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Conference presents challenges, solutions for sustainable communities

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and current head of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, says that despite the looming challenges we face due to climate change, she still has hope.

Robinson was a keynote speaker for The Ohio State University 2019 Community Engagement Conference held this week in the Ohio Union. Hundreds of faculty, students, staff and community partners filled ballrooms and exhibit space to discuss research, partnerships and resources to help build sustainable and resilient communities.

Robinson said her perspective was formed at a conference she attended with her friend Desmond Tutu, a South African human rights activist. Tutu’s message to the crowd was filled with love and hope. It was a message that caused consternation for some: A journalist challenged Tutu on why he was such an optimist in a time of such great conflict.

“He looked at her and shook his head and said, ‘No, dearie, I’m not an optimist, I’m a prisoner of hope,’” Robinson said. “I was very struck at the time by that expression. But I’ve thought about it off and on since and we all need to be prisoners of hope. Because if you’re a prisoner of hope, the glass may not be half full but what you do is work with what’s in the glass.”

She realized after she left office that climate change and climate justice were issues she wanted to confront and work to solve.

“I decided this is the human rights issue I’m going to focus on for the rest of my life,” she said.

In addition to Robinson, environmental policy expert Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, the sustainability policy adviser to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spoke to those attending the two-day conference. Abdul-Matin emphasized the need to build partnerships between institutions, like Ohio State, and the surrounding community.

“As universities and communities work to solve complex societal problems, these meaningful partnerships are crucial because no one person or organization will solve these problems alone,” said Stephen Myers, associate vice provost for the Office of Outreach and Engagement, as he opened the event.

The conference coincided with recent intense hurricanes and historically bad wildfires that have put focus on the issues of sustainability and the need to build resilient communities. It was a message repeated often during the two-day event.

Discussions and presentations reflected the all-hands-on-deck approach. The university’s Department of Design led a conversation on urban design. A few rooms away, members of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners presented recommendations to help build a sustainable energy future in the state.

One panel included members from local government and the business community discussing ways to solve problems on a more local level. Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said his city has developed a roadmap to achieve an 80 percent reduction in the city’s carbon emissions by 2050.

“I think internalizing the idea that we’re not going to wait on Washington is very empowering,” he said.

He also summed up the goal of a conference designed to help communities solve big problems by working together. Sittenfeld said that as a politician, he has to discuss solutions in a way that explains how people will be impacted by change.

“You have to meet your audience where they are,” he said.

Ohio State launches Sustainability Institute

President Michael V. Drake helped open the Community Engagement Conference by announcing the creation of the Sustainability Institute.

The new institute merges the Office of Energy and Environment and the Sustainable and Resilient Economy Discovery Theme. The goal of the new institute is to support and integrate sustainability and resilience scholarship and activities across the university mission.

“The work of sustainability often feels overwhelming given the magnitude of the problems we are facing,” Sustainability Institute Faculty Director Elana Irwin said. “The only way we can make progress on this is to work together. The Sustainability Institute intends to be a platform to enable that work.”

The institute is part of the university’s commitment to enhancing social, economic and environmental conditions. Institute leadership will pursue a more coordinated and inclusive approach to sustainability that includes interdisciplinary collaboration, campus stewardship and applied solutions.