Many of us recycle bottles, donate clothes instead of throwing them away, and carpool to work. These small steps can go a long way toward saving the environment, but so much more can be done. Recognizing the need for radical change, many caring Webster graduates have made global sustainability their life’s work. These four alumni, to paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, are being the change they wish to see in the world.
Anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Traci Jansen, MA ’12, agrees. The elementary school teacher in the Kirkwood School District in suburban St. Louis believes protecting our planet begins by helping young children become responsible environmental stewards.
“Even at the first-grade level, we are teaching children to be aware of themselves as citizens of the world,” she says. “They are not just social beings in a classroom, they are part of a global community and can make a positive difference on the world in which they live.”
A teacher for 17 years, Jansen wanted to sharpen her skills by earning a second master’s degree. That’s when she discovered the education for global sustainability program at Webster. “It was right down my alley,” she says. “I became completely immersed in it.”
Jansen says the classes taught her to use children’s literature to teach sustainability, to integrate nature into her instruction, and to better utilize private and public resources in the St. Louis community. “Webster taught me to teach differently and think differently about how we can help our children understand this world more deeply,” she says.
Her ability to integrate global sustainability issues into her curriculum expanded even more this year because she was one of only 14 U.S. educators selected to participate in the Japan-U.S. Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), hosted by Fulbright Japan. The group traveled to Japan to explore environmental practices in Tokyo and Omuta.
“In Japan, they invest in repurposing, reducing and reusing,” Jansen says. “Their waste is turned into a fuel that’s used as an energy source. We put it into a landfill and turn it into methane that becomes toxic.”
At the end of the experience, the U.S. educators met with their 14 Japanese counterparts in the program to design curriculum integrating what they learned during the exchange. Jansen’s team designed a program for understanding and reducing food waste.
This year, Jansen is implementing that curriculum. She’s also integrating many other lessons she learned in Japan and at Webster, such as having community classroom supplies to reduce consumerism and storing materials in recycled containers.
“I teach my children to start small,” she says. “Each little choice they make can have a ripple effect. Schools can make a difference because the changes my students make affect their homes, and that affects the broader community.”
From growing up in a small, lakeside village as a child to visiting Kenya several times as an adult, Rogier van Vliet, BA ’99, always has had a keen appreciation for nature. “I’ve always had the feeling that we should protect it as if it were a museum,” he says. He turned his passion for the environment into a career in philanthropy.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in international business from Webster’s Leiden campus, van Vliet joined his father’s asset management company until it was sold. Next, he managed his family’s finances while helping his father build the Adessium Foundation in 2005. The privately funded public-benefit organization provides financial support to charitable organizations in the Netherlands and around the world.
“We discussed as a family what we should work on,” van Vliet says. “My primary input was focused on nature conversation and my father’s was on society. That’s how we got our tagline, Contributing to Nature and Society.”
Unlike many philanthropic organizations, Adessium doesn’t allow unsolicited funding requests. Instead, it proactively seeks out beneficiaries based on its objectives and standards. “We figure out what we want to achieve with the means we have and then find organizations that can help us achieve those goals,” van Vliet says.
As chair, van Vliet’s primary responsibility is ensuring Adessium’s beneficiaries are aligned with his family’s values. Of the many projects Adessium Foundation funds, van Vliet says he’s particularly proud of African Parks Network, a group of conservationists who protect national parks in Africa. “We’ve funded them for eight years and, in that time, we’ve seen a park that was depleted grow back to full force,” van Vliet says. In addition to his work with the foundation, van Vliet serves on the board of Oceana, the largest international advocacy group dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans. It’s an issue of growing importance to Adessium Foundation. It provides funding to Oceana and to Plastic Soup Foundation, which is cleaning up ocean contamination.
“Throwing away plastic is a bad thing because it stays in the ecosystem forever,” van Vliet says. “A lot of people don’t care about waste, but there are a lot of people who do care. We should be smart and sensible about it.”
Now 10 years old, Adessium Foundation continues to grow and find new ways to improve the balance between people and nature. “In the next 10 years we will need to innovate and focus even more on specific issues to make a real impact,” van Vliet says. “I hope we will learn as much as we’ve learned the first 10 years, and inspire others to work on these issues.”
From an early age, Nicholas Horekens, BA ’09, was exposed to humanitarian work. His parents worked for international human-rights organizations, and it wasn’t unusual for his family to spend weekends at refugee camps.
Playing with other children in those camps had a profound effect on Horekens. “I learned very quickly that there’s not much difference between people around the world, but some are treated very differently than others,” Horekens says. “This drove me to do similar work because I wanted to help make a difference.”
Horekens followed in his parents’ footsteps, working for a handful of humanitarian groups like Save the Children and World Trade Organization. He took time off to earn a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Webster’s Geneva campus, then spent nearly three years with UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, where he met his wife, Sofi. Providing aid in the midst of instability was rewarding, but the couple felt they could do more about the instability itself.
In 2012, they founded fashion brand Alice + Whittles. Going from human-rights work to footwear production may sound like a 180-degree turn, but Horekens says the similarities are striking.
“Whether you’re working in international organizations to provide aid in conflict situations, or working in manufacturing and retail for a fashion brand, humanitarian values are fundamental in helping to make this world a better place,” he says.
Alice + Whittles produces ethically responsible footwear in emerging economies. It creates a fair and ethical production chain that uses sustainable materials and includes long-term partnerships with artists and craftsmen, who benefit from dignified working conditions, fair pay and profit sharing.
“As fashion brands fight to take the latest looks from catwalk to retail stores in shorter lead times and for cheaper prices, supply chains have become incredibly unethical and unsustainable,” Horekens says. “We combine our humanitarian principles with a strong and fair economic model, which uses business as the vehicle to change how the fashion industry works.
This comprehensive approach to social entrepreneurship is making headway. Alice + Whittles recently secured its first round of investment funding and the company now has two full-time employees in addition to its founders. Online sales are growing, and the company’s shoes are now available at luxury retailers in the U.S. and Canada.
“Ultimately, I’m most proud of the difference we’re making,” Horekens says. “We're proving that businesses can be successful by adapting strong ethical and economic models…that profitable business can go hand in hand with creating positive change on the ground.”
Although Bob DeValentino, BA ’98, supports some of the world’s most important environmental research, environmentalism wasn’t always his priority. After earning his bachelor’s degree in media communications from Webster, he worked in outdoor education and disaster relief work. “I was looking for a job that was adventurous,” he says.
Looking for something “off-the-beaten path,” DeValentino took a contract laborer position at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the southernmost place on Earth, in 1999, and was hooked. He worked the night shift, doing manual tasks like shoveling snow and helping to build a power plant. Over the next 15 years, he worked at all three year-round research stations in the U.S. Antarctic Program and currently serves as winter site manager at Palmer Research Station.
More than 100 science groups travel to Antarctica every year to study everything from penguins and glaciers to the Ozone Hole and the origins of the universe. Although DeValentino isn’t directly involved in conducting this important environmental research, he plays a critical logistical role.
“My role is to help lay the groundwork for the scientists and make sure the station’s operations are safe and efficient,” he says.
There are frequent reminders of the magnitude of the work being performed around DeValentino. His office overlooks a glacier and he’s had the opportunity to see whales not far from his front door. The scientists also frequently give lectures on their research.
This unique, firsthand experience with environmental research has changed DeValentino’s perspective, and helped him develop a strong sense of mission and a passion for global sustainability.
“Being part of the discovery that goes on here is extremely exciting,” he says. “Whether it’s about the origins of the universe or learning about something that may give us keys to improve the environment, we are discovering more about the world that we live in.”