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Impromptu: Matt Harmin

Matt Harmin came to Goucher this year to take over the newly-created job of sustainability coordinator. In his new role he’ll be working on environmental programs across campus, exploring options for future programs, and consulting with faculty and students to get them involved in efforts on campus and around the region.

Goucher Magazine: Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?

Matt Harmin: I grew up in Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky is my hometown. I grew up there, went to college there. My dad was a physics professor, and I went to elementary school and high school and college there. It definitely feels like home.

GM: What school did you go to?

MH: University of Kentucky, in Lexington. Overall, I had a great experience, and that’s primarily where I first became engaged with issues of sustainability, and organic agriculture, and social justice activism, and followed something of a non-traditional path there, in terms of pursuing what’s called a topical study. I think it’s like our inter-disciplinary studies program, where you create your own degree path, your own curriculum, and was able to cobble together a sustainability studies and Japanese studies degree path for myself. It was during that time, also, that I was able to work as a sustainability intern with the city government there, and work as an intern with the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It’s the premiere non-profit that’s active in this space. Goucher, and many other colleges, are members of this organization. They provide resources to help campuses integrate sustainability into their education and operations.

College was a great experience for me, and I wound up leaving Kentucky to pursue an opportunity as the sustainability coordinator at Fresno State, and ultimately found that work pretty rewarding. I very much wanted to travel, and see some of the world, and I had been planning for a long time to go to Japan, so I made an opportunity for myself to go live in Japan, and teach English there for a while, and that was fantastic, and I was living there when the tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear reactor, so I did wind up choosing to leave there, and went from there to India, traveling for three months there. I had always wanted to travel there because my older brother had traveled there and told me many stories, and then came back to go to graduate school up at University of Saskatchewan, in the School of Environment and Sustainability. That was fantastic as well, and I had the opportunity to work in the office of sustainability there, and became exposed to some interesting and unique ideas and opportunities that I didn’t really anticipate.

You might not have many associations with the University of Saskatchewan, but it’s actually quite an interesting place to pursue sustainability studies, because they’re very much on the cutting edge. Agricultural research for one, but in another sense, they’re doing a lot of very interesting work with regard to finding ethical and effective ways to incorporate indigenous knowledge into resource management, so it turned out to be a lot more interesting than I ever could have guessed, and I had some wonderful experiences up there, and was able to learn more about the traditions of the Native American cultures, and made some good friends. I had a positive experience, and came back to the states after graduate school, and found out about this opportunity here at Goucher, and here I am.

GM: It’s interesting. You describe the travel, and all these other things. It’s sounds very much like Goucher. You’re sort of uniquely prepared for this.

MH: Goucher really is a beauty of an organization. You think about what Goucher asks its students to do, in terms of study abroad experiences. My college was not asking me to do these things, but I nevertheless felt like I should be doing them, and Goucher is already taking that initiative and institutionalized a lot of those values, valuing those particular type of experiences.

GM: In terms of sustainability, what do you think Goucher does well, at this point?

MH: I think Goucher is extremely well-positioned to be recognized
as something of a national leader among these small, liberal arts colleges, with regard to sustainability programming. Not that many schools mandate a sustainability learning requirement, for example, and it’s significant that we choose to do that here. We also have a very strong social justice orientation, I think. There really is no environmental justice without social justice, and it’s very difficult to divorce those two concepts.

GM: Those two movements have come together in a lot of ways in recent years.

MH: I think so, too, and I think it’s for the better for both. Understanding those intersection points, that’s the crux of the matter, where things come together, and there are synergies you can capitalize on, and you can do one thing and affect multiple things. I think that every single institution in our society has plenty of room grow, with regard to sustainability, and I think whether or not you grow, and how you grow in that direction, has a lot to do with the values you hold as an organization or institution, and I think a lot of institutions perhaps pursue sustainability without doing some of that foundational work of integrating these foundational principles and values into the mission and what the institution stands for. I do think we’ve done a significant portion of that kind of work around here, which bodes well, and is ultimately going to work out in our favor as we continue on down the line here.

GM: What do you see as some of the areas where we could grow? What would you like to tackle first, or at least early on?

