Sustainable Humans of Western shares the stories of everyday people taking on everyday challenges to create a more sustainable world,
one day and one action at a time.
Why stories? Storytelling has long been interwoven into the historical human experience and is an intrinsic part of understanding and sustaining our place in the world. Storytelling is where people are able to make connections, collaborate, and build community. It is where we engage our audience in what people are doing, and the impacts of those actions on our campuses, communities, and the world. Storytelling is how we inspire people, whether as an introduction to a topic not yet considered or an action not yet taken.
What’s your story? If you would like to share your story, or nominate someone to share their story, please email OSMedia@wwu.edu for more information.
Abigail Thomas : Environmental Studies and Studio Art
“I come from a rural cattle community in Montana where I have seen firsthand the over-consumption of ecological resources. I remember seeing overgrazed fields everywhere I looked, with streambeds that had been pulverized due to concentrated populations of livestock. The harsh treatment of resources not only effected the environment, but it affected the economic viability of those individual ranching operations. My experiences growing up in Montana inspired me to learn more about pursue sustainable practices because I couldn’t stand by and watch the degradation of my community and the environment around it. In short, I think it’s important that sustainable actions are integrated for the wellbeing of our world.
Sustainability to me is the sustained practice of social responsibility for environmental and cultural resources. It’s a model used to protect the viability of future generations. However, it is not that simple; sustainability also takes into consideration ecological resilience. Our actions have an impact no matter what we do, but with sustainable actions there is hope to diminish those impacts on our environment. I hope in the future it is easy for everyone to make sustainable choices.
At present I am an officer of Students for Renewable Energy. The club has been working to encourage sustainable investing at WWU for the past eight years. I am also the lead for WWU at the Cascade Climate Network, a coalition of college clubs across the Cascades working on a variety of sustainability and justice campaigns. Additionally, I am an AmeriCorps alumnus, having worked as an EnergyCorps member in Montana for Butte Silver-Bow County. In my role I was responsible for creating a renewable energy feasibility report that would give Silver-Bow County background information on sustainable energy options to invest in. I evaluated three locations in the world’s largest superfund site, and proposed solar installations that would help offset the financial burden of energy costs in an impoverished community. I worked with community members and civil servants to create these plans that would offset energy consumption patterns, and contribute to educational opportunities in the community.
I am always advocating for sustainability. I am a double major in studio art and environmental studies, and use my art as a way to communicate and advocate for sustainability every day. I think it’s important to use all forms of communication because we all absorb information differently.”
Previous Sustainable Humans
"I am an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving as the Feeding Western Coordinator. Feeding Western is a relatively new program to Western Washington University, currently housed in the Office of Sustainability (OS) and coordinated by [me] an AmeriCorps VISTA member. This program focuses on remedying food insecurity and supporting healthy futures for students.
AmeriCorps VISTA members are one-year service volunteers that come from all over the country to do capacity building through various projects. I joined AmeriCorps because I thought it was the most direct path to get into non-profit work. My passion lies specifically in addressing and alleviating housing issues and is where I hope to eventually work. I believe AmeriCorps is a good way to serve the community and gain experience working in the non-profit field.
I am at Western doing Feeding Western because of my experience with my last AmeriCorps project in Mount Vernon where I served at Community Action of Skagit County, an organization that supports and manages volunteers for the Sedro-Woolley Food Distribution Center. The food distribution center is a central aspect of the Skagit community and is a major support mechanism for a large portion of the non-profits who would not be able to function as well without them. I learned much about what it means to be involved in the food system, how to positively affect it, and look forward to incorporating that knowledge into what we aspire to do with the Western Food Bank and Feeding Western program.
The Feeding Western program is housed in the OS to address the pillars of sustainability: social justice, human health, economics, and the environment. It is the social justice and human health pillars we are primarily highlighting and carry through in our messaging. My challenge is to find solutions that are appropriate an endorsed by students experiencing food insecurity that also supports the pillars of sustainability because, historically speaking, sustainable or “green” choices often come with monetary premium.
