Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College

Green Mountain Center
The Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College serves students, alumni, staff, local citizens, and an online audience by promoting learning through the development of practical solutions for increasing community sustainability. The Center integrates Green Mountain College’s award-winning approach to sustainability education with Prescott College’s rich history of leadership in environmental studies and social justice. By building learning communities through events and programs, facilitating connections among stakeholders, and sharing resources, the center cultivates the skills and knowledge needed to create a more just and sustainable society.
 

Our goals include the following:

  • Create a rich sense of community on the Prescott College campus for students, staff, community members, and alumni from both Green Mountain College and Prescott College
  • Continue national leadership in sustainability education through residential and online activities, and create an online presence that celebrates the work done by students, faculty, and alumni of GMC and Prescott College
  • Encourage and support project-based courses, independent studies, senior projects, and co-curricular activities based on finding alternatives to unsustainable practices, using the Prescott College campus and its surrounding region as a laboratory for solutions-based learning
  • Serve as an incubator for sustainability research, consulting, and community organizing, and curate materials generated by these efforts
  • Facilitate place-based education and online connections between bioregionally focused organizations around the world, building on the distinctive bioregional approach to distance learning developed at GMC and now carried on through Prescott College’s graduate programs

Why a Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College?

Written by Laird Christensen, Director of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability

Dr. Laird Christensen

In August 2019 the Prescott College community welcomed more than 150 students, faculty, and staff from Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Those of us who made the long trek from the leafy Taconic Mountains are grateful for the reception we’ve received here in the piney Central Highlands of Arizona, and we’re pleased to help create a nurturing space for both current Prescott students and Green Mountain College alumni—online and on campus, in the Sustainability Lounge of Cicada Hall.

With its long tradition of environmental education and emphasis on social justice, Prescott College is a natural place to carry on the work of Green Mountain College. Courses of study for undergraduates include adventure education, sustainable community development, environmental studies, and social justice and community organizing. The graduate programs already at Prescott, such as a PhD in Sustainability Education, are now bolstered by successful MS programs from Green Mountain College, such as sustainable food systems, environmental studies, and resilient and sustainable communities.

So what exactly is the role of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College? Besides the basic work of supporting students and alumni, and building a sense of community on campus and beyond, the Green Mountain Center will continue to provide leadership, locally and nationally, in promoting an approach to education based on finding solutions to the problems that arise from cultural systems and practices that are simply not sustainable. In one form or another, it’s the essential work of our time.

Sustainability Leadership at GMC

Founded in 1834 at the Troy Conference Academy, Green Mountain College went through a number of transformations before finally adopting an environmental liberal arts mission in 1996. The idea was that the general education courses that made up a third of a student’s courses--history, science, English, and all the other fields you might expect from a liberal arts education--would be taught in ways that reflect on interactions between humans and their environments. Not surprisingly, it took awhile for the culture to catch up with the college’s aspirations.

When I began teaching at GMC in 2000, the environmental mission was very much in the process of redefining the institution. Some students still came to be close to ski resorts at Killington and Stratton Mountain, while others were drawn by the beauty of the countryside or distinctive majors such as Therapeutic Recreation. In 2002 the intellectual atmosphere on campus was shaken up in the best of ways by the arrival of dozens of students from Goddard College, a famously progressive institution which was forced to close its residential undergraduate programs. 

By 2005 many students were coming specifically for the school’s environmental reputation, and respected scholars from around the country sought out positions on the faculty. We began offering sustainability-themed graduate programs in 2006, but it was our students who led the way as we installed a locally-sourced biomass plant for heating and energy, and convinced our Board of Trustees to divest from companies profiting from fossil fuels. We were on the right path. Residential enrollment grew to its highest point right up until the Great Recession in the 2007-08 academic year, and enrollment continued to grow in graduate programs until the very end. 

