HOW DID YOUR BACKGROUND INFLUENCE YOUR CAREER PATH AND YOUR AMBITION, SPECIFICALLY WHEN IT COMES TO SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES?
My background stems back to growing up in Washington, D.C. I ended up leaving public school and going to a private Catholic school because my parents were concerned about me being an unruly kid at the time and thought that I needed some discipline. One of the benefits of the private school environment was that I was taken on field trips to the caves and caverns in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia area. I had a chance to see the geological aspects of the Earth; the underground stalagmites, stalactites, and blind albino fish swimming up the streams because they do not need sight or pigment to live there. We also visited the historic battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam and Harper’s Ferry and visualized the battles in my mind. I also had the opportunity to visit the homes of the former U.S presidents; Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Monticello, and George Washington’s mansion at Mt. Vernon. Due to these amazing field trips, I was able to see the world from a different viewpoint and see history come alive at an early age. So, for me, in a way, I benefited from leaving the public-school system and going to a private school environment where I was exposed to history, geography and geology. I believe I was put on a path towards seeing the world much more broadly. As I moved towards high school, my father became diabetic, and I wanted to help him deal with the disease which was fundamentally diet related. I took this path in college to become more aware of nutrition so I could give my father advice on how to manage his health with proper eating. In college, I majored in human nutrition and studied qualitative food production with a focus on feeding large numbers of people. Upon graduation, I decided to join the United States Peace Corps as a way of working in my field overseas and traveling abroad. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Ivory Coast, West Africa for 2 years, working with malnourished children and their families. I also worked in the Caribbean for a few years with the WIC Program where we provided supplemental food to at-risk infants, children and women and nutritional counseling. Once again, my experiences were broadened through travel, and I had the opportunity to practice my education and training in foreign environments. These experiences helped me to grow my global viewpoint and formed my interdisciplinary approach to the teaching, research, administration and service that I do presently at PCGS.
What would you consider as your most recognizable achievement in the recent years?
I feel pride in so much of what I do. I feel that every achievement has its own merit and accomplishment until I must do the next big thing. To be self-serving about PCGS, my greatest accomplishment has been the ability to assist the college in its growth the last 10 years. This college has given me the opportunity to display my talents, education, and ambitions. Things I have done here, I may not have been able to do anywhere else, so sometimes I feel that I was made for PCGS. Sustainability is something that I have been interested in for the last 30 years. Everything that I am doing, whether it’s being a faculty member, administrator, researcher, community organizer or sustainability advocate, all those things come from the opportunity to be here at the Patel College.
What do you think about the coming class of Spring 2023?
For the Spring 2023 cohort I have the same expectations that I have had for every class in the last 20 years that I have been in academia. I am taking whatever education and talents the incoming class brings to the table and I will help them to modify and optimize that talent. I feel my job is a conduit to bring out the best in our students. My idea is that our students are where they need to be as well, and they have earned the right to be here. Every one of our students at the Patel College of Global Sustainability is worthy of my attention, guidance and energy, and I will help them get to the next great point in their life.
What advice do you have for those students so that they could attain the most from the PCGS programs?
In class I usually tell our students that they are very fortunate to be in this program at this point in history. We need to have people that are prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally to deal with the issues of not just today, but the decades to come because sustainability is not just a trend, it’s a way of life. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s about people. If humans disappeared off the planet, the Earth would go on without us. It probably would do better without us because we are constantly assaulting it with our industries, technologies, and selfish consumption patterns. In a way, the Earth is limited in its resources, and we use those resources at alarming rates with our large population and exploitive behaviors. We can deal with these issues and that is the job of our students to become sustainabilistists. “Sustainabilitism” is a term that I have coined. There are lots of other ‘isms’ that exist, whether its consumerism, commercialism, environmentalism or capitalism, these ‘isms’ compartmentalize people’s thoughts and behavior. The problems of the 21st century are very large, integrated and nebulous. Sustainability is the ability to see these nebulous issues with better focus from a insightful perspective and deal with them. That is why we teach something called Systems Thinking. We must begin to look at the world within the context of systems and cycles. I see Sustainabilitism as a new ‘ism’ that uses the idea of integration to look at the world holistically. Sustainabilitism is what we teach our students, so there is a balance, and they can see issues more clearly with a systems-thinking mind.
