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Environmental economist and sustainability strategist Pamela Peeters has been living and working in New York for the last 17 years. As a Fellow of the VUB, she fosters the ambition to serve as a mentor for young VUB students who want to discover the diverse and challenging world of sustainable development. Throughout her various projects and corporate connections, her goal is to plant the seeds for a sustainable tomorrow.
From the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station over a biodiversity project in the Brazilian Natal to exchange projects in Congo: all over the world, researchers and students from VUB are working towards a better world. In recognition of their drive and enthusiasm, VUB Today decided to report on their efforts in one particular place on earth for the length of one academic year at a time. We start off with New York. VUB stories from the city that never sleeps - enjoy !
Interview and text: Marnix van Strydonck, alumnus at the faculty of Arts and Philosophy and VUB correspondent in New York
New York, a logical step
Pamela’s enrollment at the VUB as a student was part of a natural evolution in her life, considering the fact that Brussels, along with its social and cultural environment, was the city that had shaped her lifestyle during her days as a young girl. However, when she decided to enter the world of sustainability, Pamela knew that it would be imperative to explore new horizons. In the footsteps of her father and grandfather – who have both lived and worked in the US – she went to New York in 1999, which led to a tremendous expansion of her network and professional opportunities. “If you really want to make a difference in the world of sustainability, you have to operate on an international level.”
“With straightforward conviction, Pamela asserts that her work could not have been possible in any other place. Essentially, New York is home to the United Nations Headquarters. “For me it was imperative to develop a relationship with them in one way or the other as they are at the root of Sustainable Development, the Agenda 21 and the ambitious sustainability goals for the 21st century.” Once this connection with the UN was established, an introduction with a professor at Columba University was made and I obtained a research fellowship. This relationship with Columbia allowed me to connect with many interesting people, all while doing research for the first television show ever made that presented sustainable lifestyle solutions. Passion and drive will always be rewarded and often in unexpected ways.
Encouraging students to engage in sustainable development
One particular milestone in Pamela’s life was when she was named Fellow of the VUB. “The Fellowship was a crowning for 15 years of work in the field of sustainable development. It is also a particularly interesting tool to connect with people and to encounter new opportunities. In the context of the Fellowship, I was appointed as the “Ambassador for Sustainable Knowledge” to the climate initiative “We Are Paris” of the VUB in Brussels. This made me rekindle my relationship with the VUB and allowed me to give lectures, develop projects and present another sustainability program with the VUB in the future, which will be the Sustainability Week in May 2017. Through this Fellowship, I want to encourage students to be engaged in promoting sustainable development as entrepreneurs.”
Throughout her journey, Pamela has met several particularly inspiring people, including Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive a Nobel Prize. “Wangari shows that whenever you have an innovative spirit and you wish to offer a new perspective on something, you will first be on your own.
“It is part of a natural and organic development proces, compare it to the hero’s journey which follows a certain structure. On your path to success you will be tested and must learn how to endure criticism and sometimes even more until you can finally show the impact of your efforts. I can personally relate to this because I took on the task to mainstream Sustainable Development as part of my journey which was not a popular thing to do like it is today. More so since I approach the topic at hand in a very holistic way and to some that can come across as eccentric. “
I met Wangari at a private book party where I bought her book “Unbowed”. Her story is absolutely remarkable: she was abused in prison, which has left physical and psychological traces, but throughout this process of struggle and pain, she was able to grow as a person. Wangari Maathai inspired me to always be determined and to keep moving forward. I have had the honor of interviewing her for my TV show, which can be read on my blog.”
Besides being a strong advocate of sustainable development, Pamela is also a fervent supporter of the feminist movement. Her discussion with Wangari Maathai has led her to new insights and a deeper understanding of the feminine counterpart in all of us. “I am convinced that the movement for a green and sustainable economy is a feminine one. During the interview with Wangari Maathai, I asked her if she believed that women should be the ones to lead this movement and she said, no: her belief was that this feminine element is present in all of us, including men. We must all learn to recognize this in ourselves. The challenge in all of our lives is to find a balance between our masculine and feminine counterparts. This is the most important lesson that she taught me.”
For a couple of years, Pamela worked in the corporate sector, but the inability to integrate the principles of sustainable development in her immediate environment eventually inspired her to part ways with her colleagues and carve her own path. “It was a leap in the dark, because all of the sudden, I could not work from paycheck to paycheck anymore. It’s not an easy transition to make, but to me it was the most rewarding one.”
Pamela attributes her success in the world of sustainability to her understanding of the topic and her insight in the future of sustainable development. “To me, sustainability is a lifestyle. Every single person on this planet should be raised according to certain principles and we need to be taught why this is important from a young age. Sustainability is part of the development of an individual and of humanity. It is not simply business and it is not merely activism. Understanding this principle is what has gotten me to where I am today. The sustainable lifestyle is something that permeates every aspect of my daily life.”
Combining Belgian education with American entrepreneurship
Pamela’s advice to young people who want to contribute to sustainability is to “first start locally. Discover the social causes and organizations that deal with youth, organic food, international cultural exchange, etc. Try to figure out what sustainability means from your own perspective and connect from there in your frame of interest. Secondly, get a mentor. I had the honor of having my grandfather as my first mentor. It seems that this is a typically American thing and it affirms the difference that I perceive between Belgium and in America when it comes to careers. In Belgium, they will often tell you to take things easy or not to be too serious; they will quickly make a joke to put you down. In America, people will be far more likely to motivate you with a professional attitude. What I did was to take the best of both worlds: Belgian education and American entrepreneurship. This is a great example of what I would like to teach young students if I were to mentor them. I hope to make this possible in the future thanks to my Fellowship.”
In the final stage of our discussion, I asked Pamela what Henri Poincaré’s quote “Thought must never submit, neither to a dogma, nor to a party, nor to a passion, nor to an interest, nor to a preconceived idea, nor to whatever it may be, save to the facts themselves, because, for thought, submission would mean ceasing to be” meant to her.
“It’s a beautiful thing. To me, it says something about how people tend to hold on to stereotypes. Poincare’s Quote gives them a mirror to let go of reductionist ways of thinking and consider a broader reality. It is clear to me that we are often living according to a set of established dogmas and the current race for the White House is one of the best examples to show this. Donald Trump’s so called “locker room talk” opened a can of worms on abuse. And the harsh reality is that most men are educated with the idea that it is acceptable to take a run with women and unless someone objects, they will continue to do so. I believe that the same is done to our planet and its resources. Just like most of the women in this world, the earth cannot fight back, it has no voice until enough people unite to make it a common thing to protect her, but in order to achieve that, some dogma’s need to be rejected.
What Pointcaré advocates, is the constant reexamination of the dogmas that we have accepted in our society and one of these dogmas is sexism. I have often wondered how this is still possible today and I believe that one of the main reasons is due to the fact that we allow a traditional and poorly nuanced teaching of religion in our schools. Faith is better celebrated with your family at home and with your faith community as to better guide in your development towards an exciting relationship with whatever (whomever) you consider sacred or divine. To teach kids that Eve came out of the rib of Adam and that women are not allowed to preach God’s words is unacceptable today. If religion classes at school are not given in a mature and 21st century context, then we will continue to create a sense of guilt and inferiority for girls at a very young age.
Poincaré’s thinking is an ongoing battle. His vision is an inspiration to ask ourselves who are the weak ones in our society with no voice, how did things evolve this way and what can be done for the betterment of the situation?