To me sustainability is preserving what resources you have, learning about and stewarding them, and then handing off that knowledge and resource to the next folks after us. It sounds like a simplified version, but at its most basic level it’s about preserving what’s around you, what’s been given to you, and in many cases preserving the planet or your community.
Food insecurity and hunger can be traced to larger sustainability issues because it is the indicator of so many other issues people may experience. I think the most solid tie in our lens at Western is student academic success. The pantry operates under the simple principle that less hungry students tend to do better in school. Food issues also have a big impact on environmental sustainability. For example, when you look at food reclamation, if you can get that food to someone instead of throwing it away you are serving the environment by not sending it to a landfill. When you take a step back, you can make a lot of arguments for why the Western Food Pantry fits so well in the Office of Sustainability and in Western’s sustainable future.
Currently Feeding Western is looking into starting a food drive and I look forward to getting organized with a few students to get it going. Food drives are the lifeblood of a food pantry. It’s a great way to start, allowing the program to become stable, save money, and afford other necessities like pantry space, coolers for fresh food, and outreach materials to educate the campus.
My dream for the Western Food Pantry is to have a least two work-study students that help run the program, in addition to a permanent staff member to oversee Feeding Western and reinforce institutional memory in order to keep moving forward. One work-study position would be dedicated to volunteering coordination, mobilize folks, and do lots of outreach. The other would focus on food drives and fundraising. I believe student-run initiatives on both of those fronts are really effective."
"My name is Samara Almonte. I lived in Bothell, WA the last eleven years, but originally my family is from Mexico, in the state of Michoacán. I chose Western Washington University for its environmental department, and the further I went into the environmental studies program I realized I really enjoyed urban planning, specifically looking at planning through a social justice lens.
I think sustainability has to be intersectional. Often when we talk about sustainability it frequently applies only to the environmental world, which can be good thing because we tend to be anthropocentric. But, we can’t talk about sustainability if we don’t talk about sustainable humans and sustainable communities. At the beginning of my interest in the environmental program I had the idea that we had to go back to a non-urbanized form of living in order to be sustainable. But in reality, cities have existed for a long time and will continue to exist. I believe that it’s not ideal to think that we should all go back to working the land and farming. I think that’s part of the process of healing the environment, but I don’t feel that it’s necessarily ideal for everyone. Now I see it as, ‘we have cities, but where can we go from here.’
A lot of where I come from and where I go back to is indigenous knowledge, not just indigenous groups of the U.S., but also indigenous groups in Latin America that have been resisting urbanization in its exploitative forms. They have redefined what a city is and can be. My biggest dream for sustainable development is how to do sustainable development from a decolonization framework, which is anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal. How can we re-imagine cities and space to be sustainable without borders?
My research interests revolve around education and spatial justice. I am looking at how we educate, where environmental knowledge is part of everything. There is a flaw in the education system because it doesn’t [necessarily] allow for multidisciplinary work that can show people connections between environmental degradation and human exploitation.
Traditional forms of sustainable living haven’t always been accessible, so my work in sustainable living has been in community engagement and activism. I like to look at my own ancestry and what people are doing outside the U.S. I don’t think the U.S. is the epitome of sustainability. There’s a lot to learn from other people."
"It was a pretty long journey to Huxley College of the Environment. I definitely wasn’t looking there when I came to Western, but climate change and all these environmental issues were becoming common knowledge, and the more time I spent at Western, the harder it got to ignore those issues. When I found urban planning it felt like the right balance of involvement with the environment, and it also had the blend of design and community engagement I was looking for.
Sustainability, to me, requires structures and behaviors that don’t exploit certain people or things and that can be continued for generations to come. It’s important to further sustainability because now, as a super senior, I see these freshmen coming into college with the knowledge that has taken me five years to learn. I feel inspired and hopeful to see people already ahead of the curve. Personally, I want to see them continue the work I have to leave behind. It’s my goal to lay as good a groundwork as I can for them, so they can do what they want to do; things I didn’t get a chance to try.
