Podcast: Student-Led Sustainability Action Planning with Victoria Castor & Steve Russell

Posted on April 30, 2021

Victoria Caster and Steve Russell - GovLove

Victoria Castor Steve Russell
Victoria Caster
Water Conservation & Sustainability Coordinator
City of Peoria, Arizona
Steve Russell
Program Manager – Project Cities
Arizona State University

Students helping cities. Victoria Caster, Water Conservation and Sustainability Coordinator at the City of Peoria, AZ, and Steve Russell, Program Manager of Project Cities at Arizona State University, joined the podcast to talk about student-led sustainability plans. They discussed projects that students with Project Cities have completed, like in the City of Peoria, and the impact of those projects on the communities they worked with. They shared how communities in Arizona could partner with Project Cities and how cities across the nation can partner with EPIC-N to bring students into their organization.

Host: Javon Davis

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Episode Transcription

Javon Davis  00:01

Before we get into today’s episode, Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus. With upticks and post vaccine travel right around the corner, it’s time to address short term rentals in your community. If you don’t have a short term rental regulation and enforcement program in place, you could be missing out on tourism related tax revenue and risking damage to your communities character. Granicus host compliance helps with everything from address identification to ordinance review and compliance monitoring. If you’d like to learn more about regulating short term rentals, visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. What’s up Gov Love listeners. Coming to you from Boston, Massachusetts, this is Javan Davis. Today I’m joined by Victoria Caster, the Water Conservation & Sustainability Coordinator at the City of Peoria, Arizona, and Steve Russell, Program Manager of the Project Cities Program at Arizona State University’s sustainable cities network. This episode is produced as part of ELGL’s partnership with Epic-N, the educational partnerships for innovation and communities network. Today, we’re talking about a project with the City of Peoria to review in a bigger city’s sustainability action plan with the help of ASU courses, students and faculty. The project is part of an ongoing partnership with ASU in Peoria that aims to address community identified needs and opportunities through the eyes of students. And we’ll learn more about EPIC-N network and how local governments can tap into the incredible resources and knowledge just on campuses near you. But before we begin, we have some exciting news. Tickets for the ELGL Pop Ups are now on sale soon. ELGL Pop Ups are our approach to regional conferencing, and this year, they are hosted virtually on May 21, 2021. These events are a great way to learn more about the regional local government topics. Tickets are $10 for students, $40 for adults, and $80 for all access plans to attend any regional sessions. We also have volume discounts if you want to sign up for the whole team. Visit ELGLPopUps.com to save your spot. Alright, let’s get started. Victoria. Steven, welcome to Gov Love.

Victoria Caster  02:29

Thank you.

Steve Russell  02:30

Thanks for having us,

Javon Davis  02:31

Of course. So we’d love to start off asking questions that are just, help our listeners get to know you a little bit better, before we dive into the heavy stuff. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot and you know, we are a year and a half in is people have been really creative in their free time. Have you picked up any hobbies during the pandemic?

Victoria Caster  02:49

Sure. So we were always hikers so we just have made it more purposefully a chance to go out and enjoy nature but kind of on the side of that we’ve become a little bit of bird watchers, we now put have bird feeders in the front in the back and we’d like to it’s like bird TV for us and the cats. So that’s kind of our our COVID hobby.

Steve Russell  03:10

Well, and for me, it’s it’s got to be houseplants. I’ve always been big on horticulture, particularly gardening and some outdoor stuff, but I’ve always struggled with indoor. And I would say over the last year my apartments turned into a bit of a jungle.

Javon Davis  03:30

That’s great. I love that I’ve been compiling plants as well. I just bought a majesty palm and the corn plant and trying to keep those alive for now and along with like three other succulents that I didn’t need but it’s just they’re just nice to have around.

Steve Russell  03:45

Love it.

Javon Davis  03:48

Okay, so I wonder, can you, I have some I have some controversial food opinions, so I’m wondering if you do like for instance, I don’t I’m not really convinced that shrimp and grits really complement each other or that really the great duo that we hear about so I’m wondering do you all have any controversial food opinions?

