State of the Planet

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Student Spotlight: Reframing Corporate Sustainability to Account for Communities

Three people sit close together in a room
Carmelli Leal (center) is a junior in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development.

Carmelli Leal was born in the Philippines and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Now a junior studying sustainable development at Columbia University, Leal credits her multicultural upbringing for her interest in climate justice and community empowerment.

In the Philippines, Leal learned firsthand about vulnerable island communities dealing with super typhoons and extreme weather events; in Baltimore, she witnessed the damaging effects of environmental injustices, such as inequitable access to urban green space.

These observations led Leal to enroll in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development with the hope of improving corporate responsibility efforts and their impact on the communities and ecosystems around them, as she discusses in the Q&A below.

What drew you to study sustainable development?

The impacts of climate change and the pursuit of sustainable solutions have always been on my mind. In the Philippines and in Baltimore, I observed how the social, economic and environmental dimensions of life are inextricably linked, shaping my fundamental understanding of the world around me. In the face of a deteriorating climate and a global call for environmental justice, the decision to enroll at Columbia and access the opportunities of the Sustainable Development program seemed a no-brainer.

What are some of your career aspirations? How has being a part of the Sustainable Development program affected those aspirations?

I am interested in working in the private sector to help improve the sustainability of mid-market and large enterprises, beyond the level of environmental compliance, particularly with respect to their supply chains. I think it’s important for companies to reframe their understanding of sustainability and pivot from “How can we produce this product sustainably?” to “How can we actively nurture and contribute to the ecosystems and communities vital to our product?”

Classes in the Sustainable Development program have equipped me with a deeper understanding of critical elements to this challenge, such as community empowerment, insurance mechanisms and policy considerations. I feel equipped to advocate for a paradigm shift in corporate sustainability, emphasizing the importance of being responsible stewards of ecosystems and communities.

What’s been your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

My favorite class in the Sustainable Development program thus far is “Building Climate Justice: Co-Creative Coastal Resilience Planning.” I love the integration of both social and data science. I’ve loved being able to work with our community partners, South Bronx Unite and Staten Island Urban Center, to create meaningful deliverables aimed at enhancing the work that they do for their communities. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be on the South Bronx Unite team working to illustrate the burden of air pollution in the South Bronx community and to create recommendations for the organization’s initiative in using sophisticated air quality monitors to assess air pollution in their community.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities do you participate in?

Outside of the academic realm, I am actively engaged in various aspects of the Columbia community. I am involved with Liga Filipina, a cultural club for the Filipino diaspora on campus. As membership director, I oversee our Big-Little mentorship program and manage essential tasks as part of the executive board. I hold a similar role in the Columbia University Pep Band as personnel manager, focusing on fostering community within the program. Within the band, I play the alto saxophone and lead the saxophone section. I also work with Urban NY, an initiative under Undergraduate Student Life, to lead free experiences for students in the city, such as Broadway shows. Additionally, I serve as a resident advisor on campus, dedicated to ensuring the well-being of students through residential life. And I dance as a member of Columbia University Ballroom.

What is your favorite spot to hang on campus?

Chef Mike’s Sub Shop!

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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