Right now, some people still deny that climate change and environmental injustice are real, but that may not be their fault. They may not have access to education that allows them to see those things. I hope marginalized communities will get the same access and opportunity as the rest of the population, and then everyone might understand each other more easily and we might get more work done. My biggest hope for the future is that everyone can and will participate in work that helps the environmental movement.
Thinking back, a lot of the work I’ve done related to sustainability this past year has fallen more specifically under social equity. A big piece was helping to develop the Environmental Justice Minor. I learned there are a lot of stories about the relationship between nature and minority groups that aren’t widely taught or told, but their stories are just as important to the environmental movement and are as integral to it as anyone else’s. I’m also part of the Huxley Diversity and Community Affairs Committee, where we are working to support and advance the unique experiences of students, faculty, and staff. Both groups are trying to connect to more students, like me, who aren’t traditionally included in environmentalism. I’m also getting involved with Students Against Sexual Harassment & Assault (SASHA), which is looking at, among other things, university policy on alcohol and sexual misconduct, and how all that plays into the power dynamic between students and faculty and/or staff. It’s my hope that we can make some policy changes that will help victims and survivors get more closure when dealing with the university."
"Sustainability to many means taking care of the environment, but I think a common misconception is undervaluing the importance of the financial side of things. If environmental sustainability efforts are not financially sustainable as well, then they ultimately aren't going to be maintained for the long run. Considering these financial aspects of sustainability is an important part of my work as an energy and environmental economist. For example, increased energy efficiency means lowered energy costs to consumers and less use of fossil fuels, but this often comes with higher up-front costs. Understanding how consumers make these trade offs and can contribute to a better understanding of effective sustainability efforts in a system where energy use (and ultimately fossil fuel use) are determined by the cumulative decisions of millions of individuals. Something that would help future sustainability efforts would be if the costs of energy efficiency and green power technologies were driven down further, making them attractive investments to a wider audience purely on financial grounds."
"My definition of sustainability has been changing constantly since I moved to Bellingham, started my coursework in environmental science, and became involved with various groups on campus. I come from a small town that feels very close to nature, where sustainability isn’t something that’s talked about, and there’s this perception that the world is too big for humans to have lasting impacts on the earth. Growing up, sustainability sounded like a buzzword that people who were super passionate about recycling threw around. However, I’ve learned that there’s much more to it than that; there are important economic and social components as well. Now, I’ve come to think of sustainability as more of a descriptor for systems that are built to last, mutually beneficial for all involved, and don’t exploit natural and human resources beyond their capacity to give.
When I was first interested in pursuing environmental science I had a lot of misplaced frustration toward individual consumer choices as the reasons behind environmental degradation. Today, I’m learning more and more about how people’s ways of life are determined by systems of power, individual limitations, and normal process. Some of this realization has come from schoolwork and independent learning, but it has also come from the Community Ambassadors for Sustainability program, in which I have been involved the last two years, as well as the opportunity to help with the development of the Environmental Justice Minor. Through the Sustainability Ambassadors program I’ve worked (to varying degrees of involvement) with the York Community Farm, North West Youth Services’ We Grow Garden, Sustainable Connections, East Whatcom Regional Resource Center, and the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center. I spent most of my time at the York Community Farm, where farm director Mary Loquvam applies a strong social justice lens to her work, employing primarily veterans, those who struggle with homelessness, or were recently incarcerated. She provides employment opportunities in a great work environment, teaching practical skills, and offering access to healthy farm-grown foods.