Steve Russell  04:03

Oh Javon it’s interesting you said that. I’m gonna have to agree with you there, not a fan of the shrimp and grits. The one that I was thinking about though, is actually watermelon. Not a popular opinion but it’s really not my favorite fruit and I think the real reason for that is that I’ve been spoiled with watermelon fresh out of the garden which if you have not had before is a totally different experience.

Victoria Caster  04:27

I like that. I’m similar too, I, coconut for me, I don’t like coconut and I know that’s like a hot thing right now and there’s coconut water and coconut in everything and it’s just not not my favorite.

Javon Davis  04:41

Yeah, I’m right there with you. Coconut is not my thing. I can only do it on the like camel delights of the Girl Scout cookies. Like some samoas or like caramel delights depending on the region you’re in like that’s literally the only coconut thing I can eat. And I agree like fresh watermelon is so much better than just like the other random grocery store watermelon from somewhere else that we don’t know. So great. I’m glad we’re all in agreement here that shrimp and grits are bad, and coconut is also bad. So I think even in the past few years, my career goals are changing. I’m wondering, can you share with us, you know, what you thought you’d be doing when you were 10 year old? What did you want to do when you’re growing, when you grew up?

Victoria Caster  05:29

So I’ve got an odd one. I was one of the few kiddos that was obsessed with weather. I still honestly am obsessed with weather. So I wanted to be a meteorologist when I was younger.

Steve Russell  05:43

Nice and and I gotta be honest, this question is really tough for me to answer because I think I wanted to be everything. When I was a kid, some of the standouts, I know, for a while, I thought I was going to be an inventor. And I know this because my dad still has a book of some schematics that I drew up for funky, funky inventions that were going to make me a million dollars one day.

Javon Davis  06:10

I love that. That’s, that’s really fun. All right, this is my signature question. So imagine you live in 2019. You can go to brunch with your friends on Saturday or Sunday. Are you more of a bloody mary person or mimosa person?

Steve Russell  06:25

It’s the bloody for me.

Victoria Caster  06:28

I’m the opposite. I’m a mimosa. Yeah.

Javon Davis  06:32

With Victoria here, I can do the Bloody Mary. I just don’t want the soup in the morning. You know? 

Victoria Caster  06:37

Yeah. Too much veggies in the morning.

Steve Russell  06:40

I think the real trick is the accoutrement. Like, if you can have a full on BLT sandwich on the top of your bloody mary, then your set.

Victoria Caster  06:49

I’ve heard about those things, yeah, with like bacon and veg, I’ve heard about those. So 

Javon Davis  06:56

Yeah, you know, I think I could do it if I had like a grilled cheese, maybe go for the whole grilled cheese and tomato soup thing. I think I could go for it then. But otherwise, I just can’t do it with like, you know, eggs benedict. It’s just not for me.

Steve Russell  07:09

Well, to each their own.

Javon Davis  07:10

That’s right. That’s right. Well, thanks for playing our quick game. I’m really interested to hearing about all the work you’re doing. But first, I think it’d be great for people to understand your background and where you, you know, your experiences where you’re from. So Victoria, can you tell us more about your life story in about two to three minutes?

Victoria Caster  07:28

Sure. Yeah. So I am a physical geographer, or more specifically a geomorphologist by my degree. I got my bachelor’s in Arizona State University, and then went on to University of North Texas for my masters. So geomorphology is kind of like crazy term most people haven’t heard of, but basically, it’s just the study of the Earth’s surface and how it changes over time, and interactions with those things on the surface. So human nature, and so it kind of ended up flowing quite nicely with the sustainability. I was always interning and looking for jobs when I was in my, in school. And so I was able to stumble into some internships that dealt with sustainability. And then lo and behold, we’ve got over 12, almost 12 years, I guess, of experience working on the municipal level with not only water conservation, but sustainability.

Javon Davis  08:29

That’s great. Thank you, Victoria. Steve, can you tell us your life story in two to three minutes?

