The America East Conference, the 10-university Division I league that stretches along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Maryland, will host its first ever sustainability conference next month at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Marsha Florio, executive director of the America East Academic Consortium, and Ruairi O’Mahony, executive director of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy at UMass-Lowell, about what drove the league to host a sustainability conference and what they hope to achieve.
Aerial view of UMass-Lowell (Photo credit: UMass-Lowell)
Power 5 leagues like the Pac-12 and the ACC have taken the lead when it comes to sports-sustainability summits over the past half decade or so. That makes sense because the biggest Division I leagues with the brand name schools (i.e., Stanford and UCLA in the Pac-12, North Carolina State and Virginia) are more likely to have the resources to go big on the environment and climate than their mid-major conference cousins. And they have their own cable networks — the Pac-12 Network and ACC Network, respectively — to spread the Green-Sports word.
That is why I was intrigued when I read that the America East Conference, a Division I mid-major with 10 mostly state schools decided to jump in and host its own Sports-Sustainability Conference June 7 through 9 at UMass-Lowell, about an hour northwest of Boston.
What led the league and its member schools — the rest of the roster is made up of University of Albany, Binghamton, University of Hartford, Maine, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, New Hampshire, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Stonybrook and Vermont — decide to host a sports-sustainability conference?
“Sustainability departments across the league have always wanted to connect with Athletics,” said Ruairi O’Mahony, executive director at UMass Lowell’s Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy. “It is the front yard for these universities — nothing gets attention like sports! River Hawks men’s ice hockey is very big here, so we work with vendors on the best ways to recycle at the arena and then we loop in the rest of the league so they can improve their waste diversion rates.”
Ruairi O’Mahony (Photo credit: UMass-Lowell)
Marsha Florio, executive director of the America East’s Academic Consortium, concurred, adding that the Sustainability Conference would, “showcase the groundbreaking sustainability initiatives taking place on our campuses. And athletics, through sponsorships, can help academics on funding.”
Some of that funding can be directed towards some of the groundbreaking renewable energy research being conducted at some member schools. Maine, UMass-Lowell, and Vermont are helping to lead the way on innovation in offshore wind through the Northeast Regional Hub for Sustainable Energy.
The idea of a Sports-Sustainability Conference, which came to the fore in the summer of 2020 during the early days of COVID, was a hit from the get-go from across the league.
“Usually, we’re lucky to get four or five schools to join an initiative,” Florio shared. “When we brought up the idea of Sports-Sustainability conference, all the schools jumped in early; most wanted to be part of the strategizing and organizing.”
Marsha Florio (Photo credit: America East Conference)
The America East Sustainability Conference working group decided that its first event would be an in-person affair, which meant pushing it until 2022. UMass-Lowell stepped up to the plate almost immediately, offering to be the host. Athletics director Peter Casey, student affairs director Ruben Sança, and Chancellor Jackie Maloney all voiced support.
Attendees will get the America East Conference vibe as soon as they reach the UMass-Lowell campus.
“The culture here, and at all America East schools, whether it be athletics or research, is to roll up our sleeves and get big things done, and do so without much pomp or circumstance,” Mahony said. “We aren’t as well-known as some other universities in the state but know this: there is no way for Massachusetts to meet its carbon reduction goals without UMass-Lowell.”
The River Hawks will be well represented among the Sustainability Conference speakers. Three former UMass-Lowell women’s soccer players who now work in sustainability will share their stories.
“Darcy Hornberger, applications director at Boston Materials, uses circular economy principles to help her customers move towards green solutions,” Florio offered. “Sarah Wroblewski, in her role as meteorologist at WBZ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Boston, often reports on how climate change impacts the local area. And Cindy Burson is founder and CEO of Laude the Label, an environmentally friendly, global fashion enterprise.”
Darcy Hornberger (Photo credit: Boston Materials)
Conference-goers will also hear keynote speeches from two EcoAthletes Champions. Long distance runner and Indigenous Peoples advocate Jordan Marie Daniel will share lessons learned from her climate justice and anti-pipeline work. And US Olympic biathlete Susan Dunklee will talk about the greening of the International Biathlon Union as well as her experiences with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, a team of professional post-collegiate athletes in northern Vermont who promote sustainability and healthy active lifestyles.
Jordan Marie Daniel (Photo credit: Jordan Marie Daniel)
What will success look like for the America East Sustainability Conference?
“We will have done well if we leave real, tangible action items to move the needle,” stated O’Mahony. “And if new athletics-research partnerships come out of the conference, all the better.”
For Florio, success will be about engaging student-athletes to take on climate action.
“We are excited to offer scholarships for student-athletes to attend the Conference,” Florio enthused. “We believe that their experiences in sports will help them as they take on climate: Sports is hard…You have to overcome obstacles to succeed…And there is politics in sports. We look forward to seeing student-athletes begin their climate journeys.”
Registration is open for the America East Sustainability Conference. Click here to register.
GreenSportsBlog is a media partner of the America East Sustainability Conference.
1 The ‘Power 5’ conferences — the biggest, most powerful collegiate sports leagues in the U.S. are the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC
2 The Pac-12 member schools are Arizona, Arizona State, Cal-Berkeley, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State
3 The ACC member schools are Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, North Carolina, NC State, Notre Dame (except in football, where it’s an independent), Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest
4 ‘Mid major’ conferences, like the America East, are the non-Power 5 Division I leagues
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