I learned many practical skills and gained knowledge about organic urban agriculture at the York Farm, but I also developed a stronger sense of connection to Bellingham as my new home and learned the value of having a sense of community. This is another important aspect of the Sustainability Ambassadors program. Our interns this year continue to find ways to bring the WWU and broader Bellingham/Whatcom County communities together with meaningful, lasting partnerships. My experience with this program, starting out last year as one of two interns for the pilot and having the opportunity to be “program staff” this year, has inspired me to think differently about what to do with my science degree after graduation. I think I still enjoy the science side of things much more than education or policy etc., but now I intend to find ways to engage in work that has a strong social justice and community health lens."
“My activism is what defines my sustainable living practices. Social justice is my life’s work. My activism started when I was in college working for the HIV Network in the early 1990’s in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. A lot of people couldn’t get access [to health care] due to homophobia, poverty, among other factors and died. My activism also included starting the Animal Rights Activists Network at Texas Tech University, a largely agricultural college, where we started protests against inhumane treatment of the farm animals. While at Ohio State University, my doctoral dissertation focused on the 1992 Los Angeles Uprisings after the verdict of the Rodney King case. I used the lens of Critical Race Theory and Feminism, and today my work focuses on white privilege, implicit bias, systemic oppression, race, gender, homophobia and family/community engagement in English Language Learner populations.
I see sustainability as a necessary shift in our social conditioning. When we examine systemic oppression like racism, sexism, homophobia, and immigration status, we can actually start to look at equity and equitable access. When we shift our understanding and seek to transform our institutions and the way we provide access to basic human necessities like fresh water and protection when natural disasters hit like Hurricane Katrina and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan then these disasters are not disproportionately affecting impoverished communities and people of color. To me, sustainability is ensuring that everyone has access to safe, healthy and prosperous communities.
It’s interesting to look at communities of color that have been doing sustainability work all along. There’s a lot of great women of color who are important activists to know. Women like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard who started Standing Rock, Lorelei DeCora Means, Madonna Thunderhawk, and Phyllis Young. Janet McCloud founded Women of All Red Nations (WARN), and Dolores Huerta who co-founded National Farmworkers Association with Caesar Chavez. Women of color have done sustainability work for decades, but don’t get the recognition they deserve. We have a lot to learn from these women.
I also look to indigenous communities as the stewards of environmental justice. There needs to be a whole mind-shift in the United States. I believe if we look to our indigenous communities, if we listen to our indigenous communities better, if we listen to women, if we listen to communities of color more, and stop letting money be part of our core value, then sustainability is actually possible. There has to be a complete transformation in our systems to reach sustainability. It’s a big ask and a big shift, a major paradigm shift for dominant white culture.
We have to acknowledge all the experiences from our past in order to rectify our mistakes and create a new, just and peaceful sustainable world. We can’t continue putting Band-Aids on bigger issues. There needs to be a complete transformational shift in how we move through the world and how we relate to each other.
To me, ecology, human health, social justice and economic vitality all go together. If we understand that we come from a system of oppression and that environmental injustice happens because of it, we can transform how we move through the world. We need to be reflective about the many perspectives of our histories and be reflective about what we have done wrong around colonization and systemic oppression and what we have done right to begin to rectify it. We need to look at ways we can make reparations and how we can enhance people’s investment in sustainability practices. We can’t do that unless we listen and make serious actionable adjustments to the way we live our lives. We all have the power to change our world and it’s just a matter of tapping into that power and giving each other equal access to how our society runs.
Right now, with our current political climate, we really need to listen to each other. I’m at a point in my life when someone tells me something is a problem I believe them. I don’t have to question them, I just believe them. I don’t always have to agree or understand their perspective but I have to believe in them. And if they tell me something is offensive, I believe them. And I make sure I don’t continue to do harm and find out why I committed harm in the first place. That takes courage and vulnerability. The more we tap into those characteristics of our lives the more we can transform how we live and move in the world so that everyone’s voice is included and their needs are met.