Steve Russell  08:35

I’m a born and raised native from here in Phoenix. I also did my undergrad at ASU, where I studied psych psychology, sociology, and Interdisciplinary Studies. I was really involved in a program called any town, which worked on leadership and diversity training. And I think that was pretty foundational for me, started back in high school and went all the way through undergrad. And it turned into some some great connections into the nonprofit sector after I finished my undergrad. And I got very into local food systems. And for a hot minute there I considered myself an urban farmer. Don’t ask me how much produce I sold. But it was a good time. After working in AmeriCorps for a while, and the local first Arizona foundation where I worked with farmers and restaurateurs to make connections, I eventually kind of came to realize that a lot of the issues that I really cared about had a clear Nexus with local governments and that’s where the decisions were being made. So I decided to step away from the nonprofit sector for a bit and go back to school for my MPA. I was hired shortly after graduation, back at the university again. So I’ve now been affiliated with the University for well over a decade between all those different stints and I find myself at sustainable cities network here today.

Javon Davis  10:17

That’s pretty amazing. I guess, uh, you know, I’ve noticed as you guys were talking, I was thinking about, you know, you know, one of the many tragedies in 2020, and I had a trip planned to Phoenix to go to visit the ASU law school. And I was coming on May 14th, and the day before, we got our first case of COVID, and in Philly. My boss was like, I’m gonna need you to cancel that trip. It’s about to get real. And he was right, it did get real. But I hear Phoenix was amazing. And I can’t wait to actually visit one day.

Steve Russell  10:49

Yeah, come check us out. It’s great place.

Javon Davis  10:53

So Steve, I wonder if you can talk to us more about project cities. And that’s, you know, something that’s definitely relevant to our listeners, I wonder if you could tell us more about the projects and the organization.

Steve Russell  11:04

So essentially, project cities acts as a matchmaker and kind of support structure to connect community identified sustainability challenges with resources from across the university. The educational process in and of itself generates a lot of untapped human capital. But it’s often squandered on really purely theoretical assignments, students pursuing projects with no real impacts outside of the classroom. So project city seeks to connect those students to real world challenges by facilitating a safe applied learning environment. And then we strive to elevate the quality of the students work and make it a win win match with our city government partners. So we do our best to essentially make it easier for cities to work with the university, but then also provide the logistical support and additional resources to the classroom to elevate the students products. And as a result, communities gain access to new ideas and strategies, while also providing students with the chance to practice their professional skills, and even graduate with a little bit of real world experience under their belts. And, you know, to be honest, it’s it’s student work. Not every project is an immense success, it’s important to remember that students come with a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience. So while their work is expected to produce, you know, something of value to the city, they are participating in a learning experience and not carrying out paid work. So it’s a little bit different in that regard. But with that said, as a result, my job ends up being a bit of expectation setting and kind of figuring out how to pick up and complete projects. So my job is to curate that process, help pass on the baton and help make sure that the project process is beneficial to addressing those community identified challenges.

Javon Davis  12:59

That’s amazing. That reminds me of my MPA capstone project, I had opportunity to work with a local county, and the project really helped me like dig into the weeds on a real problem. And it made me feel like, you know, getting my degree was like going to be helpful and actually talked about that project, in my first interview, for my first job out of grad school. So I think that’s one of those things that you don’t think about, it’s like, it gives them something to talk about the talking and the people in local government, who can really connect with them as a student, but know that they have some experience, you know, working in the field, even if they haven’t done, you know, an internship or anything like that. They’ve gotten it through these types of programs.

Steve Russell  13:38

Yeah, totally. Javon, I agree with that 100% I love that you mentioned that. I did something similar for my MPA Capstone, I worked with the city of Tempe, on a stormwater management project. And I’ve really, you know, as a former student, myself, I really always tried to seek out those opportunities to make the work actually mean something, because, you know, if I’m going to take the time to write a draft grant application, like, you know, I want someone to use that to try and make some money. So it’s, it’s a, it’s a real opportunity, you know, to I think, support some of these local community initiatives, while also learning something and walking away with something you can talk about and stick on your resume.

Javon Davis  14:23

Absolutely, I definitely, you know, some some of the exercises that we do in academia, you know, we feel like we know this isn’t a real client, that doesn’t really mean anything, but when you do these projects, it’s it’s actually real, you know, someone who has power can take your ideas and run with them. And I think that makes it really meaningful. Victoria, yeah, Victoria would love to hear about and I know some cities have an office of, you know, sustainability. I’d love to hear more about your role with the city, as well. Sure.

