Catherine Showalter: Introducing a Dynamic Sustainability Program at UCLA Extension

Posted on 04. Nov, 2009 by in Design & Culture, Entrepreneurship, Interviews

Catherine Showalter

When you think of a “green metropolis,” perhaps cities like Portland, Curitiba, or Vancouver come to mind. Cities the world over utilize a wide range of strategies to promote environmental responsibility and awareness. London and Stockholm have their congestion charges, Barcelona has Bicing, Arlington, Virginia, the Twin Cities, and Denver, Colorado have been recognized by the EPA for their “smart growth” urban planning methods.  These kinds of innovative initiatives would never have come about had not creativity, experimentation, and collaboration been recognized as vital steps on the path toward a greener way of life. This is the kind of conversation that needs to be fostered.

Here too, in the City of Angels, a shift is occurring toward a greener way of being. Catherine Showalter, director of UCLA Extension‘s Public Policy Program, is contributing to this with the introduction of a new educational program that focuses on sustainability. “This is a total new model for us,” she says. Because academic settings are one of the primary places where ideas, experimentation, and discussion thrive, the new Certificate in Global Sustainability Showalter leads at UCLA Extension has the potential to make a huge impact, especially because many Angelenos are seeking to expand their knowledge and involvement with sustainability. In fact, students and professionals have shown such tremendous interest in the program that the course offerings this fall have been doubled. The result: LA is getting greener by the second. I discussed the details of this new program with Catherine last week. Read on to find out more.

Opportunity Green: What’s your background in terms of sustainability? Is it an idea that you grew up with, or did you come across it later on?

Catherine Showalter: Probably both, but my most related experience professionally would be my seven and a half years at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, as Director of Transportation Programs. There, what we were trying to do was to reduce the pollution from mobile-source emissions. So, that goes back some years, and I think all of us from the time we were little, got some message about making sure that we don’t waste. And then here of course, I’m the director of the Public Policy program and a lot of the activities and programs that we develop have to do with environmental issues as well as land use, planning, environmental law, transportation, it’s all related. This seems like it’s found its home at Extension, and I did express an interest in leading this effort and the Dean gave me that opportunity.

OG: How do you see the role of education in the development of sustainability?

CS: Oh, I think education has a leadership role. To identify not just what’s going on at the present time but to be on the cusp, to be in contact with those in the fields, and of course there are so many different disciplines when you talk about sustainability, but to have some sense of exactly what’s around the corner. So the way we developed this Sustainability Certificate was to make sure that it wasn’t stagnant, that it was truly dynamic. We know going in that all of the courses are not yet fully developed, there will be more and more areas of concentration offered over time as we identify the direction that we’re going with this field.

OG: What was the process for putting together this new program? How did it get decided what exactly was going to be included, and it is you need to know in order to be an expert in global sustainability?

CS: Well the way  it got started, it was a year ago now, June actually, that the Dean asked me to begin the process. So in August we got together a group, internally, of our program and department directors and talked about what it was that, just in general, we might want to do. We knew that LEED was out there, but we wanted to be much broader than LEED. We knew that we were not all experts in this area at all, and so we needed to tap into some expertise, professionally, in the different areas and so we put together a plan for moving forward. We also invited an advisory board, and we met with our advisory board twice. One to say, “Okay, this is what we think we want to do, what is that you see as the need?” We had done a little bit of market research prior to that first meeting, so we could share that with them. But we came out of it with the skeleton, the idea, the format of what this might look like. Then we used what they shared with us, as far what they thought needed to be included, and then met with the advisory board again and the discussion was, “This is what we heard, this is what we developed, are we on track?” and then developed it further. So what we ended up with was this program where there are three core courses, which are required, and these courses are each principles of sustainability.

The first course is the environmental dimension, it talks about the environment, the planet, and focuses on science. The second, Principles of Sustainability II, is the economic dimension, and the third core class is about the social dimension. It goes back to the planet, economics, and the people side of things, those are the three areas that we really knew we needed to address. So there’s those three required courses, and we also have as a requirement a one-day ethics class that everyone needs to take as part of the certificate program.

In addition, what we also include, because this is a 36-unit certificate, are areas of concentration that individuals may choose from. We identified four specific ones, and then one, a general studies, but the four areas that we identified with our advisory board to begin with were design, so you’re looking at some product or some thing from the beginning to the very end, the cradle-to-cradle idea. Business strategy is the second area of concentration, environmental law and policy is the third, and energy and technology is the fourth. And a fifth one has already been developed and will be ready to go for the spring of 2010, and that is education, it might be education and society. So that will be more geared those that are more interested in teaching or advocacy, something in that area.

