Engaging the community in sustainability efforts

April 5, 2009
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Deborah Steketee prides herself on her ability to ask questions about what's next — questions that help kick-start new conversations in the community.

As executive director of the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas College, Steketee is always looking for ways to help communities live in harmony with the environment. 

In addition to her work at the center, Steketee is an assistant professor in the college's sustainable business Bachelor of Science degree program, which was the first program of its kind in the nation when it started in 2004. She also teaches in the sustainable business concentration of Aquinas' Master in Management program, and she operates a nonprofit consulting organization called Minga, through which she provides counsel on environmental program development and funding.

The Center for Sustainability maintains a Web site that provides a clearinghouse of information and regional resources related to sustainable business. It does community outreach: Last fall, for instance, the center offered East Grand Rapids High School and Kendall College of Art & Design guidance on how to establish recycling programs. The center provides area businesses with instruction on sustainable business practices and oversees the Aquinas Sustainability Initiative.

As part of that internal initiative, the center is performing a full inventory of its processes, practices and curricula to find ways not just to reduce waste, but eliminate it altogether, Steketee noted. The inventory tasks have also been built into class assignments and student internships in Aquinas' sustainable business B.S. degree program, which introduces students to the theory surrounding sustainable business and connects the theory to real world practice.

"We also have what I consider a really interesting process: We're trying to engage everyone in the Aquinas community in thinking about sustainability — thinking about how they might redesign a process to be ecologically restorative and financially sound and to build healthy communities," Steketee said.

Steketee earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Michigan in 1979 and began her career as a staff writer and editorial assistant at Grand Rapids Magazine. A year later she went to work for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council as an environmental advocate, educator and editor of its Michigan Environs magazine. Three years later, she took the position of public affairs director for WOOD-TV 8. In 1987, she hired on as vice president of the Center for Environmental Study, which was founded by philanthropist Peter Wege. She was responsible for environmental education, communications and program development.

"In between my job at Grand Rapids Magazine and WOOD-TV, I ended up editing this publication with WMEAC, and that got my interest really peaked in a much more significant way about all things environmental," Steketee recalled. "I left WOOD and went to the Center for Environmental Study because I was constantly feeling this pull toward environmental things. In working at the center, I really got exposed much more to the human relationship to the environment, and that's when I decided to go back to school."

Organization: Aquinas College Center for Sustainability
Position: Executive Director
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Caledonia
Family/Personal: Husband, P. Frederic Steketee; 9-year-old daughter
Community/Business Involvement: Social Responsibility Committee of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum; Land Conservancy of West Michigan board member; The Right Place Inc. Sustainability Advisory Team; Great Books Reading Enrichment volunteer.
Biggest Career Break: Working for the Center for Environmental Study, which opened her eyes to new possibilities in the realm of sustainability.

Steketee said her early interest in the environment and sustainability stemmed in part from her exposure to Peter Wege's ideas about "economicology."

"Finally people were bringing these ideas together and were beginning to realize that it was possible to change social values and move toward a world that wasn't business as usual," she said.

"We have often looked at the environment as something that had to be sacrificed for the economic good, but it doesn't have to be an 'either or.'"

Steketee earned a Master of Science degree from Michigan State University, where she studied the effects of ecotourism on local communities in Costa Rica's pursuit of sustainable development. She later went on to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental policy and comparative politics from Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where she studied the role of environmental non-governmental organizations as a bridge between local Afro-Ecuadorian communities and forest policymakers in Ecuador.

Her interest in the social dimensions of natural resources management continues to this day. 

Prior to joining the faculty of Aquinas in 2005, her academic career included serving as  adjunct faculty at Grand Rapids Community College, as a teaching assistant in MSU's Department of Resource Development, as a research assistant and later an associate instructor at Indiana University, and as adjunct faculty and a visiting instructor at Grand Valley State University.

Over the years, she gained some additional hands-on enrichment in her field while serving on the boards and committees of a number of other environmentally minded organizations, including the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, WMEAC, the Social Responsibility Committee of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, and the Sustainability Advisory Team of InnovationWorks/The Right Place, among others.

Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group, has known Steketee since her days with the Center for Environmental Study. They worked together at WMEAC for a while and have served on a number of boards together.

"Deb is a very quick study on the issues," Stough said. "She has a real talent for understanding and communicating the implications of policies on environmental issues. She has real strength in collaborating with multiple interest groups in a very friendly manner. She pulls the best out of people."

Aquinas established the Center for Sustainability in 2005 and Steketee joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the fall of that year. Two years earlier, the college had launched a Sustainable Business Bachelor of Science degree program, which was the first program of its kind in the nation.

Aquinas President Edward Balog, Ph.D., hired Steketee when he was the provost. Steketee was completing her Ph.D. in a field that fit perfectly with what Aquinas wanted and the college was very delighted to snag her, he said. She brings to the position both strong academic skills and a network of community connections, Balog said.   

"She is very aware of the local area and she has the ability to connect with a lot of the businesses and individuals that are interested in sustainability and environmental issues, so she saved a great deal of time for us in that regard. Also, her graduate work was on the social side of sustainability and that gave us a nicely balanced faculty perspective."

Steketee completed her Ph.D. in 2006, and around the same time was promoted to executive director of the Center for Sustainability. She's extremely happy in that position.

"I am loving what I do here, and part of it is because I get to face the future every day," Steketee said. "I get to face the future in the kind of thinking and passion I see in our students. I get to face the future in terms of looking at what's next and bringing it into the classroom.

"I used to teach environmental studies, and in some ways it was sort of a 'doom and gloom' class because it was about what shouldn't be done rather than how we could do it. That has changed. I can now point to a company like Steelcase and say they are working to eliminate waste; they are working very hard to take toxins out of their products.

"That kind of optimism is something else that I find really contagious, and I want to be a part of that."

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