Insights and Inspirations from the Penn State Sustainability Social in Pittsburgh

The second annual Penn State Sustainability Social in Pittsburgh recently brought together thought leaders, change-makers, and community advocates to explore the intersection of sustainability, community engagement, and the pivotal role of education in shaping a brighter future. Nearly 60 attendees gathered for the event at the Energy Innovation Center in early November.

“This event showcased the profound impact that local initiatives can have on global sustainability efforts,” said Tom Bartnik, director of Penn State Center Pittsburgh. “It was great to see everyone come together with a common goal and spark some amazing dialogue about making Pittsburgh communities more sustainable and equitable.”

During the event, attendees heard from several distinguished speakers. Heather Manzo, executive director of Allegheny County Conservation District (ACCD), shed light on the importance of fostering partnerships and community sharing, underscoring the belief that true sustainability requires a collective effort. Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce, spoke passionately about the organization’s commitment to restoring the environment and investing in people through local land restoration and workforce development.

Lara Fowler speaking

Larry Terry, vice president for Penn State Outreach, emphasized the significance of Penn State’s land-grant mission in driving change from the ground up. By connecting academic resources with local needs, Penn State Outreach aims to leverage education for community development. Terry’s insights highlighted the transformative potential of higher education institutions in creating sustainable solutions that resonate globally.

A recurring theme throughout the event was the importance of diverse partnerships. Attendees included representatives from Penn State, local government, nonprofits, and businesses, exemplifying the strength that lies in collaboration. Through the speakers’ remarks, networking, and poster questions (more on that below), the Sustainability Social continued the conversation that will shape the future of Pittsburgh and across Pennsylvania.

“There is a big opportunity for federal funding right now to support sustainability efforts, greatly focusing on building apprenticeship and workforce development,” said Lara Fowler, chief sustainability officer at Penn State and executive director of Penn State Sustainability. “Penn State is eager to partner with communities around the Commonwealth in the coming year to help programs and initiatives with this goal.”

Some of the poster questions and responses throughout the night included:

As a Penn State alum or faculty at a Penn State campus, what makes you hopeful about the future of sustainability in your community?

  • To see how passionate incoming students are about sustainability and environmental issues
  • People who care so much that they work on sustainability even when overworked and not paid to do it
  • To see the large array of student organizations and clubs waiting to participate in sustainability climate action — students are ready to collaborate

What mutually beneficial opportunities are there for Pittsburgh stakeholders and Penn State faculty/research teams to collaborate in Pittsburgh?

  • Green spaces research — for ecosystem benefits and biodiversity conservation — urban meadows, lawns, green roofs, etc.
  • Tracking institutional procurement related to food and local producers/farmers

What research problems would benefit from joint funding applications between local partners and Penn State and/or other higher education institutions?

  • Importance of public transportation and creating a more walkable city — environmental benefits, public health (social/community, physical, mental)
  • Just transitions from heavily polluting industry and energy toward climate resilient energy and materials and waste management
  • Urban/rural ecology and how deer population impacts region (i.e., Pittsburgh park bow hunting program)

Richard, Edgar, Lara stand at a high table, talking

What mutually beneficial opportunities are there for Pittsburgh and Penn State to collaborate on workforce development in the Pittsburgh region?

  • Value-added processing for locally produced native foods, market support for locally foraged foods, shared processing and aggregation infrastructure for small-scale urban producers
  • Pittsburgh orgs/businesses can utilize Penn State resources — including intern programs, seminars, etc. — to help build capacity for workforce development and provide a larger network to identify opportunities

What are the critical workforce development needs in Pittsburgh?

  • Urban forest management, short-rotation coppice management for energy production, urban soil remediation, food systems engineering, bio-waste management through anaerobic digestion
  • Training in green building management
  • Create pipelines for green careers

For pressing resilience/sustainability issues or initiatives in Pittsburgh, what kind of other collaborations or additional other resources are needed?

  • Interacting directly with the Pittsburgh community — working with local residents from all different backgrounds will help to define the needs of the community
  • Public/private partnerships, getting corporate buy-in/fiscal sponsorship can go a long way toward adopting and implementing sustainability initiatives in Pittsburgh
  • Funding to elevate youth voices on climate change and justice
  • Continued collaborations between all Penn State campuses will be essential in creating the impactful partnerships that can further sustainability/resilience-building

How can Pittsburgh partners utilize Penn State interns, teams of students, or semester-long seminars to advance their work — both on a regular basis and special projects?

  • Utilizing students and Penn State resources helps to build capacity while also fostering mutually beneficial relationships — it’s also an opportunity to help train future employees while giving them real-world experience
  • IT/Database management support for small nonprofits
  • Research, help building databases and other systems
  • Ecological studies (population monitoring for insects/plans, soil analysis, etc.), life cycles analyses for products/processes in the region, carbon accounting for businesses/nonprofits, communications and network support for convening-type nonprofits (Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, Black Environmental Collective, Green Building Alliance)

Heather Manzo speaks in front of a group of people in a large room in the Energy Innovation Center

What are Penn State students’ and community stakeholders’ mutually beneficial interests in learning and working in Pittsburgh?

  • It is beneficial to prioritize the importance of PLACE and leverage people’s connectivity/stickiness to their region! People love Pittsburgh and want to see their community/area thrive!
  • There is an opportunity to take advantage of and improve the quality of life in Pittsburgh, both as a stakeholder and student
  • Pittsburgh has it all — business centers, aquatic ecosystems, historic engineering — making it an essential city of uplift AND an ideal place to train the decision-makers of the future

The Sustainability Social is not just a once-a-year event but aims to be a catalyst for ongoing collaboration and action. The diverse perspectives, local success stories, and commitment to global impact set the stage for more sustainable and equitable Pennsylvania for all.