Victoria Caster  14:55

So in Peoria we are a little bit unique in that we’re combining water conservation and sustainability into our division. So Peoria is in the Sonoran Desert, right? So we’re, we’re desert dwellers, and water and sustainability are uniquely intertwined, you know, they’re always connected. But in our state, I think it’s even more prevalent than maybe in other places. So we kind of have two hats to wear. so to speak, water conservation is a mandated item from our state. And we have to have a certain number of BMPs, or best management practices, that we have to follow in programs that we have to move forward in our city to just, you know, cultivate this culture of conservation and have efficient use in our city. So that we combine that with sustainability. And that means that we’re working, not only internally, but externally with a bunch of partners. So kind of the day to day, I get to maintain track, there’s a whole lot of marketing involved, and really increase our programs that we’re offering to the community as well, as I’m helping those internal departments as well. What’s something that’s also really key is that we have to work regionally, as well as across departments. You know, we all share the same resources, and that’s with sustainability or energy or natural resources, as well as our water resources. So you can’t really just focus on your city’s boundaries, you always have to be connecting out and seeing what your partners are doing regionally because they are, they’re interconnected, even if one city runs out of water or, or resources, right, that that generally means that all of us are going to have a problem as well. So there’s a lot of work and connection beyond our city boundary, so to speak. And then a huge component of what I do is education and outreach. So I used to teach Earth Science and geology in college, in university. And so I’ve got to take my love of educating kind of to a whole new regime, as I now reach out to not only kids in schools, but we have a sustainable you class series. So we’re actively out there in the public trying to educate and inspire folks to try things a little bit different and to save money in their own homes and businesses, by doing things that are maybe more efficient, or maybe switching, let’s say a lot of our water use is in landscape here. And maybe they switch over to a more native landscape. And so it’s all about trying to find those low hanging fruits and share that information to a broad audience and, you know, help them to be successful in their own endeavors. And then, of course, the big thing is, we are working on creating that new sustainable Peoria plan. And so this is going to be tying again, with all of our regional partners internally and externally, we did huge community outreach, because we want to make sure that we are aligning our sustainable goals with what our community sees as a need. You always want those two things to be level, right. You don’t want to work against each other as your residents and you know, as a city. So we really spent a good amount of effort going out there and trying to make sure that we understood what the needs were in sustainability. And then the next step now is to try and match that input with actions and items that can move our city forward.

Javon Davis  18:40

That sounds like a really amazing work and something that I’m really excited to get everyone else on board and getting to connect with people around the work you do. I’m sure that that’s really thrilling for you sometimes.

Victoria Caster  18:51


Javon Davis  18:53

You know, that I was thinking about sustainability. I feel like it’s is a new thing for some cities. But I’m guessing for you all in the southwest, you know, you’ve been thinking about water conservation and all those things for quite a long time. Just given the area you live in.

Victoria Caster  19:06

Yes, yeah. Water Conservation has been part of a really a mandate since 1985. So almost all the the active management areas or the big cities in the Phoenix Valley, we have all had to have conservation plans and programs in place and for over 30 years. So when it comes to water, we know where we live, and we know that water is extremely precious. And so we have definitely been planning ahead for that. And we have long, you know, we have crazy long term supplies. We’re thinking, you know, 100 year to short supply, that’s our future forecasting. So I know in some places, depending on your different water sources, you know, it can be like one or two years you can be in and out of a drought. Well, here it’s you know, we’re in a over 20 year drought right now. And we’re still managing to provide water to all of our residents and to keep growing so we’ve definitely had to be smart in our growth. And that, of course, translates into unique sustainability challenges and items that our areas have been working with for a long time.

Javon Davis  20:12

That’s great. I was wondering if you could share some some projects that you’re proud of just some good illustrations of your work for those who may not be able to kind of picture what your plan would look like, can you tell us more about some things, some things in particular, or just some things you all have done recently that really share, that really help your program shine?