I will be releasing my book, From Sabotage to Support: A New Vision for Feminist Solidarity in the Workplace, in May 2019. In it, Kami J. Anderson and I advocate that the only way women can successfully support each other is by addressing the varying intersections of our individual power and privileges, particularly focusing on how some privileges are inherited along lines of race, class, sexuality, and geography. You can find more information here: www.joywiggins.com”
"I became interested in environmental activism work while in high school, getting involved in some student-led initiatives and environmental work that focused on sustainability. But it wasn’t until college that I began to see that sustainability is so much broader. Western Washington University was known for opportunities around environmental organizing, which was attractive to me. I spent a semester abroad in Europe during my sophomore year and started exploring large urban cities across the world. It was amazing to see how these cities were planned, how they were oriented around the people, and how that was reflected in the lives of the citizens. When I got back I knew that I had to go into urban planning. I am now majoring in urban planning and sustainable development, with a minor in geography.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and constantly experiencing such a beautiful place inspires what I do. My work has transitioned from an ecological/environmental viewpoint to more of a built environment viewpoint, and I like that it has a lot more human interaction. I think cities are oriented around people and that no two places are the same because there's such a large mix of different backgrounds. That's part of the beauty, figuring out how to plan cities sustainably so that the community is proud of the work that they have done.
I am a social activist. My work allows me to address social injustices in terms of sustainability, whether its policy, planning or community resilience. I recently got involved with Project ZeNETH as a Policy and Planning Committee member. Project ZeNETH is a zero net energy tiny home that we are hoping to build on campus. ZeNETH addresses issues of energy consumption, housing affordability, and a sustainable lifestyle with smaller living. As a part of the policy and planning committee, we are working to locate possible sites for the tiny home. I believe creating and housing a physical model of a sustainable home for students to see on Western’s campus is really important. I am also working on a newsletter to reference different case studies that address the affordable housing crisis and potential for tiny homes in Bellingham.
Recently, Bellingham City planners passed the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) measure, which is huge for our project. We are citing the new guidelines and sharing what they mean for communities. Every day brings new challenges including learning how land is zoned, if we will need a variance for the project, identifying setbacks, where to locate it, what is around it, and its uses.
The new ADU measure is a big deal for improving social equity. It brings many new opportunities to people living in, or those who are thinking about moving to, Bellingham. I think with time we will see how influential this measure is based upon what the ADU’s are being used for, but I am happy it was passed. It offers new housing options for different groups of people, from college students who can’t afford traditional housing, to older parents of Bellingham homeowners who don’t want to go into assisted living. I heard many inspirational stories at the City of Bellingham planning meetings where the public shared how the ADU measure would benefit the community. I can’t think of a reason we should stop people from adopting more sustainable actions and housing options.
I do what I am able and I believe it’s important to do what is in one’s capacity. I have found that people often think the changes one “has to make” to be sustainable are crazy or drastic, when in reality they are small tweaks, made over time, to one’s mindset and lifestyle. I think about our culture of consumption and it's hard to not get wrapped up in consuming, especially on a college campus in the time that we live in. It’s hard not to try to stay up to date with all the trends. In the past few years, I’ve focused on purchasing things that will last longer, staple items that make me feel good about myself and where my money is going. Thrifting has become trendy and hip, and has been amazing in spreading the word on fast fashion and sustainable consumption. We have such a wide range of options and opportunities for second-hand items in Bellingham.
Long term, I’d like to see communities planned in a way that makes it easier for people to make sustainability-related changes in their lifestyles, focusing on social equity. Much change will happen when conversations are held; many people still don’t know the full effects of their actions. "
"To me, sustainability means building resilient communities and supporting long term, socially responsible goals through short term action. Developing sustainable habits and sharing those habits with our friends and family allows us to learn and grow from each other. Currently I am working on creating a mentorship program where young women, high school through college, are paired long term with a female professional in an industry of interest. This is a project where generations can learn from each other and create a space where women can support women. Unfortunately, society sends the message that women are each other's competition; sometimes when young women reach out to professionals they are met with no response, which can be incredibly discouraging. It is our job to trailblaze for each other because the glass ceiling still exists!
