GVSU students, professor team up for global sustainability initiative

GVL / Courtesy -  Dr. Kaneti

GVL / Courtesy – Dr. Kaneti

James Kilborn

In the continued wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, some citizens remain skeptical of the federal government’s role in implementing goals to mitigate climate change and improve conditions in cities across the country. Marina Kaneti, Grand Valley State University professor of global studies and social impact, worked alongside four students to develop the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) compact, a system of goals that works to involve cities and local governments in achieving sustainability objectives. 

Kaneti said that while the goals were established by the United Nations in 2015, getting people and municipalities to reach these objectives has been challenging. 

“Several years ago, the United Nations came out with a proposal for global goals for sustainable development,” Kaneti said. “The goals actually built on an earlier initiative, which were called the Millennium Development Goals that were set up from 2000 to 2015, and the sustainable development goals are from 2015 to 2030, so this is an agenda for development for the entire world until 2030.

“There are 12 years left for the world to meet these goals, and there are certain things happening on the ground—various initiatives have popped up both at the local and global level—but there is a sense first of all that people don’t necessarily know, a lot of people don’t know there are goals. Then the question is, if people don’t know, how exactly are we going to meet these targets?”

The four GVSU students involved—Phoebe Risk, Ana Grimaldo, Elizabeth Hurt and Francesca Ortisi—all worked to collect data, organize materials, and contact organizations and local governments that could have been interested in the SDG compacts. 

“The other interns and I compiled information to be sent to organizations that could potentially be funders and partners for this program,” Grimaldo said. “All of our work so far has been for those organizations to join the Global Development Incubator, and the first city to agree to partner with us was Los Angeles in a meeting to discuss the launch of the SDG compact. We conducted research and information to show how each organization could support this program and better it.”

The team of students had been preparing for the meeting for months.

“The past few months of our work have been heavy preparation for the kick-off meeting currently taking place at Occidental College in Los Angeles,” Risk said via email. “Being well-prepared and organized for the meeting was quintessential as it dictates the future of the compacts.”

The initiative is multifaceted in that each community determines its own goals to reach, and then—through the compact—can measure its progress toward achieving those goals. The compact acts as a way to tie distant communities together and develop working solutions from one city to another. 

“Another city we are working with, Nairobi (Kenya), they’re interested in how they can provide food access to certain populations in the city,” Kaneti said. “We’re connecting them to Los Angeles, where in a lot of pockets the city is working with local communities on providing access to food for impoverished communities. We’re allowing cities to connect and develop a conversation and work on common lessons and goals around issues of sustainable development.

“I’ve started telling my four interns right now, we can take this to Detroit, we can take it to Chicago, we can take it to your local community. There’s nothing exclusive about it. It’s actually the other way around: The more conjoined the party, the better.”

Kaneti and her students spoke of the grassroots nature of their initiative. While the removal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement distances the federal government from the implementation of sustainability goals, the team sees an opportunity for local stakeholders to get involved, both abroad and in the Grand Rapids area. 

“With the SDG compact, we are trying to take these SDG goals—this grand, global vision of development—to the local level,” Kaneti said. “Instead of working with the federal government, we’re trying to take it on the ground, working with cities and communities where there is work happening.”

It’s the local communities that can spark the SDGs.

“The main goal of this initiative is to endorse the SDGs at the local level, and we need local governments and cities to lead the way,” Grimaldo said. “All the SDG compacts are trying to do is facilitate conversations and actions across different local governments and communities.”

“Our initiative is 100-percent grassroots,” Risk said. “We believe the power for change rests in the hands of everyday people. Engaging the Grand Rapids community would be a great asset to the compacts. However, the city government needs to express interest. Aligning the work of the people and the government is imperative for progress.”

Getting students involved was a common theme since Kaneti believes the future of sustainability lies on the shoulders of those enrolled in universities across the world. 

“This is where it would be very nice to pull in students to not only support the initiative but to lead it because, at the end of the day, this isn’t about me or what my generation thinks about it,” she said. “It’s more important that the next generation takes it because 2030 is the time they should be doing things. They should take the baton from us and lead the way.”

In making for more sustainable living, the SDGs can provide for a cleaner, more ecologically viable future.

“We want to educate and shed light on how sustainable development can impact our everyday lives,” Ortisi said. “This concept is something myself and the team strongly believe in. I always try to remind myself that it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. That one candle means something and will draw another person with a candle. This is where movements begin.”

Kaneti was in Los Angeles this past week as the California city becomes the first to adopt the SDGs. She and her students hope other communities adopt the compacts as a way to encourage not only sustainable development and social equity but stakeholder and citizen involvement within those communities.