What’s the BUZZ? Christina Erickson on Sustainability

CCPI’s Michelle Nguyen sat down with Christina Erickson to discuss the Sustainability Program, the apiary, the Green Revolving Fund, and how Christina got to the position she’s in today.


What are your goals in terms of the Sustainability Program at Champlain College?


That’s the most overarching goal is to make Champlain College, and our community, the most sustainable college and community we possibly can. And, for me, that means that we are not just negatively impacting the environment and our community, but that we are positively contributing to the environment and working towards a regenerative state. Instead of just taking resources, we’re actually putting them back in, both ecologically and humanely.


For example, some of the key metrics that are in my mind are how much carbon we’re putting out into the world, how much waste we’re putting into a hole in the ground or diverting into our series of systems, and how much energy we’re consuming. And then, sort of on the human side of the sustainability piece, how much are we contributing to community service, within our community, and how many students and employees are involved with service based opportunities? Do we have a socially just campus? Are we a diverse, inclusive community, both for students and employees, and surrounding neighbors?


What changes would need to be implemented with the existing Sustainability Program to help achieve these goals?


We’re always employing different tactics. There’s a lot of harder stuff on the building side because it takes a lot of money and resources, but we have some great examples. We have the new buildings, like CCM, and we’ll see after getting a full year of usage how it’s supposed to use as much energy as Hauke used before. So the new buildings that we’re building are really energy efficient. CCM is utilizing things like the geothermal heating and cooling instead of fossil fuels.


I’m constantly working on the academic side, too, with faculty and getting them to incorporate this in the classroom. I just came from one of the Environmental classes and I’m going to a Corporate Social Responsibility class this afternoon. They’re both doing projects with campus based things. So part of my goal is to have more ecologically- and sustainability-literate student body. You’re also supposed to have quantitative literacy, scientific literacy, information literacy, and we think that students should have ecological literacy.


We’re also working on engaging people outside of classrooms, both students and employees, with activities like the Kilowatt Challenge in the Residence Halls right now, and Sustainability Month.


Would you talk about the Kilowatt Challenge some more? What are some of the goals that the Sustainability Office has and how do you think the Challenge is going so far?


This is something that we started five-six years ago as one of the ways to get students to engage with sustainability. Ultimately, the goal is to teach people how they can conserve energy in their day-to-day living, and hopefully they do it while they’re here, and hopefully they do it for the rest of their lives.


We’re actually seeing electrical energy reductions. And every year that we do this challenge, we see reductions in energy usage for that month. When I ran the numbers last week, one building had reduced their consumption by 32%, which is pretty wild. Another 10-15 buildings had reduced their consumption by 3%, two buildings were flatlined zero, with no change, and two buildings had an increase by one or two percent. So I think in that week, we definitely saw some reductions.


And then the real question is, what happens after the challenge when people relax? We haven’t done any kind of follow-up to see if those behaviors stay in place after the challenge, which could be a good future step to take with it. We just haven’t done it yet.


IMG_9954Would mind going into detail on the Apiary Project and the future achievement goals that you have for that project, in collaboration with CCPI?


The apiary is really the work of Kristin Wolf, who is a faculty member in the CORE Division. She is a beekeeper and has done a bunch of research about beekeepers in the Amazon. She got a grant and funding to build the apiary here. And then we have just couched it under the efforts of Sustain Champlain because it just fits naturally.


It’s a great teaching tool for a variety of classes to go and do. It’s a nice visual. The Green Revolving Fund, which is the fund I help supervise, supported the viewing window and an interpretive sign outside of the apiary, because before it was just this fence, and you didn’t know what was behind there! A student designed the sign and the text for the sign by the window, so you can know a little bit more about the bees.


It was also the Green Revolving Fund that supported the CCPI “Bee-ing Aware” Campaign. It’s been fun to see what students are writing about and seeing what they want to teach other students about through that writing and publication.


I know one of the concluding efforts of that will be showing a movie in spring, probably Vanishing of the Bees. So I think that would be a nice thread throughout the year, between the blog posts and a couple nice poster designs and the film event.


I’m always curious because I had been talking to Kim McQueen and she brought those ideas to the group and said “Which of these are you interested in?” And bees won out. There’s a lot of buzz about bees. And here we are with honey. You can’t get any more local than right behind our own building.


Do you think that people are able to get more excited about the Apiary Project because it’s one of the more tangible sustainability projects?


Yeah. It’s very tangible and it’s very accessible. And it’s fun and tastes good, too. We humans are more inclined to do something that feels good than feels bad. Climate change isn’t a happy-feel-good story. There’s a lot of downright horrible stuff that’s already affecting a lot of people in the world and the projections aren’t that great looking forward. It’s also this big nebulous: you can’t taste it.


champlain honeyThere’s this visceral smell it, taste it, feel it thing that’s just that more accessible. I think it’s a great vehicle for talking about bigger things. You can say, “Here’s honey, here are bees, which are important, but here’s how they fit into this big complex system.” And all of these things are big complex systems, so it can be an entryway, a relatively low-key and fun and interesting way to introduce those issues.


The Dining Hall has started using the apiary honey. It seems like a natural step, so why has it only happened recently?


