[MUSIC PLAYING] GARY STEWART: Hi. I'm Gary Stewart, and welcome to Staff Notes. I work in the Office of Government and Community Relations at Cornell University. I'm also a member of the Employee Assembly. Today, we're taping in the Humphreys Service Building, which is where the facilities and utilities and all those folks work. And we're going to be talking about sustainability with Sustainability Coordinator Dan Roth.
Dan is going to be interviewed by Andrea Sanders, who's a junior here at Cornell and works in the Office of Government and Community Relations, as well. She'll be talking about some student-related sustainability initiatives and will have a lot to say about everything green here at Cornell University. Andrea.
ANDREA SANDERS: Thanks, Gary. And thank you, Dan, for being with us today. So can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey here to Cornell?
DAN ROTH: Yeah. Well, I was born in Albany, New York, not far from here, grew up there, went to school-- undergraduate-- at New York University. And then, I started feeling like I needed to get out of New York state a little bit and went about as far as I could to the other side of the country. I lived out in California for a few years and up in Washington state and, eventually, made my way back to Cornell-- or back to New York state and Cornell.
My grandfather and a lot of his brothers came to school here. And I was really involved in cooperative extension work at that point from my work in Washington state and wanted to get a master's degree. So Cornell was the obvious place to come back to, it seemed like. And I've been here ever since.
ANDREA SANDERS: So what kind of work were you doing at cooperative extension that led you here to Cornell?
DAN ROTH: Well, up in Washington state, I worked on food security issues. I ran a community garden, helped start a farm-to-school program. We were basically getting fresh vegetables into the schools and teaching kids about life sciences and agricultural sciences through hands-on work.
And so, extension played a pretty important role in a lot of our work with farmers up there and helping get good food into the schools. So I got to see extension in action and saw that that was a really important field to get involved in.
ANDREA SANDERS: Very cool. And then, how did you get involved in your position as the sustainability coordinator at Cornell, then?
DAN ROTH: Yeah. That was kind of an evolution of being involved in community development. A lot of the nonprofits I worked for were really focused on this idea of sustainable development, trying to connect economic development in a community with protecting the environment, enhancing the environment, and doing that in a way that enhanced everyone's well-being and it wasn't unfairly benefiting certain people, or that we were working on equity issues at the same time. So the communities I worked in were making strides in that at the community level.
And when I came to Cornell, I saw how important that would be for a campus-- for a university itself, as a small city, actually-- to really be looking at its own impacts in a more holistic, comprehensive way. And so when I was a grad student here, I started getting involved in transportation-related projects, partnering with community organizations, helped get started this Ithaca Carshare project that a lot of people on campus know--
ANDREA SANDERS: Yeah. Very cool.
DAN ROTH: --and also started getting involved in some national organizations that were supporting student leaders in different universities and high schools around the country and started really thinking about leadership development and how to develop young leaders to be able to have this systems thinking point of view to be able to understand sustainability and how these different worlds of environment and economy and society interact.
So it was getting involved in a lot of those projects outside of Cornell, here on campus. And around that time, Cornell started to really make a clear commitment to sustainability. And so as soon as I graduated, I ended up coming into this position that I'm in now.
ANDREA SANDERS: Very cool. So in a couple of my classes, actually, we've talked about what it means to be sustainable. And I think it's a term that's been thrown around a lot. But some people don't exactly know what it means. So well, how would you define sustainability?
DAN ROTH: Sure. Well, I define it, really, in two different ways. If we're talking about a person in their life, I think about it in one way. And if I'm thinking more about a community, I think about it another. But there's some basic similarities.
I think the definition that started in the '80s with this Brundtland Commission, which was a United Nations commission, was basically meeting the needs of current generations and current people, or populations, without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs. So it was a pretty human-centered idea of thinking about the long-term, thinking about equity between generations and making sure we're not stealing from the future, if you will. But it was a pretty human-centered idea.
But at the same time, what they were really talking about was the environment as the context that provides all the resources and all of the things that we need to live on. And it was talking about humans and things like health and medicine, education and equity, poverty and poverty alleviation.
They were trying to come up with a definition that would actually be both human-centered and take into account the importance of preserving our environment. And the idea of development itself is a pretty economic idea. So this idea of sustainable development was trying to, really, balance all three.
But when I think about individuals, I really think about the individual choices you make, the attitude you have towards your own life. Do you see yourself as really being able to sustain yourself? Do you have tools and relationships and things like that in your life that make you feel strong and supported and healthy?