So we have that, we launched it this fall. We have an outstanding response of interest already. For our first core class, we had to double up and add a second session because we were inundated with students that were registering, so we’re well under way with two great classes to talk about the Principles of Sustainability I. We’ll be offering the second core in the winter and repeating the first, and then in the spring we’ll be offering the third course. So the demand has just been outstanding, the interest is incredible. We’re very very pleased. And what we’ve tried really hard to do with this is to indeed have it be multi-disciplinary, so it cuts across all the different departments at Extension. In the past, certificates have been led by one department, it stays within that department, and it’s about a topic that only has to deal with one department’s issues. This is different. This is a total new model for us, in that it truly is representative of the different disciplines, and it takes a lot of coordination and colllaboration.

So where we’re going from here, as I said we launched it this fall, very successfully, and we’re learning as we move through it, but then we will be meeting again with our advisory board, probably in February to once again say, “Here we are, this is what’s been happening, and are we still on track or is there some change that we need to make,” to make sure that we are responding to how they envisioned it. But we’re very pleased.

The other piece that I didn’t mention is the collaboration with campus. UCLA, the campus, the different departments, we’ve been working with very closely. The Institute of the Environment is one department that has played a great role, not only do they serve on our advisory board, but they’ve been approving some of our instructors and the classes. The Environmental Law Center is another area of collaboration. The Urban Planning Department, and the Public Affairs Department, so we really have been collaborating across campus, and that’s made this workable as well. And of course, the Anderson School of Business. So I think that answers your question.

OG: Do you see any components of this kind of sustainable education that will one day become a required part of the normal liberal arts curriculum, something that you would have to take like writing skills?

CS: Interesting thought. Well, in a perfect world I would say yes. I can’t say whether that really will happen or not but, that’s a fantastic idea. Because it truly does permeate every area of our lives, not only our professional lives, but our personal lives as well, so, that sounds great! I don’t know that there are any thoughts of making that happen at this point in time, but we may get there. Of course the other thing that may happen is that there will be in time more degrees offered in this area, a Masters in Sustainability perhaps, at some point in time, we don’t currently offer this at UCLA, but again that seems like natural formation, a natural development.

OG: Absolutely. I just have a couple more questions. The first is about individual action versus broader collective action. So, in your opinion, do you think that one person can make a difference in reducing climate change and wastefulness by their actions, or do you think that it will ultimately take a broader policy change to really make an impact?

CS: It’s not either or. Each one of us has an individual responsibility to make that difference, and we all have our carbon footprint that we need to pay some attention to. And so, we need to take some responsibility and move to action, but we need to know what that is, and we know, if we do change our behaviors, how are we impacting the whole, what are the issues? And so, the education piece is crucial, on an individual basis. The education piece is also crucial on a broader scale. And so, we need our leaders to be proactive, whether they’re legislative leaders or corporate leaders, we need everyone to step up to the plate, whatever their role is, and really get behind the sustainability movement, and see it as a plus–for business, for consumers, for the environment. There’s no lose if we can really take some action on this. It is a lose if we don’t take some action on it. And I think we’re all at that point in time, but it’s not an either/or, it’s both.

OG: How long have you lived in Los Angeles, just as a precursor to my next question?

CS: I grew up in Southern California. In Los Angeles County, in Bellflower. So, a long time! This is my home.

OG: Ok, so this is my question. How would you picture a truly sustainable Los Angeles?

CS: Ooh. A truly sustainable Los Angeles would be one where we’re taking advantage of technology in that perhaps we wouldn’t need to be driving to work every day, we could find some remote way to work from other places so that the mobile-source pollution would be cut down. It would be one where we did have the personal responsbility that we passed on to our children, the message that really we need to care for the earth and so, there would just be a better respect–for whether it’s picking up trash, putting it in containers so it doesn’t go into sewage and ending up in the ocean and drinking water and killing the fish. So it’s technology, it’s personal involvement, and it’s making it a priority in our lives to appreciate the earth, and the fact that we depend on it.

OG: Are you looking forward Opportunity Green?

CS: We’re very involved with Opportunity Green, we’re looking forward to it, we welcome the opportunity to showcase the new certificate a little bit, but also of course, the Opportunity Green conference has attracted so many businesses that even listening to the presentations and networking with the corporate executives will be well worth the time and effort, not just for the certificate, but for the cause as a whole. So, Extension definitely supports Opportunity Green, we’re partners with the organizers, and we greatly look forward to it.

OG: Thank you. I really appreciate the time you took to talk to me today, and I look forward to meeting you at the conference!

CS: That would be great. Thank you.

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