SFU-led projects

For people and the planet: Q&A with SFU's central sustainability team

April 25, 2023
Members of SFU’s central sustainability team. L-R: Maria Spiliotopoulou, manager, regenerative systems education; Marina Van Driel, program coordinator, campus sustainability; Lindsay Bunce, director; Erin Travers, grants and development facilitator; Candace Ratelle (Le Roy), executive director; Rita Steele, manager, campus sustainability; Kim Thee, manager, student learning and leadership; Kilim Park, manager, research sustainability; and Asad Nayani, manager, business intelligence, assessment and reporting.

Last week, Simon Fraser University joined over a billion people worldwide in honouring Earth Day. This year’s theme, Invest in Our Planet, focused on engaging all of us, our governments, institutions, businesses and communities, to do our part—everyone accounted for, everyone accountable.

Executive director of SFU Sustainability Candace Ratelle (Le Roy) sat down with us to share more about SFU’s central sustainability team. She discussed her hopes for the future and explained how SFU is taking action to address global challenges.  

From co-founding Sustainable SFU (now Embark Sustainability) to becoming the executive director of SFU Sustainability, your sustainability and climate action journey spans nearly 20 years. Looking back, what stands out the most for you?

For me, ‘sustainability’ is not about ‘saving the planet’—it is about people—people designed today’s unsustainable and unjust systems and it is mostly political, cultural, and ideological clashes (people) getting in the way of designing new ones. Most of us want to live on a healthy planet with equal access to conditions to thrive, but the path to these goals is the source of much debate and conflicting ideas on the ‘right’ or ‘best’ approach to improve human and planetary health. I have seen this become a distraction when we try to convince others that there is one right and best way —conversely, when people come together across difference and discipline to achieve a goal, seemingly impossible progress emerges.

This is why I have been inspired by the diversity of champions within the SFU community who have helped us move the needle by addressing both individual and system change through cross- silo collaborations. Students, faculty, staff and senior leaders are stepping up in creative and energetic ways to redesign our operations, teaching, research, community engagement and global impact to align these areas with environmental and climate renewal and justice. We have nearly halved our energy footprint, eliminated plastic bottles, redesigned dining services with accessibility and carbon in mind, developed hundreds of sustainability and climate change courses, contributed to life-changing research that has transformed communities, and started listening to Host Nations and our Indigenous colleagues on how we might heal the land and ourselves based on hundreds of years of stewardship. If we can do all that, then I think we can do anything.

While all of us at SFU play a role in advancing sustainability and climate action, there is a passionate and diverse team guiding our efforts. Tell us about the central sustainability team.

I am fortunate to collaborate with some of the most hard-working, dedicated, resilient, kind and creative people I have ever met. The central sustainability team works passionately to support faculty, staff, students, senior leaders and external community partners in their sustainability and climate action work, research, teaching, and learning. The team includes: Kayla Blok (global sustainability); Lindsay Bunce (strategic operations and development); Melissa Fiorucci (administration); Marina Van Driel (community engagement); Kilim Park (research sustainability); Rita Steele (operations sustainability); Maria Spiliotopoulou (learning and teaching sustainability); Kim Thee (climate and sustainability justice); Asad Nayani (intelligence, data, reporting); and Erin Travers (fundraising).

Every area of the university contributes to sustainability and climate action now—this is so wonderful to see. The university recently shared What’s Next: The SFU Strategy, which includes “resilience and sustainability” as one of its core values. Our team’s role is to be the central service hub for strategic planning, community engagement, data collection, evaluation, reporting, education and training and communications. We help set the sustainability north star for SFU and convene people for problem-solving, solutions development and collaboration. We also work to change university systems, processes and practices to remove structural barriers and create pathways for all people at SFU to engage in sustainability and climate action work.

These days, we are challenged by diminishing resources, overlapping global and local crises, competing priorities and the need to do more despite these challenges. Tell us about the Embedding Sustainability and Climate Action approach and how it addresses these challenges.