Victoria Caster  20:31

Sure, yes. So we have been really lucky to be able to work with Project cities for over the past, I think, a year and a half. So I think it’s been maybe about two years now. And the different classes have been able to take on different components of research and opportunities that have helped us kind of learn and gather information before we kind of took a dive into to taking over and starting a new plan. And really kind of as a city, anytime we can get research and data that’s really from a third party point of view, that’s really going to help us to gather up to date information on current resources and programs and things that we may not otherwise always be tied into. And so like many municipalities, you know, we our, our staff is very limited in their time. And so for really big projects, like the sustainable Peoria plan that we’re working on, we want to really make sure that there are a number of voices and opinions that are heard and incorporated in our end results. And so that really kind of takes stretching our fingers out and, and finding these awesome resources and these groups that can help us kind of tackle that. And so one of the projects, and I’m sure Steve will talk a little bit more about this one later, as well is the recent one is, we were able to get a class of four master’s degree students. So this was their capstone course. And they were able to actually help me host for virtual town hall meetings, as well as a survey, massive city wide survey that reached over 750 folks. And so this is stuff that I, trying to do on my own, would be quite the struggle, but being able to utilize the resources at ASU is project cities and, and the students, we were really able to cast a wider net. And it was just a really great resource. And I think a really great kind of learning curve for some of these students as well. So that’s kind of a special project that we just kind of wrapped up and now we’ll be taking the next steps on.

Javon Davis  22:38

Great, thank you for sharing that. Steve, I want to follow up on this question as well, you know, I’d really be interested in hearing your thoughts on the work you’re proud of that the students have done, and just maybe some of your favorite projects that you all have seen students really get into and produce some good work from.

Steve Russell  22:54

Yeah, I’d be happy to. First I’ll just kind of follow up on what Victoria said. And the reason that I was so excited to talk about this project, in particular, I think, is this really is a great example of what a multi discipline, multi disciplinary, multi semester approach would look like. And we were really able to see this particular portfolio of projects really evolve and mature over time. You know, for instance, and the first stage and Victoria mentioned this, but the research project was, we had 40 undergrads do a environmental scan and benchmarking study of what different communities and municipalities were doing for their own municipal plan, municipal sustainability plans. And the sustainability plan is really essential document to, of course, implementing sustainability at the municipal level. But for our students, I mean, it was such an eye opening experience, they were in a class on sustainable governance and policy. And for so many of these students, you know, they had never worked in this particular realm before. And I think the, the takeaways for them were really significant, and it was such a wonderful match for that particular class. And then, for the city, you know, we’re able to hand off a document with, you know, best practices and recommendations compiled from 22 different municipal plans. And I just think that was a really great example of capturing, again, that human capital that generated through the research process, and rather than these students going out and just kind of, you know, learning about this and that kind of haphazard, or in kind of more theoretical way, they were able to really get their hands dirty, and see what sustainability really actually looks like at the local level. And now you know, as the projects entering its more advanced stages, we were able to move into that public outreach component that Victoria talked about. And also additional research around some of the funding strategies and opportunities in some of these other communities. And we had two MPA students do their capstone projects on that, looking at various forms of, of capital funding, grant programs, etc. And in total on this portfolio alone, we’ve facilitated four semester projects on this topic with six of those being master Capstone students, and then a mix of grad and undergrad students from there. So it’s a really great example of what the potential of tapping into the university and the various activities that are going on, and how that can benefit us at a local level. But more broadly speaking, you know, we started the program in 2017. And to date, we’ve partnered with four different municipalities around the state, not even just in our metro area, but also further up north. But we’ve been able to facilitate, it’s I think we’re at 57, applied projects to date. And that’s 862 ASU students, who’ve had an opportunity to interact directly with local government. And it also worth noting, that’s 26 different departments across the university. So although we’re housed kind of out of the sustainability program, and you know, sustainable cities are kind of at our core, we work very frequently across the university and engineering, planning, communication, social sciences. So it’s a really, it’s a really cool opportunity. I’ll highlight a couple quick success stories as well. One of our very early projects was with the city of Apache Junction, which had for years, wanted a dog park, there, it was a council driven priority. One of the council members, really, this was a passion for her. And they had right before the recession in 2008-2007, they were just getting things together to make this happen. They had the capital together for it. And then the recession hit and the project went up on the shelf. And despite being something that the community wanted the council wanted, it was just really tough for development staff to take it down off the shelf, and to justify coming out of the recession, that expenditure of money. And so it just kind of became something that sat up there and didn’t really have a lot of staff attention. So they brought in a group of ASU students who kind of analyzed a few different sites that were considered looked at some of the pros and cons of different types of setups. And they looked at these different sites for you know, what would the cost be to connect services? How centrally is it located? Where did residents indicate that they that they needed a dog park, and it’s, it’s pretty cool, the city ended up deciding to move forward with one of those sites that students recommended. And it’s, I need to actually check in with them. I owe him an email here. But at last update, they were already breaking ground, and beginning the installation of a dog park with the same community, they, the city of Apache Junction had a an issue of mobile home parks and fabricated home parks that were grandfathered in from before the city was it was incorporated when there were no codes around the placement of these types of structures. And there were just all sorts of issues with, you know, inability to access, there was one instance where a fire truck was unable to enter a park because of some low hanging power lines, for example. And there were just some issues with a lot of these parks kind of falling into, you know, what we call less than ideal conditions. We had a group or actually it was just one really, really bright student, one of our real rock stars who developed a whole draft zoning ordinance for them for a new way to look at these mobile home parks, including a prioritization matrix identifying which parks were in the most need for support and creating steps and strategies for these Park owners to approach getting their parks into code in a way that was conducive that was productive, that was creating a safer environment for their residents and that wasn’t punitive. So, you know, these are just a couple examples. One of the unfortunate things is that with the mismatch between the speed of the semester versus the speed of getting things done in the public sector, a lot of times the final outpus and the final outcomes we don’t see for, you know, a few years later. But it’s always really cool when we see them happen. And you know, things like the the messaging strategies that we developed with one of one of Victoria’s colleagues with Communications at Peoria, they’re looking at the messaging strategies that our students put together for water shortage. And, you know, they’re probably not all going to get used, probably not verbatim. But there were some strategies and insights in there that are actually going to play a part in the public outreach around water conservation. So we have a lot to celebrate. And, you know, at the end of the semester, we, everyone feels great, the students have that incredible, unique experience and that opportunity to learn a whole new industry. But for me, it’s it’s just really, really meaningful to be able to see us playing a role as a connective tissue, right. Connecting that real world outcomes for the cities, with the learning outcomes, and just the experience and the pride that students get to take away from knowing that you know, they made a difference.

