“Sustainability Touches Everything”: Rachel Willis on Her Work as Reed’s Sustainability Coordinator

It has been just over a year since Rachel Willis was hired as the first and only person working in the Sustainability Office. While sustainability at Reed has long been championed by students and faculty,  this is the first time the college has created a formal position responsible for advancing sustainability on campus. 

Willis entered her new role last spring with an infectious enthusiasm for her work. Alongside a team of student interns, Willis began working on several ongoing projects and was surprised to find that her goals required less pushing for change than she had expected. The Reed community, Willis came to see, was in large part ready and willing to help. Reed’s long-standing culture of autonomy lubricated any friction that might have arisen from her proposals, and Willis was therefore able to implement her sustainability plans to great effect.

Willis is especially proud of her team’s creation of the Swap Shop — a room in the GCC basement that collects, washes, and organizes clothing left in dorms and donated to be distributed to the Reed Community for free. Currently, the swap shop is run by Rachel, two interns, and a handful of volunteers.

Some of the Sustainability team’s other achievements include the revitalization of the community garden and orchard, a distribution of public transit information to the student body, waste audits, appearances in sustainability-inclusive courses, and a flashy sustainability Instagram (@sustainablereed).

Much of her work, however, has been largely invisible to the broader community; what Willis refers to as “bean counting.” Willis has been working towards publishing a STARS report, which is a rating system developed to assess the sustainability of academic institutions like Reed. The report requires an inventory of emissions that result from all of Reed’s activities and much of the carbon-emitting activities that are linked to Reed, such as traveling for academic reasons. As of now, there is no central database that tracks all of this information.

While it may not be highly visible, Rachel considers this “bean counting” work to be one of the most important aspects of her job. However, Rachel is also set on achieving some larger goals in the coming years. Reed’s central boiler is on its last legs and is a major source of emissions on campus. The college is already beginning the task of planning for its replacement. If the college chooses to install another boiler, then Reed’s on-site heating and cooling will be stuck guzzling fossil fuels for another fifty to eighty years. If, however, the boiler is replaced with a decentralized array of renewable electric infrastructure, we would be breaking free from our infrastructural chains. Willis plans to continue pushing for this.

Another goal, which is a little less tangible, but still integral to the sustainability department, is integrating a sustainability network into Reed’s entire community. Willis imagines a bigger department than simply herself, one that is in communication with every single other department. “Sustainability touches everything,” Willis repeated while describing this dream. She was especially keen on bridging the gap between Diversity and Sustainability at Reed, arguing that the two concepts are fundamentally interlaced. Willis also sees more academic engagement in her optimal network, alongside greater communication between her team and the broader community through some kind of newsletter or student-body collaboration.

While hurdles abound in this line of work, Willis is optimistic. There will always be financial reasons to say “no” and political reasons to keep the status quo, but overall, Willis deemed these problems solvable, and is approaching her work with a renewed focus on the inner work that sustainability has to offer. “The how is important,” Willis said, referring to the means and methods of sustainability work and their effect on an individual’s mind. She encourages those who do this work to examine their mindsets and worldviews constantly, eschewing colonialist environmentalism and finding joy and pleasure in helping people on a daily basis.

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