Green Mountain College cemented its position as a national leader in educating for sustainability over the last decade: our rural campus became carbon neutral in 2011 and we were consistently in the top ten of Sierra Club’s “Coolest schools” (including #1 in 2010 and 2018). Our curriculum was ranked at the very top by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in the college’s last two years, receiving the highest scores ever awarded. 

However, none of that was enough to prevent its closure in June of 2019, after 185 years anchoring the Main Street of Poultney.

Becoming Part of Prescott College

The irony is lost on no one that the nation’s leader in sustainability education proved unable to survive. In fact, to judge from the comments in the Wall Street Journal, some readers concluded that it was the very model of educating for sustainability that was to blame for the college closing. In fact, the number of colleges featuring sustainability in their curriculum has multiplied from just a handful in 2006 to over 400 today, including Cornell University, Bard College, Emory University, and state universities across the country. 

No, Green Mountain College was done in by a combination of factors. Undergraduate enrollment began to drop off during the Great Recession, when many parents and students felt they could no longer afford tuition at a private liberal arts college. This was followed by a demographic slump that led to a ten-year decline in first-time student enrollments, hitting Northeastern colleges much harder than other parts of the country. 

The lessons we learned along the way, however, are more important than ever. Like our colleagues here at Prescott College, we recognize the need for an approach to higher education based on finding solutions to “wicked problems”—those that resist simple solutions—in the age of climate crisis and growing economic disparity. 

We are excited to spread the seeds of sustainability, both through projects here in Prescott and as far as we can through the reach of the internet. Below are a few goals of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability that we are especially excited about:

  • Here on campus we have created the Sustainability Lounge to help GMC transfer students adjust to a very different environment, building a sense of community and an emphasis on social sustainability in collaboration with other student groups.
  • We are working with students through clubs, classes, and work-study opportunities to improve energy efficiency and waste reduction: current projects include campus-wide composting, education around waste sorting, and even a Free Store in the Susty Lounge.
  • We are celebrating alumni and creating mentoring networks that serve undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni; we welcome your participation and ideas about how to make these processes most effective.
  • We have begun work on creating a clearinghouse of resources built on our bioregional approach to distance education, allowing students and professionals to use GIS technology to link to local organizations, agencies, and opportunities with a click on a map.

And that’s just a start. Yes, we still feel the loss of our home in Vermont, but it makes things so much easier when we look around Prescott College and see so many familiar faces from GMC: people like Mark Dailey and Eleanor Tison, Robin Currey, Christina Fabrey, and Bill Prado—not to mention close to 100 undergraduates (at least some of whom seem to be in the Crossroads Cafe every time I stop by). Others, such as Meriel Brooks, Bill Throop, and Chris Brooks continue to teach online and join us on campus for occasional residencies.

We are honored to help carry on the legacy of Green Mountain College here--but I’ve come to realize that all of us are engaged in the same good work, wherever we are, whenever we share something promising from the lives we learned to live at the end of Main Street in Poultney, Vermont.

Green Mountain College Campus, Poultney, VT 2018

A heartfelt welcome to all of our alumni!

If you’ve ever seen the movie, Dead Poets Society, you may remember the scene where the teacher, played by Robin Williams, leads his class out to look at a display of group photographs taken of students a century earlier. In the film, as the students look on, the camera slowly zooms in on the faces in those old black-and-white photos.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Williams asks. Indeed, it’s not so hard to imagine more recent versions of those same faces sitting beside us in Withey Hall—maybe pierced and a little shaggier, though, dressed in Carhartts and Phish shirts.

They’re “food for worms, “ Williams, “fertilizer for daffodils.” The lesson, of course, is carpe diem: our lives are fleeting, so we’d best make the most of them.

It’s a lesson we may have learned in many ways, whether as the Second Law of Thermodynamics or through the compost we helped spread on the fields of Cerridwen Farm.

But like that compost—an analogy that’s more likely to play to this crowd than others—there’s no doubt we’re going to continue to do good work, to enrich our environments, even after we’re done with these bodies. Because the lessons we learned through our own quirky brand of education are too big to keep to ourselves.

