Helmsley trust awards campus sustainability

On April 27, the College announced that Vassar was recently awarded a grant of $997,564 from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to begin a new series of sustainability projects on campus, all of which will be centered around the establishment of the Vassar Conservation and Environmental Engagement Cooperative (VCEE-COOP). The Helmsley Charitable Trust is a charitable foundation that seeks to provide financial support for various nonprofits and other

mission-centric organizations in the United States and all around the world in the fields of health, conservation, education and other place-based initiatives. According to Professor of Biology and member of the College Committee on Sustainability Meg Ronsheim, the Helmsley Charitable Trust first became aware of Vassar’s conservation and restoration work in late 2013, when they first heard about her work on the restoration of the Edith Roberts Ecological Laboratory, as well as other projects like the initiative to restore parts of

the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve in cooperation with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). This then led to a collaborative effort between the College and the Trust to draft a grant proposal that would best serve the goals of both organizations, a process which was spearheaded by Ronsheim, Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann and Professor of Biology Lynn Christenson. The grant that Vassar was awarded, under the field of conservation, will serve many purposes. The description of the grant on the Helmsley Charitable Trust website reads, “[This is] funding to support the growth of environmental education activities, scientific data collection and dissemination, and to repurpose an existing building as a center for environmental programming.” Among the projects for which the College plans to utilize the Helmsley grant money is the renovation of the Vassar Barn on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve. The College intends to renew a 5,600-square foot wing of the historic barn for the creation of offices and meeting rooms. According to Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall, it is the hope of those in charge of the project that ground will be broken early in the summer, so that the new wing may be opened by early October. The College is currently in the process of obtaining planning board approval from the City of Poughkeepsie, and the architectural design of the project will be handled in-house, by Project Manager of Buildings and Grounds and licensed architect Bryan Corrigan, who has worked on such other projects at Vassar as the renovation of the Maria Mitchell Observatory to house the Education Department and the refurbishment of Davison House. With these renovations, the Barn will aim to serve as the hub of Vassar’s environmental research and outreach efforts, and will strive to develop cooperative ties with surrounding communities and organizations in the Hudson Valley. Hall wrote in an emailed statement, “The

renovated barn will serve as a visitor center, a co-working space, an exhibit hall, a research center, and more, helping to further catalyze conservation efforts in the Hudson Valley.” Renewal of the Vassar Barn for the VCEECOOP will also allow new programs and activities to flourish on campus, with new housing and resources available to the Vassar community as well as to sustainability organizations working in the greater Hudson Valley area, such as the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP), the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA) and the SCA. According to Begemann, the College has already begun working with members of EMMA to craft a job description for the position of EMMA coordinator, which will be initially operating out of the VCEE-COOP’s new home on the Farm and Ecological Preserve. She commented in an emailed statement, “We see VCEE-COOP serving as both a physical and organizational structure that will enhance the capacity of those participating, whether they are Vassar initiated projects, organizations with which we partner already…or new organizations that we seek to begin collaborations with, to further education around environmental and conservation issues.” The VCEE-COOP will also seek to use their modernized headquarters as a means of interacting with the local community on issues of conservation and sustainability. As Ronsheim explained, they plan to work even more closely with the PFP to provide more place-based educational opportunities for local school children, and to engage members of the surrounding communities in various citizen science projects on the Farm and Ecological Preserve. One such project is the Vassar Farm Phenology Trail, a part of the greater network organization, the New York Phenology Project, which focuses on data collection, ecological research and environmental monitoring. They plan to use the VCEE-COOP as the opportunity to foster greater dialogue concerning how climate change is affecting local ecosystems, particularly those of the surrounding Hudson Valley. Begemann wrote, “The most exciting as

pect of this project to me is the capacity it will provide for Vassar to engage with the broader Hudson Valley community on issues related to conservation, place based learning, and the environment by providing a physical space for partnership organizations to work together and with Vassar students on related initiatives.” She went on to say, “We are already doing great things on this front, but with an umbrella organization such as VCEE-COOP, we will be able to bring people and organizations together that have common goals and interests rather than working independently.” According to Begemann and Ronsheim, the goal of the VCEE-COOP is to bring sustainability activities, education and research under one roof so that they can run more fluidly and synergistically. Begemann explained the VCEECOOP’s ultimate goal. “The idea of VCEECOOP is to create something like an incubator– a place where organizations, students, faculty and community members can come together to engage deeply and in a sustained fashion with the environment and conversation, in our own backyard– the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve,” she noted. Hall echoed the sentiment, and asserted that it is the College’s goal through this project to make the Farm and Ecological Preserve a more active space for students on campus. “We have 500 acres of forest and 6+ miles of trails just next to campus proper than many students don’t experience,” Hall added. “We hope that VCEE-COOP will turn the Preserve into more of a destination, whether that’s for class, watching a rugby game, a student org retreat at the Barn, or a leisurely walk on the trails,” he went on to say. To oversee the daily operations of the VCEECOOP, the College plans to allocate a portion of the grant’s funds towards hiring a manager responsible for daily operations and visitor services and a coordinator tasked with VCEECOOP programming and environmental monitoring. Working with them will be a small team of post-baccalaureate assistants, who will help to seek out new sustainability partnerships and engage local community members on issues of

conservation and sustainability. According to Hall, four interns have already been hired to work for the summer, and the College is still searching for candidates to fill the manager and coordinator positions, which they hope to fill by July. Two post-baccalaureate positions, one centered around environmental education and outreach and the other around environmental research and restoration, will most likely be filled by August or September, if possible. Although the plans are still in their early stages, many have expressed their optimism about what their impact on the Vassar community will be. Ronsheim commented, “I am very excited about the opportunity to connect more broadly with other environmental groups in the Hudson Valley. We are already working to forge stronger local connections through our partnerships with EMMA and the SCA, and this grant will really enhance our ability to further those connections.” Some others, however, argue that efforts like these have been long overdue, and perhaps insufficient in the greater struggle for climate justice. Vassar Greens Divestment Coordinator Ben Lehr ’16 posited, “Vassar has made significant efforts to reduce their environmental impact, and the farm is an amazing resource for ecological and environmental education. However, education and slow improvements in campus efficiency are not enough. Vassar needs to recognize that climate change is an urgent social justice issue.” Despite some criticism though, faculty members and administrators responsible for the VCEE-COOP’s inception remain confident that its impacts on the Vassar community and on the larger Hudson Valley will be significant. “I share both Marianne and Meg’s excitement of connecting with our larger local community in understanding conservation today. Our ability to serve as a hub for these interactions is an amazing opportunity for all members of the Vassar community,” Christenson remarked. “We have some very challenging, yet great opportunities, to participate in a new way of thinking about conservation.”

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