Javon Davis  31:14

We’ll be right back to today’s episode. Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus. With upticks in post vaccine travel right around the corner, it’s time to address short term rentals in your community. Short term rentals are often found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. If you don’t have a short term rental regulation and enforcement program in place, you can be missing out on tourism related tax revenue, and risking damage to your community’s character. Granicus host compliance has helped over 350 communities with their short term rental challenges, from address identification to owner interviews and compliance monitoring. If you’d like to learn more about short term rental activity in your area or best practices for regulation enforcement, visit granicus.com for a free consultation, that’s granicus.com for more information. Now back to the show.  I really love that it sounds like you know, the projects are just like really helpful. And you know, just things that some people, sometimes it’s local city or town can focus on themselves, and the students can really come in and fill a role that’s important, but just hasn’t, you know, it get pushback all the time. So it’s great that they can kind of fill in for when that happens. 

Steve Russell  32:28

Yeah, definitely. 

Javon Davis  32:30

Also love when you’re like just talking and you’re like, Oh, crap, I owe them an email. You know, that’s happened a lot to me in quarantine. It’s like, Oh, yeah, I need to email that person!

Steve Russell  32:41

Well, my list is very, very long.

Javon Davis  32:45

You know, of course, the program is you know that the goals are twofold. You know, the community gets something, but the students also get something. Can you got to talk about the tangibles that the students get, or the skills and the lessons that they get, but and the committee members to, as they work on these projects, the projects cities?

