In a normal year, thousands of higher education faculty, staff, and students would convene in a mid-sized American city, drawn together by their shared passion of working toward a more sustainable future within the realm of higher education. Like so many other organizations, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by moving its flagship Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education to a virtual platform. Unfortunately, the story is not unique. What is unique, however, was UT’s response. Jim Walker, the Director of Sustainability, requested and received approval to redirect unused travel funds to underwrite the October conference as a Host Institution, thus providing unlimited registration for our campus. As a result, over 180 UT students, faculty, and staff registered for the virtual conference and had access to cutting-edge research, valuable programmatic information, and nationally renowned speakers.
The conference theme was “Mobilizing for a Just Transition” and featured numerous thought provoking keynote speakers including Robin Wall Kimmerer (author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants) and Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist). Of note was a particularly inspiring youth panel consisting of Joshua Dedmond (Youth Organizer for the Labor Network for Sustainability), Wanjiku Gatheru (founder of BlackGirlEnvironmentalist), and Suparna Kudesia (Choreographer of Collective Change for CoFED) to close out the three day event. Of course, there were also hundreds of sessions to choose from ranging from “Planning and Progress Toward Carbon Neutrality” to “Inspiring Green Fashion in a Fast Fashion Landscape.” While nothing can replace the energy and connection created by face to face interaction, moving to a virtual platform certainly had its benefits: increased access and decreased carbon footprint. And it may very well be here to stay.