ESA and DivestSC host Fall Sustainability forum

Panelists sit at a table with masks on. One has a computer, two have files with papers and one has nothing in front of her.

The forum aimed to inform students about the sustainability initiatives taking place on campus, including the addition of charging ports on both of USC’s campuses. (Ignacio Ventura-Maqueda Jr. | Daily Trojan)

With masks and Trojan Checks set into place, moderator Kathleen Verendia began the first in-person gathering of students and staff since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the Fall Sustainability Forum. Hosted by the Environmental Student Assembly and DivestSC, the event took place Wednesday on the fourth floor of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center and presented an opportunity for students to listen to and ask questions about USC’s sustainability efforts. 

The event panel featured four people across various University departments: Office of Sustainability Associate Director Ellen Dux, Office of the President Project Specialist Hannah Findling, Facilities Management Services Energy Manager Zelinda Welch and Transportation Director Tony Mazza. Environmental Student Assembly executive director Verendia, a senior majoring in environmental studies, moderated the discussion and opened the event by introducing each of the panelists and emphasizing sustainability projects the University has worked on now and will continue in the future.

“We’re going to focus a lot on what USC has done in the past few years and what projects we’re working on right now,” Verendia said. “Recently, especially with President [Carol] Folt, we’ve had a lot of energy and money put into sustainability on campus, which is really exciting, but there’s still a lot of disconnect with students not knowing what staff and faculty are up to and also staff and faculty not getting to know what initiatives students are interested in, so that’s what we want to focus on today.”

Each panelist discussed some of the sustainability efforts achieved on campus so far. Mazza described creating “great headway” to campus infrastructure with USC opening 237 EV charging ports on both University campuses in response to the demand for electrical vehicles. Dux recognized that the University achieved a silver rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessing and Rating System, a program dedicated to rating the sustainability performance of educational institutions across the country.

The discussion also delved into exploring efforts the University can take to increase sustainability on campus. Findling stressed that student involvement in sustainability efforts can make a difference.

“I really think that students have a huge role in coming together and in constructing priorities for the administration because you are the people who are funding this University,” Findling said. “You are the reason this University exists. So, if you come together and you care about something, and you make statements about it together as a group, that is so powerful.” 

In an interview with the Daily Trojan following the event, Verendia said that the forum’s goal was to “bridge the gap of communication between faculty and staff and students” because she wanted students to learn about the current sustainability projects happening on campus.

“I think what I was a little bit surprised about was how, when I asked about how students can get involved, the big thing that they emphasized was focusing on students connecting with other students,” Verendia said. “I think that was a really good point that they made, and they brought up some really good ideas about how we can, as students, use our voices to make change.”

Panelists also went into detail regarding the barriers hindering the University’s sustainability goals, which include financial restraints and the inability of the 22 schools that make up the University to act as a collective unit to tackle environmental issues.

The forum concluded with a question and answer section for students to ask questions about sustainability on campus. 

Eytan Stanton, a sophomore majoring in geodesign, was the first audience member to pose a question and asked if there existed a way to address dining halls throwing away leftover food after hours. 

Dux responded by admitting she was shocked about the situation since the University does compost all organic food waste but indicated coronavirus guidelines may be the reason as to why food may not be given to homeless shelters. 

Despite his disappointment in USC’s response to leftover food, Stanton said he still intends to hold the University responsible in its sustainability efforts.

“I’m just interested in understanding the efforts of USC with regards to sustainability issues,” Stanton said. “I think my money is going to a lot of things on campus, and I do want to make sure to hold the school accountable in ways that I can, and I think I appreciate venues like this, too.” 

Other audience members posed questions centered around whether or not the University would try to talk with community organizers and policymakers about environmental justice and how the sustainability efforts intend to tackle plastic usage on campus. Panelists responded that USC has already reached out to community members and created initiatives to change people’s behavior to avoid using excessive waste.

As the event came to a close, Welchen said she was excited about student involvement in the University’s sustainability efforts after listening to students’ thoughts and concerns and hopes to build a partnership with them.

“I think that was a good, diverse group of questions,” Welchen said. “It’s important that people are looking at this from a whole broad range of perspectives.”

ESA and DivestSC intend to hold another forum next Tuesday centered around the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The event will feature a different set of panelists and will be moderated by International Relations and Environmental Studies Associate Professor Shannon Gibson.