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Cassandra Houghton

Class of 2013

Cassandra is a 2013 graduate of Tahoma High School and a 2017 graduate of The Evergreen State College where she studied Ecology and Sustainable Systems. She is also a certified yoga instructor and permaculturist. 


Cassandra was a bright-eyed, ninth grader, ready to do her part to save the world, when a guest speaker came to her class and drew three circles on the board that would completely change her life. At the time, preserving trees and recycling correctly was all that was on her mind. Until that guest speaker, Peter Donaldson, drew a triple Venn diagram on the whiteboard linking environment, economy and equity. This forever shifted her understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing our world and turned her attention towards creating systemic change. 


She spent the next 10 years working with Peter to create Sustainability Ambassadors. Her first role was as an intern to literally develop an internship program. Within a year, she had  developed and then stepped into a new position as Student Leadership Coordinator. During her time in this role, Cassandra coordinated 70 interns, coached over 100 students directly and engaged over 5,000 youth through events, workshops and classroom seminars. 


Cassandra spoke on a range of sustainability issues to groups across the Puget Sound region including: school boards, city councils, chambers of commerce, the Education Committee for WA State Legislature, WA Department of Ecology, and at the Salish Sea Conference. Her talks are featured in SA’s Video Library for teachers to use in their classrooms, reaching thousands of students. She helped develop the Equity Diversity and Inclusion Internship Program designed to empower low income youth of color to study environmental justice issues in their community and develop projects to improve them. 


“The knowledge, skills and experience I gained during my time with this powerful organization are priceless. Sustainability Ambassadors gave me a framework for understanding how we can create ecological, diverse, equitable and inclusive communities by aligning the needs of people, planet and profit while instilling a growth mindset in me that I will carry forward into any mission I am a part of.” 


Cassandra carries on her passion as a Transformational Life Coach, Regenerative Systems Designer and Community Builder, rooted in the lessons she gained as a founding member of Sustainability Ambassador. 


Basant Apurva

Class of 2019

My journey with Sustainability Ambassadors began in August of 2013, when I participated in my first 2050 Workout, our annual, day-long convention designed around the following inquiry: “If we were to achieve a 100% sustainable society by 2050, what would it look like? How would we get there?” 


It is not an understatement to say that this thought experiment revolutionized the way I see the world. Much of our outlook for the future is centered around what can go wrong, instead of what can go right. We are always told what we can’t do, instead of what we can. The 2050 Workout freed me from these limitations. The solutions I designed were only restricted by my imagination. At the same time, they were grounded in reality—I developed clear, actionable steps to achieve all my goals. I thought big, I was ambitious, and I felt empowered to take on the challenges of the future. In short, it was this kind of thinking and problem solving that inspired me to make Sustainability Ambassadors my home for seven years.


Now as a Computer Science major at UC Berkeley, the skills I learned at Sustainability Ambassadors make themselves applicable every day. Years of working with real-world stakeholders has given me a leg up in my professional skills. Before every presentation I make, I can’t help but smile, knowing that my past experiences have prepared me to impress any audience.    


In a more tangible sense, my time at Sustainability Ambassadors has shaped my passions and extracurriculars. Through my experiences as both a mentor and mentee in Sustainability Ambassadors, I developed a love for teaching, and now serve on course staff for Berkeley’s largest computer science class. I am also a member of Net Impact, a social-impact focused consulting group; I’ve worked to rank and prioritize sustainability initiatives for a leading ecommerce mattress company and developed a five-year carbon neutrality plan for a superfood brand all within the past year.


The advice I would give to younger ambassadors is to take charge of your time in Sustainability Ambassadors and make the experience your own. The beauty of an organization like Sustainability Ambassadors is how open ended it is. There are no fixed rules or a set hierarchical structure, just really high expectations to make a difference. You are free to pursue whichever projects and passions excite you most with a strong and supportive community at your back. Just go for it!


Josef Benzaoui

Class of 2014

I joined Sustainability Ambassadors when I was 14. I am indebted to the opportunities provided to me through Sustainability Ambassadors, as well as the knowledge and skill sets provided to me by Peter Donaldson. I learned about major sustainability challenges that our world faces today but, more importantly, I learned how to think in systems so that I could connect the dots between the natural environment, the built environment, and the human economy. 


While I studied sustainability concepts like harmful emissions that result from the burning of fossil fuels, I was also taught to understand real world examples so that I could ground my understanding of systems thinking. It's an incredible experience for a student in middle school to understand the product life of a typical vinyl-clad three ring binder, and how both it’s manufacturing process and end-of-life incineration release harmful carcinogens that impact public health, or is sent to a landfill where the vinyl fails to degrade.  And Sustainability Ambassadors took that lesson a step further, by teaching us about the economics of supply and demand. We advocated for a substitute binder product which was made of recycled cardboard. 


