UISG member inspires sustainability action on campus, across state and Big 10
Monday, April 20, 2020

The Iowa Memorial Union Main Ballroom was filled with students from other Big 10 universities.

The legislation she’d written was on the table.

But when Emily Manders presented a proclamation before student government representatives from across the nation, she wasn’t nervous about whether it would pass.

“I was more worried that this document would become just a piece of paper without any concrete action behind it,” says Manders, a fourth-year environmental policy and planning major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I’m very pleased to see that hasn’t been the case.”

In fact, the “Resolution in Support of the Declaration of a Climate Emergency by Big Ten Undergraduate Student Governments,” which Manders co-wrote with leaders from University of Iowa Student Government (UISG) and Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG), went on to inspire action not only by UISG, but by UI faculty and administration—and now other higher education institutions across Iowa.

In July 2019, when the UI hosted the Association of Big Ten Schools Conference, Manders was among delegates from 14 Big Ten schools who met to discuss nine pieces of submitted legislation. The UI submitted two resolutions, both of which passed: one that backed the declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and another supporting Big Ten undergraduate student governments in declaring a climate emergency.

“The pieces were written to be flexible, so other universities could work to apply them in a way that would work for their institutions,” says Manders, who serves as UISG director of sustainability. “I volunteered to write it to bring awareness to climate change, because this is something that will affect everyone who is in college right now. So it was an effort to tell students that we as student government need to pay attention to this, as well as make sure the university is aware that we support sustainability.”

The University of Iowa Student Government and Graduate and Professional Student Government offer students an opportunity to gain experience in making important decisions that affect change on campus. Learn more on the UISG and GPSG pages.

The resolution, among other things, declared a climate emergency for all Big 10 student governments collectively, a formal recognition that climate change exists, and that previous measures have not been sufficient in preventing or slowing causes of climate change.

By following the actions outlined in the resolution, each student government was asked to make sustainability a required consideration of their work. That component also called for having an executive student position focused directly on sustainability matters, such as the existing role in which Manders serves for UISG.

“The biggest challenge in writing it was that I wanted the resolution to be simple enough for each university to be able to use it how they wanted to, but also make sure there was some sort of accountability with it, that you can’t just pass it and not do anything,” Manders says.

The successful action at the Big 10 conference inspired the passing of a resolution by UISG and GPSG in their annual joint session. Manders, along with UISG Sustainability Chair Joseph Haggerty, and GPSG Sustainability Co-Chairs Christian Bako and Amina Grant, directed and wrote the legislation that called for measures such as a reduction in waste or use of energy or fossil fuels, creating 2030 sustainability goals, and offering sustainability courses as part of general education classes. After the UI resolution passed, Manders and members of the UI Environmental Coalition student organization worked to contact universities, colleges, and community colleges in Iowa to encourage them to take similar action. Both Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have done so, Manders says.

“I am impressed by Emily’s accomplishments as an undergraduate student in the area of sustainability,” says Erin Irish, associate professor of biology and UI Sustainability Charter Committee co-chair. “The writing of the resolution with fellow students, getting it endorsed by UI student governments, and by Big 10 student governments are amazing accomplishments. But in addition to that, it also inspired the Faculty Senate to pass its own climate emergency resolution.”

The action led to the creation of eight sustainability task forces, as well as to UI President Bruce Harreld signing the resolution.

“I didn’t expect this much of a spark,” Manders says. “I was really happy to see our own student government, administration, and faculty taking these actions.”

Manders has been involved in sustainability causes since her first days on campus, having learned about the UI Environmental Coalition at a Student Involvement Fair.

“Joining the coalition really got me more interested in caring for the Earth,” she says. “I realized, ‘This is what’s going to be my passion.’”

Now co-president of that organization, Manders and the group’s members organize annual Earth Month activities, offering events throughout April that in the past have included a lecture series, benefit concerts featuring local bands, a reusable bag exchange, and more. In addition to these duties, Manders serves as the UISG director of sustainability for the 2019–20 academic year. The role involves managing and helping implement the activities of the Green Initiatives Fund, which provides resources for students’ sustainability projects.

“I just wanted to be more involved and have more of a voice on campus, and student government is a good way to do that,” Manders says. “I wanted to work more with the administration on sustainability matters, as well as on educating students about what’s going on at the university in promoting sustainability.”

When Manders enrolled at the UI, she originally planned to major in environmental science. But an environmental justice course taught by Eric Tate, UI associate professor of geographical and sustainability science, led her to realize she was more interested in the social aspects of sustainability.

“Compared to environmental science, the sustainability-focused courses focus more on social aspects, such as on how environmental dangers often hit people of color, or of low income, first,” she says. “This has helped me see that it’s really important to bring awareness to those issues, and to work on environmental advocacy for those groups. That’s something I’m taking into account for my future career path.”

Manders changed her major to environmental policy and planning and also is pursuing minors in geographic informational sciences and environmental science, as well as a certificate in sustainability.

“This is what I want to do,” she says. “I’m in the right place.”

The certificate in sustainability program at the University of Iowa draws from a variety of disciplines to create a 24-semester-hour certificate that gives students the knowledge and skills to contribute to developing sustainable systems.

While spring 2020 campus events were canceled due to the coronavirus public health emergency, the efforts that Manders and Haggerty made inspired a small group of faculty to propose a Climate Change Literacy Teach-In on campus on Earth Day, with Manders serving on the planning committee.

Manders is completing an internship in the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment, where she has been involved with projects ranging from working with residence halls to implement composting programs to raising awareness with resident assistants and Fraternity and Sorority Life about sustainability initiatives on campus.

“Looking back, I feel like my first two years here were kind of like a normal college experience, and then I started getting way more involved. And that has really changed how prepared I am for life after leaving the university,” she says. “I gained a lot of knowledge about sustainability and implementing it, as well as the difficulties you might face. I feel much more ready as a professional.”

While Manders doesn’t yet know whether she will pursue graduate school or begin a career in environmental justice or a related field, she is certain of her overall goal: “I want to do my part, as someone who has the knowledge and capabilities, to protect the Earth.”