State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Faculty Spotlight: John Williams

John Williams headshot
Adjunct professor John Williams is teaching “Geographies of Environmental Justice and Sustainability” this fall.

John E. Williams is an urban historian, geographer, and professor based in Harlem with foundations rooted deep in the South. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor in the Sustainability Management (SUMA) program, he currently serves as the associate director of Student Affairs at the Climate School.

Williams’s forthcoming book project — tentatively titled “Transcending Barriers: Race, Mobility, & Transportation Planning in Atlanta” — garnered the Dan Sweat Fellowship Award in Urban Planning, Public Policy, and Economic Development.

His expertise and commitment to environmental justice are critical to the SUMA program’s mission — because the pursuit of equity is bound with the pursuit of sustainability.

What initially motivated you to pursue the field of sustainability? 

I’ve always loved social studies 一 history and geography in particular. I am a kid of the “Captain Planet” era, and my friends and I continue to refer to ourselves as “planeteers.” My interests in maps, travel, highways, mobility, historic preservation, etc. 一 and the impacts on people and society 一 naturally led me to sustainability. The field is so broad, and there is space for me to explore all of my interests and more.

What drew you to the Sustainability Management program at the Columbia Climate School and the School of Professional Studies?

As a geographer, I was naturally drawn to the Earth Institute. While in graduate school at Teachers College, I worked in Undergraduate Student Life in Lerner Hall, and I would notice the Earth Institute banners as I often walked by Hogan Hall on my way down Broadway. Long story short, I did my research and managed to find and connect with great opportunities at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Additionally, as a graduate of Florida A&M University, the nation’s premier historically Black college and university (HBCU), I was drawn to the Columbia HBCU Fellowship at SPS. The M.S. in Sustainability Management and Sustainability Science programs have provided me with all these connections and a sense of purpose.

What course will you be teaching this fall and what excites you most about it?

I will teach Geographies of Environmental Justice & Sustainability (SUMA PS5888), and everything about this course excites me. First, I had the great opportunity to design it exactly how I desired. It bridges many of my interests and areas of study. We will explore topics and research near and dear to me. I look forward to providing students with the origins of the American Environmental Justice Movement, and then connecting this to so many present topics in sustainability. I also look forward to exploring environmental justice work being done throughout the country. I am excited to provide diverse perspectives and truly dive deep into the broadness of sustainability.

What changes do you hope to see in the field of sustainability in the future?  

I hope to see the field continue to expand, reaching more and more underserved communities. In doing so, more people will better understand the impacts they have in preserving and saving our planet. Sustainability will help to create healthier and safer communities for generations to live and prosper.

What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in sustainability?

Be open. Explore. Sustainability is the future. Sustainability is all-encompassing, and through this work, you can accomplish, achieve, change the world, and save our planet!

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