I’ll never forget when an alumni from Northwestern University was interviewing me as part of a college application during my senior year of high school. He asked me to describe my experience with Sustainability Ambassadors because it was listed on my resume. I spoke for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, he paused and told me that my experience sounded like something at the level of post-graduate studies. This is the kind rigor and professional development that the experience provides. And it’s about real-world learning. Students leave the program knowing how to write and speak about sustainability at a professional level. Most importantly, they learn how to truly think because so much of the responsibility is handed off to students. Showing up to meetings on time. Penning introductory emails to connect working professionals with educators and students. Really doing their homework and showing up ready to ask the right questions and answer any that come their way.


When I started at Boston University in the fall of 2014, managing my coursework felt like a breeze because I already understood the importance of planning, time management, and consistent effort in my studies. Balancing a full course load in high school while participating in Sustainability Ambassadors made college seem like a cakewalk. I was able to complete both my BA and MA in Economics, as well as a comprehensive minor in Sustainable Energy, in just 4 years, while playing on the men’s ultimate frisbee team, getting plenty of sleep and having fun with friends along the way. I knew how to study, I knew how to write, how to research, and how to articulate my learnings. All of this can be attributed to Sustainability Ambassadors emphasis on learning to think in systems and strong professional development focused around communication.


I graduated in the spring of 2018 and completed a thesis which analyzed the economic impact of rising sea surface temperatures on the economies of small island developing states. After graduation, I joined the Institute for Sustainable Energy (ISE) at Boston University where I spent my summer pursuing cutting-edge research related to multi-user microgrids that was published by the North East Clean Energy Council. In the fall, I continued working for the ISE as a water utility analyst and consulted for two medium-sized water utilities in Texas. I analyzed their supply and demand data and guided their capital improvement planning process. One of these utilities is located in New Braunfels Texas, where nearly 40,000 people pay for their water usage according to an innovative rate structure, which meets a $21.4 million revenue requirement while encouraging reduced water usage, designed by myself and my research assistant at the ISE. I now work as an analyst at IHS Markit, leading research related to distributed energy resources, like net metering and microgrids, for the North American Power and Renewables team.


Much of the way I pursue research, from the initial planning process up until final revisions hasn’t changed much from when I was in high school. Sustainability Ambassadors provided me with a strong toolkit for framing big-picture sustainability issues and digesting them through research, data analysis and actionable insights. And I’ve continued to use that toolkit, in both my professional life and personal development as a young adult.


Caitlin Colino

Class of 2019

Caitlin Colino is studying Environmental Engineering at Tufts University. She got her start in caring about the earth through exploring nature with her family as a kid. She then first began to understand the concept of sustainability and the importance of sustainability based education when she was in 6th grade through “Chemistry, Ecology, Drama!”, a summer camp at UW taught by Peter Donaldson. In that camp Caitlin first experienced imagining a truly sustainable world by the year 2050, and learned about Sustainability Ambassadors, which she joined a year later. 


She remembers her first day at Sustainable Systems College in the NOAA fisheries building like it was yesterday. She recalls feeling overwhelmed by new terminology and high schoolers referencing their advanced chemistry class knowledge but also excited to soak everything up about how young salmon are being harmed by pollution in stormwater runoff. 


As an Ambassador Caitlin loved coming to Sustainable Systems College sessions, collaborating with her fellow Ambassadors, and honing her public speaking skills. The professional coaching allowed her to feel more confident speaking out in her classes and doing drama performances in middle and high school. She also revelled in all the new knowledge she was gaining about local city and county climate policy plans.  


The key lesson for Cailtin was the triple bottom line, that you can’t have a sustainable world by just looking at the environment, you need to take care of social and economic systems as well. Justice and equity need to be the baseline for our vision of a livable future. A highlight of her work as an Ambassador was when she got to synthesize her new skills and wisdom by co-leading a workshop for a major conference for teachers and administrators about “Lesson Ideas on Educating for Sustainability through an Equity Lens.” It was the only student-led workshop at the conference. 


When it came time to apply for college, Caitlin’s common app essay was inspired by Sustainability Ambassadors and centered around that same vision of a sustainable world that she first imagined in 6th grade. Her first year at Tufts, she dove into a whole new community of peers, struggled through difficult chemistry and calculus courses, and opened her eyes to the world of college climate activism through the school’s divestment group. She put her policy analysis skills into practice as a fellow for an organization called Our Climate where she met with legislators about implementing carbon pricing that would be effective and equitable. That same spring she joined the Sunrise Movement as a local hub started up on campus. 


When she came home to Seattle this past summer she rejoined Sustainability Ambassadors as a paid Communications Intern, empowering younger Ambassadors while also improving the organization’s social media strategies and researching effective communication systems. In her free time she was able to engage with the Seattle for a Green New Deal campaign, and support the Sunrise movement by hosting a presidential debate watch party and writing a letter to the editor in the Seattle Times. 