MH: Early on? One thing I want to do is develop a viable, long-term funding mechanism for sustainability programming and energy efficiency projects. It’s something that can work out in our favor in the long-term. If you think about the return on investment in some energy-efficiency programming, it only appreciates over time, as energy costs rise. So what we need to do is set up a system in which we’re able to capture the value of some of our sustainability programming, capture that value and make it available to reinvest in further energy efficiency projects.

I’d also like to enhance our recycling program while I’m here, and develop more uniformity for the recycling infrastructure, and some more effective communication around that. I want to make myself available to faculty members looking for creative ways to integrate sustainability concepts into their coursework.
I want to make myself available to students to consult and advise on particular projects they might be interested in. I’d like to see us purchase more renewable energy, one way or another, and I do think that’s a very realistic possibility. I’m very new on the scene here, but I think the situation here in Maryland is currently very favorable for the solar industry, and we’re going to be in a position to do that.

Given the nature of the times and the situation in Baltimore
with regard to racial and social justice, I think we are uniquely positioned to acknowledge the privilege here and leverage some of our resources to do some good in the wider community.
Issues of social and racial justice as they intersect with the food system are the kind of things that I think we’re in a position to engage with very earnestly here at Goucher, and I think our Food Justice summit in September was well received as a result. I feel well-supported in my role, from my supervisor and the upper management of the organization. I think they feel happy to have a staff member working on this area of programming, and I feel very fortunate that it’s me.

GM: We have a lot of students who are very active in these areas as well, particularly food justice.

MH: The Food Justice Summit event was well-received. Sustainability programming, and this goes back to what we had talked about earlier, with regard to the values, but for some of the bigger state schools, sustainability programming is primarily a way to mitigate or reduce operating costs, and to reduce parking demand. It’s a tool for transportation demand management. Any kind of social or environmental justice orientation is not prioritized, because they have other considerations. They’re prioritizing what they think is most appropriate, but I think we’re in a position to do something a little bit more innovative, do something a little bit more whole-hearted, and I think that’s fantastic for us.

GM: The other schools you’ve worked at have been much larger, right?

MH: Yeah. The University of Kentucky, much larger. When I was an undergraduate, the first president’s sustainability advisory committee was put together, and I was able to get one of the student positions on that, and as students, we had some big visions for what could be done. The University of Kentucky is a prime economic mover and shaker in that city. It’s a huge organization. It employs many people, and has big ripple effects in the local economy. It’s the University of Kentucky, though, so no matter what you say, or what you do, there’s a long, historic relationship between that university and its board of trustees, and the coal industry, and there are roots there that go pretty deep. As reasonable as it may sound to suggest we should head in another direction, really, there was nothing we could do to reduce the coal consumption on campus. The university does actually buy its coal from a non-strip mine type coal mine that employs actual miners. That type of mining is less destructive to the terrestrial ecosystem on the surface, and most of the mining in Appalachia is, we call it, “mountaintop removal.”

GM: That’s true here in Maryland, too.

MH: The Appalachians run right through. You guys probably have a lot of coal seams, and I know up in Pennsylvania also, it’s the same, and Kentucky also has been pursuing something of a fracking agenda in recent years, and I know that’s a contentious issue right now here in Maryland. It’s very problematic, and it represents a really unwise management of our groundwater resources, and Kentucky is going to continue to pay the price for these type of resource extraction industries. Meanwhile, many of the communities in these regions, some folks are fairly destitute and poorly educated, and feel somewhat beholden to these industries as well, so it’s a very complicated situation, and contentious.

GM: Baltimore has done some interesting things with sustainability and new technology.

MH: I believe it. The city seems to have a very well-developed office of sustainability, and one of our panelists is the director of food policy from there, in the city office of sustainability. It’s great that food is on the map as a sustainability issue in such a prominent way. There’s definitely some movement in the right direction, and I think also, people in this region place a high value on the Chesapeake Bay, and as a result of that, valuing that natural resource so highly, there are some favorable policy developments there also. I think that’s great, and there’s good food here. It’s something of a food city. I’ve been enjoying it. I like the food markets. The farmers’ markets have a lot of action, and places like Belvedere Square Market. There’s good food to be had out there.

GM: Have you had steamed crabs yet?

MH: I haven’t, and apparently I need to, and I really am looking forward to it.