Fahmida Bangert is the founding director of Stanford University’s Office of Sustainability and Business Services (sustainable.stanford.edu). During her service, the university has earned a Platinum rating through the national Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) with the highest score out of 800 reporting institutions in 2017. Directing one of the largest sustainability offices in higher education, Fahmida designs new programs for sustainability infrastructure and practices; assesses and evaluates campus programs; directs the outreach and education portfolio; oversees performance metrics automation and display initiatives; and steers academic integration to aid 'university as a living lab' initiatives. Fahmida is a regular guest presenter in classroom and an instructor with Earth Systems in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University.

Before joining Stanford, she was the founding sustainability program director at UC Berkeley, where she architected its climate program (https://sustainability.berkeley.edu/carbon-neutrality/about-calcap). Photo of Fahmida Bangert by Kelly Patrick Dugan.

1) What does the Stanford Office of Sustainability do? 

The Office of Sustainability, started in 2008 in the Department of Sustainability and Energy Management and connects campus departments and entities and works collaboratively with them to steer sustainability-specific initiatives. We work to incorporate sustainability as a core value and decision criteria in everything we do – in research, and most tangibly in campus work.  

Our program name is Sustainable Stanford - a university-wide effort to reduce our environmental impact, preserve resources, and show sustainability in action. Day to day we lead initiatives on campus physical infrastructure and programs in energy and climate, water, transportation, building operations, and waste minimization. The office serves as the hub of Sustainable Stanford programming, with a focus across seven key areas: infrastructural planning support; assessments, evaluations, and reporting; business systems; conservation programs; communications, training, and education; collaborative governance; and organizational effectiveness.  

2) What drives you and/or inspires you to do your work at the Stanford Office of Sustainability?

Earlier in my career, I was working at for-profit companies doing what I was good at, but not aligned with the passion I had for helping to find solutions for environmental degradation.  I grew up in Dhaka Bangladesh and then spent my teen years in Manila, Philippines.  Both places had a profound impact on my understanding of humans’ inexplicable and deep relationship with nature, and what happens when the relationship is dysfunctional or all about taking, not giving back.  I wanted to help solve these problems, but I did not do anything about my passion until 2003, when perhaps I finally summoned enough courage to leave my career as I knew it and return to graduate school to study the environment more closely to understand the solutions.  It is the same motivation that drives me today – I keep looking for better and lasting solutions, and we develop and implement the programs at a university setting – which is a perfect and impactful living laboratory of learning, action, and hope.   

3) Can you share your experience as a dance student?  

I enrolled as a student after I saw this jaw dropping, heart pounding performance by the principle dancers at the 1999 North American Bengali Convention in Santa Clara and I knew I somehow needed to be part of this tribe.  I become a student at Pandit Chitresh Das’ Institute from 1999 – 2004 in many of the branches and learned directly from Seibi Lee, Charlotte Moraga, Farah Shaikh and then of course, on some frightening and auspicious occasions from Chitresh Das himself.  

Those five years of training several times a week had a profound impact on my psyche and my ability to connect to my passion.  For those of us who learned with Chitresh Das directly know that the learning experience with him was always raw and brutality honest – he had his own way of taking us to the place we fear the most so we may overcome it.  In my case, he not only coached me on connecting with the audience on stage because dance is a visual art, but asked provocative questions about my personal journey.  In the end it was a surprise between us that my passion would take me outside the sphere of direct practice of Kathak dance, but we both knew that environmentalism was a worthy pursuit. I left the school with his blessings to go to Santa Barbara for grad school, hoping to give back some day in some fashion.   

4) How do you see that performance, and in this case working with the Chitresh Das Institute and kathak dance, could play a role in the work you do (or play a role in having a greater impact?)

It is an interesting question – about performance.  Kathak dance is a stylized version of storytelling and the stories are about real life, real challenges, and how we may overcome them.  Not everything always fits neatly in a show, but in most compositions, there is a transformational point where the dance reaches a higher calling. I think any art form that conveys the reality of our society today and connects us to that so we may join together, so we may find solutions together – fulfills that higher purpose. This is a general answer, I understand, so particularly for CDI, there is such a rich history of storytelling and actual tools to convey emotions – our pain, our challenges, and our aspirations – through gesture, footwork, rhythmic interpretation and acting.  This avenue should be further explored to support key causes in our lifetime.  And environmental sustainability is certainly very high on that list if you ask me.

5) How do you see your work impacting that of the Chitresh Das Institute's efforts toward sustainability?

At a strategic level and personal contributions aside, if CDI adopts sustainability as a core value on what it does – teaching students, producing shows that embody environmental values, picking themes rich in social consciousness of our times – that would be tremendous.  This is because CDI also stands as a place of learning for model citizenship, not just taking dance lessons. 

As a friend of the institute, I say that organizations don’t all need to reinvent the wheel on this topic.  If there intent is there, there are enough examples, tools, and resources for the transformation to take place if there is a willingness to do that.   

6) Why do you think people should be interested in the work of the Stanford Office of Sustainability?

Stanford is a luminous brand of innovation and success.  There is an appeal there and it is legitimate because the collective intelligence and goodwill of the institution and its people are formidable. The university website can speak to that. 

In terms of sustainability, our office is one of the oldest and strongest in its composition and the comprehensive topics we cover.  We take an analytical approach to behavioral and social solutions and can plan to achieve results, so there is a method to the madness, you may say. 

We also have made many resources and tools available through our website sustainable.stanford.edu. Dedication to outreach and a culture of innovation have been central to Stanford’s mission since its founding in 1891, when Jane and Leland Stanford exhorted university leaders to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” That sense of purpose drives our commitment to incorporating sustainability practices and thinking into every aspect of campus life.   

7) What are five simple things one could do today that wouldn't be too hard but could have maximum impact?

  •   Do an assessment of whether you are living suitability – meaning are you in alignment with your values of living sustainability? 

  • Pay attention to what you buy, use, and waste.  Reduce what you can, reuse what you can, recycle well, compost more, and landfill the least. 

  • Take part in your organization to get connected to the sustainability efforts there. 

  • Teach your children, or the other way around, allow them to teach you.  I find that the younger generation have a higher Environmental IQ. 

Visit sustainable.stanford.edu…see our resources and ‘how to guides’ to be tailored and applied to your organizations and or lifestyle. <https://sustainable.stanford.edu/resources>.

The Chitresh Das Institute presents Aranya Katha, Part II — The Maharaja’s Decree on May 12 at 6pm at Samuel Johnson, Jr. Performing Arts Center at Capuchino High School in San Bruno. Tickets & More Info