Steve Russell  33:01

Yeah, definitely. Why don’t, I’ll talk about the students and then Victoria might be able to speak better to the city side of it. But I’ll just throw out one of the one of the first things is it’s it’s very clear that a large number of the students who go through our program come into it with virtually no idea how local governments work. Unfortunately, a lot of our students just have never really had any exposure. And, you know, they may have not really recognized when they were utilizing municipal services in their their home life. You know, what’s, what’s the saying, You only know, local governments doing it wrong when something’s going wrong or something like that. I way butchered that. You can fix me on edit. The, but yeah, a lot of the students come in with, with really no awareness of how the public sector works at all. And so just the exposure to that environment is a huge eye opener for so many of our students who have never even fathomed what a career in local government look like. We do track the students respond to a question in a pre post survey each semester. And the growth in the response to question I would consider a career in local government is staggering. Last semester, we had the first in the in the pre surveys, about 20% of our students said that they would consider a career in local government by the end of the semester, it was 80%. That’s huge! And that, to me, is a really, really big takeaway. I’m a big public sector nerd. I just have always kind of been drawn to that work. But I know a lot of our students aren’t. So that’s a huge win in my book. But also, you know, a lot of them are not sustainability students as well. And so a lot of them come in without really knowing much about how their work in their interests can impact local sustainability efforts. We’ve begun developing some learning modules for students to explore the UN sustainable development goals or SDGs. And how their projects can each help to achieve this the global goals. So there are 17 goals. And it’s, it really is a holistic approach to sustainability. For your listeners, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with it, because local governments interface with the measurables out of the SDGs on a regular basis, and there’s a lot of opportunity for municipal governments to play a role here. But for our students, you know, again, a lot of them don’t really know about the holistic approach to sustainability. And we had a group this semester, for example, of students in Justice Studies, and we rolled out a new module with them. That was just a reflection module, hey, here are the 17 goals. How do you think that you’re supporting that? And some of the insights that the students shared were just, were just fascinating, you know, mostly that they’re just now thinking about sustainability as more than just air quality and trees, but thinking about how you can’t have a sustainable community if people are going to bed hungry, or if they can’t afford their their home. So you know, our students, well, I would say ASU does a great job at this in general, we just got number one, two years running for delivery on the sustainability development goals. So that’s pretty cool. So I think that a lot of ASU grads kind of graduate with that experience as well. But the students who get to go through our program, are really leading with an imbued culture of sustainability that they’ll take with them into their future workplace, whether that’s working in the public sector or not.

Javon Davis  36:59

Thank you. Yeah, that sounds great. Victoria, can you tell us, you know, kind of your perspective on the city side, but and also, you know, tell us, what is it like working with the program?

Victoria Caster  37:09

Sure, yes. So as I had mentioned earlier, with most folks in municipalities, and we are wearing multiple hats, and our time is extremely limited, as much as we wish we could, you know, spend over time on one particular project, that usually is never how it breaks out. So some of the information that these students are able to provide and some of the research are things that I’m still going back to. So Steve had mentioned earlier that there was the 22 different sustainability plans that the first class that I had worked with, had been able to use as a kind of comparison to our old plan to see where there are some possibility for growth, I still go back to those 22 and pull them up occasionally to, to look at things as we’re beginning to draft our new plan. And I think it takes it takes quite a big group to successfully tackle community engagement. And so having the students kind of viewpoint, and, you know, some of them are probably more tied into different options of outreach and engaging people than I am. And so making sure that we are using all those different methods and getting that kind of out of the box of insight into that it can be really useful, since there can be opportunities that maybe as a city we were not plugged into yet. And then really, it’s you know, so we talked about having the one student that looked in at some potential financial options, when you have that third party kind of viewpoint, you know, as a city, and sometimes when you work in something, you know, day to day, you kind of don’t always know where to look outside of your general box, right, that you’re working in. And so sometimes it’s nice to have that fresh perspective and that viewpoint, and sometimes they can find things that we wouldn’t necessarily know about, that could be opportunities for us to tie into. And so those are some awesome kind of insights and ways that we have been able to utilize and how we kind of look on the information that are received from the group. But the bottom line is, is that it takes effort and energy from many different groups and departments, and community stakeholders, as well as our leaders to make sustainability succeed. And it’s not quick work. And so this is probably the main thing that I think have I’ve imparted on the students is that it takes time and you know, municipalities, we have checks and balances and channels that we have to follow for things to be approved. And I think it’s always a little bit of a shock when it’s like, you know, I have to review this and then my boss has to review this. And then depending on how widespread it is, we sometimes have to have other department bosses review things before we can get that final outlook. And I know that was a bit of a surprise, but that’s just kind of the real world we talk about, you know what you think on paper versus like how It actually works in the real world, so to speak. And so it takes a lot of time and those extra checks and balances. And so I’m glad that the students that we have gotten to work with, we’re able to kind of glimpse behind the scenes to see the boots on the ground work that it takes, as well as a massive coordination between community stakeholders and different departments, and then this school, to get things to happen. And so hopefully, this experience will kind of help set them up for success in their next endeavors.