And then, you're thinking about your impacts on the world through your service, through the purchasing choices you make, through the choices you make about turning off and on electric products and things like that. So at the individual level, I think, a lot of it has to do with mindset, though, of how you're approaching your own life.
At an institutional level, it's a little bit different. Because it's a whole community of people. And so you need to be thinking about the systems that are in place, maybe like a person thinks about their family. It's like a system. There's a whole bunch of different relationships, a lot of different histories, and then they're coming together into this one family.
And so, in a way, a campus is like a really big family. There's lots of relationships between all these people. And you have to be thinking about how are we helping all of these people in all these different relationships make different decisions?
A lot of the times, people are employed by the university, so the way in which they're involved is really about what role they have as a employee. And it has to do with their relationship with their supervisor, and are they getting incentivized and supported and encouraged to make more sustainable choices in their daily work environment?
For other people, they really just care about this. And they're students, maybe, and they get the opportunity to be involved in clubs. So they're really going to take on sustainability in a pretty different way than a staff member would.
And they, often, are coming into the university for just four years, sometimes less, and they want to leave an impact and a legacy within four years. So they usually speed up the process and try to have as big an impact as they can but in a really short time.
And faculty have a very different role, again, because they're here for a particular type of career. They're here to do research, oftentimes. They have their eyes on the whole world. They're thinking about the impact of their research globally.
So in all those different populations of campus, sustainability really means something a little bit different. And our office really tries to figure out ways in which we can help all these different groups move forward and work together more effectively. Because we've found that collaboration across these different parts of the university-- staff, students, faculty, different disciplines, different administrative parts, making sure the finance office and the utilities office have some common language to talk about financing energy conservation projects, for example, that maybe don't have the traditional way of understan-- there's paybacks for energy conservation.
But our financial models weren't necessarily built at a time that we understood those financial paybacks. So there's a whole challenge there of trying to find some common language and common goals. So it's a complex family, so to speak, or a complex community.
ANDREA SANDERS: Yeah. Well, thank you for clearing that up.
DAN ROTH: Yeah.
ANDREA SANDERS: So what kind of involvement do you have with the student groups? How much do you work with them?
DAN ROTH: Well, we've pretty much been working hand in hand with student groups from the beginning of Cornell's formal sustainability initiatives. Students were really advocating for the creation of the position I have today. They were really critical in making that happen to begin with.
ANDREA SANDERS: You were the first to be in this position?
DAN ROTH: I'm the second. My predecessor was named Dean Koyanagi, and he was the first sustainability coordinator. And he and I worked together for a few years. And now, he runs a sustainable farm right outside of town.
ANDREA SANDERS: Cool.
DAN ROTH: So I have some big shoes to fill. He did an amazing job getting things going. So all along, he, and now I, have worked really closely with students. Students, particularly the Kyoto Now! group were really active on pushing the university to make commitments around its climate impacts through its carbon emissions and things like that. And so they helped us make a commitment to the Kyoto Protocol back-- it was, maybe, seven, eight years-- no, almost 10 years ago now.
And then, groups like Take Back the Tap are pushing us to think more, I think, environmentally responsibly about water and how we make sure everyone on campus gets water. We have students looking at the food system at Cornell. That's the Farm to School group on Cornell's campus.
We have groups looking at the labor practices of our supply chain, like the sweatshirts and the sweat clothing that is made for our campus store. Are we looking at more responsible working conditions and things like that? So we've got student clubs.
There's almost 25 now on campus that are focused on some part of sustainability. And what we've done for the last two years, almost, is hired a student sustainability intern that often has been really active in the Sustainability Hub, which is like an incubator for projects on campus, for student projects. Like the Collegetown ART project came out of that.
ANDREA SANDERS: I'm actually involved in that.
DAN ROTH: And you're involved in that?
ANDREA SANDERS: Yes.
DAN ROTH: Yeah. So I've been seeing those student-designed-- I guess they're recycling and garbage cans around Collegetown. And the Big Red Bikes project kind of was incubated by the Sustainability Hub. So the last few years, we've hired-- actually, it's kind of just happened this way-- but we've hired the president of the Sustainability Hub several years in a row now to be our intern.
And so she acts as kind of a formal liaison between these different student groups and our office and the initiatives we're involved in with more of the administration and staff and faculty and things like that. So we're constantly looking at engaging students, helping students become more effective leaders. We've been doing some leadership summits for students, helping them understand their own capacities more fully, and finding ways that we can connect them to staff in a little bit easier than it has been in the past.
