The US/Canada Citizen’s Summit for Sustainable Development Through the Eyes of Green Eagle Kayla Ma, SIS ‘14

After a hiatus, we’re bringing back the AU Sustainability Blog. Nothing exemplifies the great work we do like the efforts of our student peer educators, the Green Eagles. A few weeks ago one of these students, Kayla Ma, attended the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development at Yale University. Her account of her three-day trip is a window into the experiences of our students and their sustainable ambitions, and a great way to reinvigorate our blog. Check back often over the coming weeks for more new content and updates on our latest sustainability initiatives at American University as we begin to settle into a regular posting schedule. If you have any feedback regarding our blog, we’d love to hear it – e-mail us at sustainability@american.edu.

The American Dream is Green,
Josh

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Friday, March 23rd –

Wow. What a way to start this trip! Earlier today, I left on a 4:48 a.m. Amtrak from Union Station to New Haven so I could attend the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development: http://www.citizenssummit.org/Welcome.html. I’ve been looking forward to this summit for a few weeks now, but now that I’m here, I’m a little nervous. Hopefully, that nervousness subsides by morning and I can make the most of my time here!

When I first received the invitation to Yale about a month ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The tone of the e-mail seemed to target the graduate and post-graduate population, so my invitation as a U.S. undergrad representative both surprised and excited me. Although I’ve researched / assisted a handful of conferences in DC, this is my first one out–of-town and I’m excited to see what I can learn beyond the capital.

For those who don’t know me, I intend to pursue a career in water resource management in the international community. I want to use the experience of attending this summit to sharpen my focus and expand my perspective. Yale invited people of all environmental backgrounds in the U.S. and Canada to the summit, so I expect to be introduced to views I’ve never heard before in my area of interest, and also develop my professional knowledge and career plans. I’m also hoping that these approaches build into ideas for large-scale environmental activism on the AU campus. My job as a Green Eagle with the Office of Sustainability requires me to work in a diverse community towards a common goal, and hopefully tomorrow, I can use what I learn to better address the student body and my potential trip to RIO +20 this summer.

Travelling to Union Station this morning (not the easiest of tasks post-Metro hours, mind you), I realized that there are so many people, specifically the homeless, who are a part of our civil society that don’t have a voice in these summits. It would be great to get underrepresented views and non-traditional perspectives, but part of me wishes I could have simply brought these people along to have a say in this citizens’-focused summit.

Ellen, my host, is super sweet and I’m lucky to have her during the summit (free housing and free meals? I think so.  Thanks, Yale). She’s a grad student focusing on forestry and actually left on a silviculture field trip for her class today, so I’ve spent a majority of the day reviewing the summit schedule, doing homework (hahaha, this may be my only chance), and finishing up other small projects, which is fine by me. Ellen wants to introduce me to Miya’s Sushi tonight, which is supposed to be the third-best sustainable sushi restaurant in the nation. I’ll be excited to see how they approach sustainable seafood as that’s a large part of my diet (I’m very guilty).

I’ll try and jump in later tonight with details, but until then, here are my thoughts. I’m looking forward to tomorrow – just hoping that my undergraduate status doesn’t make seem me too out of place and my knowledge on the field helps.

Hey all… I’m pretty shot, but Ellen and I walked around Yale’s campus tonight and I got a feel for the university and halls I should know about before tomorrow. Miya’s was delicious – I’d suggest checking out their invasive species menu if you’re in the area :http://miyassushi.com/about-our-seafood/. I need to get up early tomorrow, so I’ll check in later, but until then, keep your fingers crossed!

Saturday, March 24th –

Today was the start of the summit and Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is hosting everything in their two biggest halls, Kroon and Sage. Kroon, I’ve learned, is LEED – Platinum certified, meaning it’s one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the country. Below are a few pictures from the inside of Kroon and a rainwater filtration system for the grey water used in their facilities. Although it’s not SIS, it has that same open feel and is the perfect hall for hosting this summit.

This morning, the summit began with a small panel of influential Canadian and American leaders in the field of sustainable development. Speakers can be found here on the Citizens’ Summit Schedule (http://www.citizenssummit.org/Summit_Schedule.html) and included many people who had attended Rio in 1992. (In fact, one of the speakers later compared comments of “I was at Rio” or “He was at Rio” or “I wasn’t at Rio, but my father was at Rio” to coming out of the closet, as if going to Rio was like a confession).

With the 1992 Earth Summit serving as a pseudo-“rite of initiation”, it also became clear during the first panel that the problems with implementing the outcomes of the first Rio conference vary among different groups. Some panelists blamed a lack of political will, others argued that meant nothing and during this discussion, I heard my first criticisms of Agenda 21 (the long-cherished outcome of Rio in 1992). Although I was excited to hear their perspectives, this fragmentation concerning the source of problems was enough for me to understand why Rio had “failed.” No one knew where to start, so by making everything a priority, nothing became a priority.

