I get by with a little help from my friends – The Beatles
“A couple of us were interested in holding a conference with other students from Philly-area schools and that’s how the idea to connect with other students arose. We realized there was no platform or network for students who were working on sustainability initiatives, so that’s when I got the idea to create that network.”
This was the plight that Sara Allan, the cofounder of Sustainable Philadelphia Alliance of Regional Campuses, faced in 2013. She and a few others on campus realized that “power in numbers” definitely applied to students working in sustainability in Philadelphia. But when they wanted to organize a conference, they realized that there was no way to even know which students were interested and how to contact them. Thus, the idea for SPARC was created.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves in the story.
As Allan herself puts it, “I’ve been interested in sustainability for a really long time — I was involved in high school environmental groups and the Green Schools Alliance, so I came to college knowing I wanted to volunteer and work with student groups.” While this story is fairly par for the course for many students who become very involved in sustainability and environmentalism, there are definitely “some students who dabbled a little bit in environmental issues in high school and want to learn more, and then some people who are just exposed to it for the first time in college,” explains Allan.
When she started at Penn, she become involved first as an Eco-Rep and later through the Student Sustainability Association at Penn, the umbrella organization for the twenty or so green groups on Penn’s campus. It was through her work at SSAP that she realized “the power of collaboration between the groups that could improve communications with the administration. When pooling resources and working together, even more can be done.”
Thus, the idea for a conference was born, resulting in the realization that there was no way to even know where to begin in contacting students across regional campuses.
“It was like ‘Wow, okay, we want to host a conference and there’s not even a way to get in touch with all of these people, even though a lot of us do want to get in touch with each other. There must be a lot of interest from other schools,'” says Allan.
SPARC was launched in January 2014 to promote collaboration among student sustainability groups from Philadelphia-area colleges and universities. The governance structure of the group is two-fold: student fellows and advisory board members.
“The idea is that we have student fellows, who are the main drivers of the organization. We want it to be student-led so students have even more professional opportunities — they get to really guide this organization, but because there’s a lot of turnover because a lot of the students who are getting involved are either juniors or seniors in college and they’re going to be potentially leaving, we also need an advisory board, which would lend us professional advice and access to their networks as well,” explains Allan.
Lindsay Bushong, a current student fellow from Drexel University, says that working with SPARC has been an empowering experience for everyone involved.
“My main responsibility is engaging students at my campus to be more involved in either citywide events and organizing or SPARC events and brainstorming sessions. I also help those student groups by providing the different resources that SPARC puts together or answering questions about issues such as starting their divestment campaign,” says Bushong.
It was after their first brainstorming session that Bushong saw students really beginning to understand the power of a student sustainability network.
“We had representatives from all over the area come together and it was really powerful. I think that’s when students started to realize ‘If I talk to the kids at Temple who are doing this instead of just envying their project or their garden, we could have the same thing and we can have an even bigger impact.’”
Successes for SPARC over the past year and a half have included SPARC Sustainable Food Week, partnering with sustainable organizations across Philadelphia ranging from CityCoHo to the Sustainable Business Network, and filing to become a nonprofit.
Interested in becoming a student fellow for SPARC? The applications are right here. There are also six working groups that you can join (focused on the topics of food, energy, waste, transportation, publications, and curriculum integration) that seek to expand the resources that students across campuses have access to. Just want to keep up on news? Check out their blog.