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Sustainability Expert Kim Smith ’90 on Leaning Into Hope & Resilence

Educator and sustainability expert Kim Smith ’90 encourages us to stay engaged and resilient in the face of climate change

By Marge Reece ’93

Kim Smith outdoors.

Kim Smith ’90 recalls the exact moment she envisioned her future as an environmental policy advocate. As a sociology major at Whitman College, she spotted a poster on the wall in Maxey Hall. It was for the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

“I told myself, ‘That’s my career.’ I just knew it,” Smith says. “It was a calling and I felt it very intuitively.”

After earning her bachelor’s in Sociology from Whitman, Smith did indeed go on to Indiana University (IU). It was guidance Smith received at Whitman that set her on her unique path, merging her interests in sociology and environmental affairs.

“Rather than getting a master’s in environmental policy, my Sociology professor, Bill Bogard, encouraged me to go to Indiana University and get my Ph.D. in Sociology, a top program at the time, and minor in Environmental Policy,” Smith says. “His advice made all the difference.” At IU, Smith was able to receive full tuition and a graduate assistant position, while earning both a master’s and doctorate in Sociology, with an emphasis in Environmental Sociology and Social Movements.

Smith’s expertise in—and passion for—environmental sociology has made her an international leader in sustainability education, representing the U.S. in global efforts, while also bettering her own community in Portland, Oregon.

In addition to teaching sociology at Portland Community College (PCC), Smith co-founded the Greater Portland Sustainability Education Network (GPSEN), which is acknowledged as a Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development by United Nations University. GPSEN aims to create and scale up solutions to address issues like climate change and other threats to our communities and planet through education, workforce training and public awareness.

A Motto Is Born: Educate ~ Empower ~ Engage

Smith has taught sociology at PCC since 1996, but it was her involvement outside the classroom that changed both her outlook and teaching. “As a professor studying and teaching social problems, we would talk about heavy topics and my students and I were all struggling,” Smith says. “It is a horrible experience to see the light go out of students’ eyes—to have them become apathetic or cynical or to lose hope. We were exploring the problems, but we weren’t empowering students to figure out how they could make a difference. And at that time, we weren’t really establishing pathways to help students engage.” 

What happened next in Smith’s career caused a major shift. She got involved with community-based learning at PCC, as an instructor and program coordinator, and that powerless feeling faded. She began to see the possibilities of a better future where sustainability education and civic engagement could drive change.

As Smith felt more hopeful and energized, she shared that with her students and colleagues. It also inspired a new teaching motto for her: “Educate ~ Empower ~ Engage,” which later became a vital part of GPSEN’s mission statement.

Picking Up a Torch for Global Change

Along with her teaching and administrative duties, Smith was active in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). In the months leading up to the United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit, in 2012, Smith wondered if anyone from AASHE would be representing the United States—so she picked up the phone and asked. 

“I said, ‘I’m on a National Science Foundation grant and have my Ph.D. in environmental sociology and policy, and I’d love to support you if I can.’”

Long story short, she landed the job and was off to Brazil. That was her first big foray into United Nations work, but not her last.

In 2014, she led the U.S. delegation to the UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Japan. It was again her willingness to pick up the phone that got her the position. This time she called the U.S. State Department.

“I asked, ‘Who’s going?’ And they said, ‘We don’t have a U.S. team yet.’”

They encouraged her to put together a group of thought leaders who were doing sustainability education work in their fields. “We had seven people in our U.S. delegation—representing industry, nonprofits, the faith sector, K-12 education and higher education,” she says.

And there was important work to be done. In 2015, the member states of the United Nations adopted Agenda 2030, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve by 2030. These aspirational goals address five areas of critical importance: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships.

According to the United Nations, the SDGs are an urgent call for action by all countries—developed and developing—to engage in global partnerships. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth—all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

UNESCO focuses in particular on Goal 4—Quality Education—and education for sustainable development (ESD). They have recently adopted an international decade-long initiative which launched in 2020: ESD for 2030.

While the United States pulled out of UNESCO as an official member at the end of 2018, regional networks, like GPSEN, continue to advance sustainability efforts in their institutions and communities through the power of education and collective impact, Smith says. 

Grateful for Her Whitman Experience

Smith has seen the power in connecting people and causes for the greater good, and she’s not ready to give up. She also credits her alma mater for some of her bold tenacity.


“At Whitman, there are so many opportunities to be engaged and nurture leadership skills. I worked at the Student Health Center. I was a resident assistant and teaching assistant. I did volleyball stats. I ran a bunch of clubs and I was even a radio D.J.,” Smith says.

“Whitman was small enough that there wasn’t necessarily a fear of trying.”

Whitman even played a small role in the creation of the United Nations’ SDGs. A few years ago, during a visit to campus to speak to sociology students, Smith went to Penrose Library to work on the higher education aspects of the education goal. She remembers it was a bit surreal.

“I was in the library, sitting in a beanbag chair, editing the international education goal ... thinking about how my life got here from that day in Maxey Hall.” 

Leaning Into Hope & Resilience

In the fall of 2019, Smith came back to Whitman again to give a lecture: “Education for Sustainable Development: The Future Depends on Us!” 

She spoke passionately about how sustainability education is the ultimate mechanism for saving the planet and humanity. 

“We need to scale this up, to bring sustainability to our own campuses, organizations and communities,” says Smith. “We need system change, certainly, but we also need individuals to feel like what they do matters. Your vote matters. Your voice matters. Your actions matter.” 

Of course, at the time, Smith had no idea that a global pandemic would soon disrupt education dramatically, create even deeper political chasms and thrust sustainability into the shadows as the world locked down with new realities and worries. 

Now, in 2023, Smith recognizes the need for a shift in sustainability education to address the emotional state of both students and educators. Currently a faculty department chair at PCC, she and her colleagues have developed a series of workshops to help address eco-anxiety. In the spring of 2023, she led a session for her campus community called “Climate Grief: Strategies for Hope and Resilience.” 

“In these daunting times, with ongoing news about social and ecological problems, it is important to develop skill sets that empower us to face challenges and build a sense of hope and resiliency,” Smith says.

Facing Eco-Anxiety

Eco-anxiety is the chronic fear of environmental doom. Though not a medical diagnosis, mental health experts recognize that some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.

Climate change resources: Kim Smith and her colleagues at Portland Community College have created a Climate Change Research Guide and share these resources on climate grief and eco-anxiety

Published on May 19, 2023
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