A Journey of Faith and Understanding
Ann Dougherty, Sustainability Coordinator, Xavier University

We start on our journey, coming from different places, different disciplines, with our own vocabulary and modes of communication, and our individual ideas of what sustainability is and should be. These tried-and-true methods have served us well and we are reluctant to alter them. So when many disciplines are in the same room to discuss sustainability, sometimes it seems like the Tower of Babel.

A part of the Jesuit philosophy, of course, is open and honest discussion. That too, is alive and well within our Ohio campus, despite our different vocabularies. This is a journey for each of us. By coming together, we share knowledge and planning – much preferable to me sitting in my cubicle discussing the issue with myself. 

A truly appealing factor is making this journey with students. I like getting emails at all hours of the night and day, working with interns who can create a Facebook page in four hours - on the same night they are asked - and juniors who help freshmen get excited to act. I am awed by the character and intellectual formation occurring here every day.

Xavier’s strong social justice function means we come to sustainability through a lens of service and faith. We understand this is more than composting and turning off lights. The group, even with its different languages, is in perfect agreement that social justice is the reason to proceed before even a word is spoken. I am accustomed to viewing concepts through an environmental lens, but am nearer 20/20 vision through the service and faith lens.

We have different vocabularies and voices for much of what we do, but the best vocabulary is show-and-tell generosity. When we share stories about everyday issues, we all understand. Recently, our committee has grown around the universal issue of food. A long-time member started a garden with two communities adjacent to campus. After four years, the garden is thriving and building connections, understanding and knowledge in all directions. A favorite work day at the garden last summer was when Miss Mary, who “grandmothers” neighborhood teens in her home garden, visited. She went plot to plot, with her “grandchildren” trailing behind, sharing what the plant health was telling her, what soil amendments were needed, what needed harvesting, what needed replanting. 

As our NEXUS garden brings together community members and Xavier people to plant, nurture and harvest food, I invite them to our newest building (built to U.S. Green Building Council LEED Silver standards) to sample the outstanding chef-station vegan line.  After lunch, we see food leftovers collected in the dish room, tour the food scrap refrigerator, and head to the loading dock, where the trash compactor is now a cardboard compactor (that we are paid for), and the trash fits into three small roll-offs in the corner. About 150 people have taken my food waste collection tour. They are the best way to communicate about our waste diversion programs. They each spread the stories and lessons. 

We know that the learning must be pervasive and thorough, always keeping in mind the larger picture. In addition to buildings and land, we need to envelop the curriculum and each individual on campus and in the community.  Xavier has three new majors next year: Sustainability: Economics and Management; Economics, Sustainability and Society; and Land, Farming and Community. These are in addition to our BS in Environmental Science. One of our interns created a campus map showing 60 green spots on campus – bike racks, drip irrigation, food waste composting, the interfaith office.  Physical Plant has worked hard to reduce campus energy costs by 20 percent. Our 50 Sustainability Ambassadors are professors, administrators, and physical plant employees. They attend training on buildings, energy, grounds and water, waste and recycling, carbon footprint and transportation, food, and “stuff.” Upon completion, they wear a badge identifying them as someone to ask about Sustainable Xavier.  

Why this emphasis on communication of ideas and project examples? Sustainability is learned by doing and best shown by examples. Solutions are driven by conditions because sustainability is about solving problems holistically and organically. To work for and move toward a sustainable society, we have to work together. Xavier is a living laboratory that needs to be understood before it will achieve sustainability.

We equip staff with stories and empower them to think further. If we equip our larger community of neighbors with information and encourage them to share ideas, we truly work with and for others. When it comes to the vibrancy of society + environment + economy (also called sustainability), “they”, “them” and “their” is actually “we,” “us” and “our.” It is not accidental that our first holistic steps – the NEXUS garden, the Ride Board, Sustainability Ambassadors, campus mapping – are all high-communication enterprises.

I share the story of one of my favorite Xavier professors who does not speak my language of graphs, decision trees, and spreadsheets. At one meeting, she asked me to explain a graphic in words. I was dumbfounded.  The graphic was a perfect example of a picture taking the place of a thousand words.  I had distilled myriad facts into a one-page masterpiece and now she wanted me to change the butterfly back into a caterpillar? My friends on the AJCU sustainability listserv have similar stories, from the perspectives of all involved on sustainability committees – whether from faculty or facilities or the faith and justice office. People have trouble understanding each other’s methods, each other’s language, each other’s priorities – even when we are all working on sustainability.  

It can be frustrating to work with people from different disciplines, who think differently than we do. Misunderstandings can solidify into negative perceptions too easily. Yet, we must keep our eyes on the prize and stay open to what the others are saying.  In sustainability work, perhaps even more than for other disciplines, we have to remain in constant communication with everyone.  That includes listening.  If we fail to communicate, we miss the brilliance and hands-on knowledge that the person in the corner would provide if asked, and will lose what their hearts would say. 

Last weekend, students built raised bed boxes at our new campus farm site. The craftsmen in facilities worried about the final result, given the volunteers’ lack of carpentry skills. They crafted kits with pre-sawn recycled lumber, color-coded, to construct the boxes, and made a prototype. They modeled craftsmanship, and the student volunteers built to that same quality. Now we are constructing a hoop house from a purchased kit, and worry and doubt are creeping back in. Operations and construction managers worry: can volunteers just show up and start building? You can if those who show up are included in the planning. (It is my special gift to cause crises for everyone at once. Let’s add a few worried professors, student senators, and Miss Mary.)

“When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.” Fr. Kolvenbach was speaking about students in this statement, but it really applies to all of us, doesn’t it? Working with groups through the small details can be messy. There can be duplication of effort. Often, there is conflict. But, ultimately, this is the only way to move towards sustainability. Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. We find sustainable solutions when we work together, grow and test ideas organically, and learn as we go. We have to be able to communicate and share and learn from each other. What are we doing to be better listeners and better integrated, and more inclusive and thoughtful within our organizations, so that our sustainability dreams can flow into our physical reality?

Connections is the online monthly news publication of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) that provides readers with news and information about the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States.