Dan Mathis is currently an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program and a policy fellow at Next100, a think tank powered by the Century Foundation. At Next100, his work focuses on the intersection of housing and climate policy, particularly federal and state climate adaptation policies and disaster recovery efforts.
Mathis has a range of experience as a housing and community development advocate working in communities across the country. Before joining Next100, he helped establish the Center for Racial Equity at the Florida Housing Coalition, a statewide initiative aimed at addressing the legacy of discrimination in housing and closing the homeownership gap in the state.
He is a graduate of Florida A&M University, the Hough Graduate School of Business at the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan Law School. He is an avid amateur photographer and loves uncharted walks through the city.
What initially motivated you to pursue the field of sustainability?
I grew up in Florida in a community that is almost 90% Black (88.7% according to the recent census). I have vivid memories of the fallout after Hurricane Andrew in the 90s and question whether or not my home community is ready for another climate-related disaster of the same scale. I became interested in sustainability as I began thinking about policies, programs, and funding mechanisms designed to support communities like my own. We have an opportunity to leverage sustainability efforts to not only adapt to our changing environment but to counter legacies of discrimination and segregation that have made communities of color much more physically and socially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
What drew you to the Columbia Climate School and the School of Professional Studies?
Columbia has a robust community of researchers, scholars, practitioners, and advocates deeply engaged in the work of addressing our global climate crisis from one of the most dynamic cities on the planet. What more can I ask for?
What course will you be teaching this fall and what excites you most about it?
I will be teaching Equity, Policy, and Sustainability. I am excited because this course will focus on equity and is a reflection of a global pursuit to create a more livable planet that is just and fair, irrespective of racial/ethnic, gender, or socioeconomic identities. The course is designed to help students learn more about how to incorporate equity into their sustainability endeavors and will introduce them to equity frameworks and their applications in public policy. I’m looking forward to helping to nurture a set of sustainability practitioners that are versed in this critical area of practice—equipped to identify and respond to the challenges of today and prepared to work to promote a more equitable and sustainable future.
What changes do you hope to see in the field of sustainability in the future?
It is hard for me to imagine a sustainable future without us collectively addressing climate change. Our climate crisis will require continued efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing planet. Whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, the growing magnitude of climate-related displacement, and the underlying inequities that exacerbate the impacts on specific populations. The opportunity here is to use the climate crisis as an entry point to think more critically about how we can redress past mistakes and envision alternative futures. I hope that, in the sustainability field, we continue to explore disparities in climate vulnerability, raise awareness of inequities in our preparation and responses to climate disasters, and develop policies and programs that can better address those inequities—especially regarding Black and other communities of color.
What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in sustainability?
Each of us brings knowledge, experience, and skills to the field. Sustainability is about people and we need varying perspectives and ideas to contribute to the development of more thoughtful solutions. In the policy sector, more effective policies are created as a result of acknowledging and elevating lived realities. I think the same participatory principle applies to sustainability more broadly: When we begin to account for the intersection of issues, to critically question how we engage, what we value, and where we align our resources, we will learn to better coexist—with the planet and with each other.