Sometimes students aren't sure how to interact with staff or who's the right staff person to talk about whatever-- composting or energy conservation. We're kind of helping them, through our office, make those connections to staff and faculty a little bit quicker.
ANDREA SANDERS: Do you have any big projects that you're working on right now?
DAN ROTH: With students, specifically, or just in general?
ANDREA SANDERS: Yeah, with students.
DAN ROTH: Let's see. I'd say the Take Back the Tap initiative is one of the more visible ones right now that we're working on. The Student Assembly just passed a resolution asking the university to look at a ban on bottled water. And we've been really active with them.
And I think one of the next steps is to work with this President's Sustainable Campus Committee, which has student representatives. But it looks like, at the next one, we're going to have some representatives from the Take Back the Tap group talk about how we implement such a thing, what kind of impacts would it have on the financial bottom line at Cornell, but also what would be the positive environmental impacts of something like a bottled water ban. So that's definitely a big initiative right now.
And then, there's always, for the next 40 years, the Climate Action Plan. If we're going to get to zero carbon by 2050, students are going to have a huge role to play. And so we've been working really closely with the Lights Off initiative, which are students organizing other students to, first, turn off lights when they're not needed on campus, but then do energy-related education with those students and find out other ways that those students can make choices that lead to energy conservation and saving.
So that's just, really, the tip of the iceberg, I think, when it comes to students being involved in achieving the climate action plan's goals of 2050-- carbon zero and things like that. So that's going to be more and more projects down the line, I think, of students taking leadership on energy-related issues. And I'm really looking forward to that. Because students have always brought a lot of creative ideas to the table.
ANDREA SANDERS: Well, it sounds like your office is a great resource for students who are interested in sustainability. But we've learned some about your professional background now. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do when you're not on the job?
DAN ROTH: When I'm not on the job? Well, yeah. I've got a lot of stuff going on in my life. I spend a lot of time doing some form of exercise. I'm either outdoors during the summer-- did a triathlon for the first time this year-- the Cayuga triathlon. I used to do a lot of skiing. I've been trying to get back into that a little bit more at our mountain right here in Tompkins County.
And I also do a lot of body work and massage therapy with people. I actually have started that as kind of a second career for myself over the last 10 years. And so I see clients in town, and I do that professionally.
And I'm also really interested in food and building community. And so I've been starting a project in town that brings people together from all across town that want to share meals together, and a way of creating some community around food, and things like that. So I'm kind of interested in community projects and giving back to the community as much as possible.
So a lot of my time is in some sort of service-oriented volunteer work. Or I volunteer at the Ithaca Free Clinic, as well, doing massage there. So it's trying to just find ways of making my life feel balanced and feel like I'm contributing as much as possible.
ANDREA SANDERS: Well, that's great. It sounds like you're very involved in the community, as well as on campus. So we're coming to the end of our interview. But at Staff Notes, we ask all of our guests one final question. And so what would you do if you were president of Cornell for a day?
DAN ROTH: Wow. That's a big question. Well, I think institutions in communities like this really thrive on people who feel recognized for their work. And I've even heard research that recognition and really authentic acknowledgment of people's work is even better than, sometimes, getting just a little small bonus check or something like that.
So if I was president, I'd probably create some sort of award or some sort of public recognition for the work that goes on in sustainability. And that could really help define sustainability as something much bigger than, I think, what a lot of people think of.
Because the diversity initiatives at Cornell could be part of that, and helping the university save money and become financially sustainable, and, obviously, the environmental impact. So creating some sort of award and acknowledgment from the president to people on campus, I think, would make a big difference.
And I also might set a few really lofty, big, audacious goals like the Climate Action Plan does but in all sorts of areas. So then my predecessors, like the next presidents and all that, would have to actually get the job done. But I'd just make sure we'd set the bar really high.
ANDREA SANDERS: Well, maybe you should run for president of Cornell one day.
DAN ROTH: That would be a long-term goal. I should think about it.
ANDREA SANDERS: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much for being with us here today. I'm Andrea Sanders, a junior here at Cornell and a member of the Sustainability Hub. On behalf of Gary Stewart, thank you for watching Staff Notes.
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Join Andrea Sanders for a discussion with Dan Roth about his passions and sustainability initiatives on campus.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Dan came to Cornell in pursuit of his master's degree. Upon graduation, he took on his current role as the Sustainability Coordinator within the Office of Sustainability.
New episodes of Staff Notes premiere on Thursdays.