Caitlin came back to Tufts in the fall feeling inspired and empowered by the summer’s work. When the date was set for the fall climate strike on September 20th she went all in on organizing students on her campus to attend a rally at Tufts and then joined the larger strike in Boston. She put her communication, time management, teamwork, and organizational skills to very good use as hundreds of students showed up.


To younger ambassadors she recommends: asking for help, using google calendar, and of course having fun along the way!

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Simran Purewal

Class of 2021

Simran Purewal

During my junior year of high school, a time where I felt very confused, shy and timid, I started my first internship. I went into it knowing only a few solid facts about myself. I knew I was passionate about teaching and advocating for a better future in health care. I had big ambitions and no idea how to make them a reality. Through my internship with Sustainability Ambassadors, I gained the confidence to create that change. 


Sustainability Ambassadors is a nonprofit organization based here in Seattle. Their goal is to rapidly advance a sustainable future. They do this by redefining Sustainability. They do this by inspiring students, teachers and policy makers to drive collective impact. And they do this by promoting professionalism in youth. 

I was hesitant at first to join Sustainability Ambassadors because, well, I wasn't looking to be more sustainable. I was looking to work in healthcare and didn’t quite understand how sustainability could play a role in my career. So, what even is sustainability? 


The organization focuses their work through a metaphor — a sandwich. They call it the Sustainable Systems Sandwich. The bottom bread piece is the three facets of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity. 

Our top slice of bread is climate change. This is something that weighs heavily on us, pushing us further into our work. The filling, middle of the sandwich, are the sustainable solutions categorized by sector. They are energy, water, food, transportation, materials, and buildings. For example, water is about how we get it, treat it, use it, and dispose of it. Food is about ensuring all people have access to healthy meals. 


These solutions are supported by the triple bottom line: they are good for the environment, the economy, and equity. They are being pushed into adoption by climate change hanging right overhead. So it’s not just about recycling paper bags or using paper straws in short paper cups. It’s about understanding that sustainability has a compounding effect on our society and to me that does include health systems. 


And what is our society made of? Communities. Ambassadors focuses on three main communities; students, teachers, and policy makers. They identified a disconnect between all three communities. Many high school and middle school students often question their school curriculum. They get frustrated at the fact that there is little relevancy between what they are taught at school, the adult world, and the problems that await them in the adult world. 


Many teachers want students to learn relevant material and engage in project based curriculum. Think about it, video interviews, engineering project reports, or even marketing pitches sound so much more engaging than worksheets and tests. Many policy makers want to engage their communities to help advance environmental and social advocacy programs. They want people to attend city council meetings. They want people to do community service. They want people to help them. 


Sustainability ambassadors bridge the gap between students, teachers and policy makers, which is what makes the organizations so empowering. They provide students with project management skills to go out and start tree planting initiatives. They provide teachers with lesson plan outlines that promote not worksheets and tests but project based curriculum. They provide hardworking policy makers the support they need to know the community has their back.


Again, it’s that compounding effect of inspiring everyone around them that makes ambassadors so special. 

Something that took me by surprise when I joined were the young professionals in the organization. In reality, they were all just middle and high school students. 


Ambassadors work mainly through weekly zoom meetings, very occasionally do we meet in person. So, students involved in the organization have to get really good at filling awkward silences, facilitating conversation, and interacting with other ambassadors and adults through just a screen. One time, they had a conversation about equity in sustainability and that was something I was very passionate about discussing so I raised my digital hand, unmuted and said my piece and at the end said “but uhm I’m not really sure.” After that, one of the mentors, Julie, in front of everybody said, “I’m gonna give you some advice, and remember this for the rest of your life. Do not be afraid to take up space.” 


And I thought about that line, “do not be afraid to take up space” every time I hesitated unmuting. Every time I hesitated asking a question whether in zoom land or in class. Every time I am confused in my OChem quiz section, I think “do not be afraid to take up space” and I ask a question. Just being surrounded by so many young professionals, I wanted to be a young professional. So I learned. I learned from the organization about systems thinking, policy analysis, project management and public speaking. These are the skills that slowly broke me out of my shell. 

If I had to give advice to anyone who wants to join Sustainability Ambassadors, I would quote Rumi and say, “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.” Being an ambassador requires constantly stepping out of your comfort zone. But what makes it worth it is working for an organization that has such a core message and action agenda. 


Sustainability Ambassadors is a champion for not just sustainability, but for the environment, economy, and equity. Sustainability Ambassadors is a champion for students, teachers and policy makers. Sustainability Ambassadors is a champion for developing confused and timid kids like me into young professionals who feel like they can take on any career including healthcare. And this is exactly why Ambassadors will rapidly advance a sustainable future.

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