We’ve seen those lessons ripple out from the lives you have chosen, whether your choices led you to the statehouse or the classroom, the farm or the front lines of direct action. And then there are your subtler influences, the difference you’ve made in the lives of your children, friends, or even strangers who notice an act of kindness from you, a willingness to help out, a thoughtfulness about the consequences of your actions. You’ve made us proud.

Let’s keep those ripples spreading.

One way to continue the legacy of Green Mountain College is to help you pass along all that you've learned, both from your education and life experiences. An essential element of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College is to create opportunities for our alumni to serve as mentors for our undergraduates and graduate students. At this point, we're looking at a variety of other systems to serve alumni and current students, and we’d love to hear any suggestions you might have.

But we're also interested in creating professional networking opportunities that will serve all of you: after all, there are thousands of you out there making a difference in the world. We’d love to help put you in touch, whether through online resources or regional gatherings. If you’re active in one of the GMC alumni groups, we’d love to help support those communities, too! We’re building an interactive North American map that will allow people to zoom in and identify resources in their own communities, and it will be easy enough to add a layer of alumni data. Please take a minute to complete a short form that will help us build these connections. In one way or another we’d love to hear from you!

Best wishes from Prescott, and lux fiat!

Sustainability Spotlight: 
Melissa Markstrom '09 GMC
 

Written by Madeline Hughey

While halfway around the world, working with the Masai in Kenya on an EcoLeague exchange with Prescott College, Melissa Markstrom found herself learning lessons that would shape her future work in unexpected ways. 

Melissa Markstrom

“I learned that righteous, next-level, community-led transformation starts by going directly to the source and asking people for their stories,” she said, “letting people tell you what they need, trusting people to know how to obtain it, and standing in solidarity with them. I learned the value of sharing my own resources, privilege, caring, listening, and desired support.”

A 2009 graduate of Green Mountain College, Melissa is a first-generation college graduate from Phoenix, Arizona. She spent 2008 at Prescott College, where she studied Community- Based Activism in Kenya, as well as a course in U.S.-Mexico Border Studies. She currently works as a union organizer helping health-care workers achieve “fairness, equity and justice on the job, in their communities, and at a state and national level.” She also volunteers providing women and gender-queer labor leaders and activists with skill-building opportunities.

 Students working with the Maasai Education Center in Kenya
Prescott College has been sending students to Kenya to work with the Maasai Education, Research and Conservation Institute since 2008. Photo credit: Jarvie Photography.

Melissa considers her two international courses essential to teaching her to approach activism from a community perspective. Her U.S.-Mexico Border Studies class showed her how communities intertwine with their natural environments. She also learned that solutions to complex societal and environmental problems have to be led by individuals in that community. 

Her education at both GMC and Prescott encouraged her “to think about sustainability by rooting our learning in systems and community-based thinking,” Melissa said, and “to analyze my own values and philosophies, and to take action towards social, economic, political and environmental justice.” Melissa believes education should prepare us to be engaged citizens of our communities, whether in our jobs, “our political systems, our lifestyles, or the values and skills we pass on to future generations.”

For Melissa, justice goes hand in hand with sustainability. They both influence her current work training and supporting community leaders to break out of the more individualistic mindsets and competitive interactions encouraged in our society. She trains people to pay attention to each other and collaborate more fully, ensuring processes that are fair and equitable as the members collectively reach decisions and communicate their intentions.

Melissa has found that working towards sustainability requires hope, curiosity, and a willingness to take action. 

“We have to be willing to meet people where they're at. We have to be willing to use humor, and joy and ideas to inspire future activists to take our place, in order to make the activism itself sustainable,” Melissa said. “We have to be willing to invite the whole community, especially those who think differently than we do, to sit with us and participate in dialogue about how to re-orient towards sustainable communities and environments.”