The term “sustainability,” whose currency has grown in recent years, usually conjures images of solar and wind energy, recycling, and composting—and in urban areas rooftop gardens, LEED buildings and bike lanes. The drive toward sustainability grew out of the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s. As such, sustainability forever will be linked to matters of our physical environment.

But what if the term were expanded and applied to more than just environmental issues? What if it grew to embrace social, political, and educational issues as well?

That’s the question a group of Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) professors asked back in 2014 when imagining new ways of tackling old problems plaguing the Greater Newark area. The next year, the Newark Environmental Sustainability Institute (NESI) was born.

NESI, which received seed-grant start-up funding from the RU-N Chancellor's Office, was founded as a unique collaboration between the departments of Biological Sciences, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Sociology and Anthropology, and Arts, Culture and Media. The vision was to establish an institute that would pursue a multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary approach to urban environmental sustainability, which had not existed in the region.

The Principal Investigators (PI’s) on the NESI seed grant were Karina Schäfer, associate professor of Ecosystem Ecology (Department of Biological Sciences), and Lee Slater, Henry Rutgers University Professor in Geophysics (Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences). NESI’s director is Deborah Greenwood, who has a doctoral degree in geography from Rutgers University with a focus on sustainable and urban agriculture.

In addition to being the PI on the NESI seed grant, Schäfer has been living in Newark for nearly six years and is currently an Essex County commissioner. We sat down with her to discuss NESI’s inception, its current status, and its future aspirations.

*          *          *

NESI is by nature a collaborative effort across disciplines. Who forms the core team?
The core team consists of myself, NESI Director Deborah Greenwood, Professor Lee Slater, and Professors Tim Raphael and Genese Sodikoff. The first three come from the sciences, while Tim comes from Arts, Culture & Media and is director of the Center for Migration and the Global City, and Genese is a professor in sociology and anthropology. But that’s just the core team. We’re looking to expand by involving many other faculty members who can contribute their expertise.

How and when did the idea for NESI come about?
I’ve been passionate about sustainability for years, as has Lee. I’ve been teaching a graduate-level course on sustainability resources since 2011, and when Cory Booker was Newark’s mayor, we had a green-business summit where I spoke on these issues, and Lee has been on various panels as well. Genese has been teaching environmental issues from an anthropology perspective, and Tim has been documenting issues in the Ironbound through his Newest Americans project. The Chancellor has also been fostering sustainability issues. So, when the request for proposals came from the Chancellor’s Seed Grant Program back in 2014, the idea for NESI was born, and we got funding and started the institute.

What is NESI’s mission?
Our goal is to advance urban sustainability in Greater Newark through research, education, and community outreach. What makes this different is that we’re taking an interdisciplinary approach involving the social, political and natural sciences, along with the documentary media.

Why take that approach, and why involve documentary media?
Because sustainability by its nature has environmental, social, and political dimensions. For instance, two of Newark’s biggest issues are environmental and air pollution, but when you look closer, you see these overlap with environmental and social justice issues. Waste incinerators are built in the poorest communities. Asthma rates are higher in these communities as well. Everything is intertwined, and remedying them usually involves political action, because policy sets them in motion in the first place. Media is necessary for documenting problems and raising public awareness.

What additional challenges does Newark face that NESI could address?
In addition to air pollution, Newark contends with industrial toxins, including toxic sludge near the Passaic River waterfront, which combined with sea-level rise and irregular weather patterns makes for a big problem. Flooding and saltwater intrusion into groundwater are related issues. Add to these high poverty rates, underperforming schools and a lack of education in general around these issues. So, we have a lot of work to do and are excited to do it.

And NESI is leveraging relationships with many community partners to fulfill its mission, yes?
That’s right. These are big issues that require a communal effort. And it’s important for RU-N to engage the community to learn what’s going on, and get both input and buy-in, rather than impose solutions. That’s what will breed success, and that’s what democracy is all about.

Our partners so far include the Ironbound Community Corporation, the American Heart Association, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute, and the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County.

What are NESI’s priorities now and going forward?
Our top priorities are doing air-pollution studies and documenting environmental-justice issues in various parts of Newark. We also just got funding to start an undergraduate major in urban environmental sustainability. We’re focused on setting that up, along with a related internship program, by 2018, with an applied masters program coming later.

Internships are central: Our students will gain community-based research and work opportunities that we hope, in turn, will have a lasting impact on the city. Already we’re seeing a lot of demand for interns from various community groups and city agencies.

In general, we want to be a community resource that provides research, expertise, and collaboration to solve pressing problems in Newark. Having an open community-center space that’s accessible to all will go a long way toward that, as will integrating NESI information within the MyNewark app developed by RU-N’s School for Public Affairs and Administration. When Newark residents want details on the next environmental commission meeting, or about the next public hearing on incinerators, they can find out through NESI.

Thank you for speaking with us.
It was my pleasure.

NESI also holds a monthly seminar speaker series at RU-N, highlighting multi-disciplinary research and programming in sustainability issues. For more details, please visit here.