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IonE Undergraduate Leaders: Reshaping the American dream

What does place, relationship, and expression mean to you? How do they connect to our identity and culture? Do we need a lifestyle shift to sustain these values?

These are questions the 2016 Institute on the Environment Undergraduate Leaders are seeking to answer. A group of fifteen undergraduate students have been meeting monthly this year to discuss how they can become change-makers. They collaboratively share their thoughts on the aspects of sustainability, equity, collaboration and solution-focused leadership.

The application process encouraged personal reflection as applicants were prompted to answer questions on topics such as involvement, development, experience, identity and expression. Each candidate had a different perspective and vision on sustainability which allowed for a creative and diverse group of leaders. Libby Mcgraw, an up-and-coming junior at the University of Minnesota studying conservation biology, explained. “I wanted to join the group so I could take a step past individual sustainable action and collaborate with a group of people from various backgrounds to contribute to different expertise and know-how.” This mindset is present through all members of the group, making for a team-like atmosphere at each meeting.

post it notes contain written ideas for a value shiftAs a member myself, I really enjoyed the process of idea generation. We started with a blank slate, not knowing exactly what projects or initiatives to jump onto. Brainstorming exercises helped us bring light to ideas and visions for what could be. At first, groupings evolved around different project concepts including equity and justice issues, sustainable gardening and food, and ecosystem management. Through an iterative project design process, we realized that we could integrate all of these visions onto one platform. That platform was the concept of a tiny house.

Having chosen the central concept, we had many goals for the tiny home that needed refining. Finding a way to connect this ‘object’ of a tiny house to a broader picture of socio-ecological culture and the overall structure of healthy and sustainable living was important. Everyone had a sense of home, which we see to be constantly changing from generation to generation. Using this scope of lifestyle and behavior, we converged on this notion of the American Dream. Shifting from a “bigger is better” mindset into a reimagined social consciousness driven by systems thinking and lifestyle values could prompt a movement from excess living to healthy and mindful living. I want to see a re-examination of what the notion of a tiny home can be and do for our society. It is more than just a fad or premise of an HGTV show, it can be a mode of transformation from a materialistic lifestyle to one more focused on developing a deeper connection to the earth we live on and the space we use.

Looking ahead, plans to present an interactive exhibit displayed at the fall 2016 Welcome Week are in the works. Stations will feature representations of different global cultural lifestyles in relation to sense of home and space, an interactive piece on lifestyle impact and breakdown regarding energy and resources, and a survey examining thoughts and values relating to this kind of lifestyle shift. We are hoping to partner with groups such as the Energy Transition Lab, Engineers Without Borders, bioproducts and biosystems engineering in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the Re-Use Center, College of Science Engineering and other groups and organizations that can help develop the concept and become involved. We believe that shifting to smaller living spaces can serve as a symbol for fostering a social fabric and lifestyle shift essential for healthy living as well as creating room for collaboration and cross-disciplinary action. We are so excited for what’s to come!

Photo credits: Bill Dickinson, Flickr and Kate Flick

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