A Look Inside the Sustainability Leadership Academy

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By Friday, the 18 high school students participating in this year’s Sustainability Leadership Academy (SLA) have been together for five days, and they've clearly formed a tightly knit group. They chat and joke as they file into the conference room. Because the past week has been a curated whirlwind of:

  • Tours, including Eden Hall Farm, downtown Pittsburgh, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Chatham’s Shadyside Campus, and the ALCOSAN Wastewater Treatment Plant. A major highlight was a “green building” kayak tour on one of the city’s three rivers.
  • Meetings with community managers, corporate sustainability officers, government officials, faculty involved with Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability & Environment
  • Discussions around leadership; sustainability and social change; urban planning and public transportation; and, because it’s relevant to high school students--career preparation and college counseling
  • Fun and relaxation, including a challenge course, sustainable cooking class, game night, yoga classes, and time to enjoy the pool, rock climbing wall, and basketball and squash courts. The week closes with a campfire.

…there’s an infectious energy. But right now, they're here to share the project ideas they’ve been developing in workshops interspersed with these activities, projects that they plan to implement in their own communities, when they get home. “The goal of these projects is to take a systems approach to helping transform their community,” says SLA Director Kelly Henderson. 

The packed schedule has allotted three minutes for project presentation and two minutes for questions and comments. Even in this short amount of time, the breadth of ideas is startling. Many of the students have prepared posters or PowerPoint presentations, but Henderson allowed a lot of latitude in presentation method, and one student took her up on it, wowing the room with a slam poem. Below, a sample of students' projects distilled into a single statement: 

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Feedback on the post-SLA survey has been encouraging: "I don't want to leave. I really loved this entire experience," wrote one person. "I wish it were two weeks instead of one," wrote another. 

The Sustainability Leadership Academy is a week-long experiential retreat at Chatham University's Eden Hall Campus–the world's first academic community built to be sustainable from below the ground up. It is open to rising 10th, 11th and 12th graders, as well as students leaving 12th grade.