Lift-Off Key Note Listener Reflection: David Kalant

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by: David Kalant

David Kalant, a member of the McGill Board of Governors, accepted our invitation to be one of the Keynote Listeners at Lift-Off: La Soirée Développement Durable on November 14th.  What’s a Keynote Listener?  For Lift-Off we decided to shake up the usual Keynote Speaker model by inviting important decision makers at the university to stand in as active listeners, open and receptive to the ideas of the community.  Active listening is something we’ve been doing a lot of since Vision 2020 began, and we want to celebrate it as one of the most important skills we can cultivate – and encourage in our leaders. We hope to invite Keynote Listeners to future MOOS events, and invite others to try out similar models. 

Here’s what David Kalant observed during the evening:

Several years ago I went to hear David Suzuki and Al Gore speak at an environment conference put on by Concordia University. While there I learned that Concordia students and staff had agreed to contribute a small fee toward their sustainability projects. I thought this was a great idea. I don’t remember who I contacted at McGill to suggest this be considered at our university, but the response was very discouraging. I was told that “at McGill we feel we need to take small steps”, implying that asking the McGill constituencies to contribute in a formalized way was going too far at that time. After listening to people talk about all the projects that MOOS is supporting these days, I’m encouraged to see that steps at McGill have become considerably larger. Not least, McGill now has Sustainability Projects Fund, which directly supports many of the initiatives that were featured at Lift-Off. There was a great turnout from all over the campus. I talked to and shared ideas with people who I knew through other work at McGill, who I didn’t previously know were interested in sustainability.

While listening to the speakers it became clear that people closer to the podium were very engaged and focused on the presentations. Unfortunately this engagement gradually fell off toward the back of the room, where people were more likely to be chatting. It occurred to me this was an analogy for people’s engagement with sustainability. I’m sure everyone in the room had good intentions toward listening to the speakers, just as many people have good intentions toward sustainability. But not everyone stays as engaged as we, and often they, would like. To create and maintain that engagement from those outside a dedicated core can be difficult. A few years ago I and some students created a green committee in our department. The goal was to foster sustainable practices in the department: recycling, even of products from the labs where feasible; changes in lab procedures to use less harmful chemicals; reducing transportation by combining orders for supplies; etc. The committee raised funds to defray the costs of some projects, hoping this would encourage more labs to participate. Some projects were more successful than others, and some labs more engaged than others. Regular reminding is necessary, even for something as straight forward as using the recycling bins we put in the lunch room and labs, with clear labels indicating what materials go in which bin. I have to admit it’s hard not to become frustrated at times. How do we get, and keep, more people engaged in sustainable practices?

One way is to foster good habits when people are young. So it was very exciting to learn that McGill students are teaching young kids about applied sustainability through the Farm to School Project­. This is but one of many great projects I learned about at the Lift-Off, and I hope it expands. I had no idea what to expect when I accepted the invitation to be a “listener” at this event, but now I look forward to hearing more about these projects and to sharing ideas to improve sustainability at McGill.

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