From my perspective, a key challenge involves balancing the urgency of climate change with the need to slow down, act intentionally and bring people along with us. Scholar and writer Bayo Akomolafe encourages us to slow down in these urgent times to avoid rushing into old patterns, ways of thinking and further harm. We need to listen to each other, practice care and compassion and shift our mindsets and ways of knowing and doing. We need to ensure everyone is at the table with an equal voice. Adopting this approach requires us to slow down and pay attention— but it produces better, more equitable and lasting results. Integrating justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) and truth, reconciliation and decolonizing practices into our environmental work has helped us see the importance of this approach. Sustainability and climate action practitioners have—and can still—cause significant harm when they move forward with good intentions but with carelessness in their speed and direction.

One way we are moving with intentionality is the Embedding Sustainability and Climate Action (ESCA) approach. Not a project or a program, ESCA is a process and way of approaching SFU’s sustainability and climate action work with a people perspective. ESCA moves us from rigid project management to collaborative design and adaptive flow. The focus of ESCA is on embedding sustainability and climate action learning, innovation and practice across the university in ways that make sense and work for each area. At SFU, we have now created an ESCA community of practice to support, collaborate, listen and learn from one another while we develop co-beneficial solutions and practices. It includes representatives from each of SFU’s vice-president senior leadership teams and their respective communicators.

As part of the Embedding Sustainability and Climate Action (ESCA) approach, SFU developed a community of practice, with representatives from each VP portfolio, to offer support, training and facilitate collaboration. L-R: Samir Traoré, executive director, VP People, Equity and Inclusion; Laura Kohli, director, communications & marketing (C&M), VP finance & administration (VPFA); Maria Spiliotopoulou, manager, regenerative systems education, SFU Sustainability (SFUS); Kilim Park, manager, research sustainability, SFUS; Shelley Gair, executive director, VP research & international (VPRI); Jennifer Espinos, director, VPFA; Candace Ratelle (Le Roy), executive director, SFUS; Alex Kouzin, senior director, advancement services, VP advancement & alumni engagement (VPAAE); Rita Steele, manager, campus sustainability; SFUS; Lindsay Bunce, director, SFUS; Steve Dooley, executive director, SFU’s Surrey campus; Angela Wilson, director, media relations & public affairs, C&M; Ted Peterson, senior director, C&M, VPAAE; and Tia O’Grady, director, C&M, VPRI.

SFU has made strides in sustainability and climate action—releasing the 2022-2025 Strategic Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, committing to full divestment from fossil fuels and joining the United Nations-led Race To Zero global campaign— what do you hope to see in the next decade?

In 2033, I imagine a world where Indigenous communities govern their own land and Peoples, where sustainability and climate solutions are designed and practiced by a diverse set of people and organizations, and where those who have been denied equity and dignity not only have a seat at the table, but a voice and power.

I see communities working together to become stronger as they develop regenerative, low carbon resilience and learn to live in harmony with the land they inhabit. I see educational institutions like ours decentralizing and achieving more inclusive, accessible, community- and justice- centred experiential models of learning, knowledge creation and knowledge mobilization. I see a transformed SFU as one of the central actors in this regenerative and resilient pathway.

How can the SFU community get involved in sustainability and climate action initiatives?

I encourage everyone to think about their strengths, passions and current work and act within that intersection. Try making small adjustments to the things you already do. Look at your life and work and see where you might use less resources, include more people’s voices or regenerate natural systems. The best place to start is in your own office, home and/or community. There is no such thing as an action too small. If we and 30,000 others in our community act in small ways, just imagine our collective impact.

Whether you are a student, staff member, faculty member, partner or community member, discover ways you can contribute to sustainability work at SFU and beyond by contacting the central sustainability team. To stay informed on the latest sustainability news, opportunities and events, sign up for the SFU Sustainability newsletter.