Lift-Off: La Soirée Développement Durable

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A bike-powered cinema, a green chemistry experiment, a theatrical performance, and a fair trade chocolate fountain. All of these attractions came together on Thursday, Nov. 14 for the first-ever Lift-Off evening presented by the McGill University Office of Sustainability (MOOS).

The event, designed as the culmination of the Vision 2020 process and the launch for the first draft of McGill’s Sustainability Strategy, sought to bring together staff and students invested in or curious about sustainability at McGill. There were a number of groups present during the evening, including McGIll Food and Dining Services, the McGill Farmer’s Market, the Out of the Garden Project, Community Engagement Day, the OIKOS Project, Teaching and Learning Services, the McGIll Spaces Project, the McGill Apicultural Society, and more. Guests were encouraged to mingle, network, and participate in a larger conversation about McGill’s current state of sustainability.

Among the many events hosted throughout the evening were talks by leading faculty, staff, and students about their roles in sustainability on campus. These speakers included civil engineer Dr. Subhasis Ghoshal, organizational change-maker Johanne Houle, Farm to School project coordinators Valérie Toupin-Dubé, Laura Rebeca Esquivel, and Edith Shum, as well as participatory action researcher Dr. Paula Bush.

Professor George McCourt, a senior lecturer in the McGill School of Environment, discussed the role of education in sustainability in his talk, and how his experiences in the field have affected his teaching and interactions with students.

“I’m a huge believer in student-centred, student-driven research, where students have an opportunity to explore ideas and areas that are of interest to them,” he said. “I have found that when they look at things that are interesting to them, they really get engaged in the learning process.”

According to McCourt, student involvement is absolutely critical to the advancement of sustainability on campus. He cited the Sustainable Seafood Certification Project developed for McGill Food and Dining Services (MFDS)—a student-driven project that eventually led to McGill becoming the first university in Canada to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council to serve sustainable seafood.

However, says McCourt, other faculty members must become more aware of and engaged with student sustainability projects in order for the university’s sustainability scene to grow.

“I have to turn down so many students’ ideas,” he said. “Part of it is because [of] the faculty at McGill—there aren’t enough of them engaged in [sustainability]. And that is a big [frustration] of mine. I’m not sure how we go about solving that problem. But until we do, it’s going to be centred on a small group of professors trying to encourage students to engage.”

The evening was organized by Jessica Marais, a project coordinator for Vision 2020 at MOOS. Marais saw the Lift-Off as a great opportunity to show how seemingly disparate projects and ideas could be united under a broader umbrella of sustainability. The event also tried to make a lasting impression on guests by going beyond the usual pamphlet and rote-speaking routine.

“Our original inspiration for Lift-Off was to create an experience of the future that we’ve been envisioning together,” she said. “So right from the start we were asking ourselves the questions: What do we want people to see? What do we want them to hear? What do we want them to taste? […] Rather than just [convey] information, we wanted to create an experience.”

There were a number of distinguished guests in the crowd, including Katie Larson, the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) president. Larson, a designated keynote listener for the evening, was optimistic on the potential of Lift-Off to help promote sustainability at McGill.

“It was a great event,” she said. “A lot of people are really comfortable, are part of sustainability here, but there are definitely some people just trying it out, testing the waters, trying to get engaged, and figuring it out. It’s a good place to start—trying to engage people at a very tangible level with food, projects, or games. I think students as a whole really buy into it, and really want to see [sustainability] go places at McGill”

As a follow-up to the success of the evening, Marais says that she would love to see similar events in the future.

“There was just such positive feedback from people who did have a chance to experience all these connections—the breadth of what’s happening here at McGill,” she said. “I think that physically gathering together is key; people have a hunger for connecting and sharing in real time and space. The energy is undeniable.”

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