State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Preparing Students for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Sustainability

While green innovations and eco-friendly practices dominate headlines about sustainability, there is an equally vital yet often understated component to this rapidly evolving field: diversity. The sustainability industry, tasked with steering the world toward a more environmentally responsible future, finds its strength not only in technological breakthroughs but also in the diverse perspectives and talents that drive ingenuity and change.

I sat down with John E. Williams, Columbia Climate School director of student affairs and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for the Sustainability Management (SUMA) and Sustainability Science (SUSCI) programs, to discuss the importance of DEI in sustainability and how students can better prepare for careers in the field.

John E. Williams in a suit and stylish glasses poses smiling with his arms crossed.
John E. Williams, Columbia Climate School director of student affairs and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)

Can you describe the importance of DEI for sustainability?

DEI in sustainability refers to the inclusion and representation of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives within the efforts and initiatives aimed at promoting environmental conservation, social responsibility and economic viability. This inclusivity encompasses various dimensions, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, education and cultural background. Recognizing and embracing diversity in sustainability is crucial for several reasons. It ensures that the decision-making processes, strategies and solutions developed within the sustainability field consider a broad spectrum of perspectives, leading to more comprehensive and equitable outcomes.

A diverse workforce serves as a catalyst for enhancing the effectiveness of sustainability initiatives by bringing a rich tapestry of perspectives, experiences and skills to the table. In the pursuit of sustainable practices, the complexity and interconnectedness of global challenges demand innovative solutions. Drawing from varied cultural backgrounds, educational experiences and professional expertise, promotes creativity and innovation in problem-solving.

How would you define the importance of DEI at Columbia Climate School?

The importance of diversity in sustainability can be summed up by a quote from Steven Cohen, director of the M.S. in Sustainability Management, “Sustainability is bound to the pursuit of equity.” This means you cannot truly be sustainable if you are not diverse.

In the last decade, we have been able to expand sustainability beyond the environmental context, and in doing so, it has linked sustainability with society. When we think of sustainability, it is not only about the greening of America or climate change; it is also about the social structures that inform sustainability. At Columbia Climate School, we want to be able to provide students insight into the full spectrum of the field so that they can be better prepared to apply sustainability in their careers. That’s why my role at the school is so rewarding, I am now in the position to help students zone in on different areas of sustainability that may be of interest to them but also to help them realize that their interests are already connected to sustainability.

How has Columbia Climate School become a leader in sustainability DEI?

As a leading institution, our programs have always been responsive to change. In light of social unrest, it was critical for the college to respond and take action. I give a lot of credit to our incredible leadership for having the foresight to evaluate and address opportunities for growth within the program. In 2020, SUMA hired DEI consultants to do a forensic examination of the program, so they could work on corrective measures, and launched SUMA’s DEI Committee. Everything from hiring diverse administrators and faculty to recruiting diverse students and diversifying class offerings. The frameworks used in class were also reformed to address the lack of DEI in all elements of the program.

This process has been exceptionally rewarding. In the last few years, applications to the SUMA program have grown tremendously, and the program has doubled in size. Students are engaged in and passionate about this change. One example of this is the founding of SUMA Equity Alliance, which is a student organization dedicated to integrating environmental, climate and social justice into our program.

What should aspiring sustainability professionals at Columbia do to better prepare for the career field?

More students now are coming in with class experience or a basic understanding of sustainability, unlike a decade ago when the program was focused more on environmental sustainability and science. But one of the things I get asked the most by students is what kind of jobs they can get. So, I encourage students to explore the breadth of sustainability as much as possible, including all the intersections of sustainability, such as fashion or finance.

Once you have an idea of your interests, dive deeper into the topic. Columbia is as broad as sustainability is broad. Join sustainability-focused clubs, organizations or networks within the university to connect with like-minded individuals. Stay up-to-date with current trends, research and developments in the sustainability field by reading academic journals, industry reports and news articles. Get to know the greatness of Columbia and take advantage of everything the university has to offer.

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