After 3 years teaching literacy in D.C., Laura Menyuk moved outdoors and into the experiential education “classroom." She has trained in leadership development, team-building, facilitation, social justice, and environmental education while backpacking the Sonoran desert with NOLS, boating in the Chesapeake with Echo Hill, and working in classrooms at Georgetown University.
As someone who is dedicated to sustainability in both her personal and professional life, we just had to get her perspective on the topic. Happy reading!
What does the word 'sustainability' mean to you, and how has it been relevant in your career?
Sustainability, like the word 'love,' changes over time and with each person it meets. I like to draw it to its root of sustenance - the most basic things we need - air, water, food, space, and belonging. And we need those things in ways that are healthy and safe if we are to be sustained beyond a day or two. That said, the term is most useful to me in my work as a form of good jargon - which serves the purpose of bringing people together. I think people who were once at the forefront of sustainability, or those who never felt that 'sustainability' actually included them, are ready to move on from that term - toward 'resilience' or 'thriving' environments. New words, new purpose. New purpose, new community. New community, new possibilities for the work we'll do together as climate change and other woes of extractive consumerism bare down on us.
Explain a time when you were impacted by or had an impact within a sustainable business. Why was this experience significant?
Twelve years ago, I asked the camp (which was operated by the same organization whose literacy programs I site-managed) to take me on as a counselor for 10 days. I felt drawn to it and wanted to see what it was all about. Camp FLOC (For Love of Children) - the camp that first exposed me to outdoor education, had its kitchen buried into a hillside, composting toilets, and solar-powered showers. We sat with youth and stared at the stars, while contemplating the meaning of life. We team-built, went on canoe trips, zip-lined, learned about the water cycle and river-water table. The food it served met nutritional standards and was conscientiously made. We connected, all of us, and it was incredible.
How did this experience change the course of your life, your career or your outlook?
I thought all environmental education centers were like that and two years later, I quit my job teaching literacy to pursue a career in outdoor and environmental education. It's been a whirlwind journey. After a decade of learning, teaching, and adventure (and while I soon learned that that place was quite unique and most environmental education centers are built like every other building that was ever built, and serve more quintessential 'camp' food... ) I am still hooked. The format of teaching outdoor and experiential education has called me in. It's a job of facilitating people's experiences with the world and with people around them as much as it is 'teaching.' It's about being ready for whatever your participants and nature throw at you when you're out there, and helping people of all ages start to get ready for whatever our big climate-changey world has started to and will continue to throw at us.
What would you say are the top three most important steps that students and young professionals can take today to lead more sustainable lives and careers?
1. Consider: When we spend most of our time and energy promoting "that product or action that the unique individual can buy or do to be sustainable" we take away motivation to work toward collective action (recent research demonstrates). Everyone knows the problem is not solved 'just through me' - especially young people. Think about what are you doing to shift policy and/or shift a process from linear and extractive to circular and reusable- at a scale large enough to matter at a community-level.
2. Carve a Path: Food - a most basic need for sustenance is tangled up as a consumer good in a vast system - "the food system". Food systems' work is undervalued at nearly every point in the chain. If we're going to make long-term change, then we not only need to do everything we're doing for environmental sustainability, but we must ALSO raise the value of our work. Literally. Money matters (in this country, at this time). Consider this: Once you've (perhaps) done the things for free or low-pay that you may want or need to do, figure out what amount you want to live on and ask for it, raise it, fight to create policies that mandate it, and/or pursue it, and then leave a path for others to follow.
3. Shift your paradigm: (Stay with me here, okay? This one can't be reduced to a sound bite). We have multiple social identities - our race, gender, religion, etc. You have perhaps heard that these are "social constructs," i.e. different societies have created social rules that help us know how to "BE" a member of that group (and we know if we don't quite fit in, am I right?). Curiously, we don't learn in Sociology 101 that the concept of "the environment" is just as social of a construct. The forests and cities have their shape because that is how society has decided we should shape and use them. The "environment" as separate from ourselves and our urban dwellings is well, just an idea. Everything is made from the environment, including us. We are identified as "consumers" - and something is in the environment if it's not yet consumable. See what happens when contemplate your identity as a land and resource user, not only as a consumer but as a global citizen? Where does that lead you?
Given your current passion for sustainability, if you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Spend less time at organizations that teach others about sustainability but haven't implemented practices of sustainability for staff well-being. (read: underpaid, under-trained, and/or overworked, high turnover rates). Just being real here.
What are some words of wisdom that you would offer students exploring the possibility of an immersive experience within sustainable businesses?
Just do it! And take what I wrote above with a grain of salt - the whole industry is learning how to be a thing. When you find a good boss, a good mentor, and/or a well-run operation - capture that goodness and fight to share it at the next place that needs it. Or go get your masters in organizational change or go to business school and bring that knowledge to the table! Boom!
What is your favorite quote?
This was on a door in the staff room at the camp I mentioned above, and it has sustained me: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive." ~ Howard Thurman
What's next? What are your next steps toward your own sustainable growth in 2019?
I have finally followed my own advice in #2 above, and that has allowed me to start looking at buying a house. I look forward to seeing how owning land and property will present challenges and opportunities to how work toward sustainability in my home, neighborhood and city. In an add-on to a Wendell Berry quote, who said that how we eat - but also how we house ourselves - is how we use the land. I plan to use the land well.
Laura came to her now-home in Baltimore, MD via Public Allies, an Americorps program whose mission is to raise indigenous leadership in cities. Raised bilingual in one of the most diverse regions of our nation, she has always sought to uplift the rich diversity which makes up the fabric of a thriving, resilient and just global society - a task she is proud of through her work at Great Kids Farm of Baltimore City Public Schools.