On Jan. 19, the college announced the appointment of interim Director of Sustainability Elizabeth Drake to the position on a permanent basis by President Valerie Smith. The first thing Drake wants students to know is that they are in the driver’s seat. This belief forms a central part of her work, as she emphasizes the importance of collaborating with those around her. The Phoenix spoke with Drake about her professional background and sustainability goals for the college.
“I’m always open to new perspectives and ideas about a problem and potential solutions,” Drake said in an interview with The Phoenix.
Having served in her current position on an interim basis since July, Drake has experience in her role. As the director of sustainability, she’ll be overseeing a variety of new developments, including the introduction of the college’s “Roadmap to Zero Carbon” energy plan and the opening of the Dining and Community Commons this summer, having done so while serving as interim director.
Moreover, Drake oversees the President’s Sustainability Research Fellows (PSRF) and Green Advisors. Drake noted that, this year, both programs have full cohorts, with nine students serving as PSRFs and eighteen as Green Advisors.
“We’ve had quite a lot of interest in both programs. Both of these programs are designed to help equip students with important skills and knowledge in sustainability, project management, and leadership, while actively participating in campus sustainability work, which I think continues to draw in students,” she said.
For Drake, the process of drawing others in is a crucial part of sustainability. Drake believes that these programs will help students take part in her philosophy of drawing others into the realm of environmental sustainability.
“I also strongly believe in the idea of equipping others with the skills, knowledge, and agency necessary to make change,” commented Drake.
This interest in empowering others to make a difference arises out of a personal connection with the environment. Drake shared that her experiences growing up have influenced the work that she does today. “I grew up in a rural part of New York and was raised in such a way that I’ve always felt a deep connection to the land and the natural environment. We spent a lot of time outside doing things like growing vegetables and fruit trees, foraging, making maple syrup, etc. So, I’ve always felt a kinship with the environment and desire to protect it,” she said.
That desire led Drake to work at Fetzer Vineyards before coming to Swarthmore. Drake highlighted that Fetzer Vineyards is a certified B Corp, meaning that it has committed to using its business model to address environmental and social challenges.
“Through this work, I was exposed to sustainability through a corporate lens and came to understand both barriers to systems change as well as the power that businesses in a capitalist economy have to bring about positive change (or not),” Drake said.
Because of this experience and a motivation to influence the lives of others, Drake decided that she was interested in leaving the corporate world.
“In higher education, there’s so much opportunity to create impact by helping educate students who go on to become future leaders in business, government, the nonprofit sector, and all kinds of other fields. If students leave Swarthmore with an understanding of sustainability issues and their role within them, we can make a big difference in the world,” said Drake.
Nonetheless, there are real challenges in pursuing sustainability.
“I think one of the most challenging things about implementing sustainability initiatives in any environment is the amount of time it can take to see real impact. It takes time to implement changes to operational systems, like our zero waste efforts on campus. In the face of the climate crisis and other intersecting issues, there’s always a desire to do more, to do it faster, and see results sooner, which can be difficult to reconcile with the reality of the time it takes to make meaningful change,” Drake said.
She sees hope, however, in including others in the process.
“The more people we have engaged in sustainability, the bigger impact we can have, which is why our office seeks to build capacity across campus and create opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to get involved with sustainability work.”
As the college looks ahead to strategic planning, Drake noted that, while still early in its strategic planning process, the college plans to convene a working group dedicated to thinking about sustainability more broadly across student life.
“There will be a group that’s focused specifically on sustainability and how it connects to various other themes in the strategic plan, like the curriculum, student experience, and other areas, which brings an opportunity to think about how sustainability can truly be integrated into every aspect of campus life,” Drake said.
Regardless of what the working group recommends, Drake said that she is working towards the college’s sustainability goals with the knowledge that change is both her responsibility and ours.
“Issues like the climate crisis won’t be solved just by sustainability professionals,” she said. “Everyone can be a changemaker and play a part in advancing sustainability.”