On the first day of the conference, there were two sessions, the first focused on “Learning” and the second on “Engagement.” With my interest in water management, I attended the “Sustainable Water and Land Conservation” session and followed it with my interest in outreach at the “Sustainability in Local Institutions and Communities” session with the Yale Office of Sustainability and Roots and Shoots organization. Reflecting on this experience (which can be read about here: http://sagemagazine.org/?p=3036 ), I want to make a quick shout-out to my professor, Paul Wapner, for his excellent choice of readings in my International Environmental Politics class. Many of the people in these sessions had read pieces such as “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” Herman Daly, etc., and I was able to hold my own as a well-informed participant of the sessions (given a few additional pieces of knowledge from my other experiences). It was inspiring to see the collection of people at these sessions moved by environmental concerns and who had become active members of their communities. The Yale Office of Sustainability in particular caught my attention during their Session II and, with their graphic design focus; I’d like to make a few suggestions to my own employers at AU. Outside of the people attending this summit, it was clear that engagement rests on the importance of tangibility to inspire local communities.

I spent the night with my new Canadian friends at dinner near the university and talked excitedly with Dr. Jairo Garcia of Columbia University, who shares my interest in water management. He will be leading the delegation from Columbia to Rio +20 alongside Yale and, hopefully, AU. Because I was under 21 and couldn’t get into Gypsy, the grad student bar, (ahh, to be young…), I ended up going back to my host’s place and reaching out to a few of my new friends while working on this blog. However, as I was typing, it became clear that my undergraduate status does not set me apart from these inspirational people, as I originally thought. In fact, I’m glad to have these in-depth discussions with people who have diverse sets of experiences and be treated as an equal in terms of intelligence and thought. Looking forward to tomorrow!

Sunday, March 25th –

The focus of today was completely on engagement and involvement from our level to the broader community. One of the interesting things Yale did while hosting the conference was to schedule an “unconference” session based on our interests written on a whiteboard the day before. I really liked this idea of semi-free time to get together on common interests and suggested a small session titled “International ‘GreenTech’ Innovation: What can the U.S./Canada learn from innovations abroad?” I wasn’t expecting it to be chosen, given all the other very interesting topics, but was excited to see it scheduled as an “unconference” session today! AU – we can definitely learn something from this and should build on attendees’ engagement through a similar idea sometime in the future.

Before leaving for the “unconference,” I attended the last formal session, centered on “Change” and attended “Coalition-Building: Engagement and Mobilization for Rio +20” from WeCanada and MobilizeUS (through the Human Impact Institute). It mostly began by reviewing the efforts of WeCanada and MobilizeUS in coalition building and ended with small break-out groups discussing challenges of coalition-building, making a solid base in preparation for Rio +20, and my group concerning coalitions within the community. One of the things we discussed briefly was pulling together a diversity of backgrounds and ideas based on a similar goal and I briefly mentioned how privileged we all were to be here and represent what we could from groups that could support us (this was also echoed by the closing speakers and remarks in reflecting on the outcome of the conference). Semi-joking, we formed our own small coalition of bloggers since many of us, including me (obviously), were asked to write about our experience at the summit. If you’re reading this, community coalition-building group, “hello” from DC and hope you’re all still doing well!

Because of some delays in the schedule (the summit began a little late in the morning and it’s easy to get caught up talking sometimes), I was a little late to the “unconference” session and wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of turn-out. Much to my surprise, a Yale Forestry and Environmental Science student was already there, speaking about Israeli GreenTech (the very topic I finished researching a few months ago), and I saw about five or six others there. Some represented the overall environmental movement in Europe, others were from the energy sector in Germany, another had knowledge of Chinese innovations and agricultural technologies, and wow… to have this group of internationally-focused people, all just as passionate about sustainable development as I am, together? It was fantastic. Even having the opportunity to co-facilitate this discussion was something beyond my expectations coming to Yale this weekend.

Sometimes, I realize, I’m stuck talking about my water interests and don’t seek out experts outside my field, but they are just as important to addressing my concerns. Luckily, this summit forced experts of varying backgrounds to speak with others outside their field, an important aspect towards long-term success. I couldn’t feel happier that this resulted from the summit and that I was there to witness the idea sharing of 180 scientists, leaders, and entrepreneurs in this field. Good job, Yale – I hope to come back again and work with these same passionate people in the future. It’s inspiring and is exactly the type of interaction we need before Rio +20.

For additional resources, see:

http://sagemagazine.org/?page_id=2445
http://www.facebook.com/CitizensSummitforSD
https://twitter.com/#!/citizens_summit