Q&A: Engaging students with sustainability

Monday 27-02-2017 - 15:21

Pete Offord is Campaign and Community Partnerships Coordinator at Middlesex University Students' Union. We spoke to him about engaging the student community with sustainability.

Tell us a bit about your role in the students' union. 

I am the Campaign and Community Partnerships Coordinator. In a nutshell I am responsible for encouraging our students to engage with the local community. My role also covers our participation in the Green Impact Awards and an important part of that is helping to grow our ‘green’ student societies.

What does 'sustainability' mean to you?

As someone with a background in conservation, to me sustainability means reflecting and respecting the cycle of the natural world. It is about trying to get to a point where we are no longer having a catastrophically detrimental impact on the environment, and actually work with nature. It means trying to tackle some of the big questions facing our society; too often what we do is at the expense of the world around us. For example, we will face huge global food shortages in the future but individual countries still focus on cash crops rather than maintaining a diversity of different plants, which makes them more vulnerable to disease or pests.

So sustainability means thinking and acting on a global scale and a holistic way; it means working to overcome some of the barriers that prevent some sections of society from engaging with messages about sustainability.

How has Green Impact changed your university's engagement with sustainability? 

Until recently our student union has had little active engagement with the institution on sustainability issues. I am changing that. We have setup working groups on a number of different issues such as Fairtrade suppliers and organising the annual Go Green event. The University has found it challenging to communicate sustainability in a meaningful way to the student body. I am helping them to talk about the good work the institution does such as closed systems to reduce their energy use in heated buildings and the bee hives on the roof!

How do you hope to take sustainability work forward, and progress with Green Impact?

Already I have helped to set up a free bicycle hire scheme to encourage our students to use more environmentally friendly methods of travelling to campus. I will also be helping to embed sustainability within the structures of the students’ union, and looking to reference it in the job descriptions of all of our staff and our union policies. My focus is to build our ‘green’ societies to develop a pool of active students who can take a lead in pushing sustainability issues on campus. I will be helping these societies to plan and run a campaign, helping the whole campus to make small changes which – combined - will have a big impact.

What do you think is the best way to engage students with sustainability? 

I believe that a huge issue for sustainability is our disconnection from the natural world. This is reflected in every part of our lives, from where we live to the food we eat and clothes that we buy. The big challenge is to raise these issues in an accessible way, I think if you asked students about what ‘sustainability’ means to them you would get some interesting answers! As with any campaign, it is finding that personal connection to the issue. This is likely to be very different across our diverse campuses. But a clear and consistent message will be more powerful than a dozen different ones. I believe this means working to find that common ground which might be food for some people and clothing for others. I feel that peer to peer communication works better than a hundred flyers and all the social media in the world! I am encouraging our ‘green’ student societies to be as active as possible, to be out talking to and listening to their fellow students in order to them better understand issues that they care about.

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