The Gustavian Weekly

Gustavus Turns Over a New Leaf | The Gustavian Weekly

By Laura May Hedeen Staff Writer | September 26, 2008 | Features

The Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation allows Gustavus to take a new approach to making the campus more environmentally sustainable.

Most Gusties are familiar with “the arb,” and now is the time when most of the first-years begin to discover its gravel trails and remote study spots. The Melva Lind Interpretive Center is a place somewhat less well known to the student body. By junior year, most students know it as the quaint building nestled in a vegetative thicket on the south side of campus where environmental studies courses are offered.

However, it is a surprisingly little known fact that the northeast corner of this building is now the home to the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation.

It’s time we all found out.

According to Jim Dontje, the director and sole staff member of the center, many people on campus came together to make the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation a reality rather than an idea.

Dontje said it was the manifestation of a collective desire to, “put something in place in a concrete way to increase environmental awareness and action” on the Gustavus campus.

Currently, it is a one-man, one-room operation. According to Dontje, the size of the center and the number of people staffing it are not likely to increase in the near future.

That does not mean that the goals of the Johnson Center are small. The center is meant to “enable the community to do their best environmentally,” Dontje said. It is a place of organization, a “focal point” for faculty, students and staff to “get work done.”

Professor of Environmental Studies Cindy Johnson-Groh realizes that many environmentally-concerned individuals and groups on campus “mean well, but [are] also busy. … We needed someone to pull it all together [to] ride on the shoulders of those who have done a lot, but lack time,” she said.

This is where Dontje and the center come into play.

The goals of the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, according to Dontje, are to work towards making this campus more environmentally sustainable, integrate environmental issues into students’ education and eventually raise awareness by engaging the broader community.

Last year, the center worked to make important connections and identify environmental “allies” all over campus. This year, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be done. Dontje has been busy making an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, working on environmental aspects of the strategic plan and configuring an energy report for the campus.

Last school year, the center helped facilitate the Gustavus Energy Wars, and this year the center is working in cooperation with the custodial staff to put together another on-campus challenge entitled Recycle Mania.

“We’re trying to think broadly,” said Dontje. “There is a huge array of not only technical innovations, but social, economic and political innovations as well. … It’s not only the GustieWare, recycling, turning the lights off, etc., but it’s about considering environmental topics in classes, discussions, service projects.”

In time, the center hopes to work with the community on multiple levels-campus, city, county, state and national. Senior Communications Major and active member of the Gustavus Greens Lauren Fulner agrees that Gustavus needs to connect with “the larger world of environmental issues. … It’s easy to become isolated in our bubble up on the hill,” Fulner said.

Johnson-Groh is optimistic that the campus is moving towards a better understanding of the value of environmentally responsible practices, and believes it is already starting with the advent of the center.

Although the Johnson Center is only in its second year of operation, it is not a new idea. The Gustavus Quarterly  made the proposal public knowledge in the summer of 2006. Donors Glen and LaVonne Johnson were pivotal in providing the funds In addition, Johnson-Groh said they have contributed to the center in other ways. The Johsnons have been, “helping to craft the vision” of the center, Johnson-Groh said. The Quarterly noted that the Johnsons’ “annual gift commitment of $150,000 in the next several years will provide a working budget to establish the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, and a two-life charitable remainder trust will permanently endow the director’s position.”

What does this mean for students? Lauren Fulner sees the center as an “intermediary between grassroots student organizations like the Gustavus Greens and the administration. … It eases the transition” between students and those in administrative power, which makes it easier to “make things happen.” She also sees importance in “keeping students up on environmental issues.” Johnson-Groh envisions that the center will “serve as a catalyst for us on campus to be accountable. … If we want to be sustainable, individuals need to be responsible for their own actions. We all mean well, but we forget, or it’s not convenient [to be environmental].”

“Students often feel like they’re told what to do,” said Dontje, “but what are you willing to do?  We can make huge changes with cooperation, and the Johnson Center will be there to help, encourage and push.”