Spotlighting Women Sustainability Leaders on Campus: Adrienne Cachelin, Ph.D.

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Cachelin uses sustainability education to teach students about eating for justice.

By Dani Poirier, Environmental & Sustainability Studies Student

Adrienne Cachelin has many official titles, and her list of accomplishments is much longer. Currently, Cachelin is an Associate Professor in the Environmental & Sustainability Studies Program (ENVST), the Associate Director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center, and the Director of Sustainability Education at the University of Utah.

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Adrienne Cachelin, director of Sustainability Education at the University of Utah.

I first met Cachelin when I applied for a position to edit lecture videos for the ENVST Program. I had heard great things about her from my ENVST peers, specifically about her Environmental Justice class (ENVST 3365). I decided to take that class to see for myself, and it was awesome. Cachelin does a fantastic job teaching the many complexities of environmental justice. It is an eye-opening class. She told me that the development of this course helped her see how equity and justice perspectives can engage students in the environment in different ways, and this concept has helped to focus of her work.

Cachelin also teaches Eating for Justice, Health, & Sustainability (PRT/NUTR 5650/6650). She developed this course in response to student excitement and passion over the food justice. Cachelin is responsive to the student community and mindfully works to develop effective programs to serve their needs.

Cachelin followed an interesting path to her work in sustainability education. She received her undergrad in Environmental Studies/Political Science at University of Vermont—Bernie Sanders was her mayor at the time! After completing that milestone, Cachelin taught at the Teton Science School leading outdoor programs and backcountry trips. While environmental education seemed very effective in allowing people to fall in love with, and even better understand ecological systems, Cachelin was troubled by people’s lack of commitment to sustainability and more ecologically sound lifestyles.

Recognizing that there was a lot to know about how people learn, Cachelin pursued a Masters in Education at the University of Utah while working as the education director at Red Butte Garden.  After several years of programming, Cachelin became interested in how we talk about the environment and environmental issues and began to feel that there was a communications disconnect. According to Cachelin, when we talk about environment we are talking about something that is disconnected from humans rather than something we see ourselves as dependent upon.

This led her to a PhD exploring communication and the ways that language can undermine sustainability. Her research focused on framing humans as a part of rather than apart from nature in educational texts. And in many ways, this explains her commitment to environmental justice.  As an educator, she realized that while not all people feel connected to pristine or wild settings, people are connected to the places that they work, live and play.  And this is how environmental justice scholars define environment.

Cachelin works with many students doing community engaged research, some of which happens in the classes she teaches. One example is her work with students and refugees in the Glendale community.  She and her students hoped to better understand food justice in an area alternately considered  “food deserts” or “food swamps,” areas with limited availability of fresh food and/or a surfeit of highly processed food. This work culminated in the publication of “Savor: Stories of Culture, Community, & Food,” which highlights the beauty and diversity of refugee approaches to food and shows us the ways in which expertise truly resides in community.

Adrienne Cachelin and students raise awareness for the Utah Food Bank.

Adrienne Cachelin and students raise awareness about the Utah Food Bank.

Along with being an engaging teacher, Cachelin is the Director of Sustainability Education at the University and works with an interdisciplinary team to support sustainability education across all departments. Rather than creating new general education requirements and courses, Adrienne and her team are seeking to uncover current sustainability outcomes in the curriculum and encourage interdisciplinary action across campus.

I asked how Cachelin has seen sustainability and justice advance on campus, as well as where she would like to see progress. She is a big fan of the efforts of the Sustainability with initiatives like U Community Solar and the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF). Yet, she suggests inherent problems with how sustainability is currently understood. Cachelin said, “When we limit sustainability to future outcomes, or simple behaviors to support future outcomes, it allows us to forget that we are currently living in a rigged game, where human activities affect human and ecological health, and often impose social inequality.” Cachelin explained that we need focus on the big ideas of sustainability like systems thinking and ecological limits. It can’t be either about the environment or society; it has to be both. There have already been significant developments and these developments continue to grow. Examples include the development of an integrated graduate certificate in sustainability, sustainability faculty workshops, and the University’s commitment to integrated faculty hires. I am excited to witness this growth continue to take place!

It was great to sit down and chat with Cachelin. I already knew she was a great teacher, but I was blown away at the range and depth of projects she has been involved with, both on campus and within the greater community. She manages to juggle many tasks and manages to not only complete those tasks, but also excel and even push barriers onto the next level for creating solutions. Adrienne is a passionate and caring individual, who radiates compassionate energy.

Dani Poirier is a student in Environmental & Sustainability Studies, as well as Strategic Communications.

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