What do you aim to achieve together with PCGS in the year 2023?
In 2023 there are so many things that I want to initiate. If you look at weather pattern changes all over the world that include tornados, floods, fires, droughts, and hurricanes, we are exacerbating the negative effects of climate change and hurting ourselves and our planet with our degrading practices. Our civilization is putting all kinds of greenhouse gasses and microplastics in the air and water. It’s hard to see how we are going to get a better world or life out of this toxic pattern. But I am an optimist, this is where we draw the line, here at the Patel College of Global Sustainability. We are the vanguard of the movement to do something about this global toxicity. One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Amistad. In the movie, the African slave Cinque, who has been stolen from his land, says to a fellow slave, “we are the tip of the spear”. What Cinque is saying is that the spear is the generations of people that came behind you. There are your parents, your grandparents, and your great grandparents, and as you can see it creates this wedge, this tip of history that is moving you forward to do good and to live on behalf of your ancestors. I thought that was a very powerful statement and it inspires me to live as a sustainabilitist. As individuals, we are all the tip of a spear, and we cannot let our ancestors down. We must reflect on the past but also think of future generations, and we have to clear a better path for them, and we cannot let them down either. I hope this metaphor motivates our students to do better as much as it motivates me. One of the many projects that I am working on is Earth Month. I believe that one day a year is not enough to celebrate this precious planet. So, my goal is to create an Earth Month Advocacy Global Initiative Center here at PCGS. It’s called EMAGIC. It would be a virtual center that has planned activities throughout the months of April and May. Another initiative is called USF Fields of Green. This initiative connects recreation, athletics and sports with sustainability. Typically, athletic games bring large crowds of people to a university campus but there is so much trash and waste created from the massive consumption of food, beverages, packaging and paper. I think that sporting events are a great way to initiate the message of sustainability. Green tailgating can be implemented where people can reuse containers and there can be messages at half-time about conserving liquids or recycling paper and plastics. The last initiative is a project called the Superhero Sustainability Project@ PCGS. This idea came from a colleague and I talking about superheroes in movies, comics and graphic novels. Humans love stories and mythologies. The messaging could be, Spiderman immolates a spider and shoots webs across the city to get around but if Spiderman was a real person, there would be web waste everywhere. However, if the webs were biodegradable, the webs would disappear naturally. What if Spiderman’s suit was made from a sustainable substance like recycled plastic polymers? There can be a material ecology storyline there about how he could make webs biodegradable and plastics into super-suits. These are my 2023 project initiatives in which I want to engage the students and the public in creative ways.
With regard to the Black History Month, in your perspective, what is the importance of Black History Month and how is it connected to global sustainability?
I believe there is no such thing as black history without world history. A lot of people try to compartmentalize black history and separate it from world history. However, black history is world history. The earliest human species were from Africa and the oldest humans came out of the area now called Tanzania. Egypt was one of the highest civilizations that ever existed, and it also came out of Africa. If you look back at American history during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, a lot of products that we used were invented by black people. Slaves helped build the country. Blacks have occupied many positions, politically, economically, and military wise through centuries of involvement. What black people are looking for is that recognition and acknowledgement. It’s not so much that we want to say we have black history month but if there was honest representation in history books then we wouldn’t need to talk about a black history month. Crispus Attucks, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Muhammed Ali, General Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson; all of these black people are intricate parts of American history. We can go on and on. We are part of American history and World history. My idea of black history is that it’s not just a month, it’s a millennium of our presence.