Mostly logistical issues. Sodexo is our dining service provider. They’re this huge, multinational conglomerate and they have certain purchasing rules they have to abide by. Anyone they purchase from usually has to be a wholesaler with x amount of insurance. We don’t have that. So they’re actually bending their rules and found a little loophole where they could purchase the honey directly from Kristin.


You think, “What’s the big deal? It’s local honey, you can sell it there.” It’s not being pasteurized. It’s not meeting all these other criterion. When a large, major food service organization buys food, it needs to be insured because of food safety rules. If someone gets sick, all of it gets traced back all these pieces. They have to follow their protocol to make sure it’s all there.


Would you mind explaining the Green Revolving Fund more in-depth?


It officially started in 2013 as a funding mechanism that’s found in different schools across the country. In fact, there’s an organization and a campaign, called the Billion Dollar challenge, and the idea is that collectively, campuses across the United States would have one billion dollars that they’re working on spending, with most of it going towards energy efficiency projects.


The idea is that the Green Revolving Fund can pay for a project that Physical Plant may not otherwise have done, and it’s a loan to Physical Plant, and Physical Plant is going to pay back 110% after some of the operational savings have been realized. The light bill for one building might’ve gone down 15%, due to the efficiency measures, they’re able to use those savings to give back a little bit extra, and that’s the revolving part of the loan.


We determine the payback period after the return on investment of the project itself. And it could be over a couple of years or it could be a shorter period of time. It kind of depends on the project. We’ve only done one and we haven’t even done the payback part of it because it’s not even been in implementation for a year yet. So the idea is that the fund can grow because it get’s this additional ten percent payback.


We were able to fund the fund with a few initial gifts from two private individuals and one company who made a gift to the college, and we directed it to this fund. In addition to a lot of lighting projects we do, Burlington Electric Department gives us a rebate for a lot of those projects, and it’s not just a dollar per light bulb. It’s sometimes hundreds of dollars to thousands to dollars to tens of thousands of dollars that we get back for these projects because they have to generate less power.


We’ve grown the Green Revolving Fund to about $90,000 and we do want the bulk of that to go towards energy efficient projects, because that’s where we can see a real return on investment. But we also have a portion of the project called the Community Fund where it doesn’t necessarily have to have a financial return. It could have other returns, like an educational return or benefit, so those are one-time grants, they’re not loans that have to be repaid.


I think we’ve funded six community projects over the past two years. The apiary project and the interpretive sign. The Champ Bicycle Hop in Juniper Hall got funding. An anti-idling campaign. Those are the big ones. They’re coming from faculty, they’re coming from staff, they’re coming from students, so it’s really fun to see what people are proposing and putting forth.


Can you trace your journey to where you are right now? How did you become the Sustainability Director for Champlain College?


So I think my story is often similar to people in my background, and I will put that in the kind of upper-middle class, white American background, which is I had the very privileged experience of spending a lot of time outside. I liked to camp. I liked to ski. Being outside was really important and we were able to do that. And for me, I just loved being outdoors.


I started to learn a little bit about environmental issues and that’s when, in high school, I started to get it. At the time, Environmental Studies was just becoming a thing. It was in the mid-90s when it was really starting to ramp up. And I was getting excited because this was something I could study! And my parents were like, “What the hell is that? Can you get a job?” And I was like, “I don’t know! It’s sounds interesting, and I get to be outside too!” So I was an Environmental Studies and Sociology Major because I got the understanding of the human impact component of environmental issues.


I wanted to look at that in kind of a community basis. I was a student guide and spent a lot of time outside doing a lot more environmental education as an undergrad student. Then I moved to Vermont, where it’s ver agricultural and the environmental ethic is real. I got a Master’s in Environmental Education and started working at Sterling College, a tiny, tiny college up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.


I was working there for 6 years before I decided to come to UVM and get my Doctorate in Sustainability Education. When I was an undergrad at St. Lawrence, I got involved with the environmental organization and a committee of faculty, staff, and students, where we were like, “It’s great that we’re looking at all these things in the world, but we have to practice it right here.”


So at UVM, I got my doctorate and ran the Eco-Reps program there, and that was actually the basis of my doctoral studies. I was looking for an effective way of teaching people. Was teaching through a peer-based, peer-approach at UVM successful? And the study that I did showed that it was.


During my last year there, someone from Champlain called my boss at UVM and said, “We’re looking to hire someone for a half-time position of Sustainability Coordinator at Champlain College.” And my boss said, “How about Christina?” So I came down here and interviewed, and I actually got the job. I was here part-time for one year and was still part-time at UVM and finishing up my doctorate. I was also, as it turns out, pregnant and having my baby, who was born the day I graduated.


After that, after working part-time here for one year, I convinced the school to turn it into a full-time job. This is my seventh year at Champlain. So I never left campus. I’ve been at four different campuses and in the college setting since I was an undergrad, always coming at it from an educator’s perspective; I see myself as an educator, either with fellow employees or with students, formally or informally, in the classroom teaching about our rights and responsibilities and our place in this world related to broader environmental and sustainability efforts.


I see that all as under this big umbrella about making the planet a good place to live for all people and all the other beings and systems around it. That’s my ultimate goal and story in how I came to be doing what I’m doing. I still like the outside. A lot. And I like people. I don’t want them to go away. So we’ve got to kind of bring it all together.


–Michelle Nguyen