will be firmly grounded in research-based, nationally recognized educational models that support high achievement for every student. Working collaboratively, students will develop common visions, goals, and relationships of mutual respect across boundaries of race and class. This experience will directly address tensions that can develop among young people from different backgrounds, offering concrete examples of how they can co-create just, democratic, sustainable communities.

But we already have an alternative school in Ithaca, you say. We don’t need another one.  There is no question that the Lehman Alternative Community School has served and continues to serve a valuable role in the Ithaca City School District (ICSD). But there also is no question that there are students whose needs are still unmet, and that they face new challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap energy, global economic competition, and clean technology.

Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is the notion that we are engaged in a “zero-sum” game where there will inevitably be losers and winners. The Ithaca Journal’s editorial pages have been filled with this kind of thinking regarding New Roots.  If state aid weren’t going to New Roots, one of the arguments goes, then it could be used to help mitigate the budget cuts facing ICSD.

Of course, as the Journal itself reported, the money from New York State is a pass through from the federal government and couldn’t be used for any purpose other than the start up of charter schools.

But, even so, what about the money coming out of the ICSD budget that will be allocated to New Roots by state law? What gets forgotten here is that, for every student who attends New Roots, ICSD will get to keep a significant proportion of the cost for educating that student, even though the student will not be attending Ithaca High School. This means the overall impact will be a net increase, not decrease, in the per pupil amount for those students who remain in ICSD.

A recent study of charter schools in New Jersey, which operates according to a similar method of financing, bears out this conclusion. There charter schools receive 90 percent of what other district schools receive in per-pupil funding from state and local sources. All the more true, then, in New York, where charter schools receive an average of one-third less money per student than traditional public schools, and no money at all for buildings.

Rather than engage in these kinds of disputes, we should consider the new synergies that might be possible because of New Roots. Clearly, for example, the Obama Administration plans new investments in education, green-collar workforce development, and clean technology. Ithaca, because of its leadership on sustainability, might well become a beneficiary of these new federal funds, a possibility enhanced, not undermined, by the founding of New Roots, which is positioned to become a national model of sustainability education.

Choosing hope over fear, identifying opportunity where others see crisis, is what distinguishes communities that thrive in times of change and upheaval from those that stagnate and go into decline. Those of us who support New Roots, and who have invested time, energy, and money in this effort, have little doubt that it embodies both hope and opportunity, and that now more than ever it can help provide solutions that will ensure a prosperous and secure future.

Note: This essay was originally published in a slightly different form as “Students Will Benefit from New Roots,” Ithaca Journal, January 26, 2009.

Rethinking Financial Sustainability in Tough Times

Last week’s release of the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 raises an important question:  What does it mean for higher education to adopt sustainability as a core financial strategy?

As Andrea Putman and I discuss in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, a commitment to sustainability can both maximize the upside benefits and minimize the downside risks.  It can lead to a more efficient use of limited resources, higher productivity, the development of distributed leadership on campus, greater collaboration across organizational silos, strengthened trust with external stakeholders, and an enhanced brand value that makes it easier to recruit outstanding students, faculty, and staff and retain them, all of which can produce a significant competitive advantage for the institution.

Just as important, adopting sustainability as a core financial strategy means implementing a broader approach to investment. Higher education, if it intends to take its own long-term sustainability seriously, needs to focus on how increases in endowment spending can improve the well being of society and the environment.


Berea College in Kentucky

It’s pretty simple, actually.  Colleges and universities can only thrive if society and the biosphere are healthy. Any college or university that is so shortsighted as to pursue its ends without taking into account the interests of the larger community or ecosystem in which it is enmeshed will not thrive over the long haul. In the end, it will find itself forced, one way or the other, to deal with the fact that its future is inextricably linked to that of the larger web of social and ecological relations in which it is embedded. It is recognition of this interdependence, for example, that has driven Yale University to invest in the city of New Haven and Berea College to invest in the people and land of the Appalachian South.

College and university endowments, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, could be a powerful force for social and environmental good even as these institutions pursue their own self interest. Yet only 35% of the institutions surveyed in the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 invest in renewable energy and only 10% in community development funds.

If a healthy future is to be evenly distributed, higher education institutions must embrace a larger understanding of their mission and not confine themselves simply to growing their endowments while the communities around them come unraveled and the rapid degradation of the environment continues unabated.

One of the best ways that universities can have a positive effect on the environment and local economy is for them to set aside a certain proportion of their endowments to use as a revolving loan fund for cities and towns to use in communitywide energy efficiency retrofits. These loans have the potential for returns on investment as good as anything in the financial markets today.  Of course, considering the state of Wall Street, that’s not saying much.

In making such investments, universities and colleges not only can help reduce the carbon footprint of the community, but also keep dollars from flowing out of the community and into the pockets of the utility companies. These dollars will recirculate in the community, increasing spending and indirectly contributing to the creation of new jobs.  And, as Van Jones points out, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy also directly create new green collar jobs that can provide much needed economic stability during even the toughest of recessions.

Given the latest economic forecasts, it’s an idea worth considering.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Building and Grounds Blog here.