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A Conversation with Ciannat Howett (Fall 2009 Article)

Ciannat Howett was once a senior attorney for the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and the director of the
Southern Environmental Law Center. In 2006, she became
the head of Emory University’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives
(OSI). Read on to learn about Ciannat’s deep connection
with Emory, the OSI, Emory’s progress in sustainability,
and what you can do to join the sustainability movement at
Emory and in the larger Atlanta area.
What is the mission of the OSI?
“Emory has a sustainability vision statement that was crafted
as a result of the strategic plan developed by the Board of
Trustees in 2005. In that strategic plan, sustainability was
named a top priority of the institution and a committee was
formed. It was co-chaired by Michel Mandl, Vice-President
for Finance and Administration, and anthropology professor
Peggy Barlett. One of the things included in the sustainability
vision was creation of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives.
A lot of what [the OSI] work has to do with is coordinating
the sustainability efforts that had already been going on at
the university…starting new projects and programs and then
also helping to communicate the message of sustainability,
how its important to the university, what it means…so that
our hope is that people in our community identity themselves
as being a part of a sustainability mission.”
You grew up in Druid Hills, your three sisters also attended
Emory, your dad was an art professor here for 35 years, and
two of your sisters work at Emory. How does your connection
to Emory and the surrounding area influence your job?
“My interest in taking the job was heavily influenced by this
long association and tie, and sort of heart-felt love of Emory.
It has helped me in this role in that I feel like I know the
culture of the place pretty well…I think it has helped me understand
what Emory is about, what the people here care
about, what the institution will respond to. A lot of things I
know from my time as a student, but then there are a lot of
new things about Emory I am learning…”
What are some of the biggest accomplishments of the OSI?
“I feel good about some of the organization structure we have
put around the sustainability initiatives. Sustainability efforts
were in place long before this institution was created, long
before I arrived. What we’ve accomplished here is elevating
a lot of the issues, improving communication about the importance,
and our progress to date on [the issues], and I feel
as though we’ve put in place a structure that was needed so
that we could achieve these goals. Now we have very concrete
goals for where we need to be, that didn’t happen before.
So we’ve got a 25% reduction in energy use by 2015.
And we tracked our progress, we’re at 10% reduction now,
so we’re on track to hit that by 2015. On food, the goal is that
we will have 75% of local or sustainably produced food in
our hospitals and cafeterias by 2015. Before we started this
effort, we didn’t really know where most of our food came
from, which is typical of an institution. Through this effort, we
can really track all of our food, we know where its coming
from, we can really work to hit these goals.”
Which projects are OSI focused on now?
“We have a project called the Piedmont Project, led by Peggy
Barlett, which is a program for faculty to encourage them
to integrate sustainability practices and concepts into their
courses. We have Emory as Place, which is led by professor
Bobbi Patterson in the religion department, that gets people
out into nature and tries to
help people understand the
unique ecosystem, history,
and culture of this specific
place and make them feel
connected to it so that they’ll
care about it. We have several
projects that relate to operational
issues like energy, water,
waste, transportation, food, green
building, green purchasing and
green space.”
How do you think Emory’s sustainability
compares to peer institutions?
“Creating a truly sustainable campus is a very long
journey and we’ve got miles to go. But I feel very good about
the progress we have made. Emory is a national leader in
this effort in certain areas and that’s in part because Emory
was such an early adopter of a lot of sustainable practices.
If you look at green building, we were the first . . . to do the
gold-LEED building project in the country with the Goizueta
Business School. We have one of the most aggressive
sustainable food goals in the country, in particular when you
consider that we are in a pretty urban area, and don’t have
agriculture right outside our door. The Piedmont project is
another clear area where we’re leading. [The piedmont project],
the longest running program in the country, is nearing
a decade this year. In fact, now we have a trainer program
where faculty from around the country come to Emory to
learn how to set up their own Piedmont Project because its
been really successful. Where we’re not leading nationally —
and a lot of it is because of where we’re located — is in being
able to get a fuel mix of energy. We don’t have a utility that
has invested in renewable, unlike peer institutions, where
they can plug into the wall, and they are plugging into solar,
wind. We have a utility where if we plug into the wall, we’re
plugging into coal-fired power plants. A lot of the hurdle too
is the shift in mindset for people, and I’m as guilty of that as
To read the rest of the interview- more about sustainability
initiatives at Emory, how Emory’s sustainability initiatives
compare to when Ciannat was an undergrad in ’83-’87, and
how you can get involved with the OSI, go to our website
(address at bottom of page).
– Jenna Shweitzer


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