I learned my sustainability habits from my mom was raised in the Soviet Union. I don’t think she was trying to get us to save the planet, but rather teaching us how to live with what we need, not everything we want. It was definitely annoying sometimes, like when she made us wash and dry all of our little plastic baggies… again…and again….and again. However, one of my favorite things she showed me is the value in making things. We’d go shopping for clothes and I’d say, “Mom this is so cute!” Then she’d walk over, look at it and say, “You can make this yourself.” And thanks to the sewing and knitting skills she taught me… I could. Through The Tilh Collective, which I started with a few friends who are also passionate about sustainable fashion, we have created a space to create, discuss, and support sustainable fashion practices. Last year, one of the coolest things we did was create pieces of vegan leather out of kombucha. This quarter, we are excited to be hosting a clothing swap and textile recycling party.
Personally, I am trying to adopt what I call ‘The One Policy.’ Basically, this means that I own one of any item that I only use one of at any given time. For example, I will never use more than one pen at one time, so I only have one pen. Or, I will only use one chapstick at one time, so I only have one chapstick. I have been doing this with various items for over a year now, and I have seen some interesting changes in my attitude toward material goods. For one, I am far more attached to my one pen than I have been to any other pen. I hardly ever lose this pen because I know that I have to take care of it. This also means that I am not afraid to invest in ethically made products that may be more expensive and last longer because I know I will use it until it is worn out. This is an incredibly small lifestyle change that anyone can do.
My hope for the future is a place where all people use their strengths to socially and economically support themselves, each other, and the planet. A large part of this is intergenerational collaboration. We have a lot to learn from the people who have come before us, from their mistakes and their successes. Yet, we cannot forget about our younger siblings, because they are the future. A sustainable future is one where the Golden Rule is exemplified amongst all people."
"To me, sustainability means the ability to meet the needs of current and future generations, including ecological and social needs. True sustainability for this world will require a paradigm shift away from Western culture’s current (and longstanding) obsession with conquest, consumption, and oppression and will require a systemic change that accounts for ecological and social needs simultaneously.
My personal work in sustainability has focused on textiles. I started knitting about ten years ago, which became a gateway to more textile crafts as well as greater thinking about issues of sustainability in the textile industry. In 2017, I worked with other WWU students to write a Sustainability, Equity, and Justice Fund Grant to bring the textile activist Frau Fiber (aka Carole Frances Lung) to WWU. Frau Fiber gave a talk about her work involving the social and environmental impacts of garment production. Additionally, we assisted Frau Fiber in holding a free mending and upcycling workshop where people mended clothes, created patches, and upcycled discarded t-shirts. I also wrote a zine about fast fashion that was distributed before and during these events.
In December 2017, I started to volunteer at the local textile reuse non-profit Ragfinery and now work there, allowing me to educate the public on textiles and sustainability. Ragfinery sells donated textile items such as fabric, yarn, and clothes to divert them from the waste stream while also providing job training for people facing poverty. In addition to working at Ragfinery, I have taught multiple workshops, including how to reclaim yarn from sweaters to knit into new garments and how to knit scraps of yarn into fingerless mitts.
For my senior project, I am using Geographic Information Science (GIS) to create an online, interactive map of the fiber network of the Pacific Northwest. The fiber network includes textile producers (such as sheep farmers and textile mills), textile shops (such as yarn shops), and other participants. The goal of this project is to shine a light on the status of the regional production system of fiber and textiles in the Pacific Northwest, to help people and organizations examine what steps in fiber/textile production are missing regionally and where and in what way it is succeeding. Personally, I try to follow the "Use what you have first, borrow second, swap third, thrift fourth, make fifth, and buy new sixth". I try to always upcycle clothing into new creations and mend clothes for myself and others to divert that cycle of consumption."