Columbia’s environment czar: the first 60 days
Written by Bwog Staff
On September 11 of this year, former Clinton administration official Nilda Mesa assumed a sizeable responsibility: the post of Environmental Stewardship Director, charged with making Columbia’s footprint a little bit smaller. Bwog caught up with Nilda in her airy fourth floor office, across a bowl of organic fruit.
Bwog: You’ve been here two months. How’s it going?
Nilda: It’s actually been really great. I’m still trying to meet folks who I should be meeting here, which I’ve been told will take several years. But I’m not really waiting to do that before kicking around ideas and brainstorming with people. What I’m really liking is how enthusiastic people are about these issues and the level of commitment and intelligence and out of the box thinking that I’m finding really at all levels. It’s a huge institution that doesn’t necessarily move that quickly, but I’m finding the interest and level of commitment to do the right thing just really wonderful, and at the highest levels. I wouldn’t have taken this job unless I knew this was coming all the way from the top.
How does Columbia compare to other places you’ve worked?
Some things are similar, some things are not. A lot of my background’s been in the federal government and also in law practice. This isn’t as big of a bureaucracy as the federal government, so that’s good. When I first got out of law school, a lot of what I did is work with community groups, not in New York, LA mostly, and that part of it, there’s a very similar dynamic. That’s been very comfortable terrain to me.
What are your big priorities this year?
Trying to learn the university as an institution is really time consuming, as someone who’s never been here either as a student or an employee. Because I think that whatever this office comes up with has to be grounded in what Columbia is, and its values and its structure. I don’t really believe in just coming out with these pronouncements that have no reality to what peoples’ lives and activities are really like.
On the substantive environmental stuff, I’d say one of the main [issues] is recycling, meaning both purchasing things with recycled paper content and also the activity of recycling. I’ve been trying to get a handle on what’s working and what’s not working so well over here, and working closely with folks in facilities and in the custodial staff and supervisors on how to fix that process. Facilities has said that they will put recycling bins anywhere that people want them, which is terrific. It’s just easier for them to do it that way, and get people separating trash from the starft than top try to deal with the rest of it. Every time I get a report of someone who’s mingling the trash, who’s on their staff, whenever I pass it on to them, they follow up on it. We’re trying to set up a recycling program competition with some of the dorms through the eco-reps, and we want to join Recyclemania next semester. So it’s a start.
There have been piecemeal efforts over the last few years to make environmental things happen at Columbia. What kind of shape are environmental initiatives in right now?
Part of what happens here is that folks are very committed and enthusiastic, but they don’t necessarily know what everyone else is doing. Everybody feels like they’re a lone voice in the wilderness, and they’re really not. It turns out there’s actually quite a lot going on here, and part of the challenge is figuring out, ok, where are all these things going on, and let’s get all these people together so they can see what they can really be launching. What I’m finding is that environmental stewardship is really a core value of this institution in a very fundamental way, only people don’t seem to realize it sometimes.
For example, on green building things, what I’m finding as a practical matter is that LEEDs is being used as a planning tool, and whether or not a given project is going to meet LEEDs certification in the end, nobody really knows until the building is done. But as a practical matter, what’s happening is that people start out with using the checklist, because it really is a valuable tool, and saying this one, oh we can get some points here, and what happens is by the time you get to the end of the checklist, you’re either in LEED territory or you’re so close to it that people are like, oh, wait, we could find another point for that here, and so it really motivates them to find other solutions. It’s sort of boring planning process kinds of stuff, but that’s at the reality of it here.
How close are we to getting a LEEDs certified building? Is that even important?
Of course it’s important. As a practical matter, that’s how people are planning. I think McVickar was just registered with the US Green Building Council as a LEED project, and there will be others.
Students have been pushing very hard on environmental campaigns for the last few years. What’s the dynamic between student groups and the administration?
I don’t see it as adversarial. At all. That’s just not how I think. I think the second week I was here I met with Green Umbrella leaders. I love working with them. To me it’s just a dialogue, we’re all on the same side here. The administration at the highest levels wants to do this right, so I don’t even see it as a problem, it’s just more like, now what do you want to do? And realistically, what are the deadlines and you’ve got midterms and whatever else, so how do we make this happen. The obstacles are more like timing and resources and how do we get the most environmental bang for the buck?
Is this an area where we can utilize new research coming out of the Earth Institute?
Sure, and I’m still in the process of meeting folks up there.
In what ways could that happen?
Any number of ways. There could be projects that people want to do that they could do in conjunction with this office and whoever the other appropriate planning and administrative folks are. There’s any number of things we can do. We’re redoing our website, and I would really like to have student input into that once its set up, to take that on, have blogging. I think communication is a big part of the issues here.
How do you get people to do that, to work across departments?
You’ve got to make a lot of phone calls and meet with people. For example biodeisel, somebody from Green Umbrella said I’m really interested in this, and I had already been looking into it, and so I was like ok, great, wonderful, here’s somebody who’s interested in this as well who’s not just me, and so then I just started making phone calls to the people who work with the bus companies here to say ok, in theory, would you be willing to work with us on taking waste cooking oil and combining it with fuel that we already use? And so we’re gonna have a working group to sort out the logistics of the issue. There’s not really a philosophical difference of opinion on, you know, should we do this.
Several schools have had environmental stewardship programs for a while—I know Duke, Brown, and Michigan at least. How much do you take ideas from other universities?
I’ll steal any ideas I can. I’m in touch with my counterparts at other institutions.
What goes into an environmentally responsible university?
A lot of it is just setting up communications and working groups. That’s really a lot of it. It’s not that anybody has any better ideas than anyone else, it’s how you put those ideas to work.
You live in Harlem?
I do live in Harlem, yes.
Is it a part of your job to kind of integrate with the community?
This is my community, this is where I’ve lived for a while, so to me there’s no dividing line. I walk through Morningside park every day on my way to work. To me, “the community” is an artificial construct. Because this is “the community.”
But there is a distinction between the University and the Community.
Not in my mind. Never has been. To me it’s an artificial construct. That’s like saying, do you talk to your neighbors down the hall from you. It’s like defining your dorm mates as the Community. That’s how artificial it is to me.
Have there been discussions about how environmental concerns might be incorporated into Manhattanville?
All the time. All the time. It’s a hot topic. And like I say, there’s a commitment from the highest levels of the administration.
If I was a student not knowing anything about this, how would I see your activities in the next six months?
This is a marathon, not a sprint. You can go for the quick and dirty results, but that doesn’t necessarily build a solid foundation for the long run. In six to 12 months, I would hope that recycling, certain things like that, energy is a big issue…I think you start seeing the results after a couple of years, which is not necessarily what people want to hear. If a program is successful, it’s not going to be just a flash in the pan. It’s got to be really grounded in the place and the institution, and that takes time.
Will there be a time at which the job of environmental stewardship director won’t be necessary?
Yeah, sure, in a perfect world? Yeah sure, sustainability would be integrated into everyone’s value systems and everyone’s job descriptions. But not for a while.
Well, I’m glad you’re here.
It’s really great to be here.