The old barn on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, which long stood empty, has recently been revitalized by the Environmental Cooperative. The co-op sprouted after the Helmsley Charitable Trust Grant awarded Vassar $997,000 for the purpose of centralizing and consolidating environmental research, outreach and education activities at the college.
In addition to seasonal programming, the funds will be used to redesign the barn to include a new office space for the Environmental Co-op at the Barn and Student Conservation Association, as well as a multi-purpose space for college and community events. Co-op Programming Manager Jennifer Rubbo iterated, “Our goals are really just fostering a connection underneath a conservation lens, so thinking about it in an environmental and a conservation way, how can we connect people and increase engagement in environmental conservation?” According to Rubbo, the College also needed to match the grant financially.
Sustainability activities at Vassar have been more abundant than usual this year, featuring a calendar of Earth Day-inspired events spread over the entire month of April. The events include clean-ups of the campus and Arlington area, like the one at Sunset Lake on April 9, and educational walks, tree plantings and vine removals. “We’ve tried to select a range of activities that will get people out there doing some action-oriented projects, like clean-ups and tree plantings, and combining that with activities with ways that people can learn more about projects that are environmental-related or conservation-related,” Rubbo explained.
Sometimes the programming does not work out as planned. “One of our biggest challenges is getting students engaged,” Rubbo noted. Seven people showed up to the tree walk on April 10, only three of whom were students. While low student turnout does not impede these events, the weather occasionally does.
Despite challenges, the community as a whole has remained determined to make this work. Rubbo said, “Part of it is just getting the word out that we’re here and helping to get students engaged in the environment and what’s going on in the community. It’s been really easy to get the community engaged. The community is really excited that the environmental cooperative is here and that we want to try to get students out helping these different community groups out doing what they’re doing.”
For some, these activities are vital opportunities for outdoor learning that are otherwise infrequent. Tree walker Dylan Finley ’17 said, “Vassar has the potential to instill important lessons about sustainability and about how we can help the Earth in a myriad of ways. While we’re students here, we should take advantage of that as much as possible.”
The co-op also gives students a chance to try their hand at leadership positions, as Volunteer Coordinator Charles Hooghkirk ’19 did at Sunday’s clean-up. He wrote in an emailed statement, “I think that it’s important not only to promote environmental education and awareness but also for the institution to act on its environmental goals, an economic way that addresses a lot of environmental destruction.”
The Administration is also working towards creating more sustainable college living conditions. The Office of Sustainability in particular has been working over the past year to develop a carbon neutrality plan that would hopefully reduce the college’s footprint. Office of Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall said, “When we’re discussing carbon neutrality, we track the college’s annual greenhouse gas emissions and that comes from the central heating plant, which keeps the buildings heated, the electricity we purchase, the travel that employees and students do for either admissions or fundraising or junior year abroad. All of that counts. We track all of that annually, and we’re trying to come up with a plan to get that number to zero or close to it.” Hall also cited positive feedback from the Board of Trustees as a boost to its implementation. The Administration hopes to replace some fossil fuel use with solar panels on the farm.
The attack on fossil fuels has assumed multiple fronts at Vassar, not all of them to the Administration and Board of Trustees’ liking. Divest VC members, on the other hand, were satisfied that the Fossil Fuel Divestment Resolution passed in referendum on April 7. The vote was 91.41 percent in favor with support from 1,032 students. The resolution and the movement came under scrutiny from President Hill in a recent op-ed published in The Miscellany News, in which she criticized its economic plausibility and efficacy.
“We’re also planning to escalate before the end of the year, as in ramp up our actions,” resolution writer Elise Ferguson ’17 promised. “Because at this point they’re not going to compromise with us. We’ve spoken with them and reason isn’t going to convince them. So we just have to show the massive amount of support that we have as much as possible, and another is through direct action.”
Divestment’s great success has been due to style and frequency of their campaigning. In their 2014 resolution, Divest VC proposed a similar resolution to their current one, but its roots were in the environmental impacts of fossil fuel usage. Their most recent resolution, on the other hand, is rooted in social justice. “We’re trying to fight climate change, which disproportionately affects communities and individuals that are already vulnerable,” Divest VC activist Addison Tate ’17 explained. “In terms of fossil fuel extraction processes—along the lines of environmental justice—pollution and extraction processes happen more commonly in low-income communities and communities of color.”
Now, eyes turn to the Board of Trustees to see how they will react to the referendum’s passing. “You should take notice that this is what Vassar students right now are caring about and to really show that students’ interests and concerns are not being properly responded to by the administration and trustees when we all declare so strongly that we support this movement and this campaign,” said Divestment supporter Martin Man ’16. Whether they politically support clean energy on the administrative scale, or whether they get down in the dirt to clean or plant, Vassar students are demonstrating their desire for a sustainable, conscious campus.