Working with Complexity, Focusing on Solutions | Lessons Learned from WOHESC

Last week NWEI’s Executive Director David Macek attended the Washingon & Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference in Portland, joining over 400 attendees and 100 speakers focused on contributing to a sustainable future.

This year we were excited to be a community parther with WOHESC, which provided a platform for inspiring change, facilitating action, and promoting collaboration related to sustainability within the region’s higher education institutions. Conversation, workshops, and networking opportunities empowered participants to advance environmental initiatives while promoting local solutions via dialogue specifically addressing issues in the Pacific Northwest. NWEI’s David Macek attended for the first time and was struck by several recurring themes.

We live in a time of expanding complexity. It’s clear that sustainability in theory and in practice is becoming more complex within our society and within the institutions preparing students and community members to make a positive impact. “So many disciplines were represented at the conference and faculty members made strong cases for how sustainability is core to their curriculum,” David shared. “One great resource I was introduced to was the Curriculum for the Bioregion Initiative based out of Evergreen State College. They have activity cards that help faculty of all disciplines connect their curriculum to sustainability concepts.” In these complex times, integrating sustainability education and engagement into all aspects of education and programming is essential.

There is a growing need for collaboration. As the study and application of sustainability expands, it’s clear how tremendously important ongoing collaboration is – within and across departments, within and across students groups, and all the other intersections between students, faculty, administration and the broader community. “We also need to elevate the voices from communities and cultures that have been left out of conversations and decisions, and let their wisdom lead the way,” reflects David. “It is the only way we’ll continue to move closer to our shared visions for sustainability and equity.”

Focusing on solutions is essential. We have so many solutions available to us right now. “Rather than focusing on what’s wrong, we need to keep redirecting our attention to what’s possible,” shared David. “The research and technology is there.” Indeed, the need is to prepare students and community members with the skills to support the implementation of available solutions.

At NWEI, we continue to elevate these lessons in the face of complex systems at work. Remembering the power of collaborative learning and connection, we strive to engage people in ways that draw forth diverse perspectives. We also remember the power of fostering opportunities for reflection and the need to ask the right questions – and ones that don’t always have immediate answers. Focusing on solutions also entails holding a systems perspective. We look for patterns and relationships – and we’re always asking ourselves, and the groups we work with, “What assumptions, beliefs or values do people hold about the systems in question?” And, “What beliefs keep the system in place?”

Most importantly, we want to offer tangible ways for people to get involved and work towards effecting change. There is nothing more difficult than a feeling of powerlessness or uncertainty about where to start – especially when tackling big issues and complex systems. No matter who you are, you can choose a starting point and consider ways to insert yourself into the systems at work in order to have an impact. There is always a place to begin.

Looking for a place to start? You can jump in and learn more at



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