Steve Russell  40:36

If I can chime in real quickly, I want to underscore something Victoria said, because every single semester when we have any sort of public outreach, you know, we’re telling the students on day one, okay, well, we need your survey questions tomorrow. Because we need to review all of this. And that’s one of those real world experiences that you just cannot get in the classroom by itself, right? learning what it means to generate something and then send it through the ringer for review, is one of those examples of a really powerful takeaway for students that they wouldn’t otherwise get if they didn’t have the opportunity to work with a local government directly.

Javon Davis  41:18

Yeah, that sounds really amazing. And like, as we were talking earlier, I personally know how impactful these types of programs are. So I’m wondering, Steve, can you tell us how, our listeners, you know, there’s always work that can be done that’s on the, has been shelved that students could really help out with. How can listeners get involved with, you know, a similar initiative?

Steve Russell  41:42

Yeah, thanks for that, that question. Javon. Well, um, so locally speaking here in Arizona, I do believe we are still the only EPIC-N program. So if you’re with one of our Arizona cities, or towns, check us out at ProjectCities.asu.edu. Or you can find us on social media with #ProjectCities. And of course, there are lots of great programs at all three of our public universities that do interface with the community. But if you’re looking for that kind of one stop curated approach, I’d love to hear from you. Because we are still accepting proposals for our upcoming academic year here. I’ll throw in my email address quickly to it. That’s projectcities@asu.edu. But if you’re not in Arizona, I have good news too, because project cities is connected to something bigger. So the Epic Network is a network of universities and local government programs designed similarly, similarly to ours. But the Epic Network and its members unite that human capital from the universities with local governments, and communities to mutually kind of improve the quality of life and communities and social wealth and well being, while also delivering a superior educational experience for our students. Epic-N provides a lot of resources and support for anyone who’s looking to build partnerships, like the one that we facilitated together. And I encourage anyone who’s interested in learning more about Epic university programs, where they exist, contact, his name is Marshall Curry. And he can tell you all sorts of information and just, you know, great advice on how to even do this type of thing successfully. You can learn more about Epic-N at WWW.Epicn.org or email at info@epicn.org to learn more.

Javon Davis  43:47

That sounds great. I really would encourage people to reach out you know, like I said, I know this is a really great way to connect with students and universities to help you know, make their communities better. Victoria, before we go, you want to make you want to plug or help people learn more about the sustainability work happening in Peoria?

Victoria Caster  44:06

Sure, yeah. So there’s always more right. We are working hard to dive into our next step, which is drafting the plan from that massive community outreach and the input that we received. We are going to be building our plan from all the information and we’re trying to find new ways to ensure that this document becomes really a living plan that provides transparent and frequent updates to our community to help them also be part of the success but also to make sure that we’re showing where there are tricky spots right along our sustainable journeys. We want to be transparent in the ups and the downs of the journey to be more sustainable. And for folks that want to learn more or kind of follow in on some of the other stuff Peoria has going on, please check out our website which is peoriaaz.gov/sustainability. We also have an E-newsletter that has our class information, sustainable tips on and landscape tips for water conservation, as well as updates on our plan and process.

Javon Davis  45:13

Wonderful. Thank you, Steve. any parting words, anything else you’d like to plug so people can learn more about your work or anything like that?

Steve Russell  45:22

Yeah, absolutely. Well, first, I’d like to start with some thank yous. Because, first of all, thank you, Victoria. You’ve been a fabulous partner. And your experience as an educator in the past, it plays out clearly as your strength as a liaison and mentor to our students. So thank you for your your time and attention on that. I’d also like to thank the ASU faculty members who supported students this project. That’s Candace Carr Kalman, Malcolm Goggin, Ladon Lynngard, Stephanie Furman, and Charlene Behravesh, I have to thank our liaison with the city of Peoria, Jay Davies, he supports all of our projects across the across the program. And he also personally advised two of the Masters Capstone students on this project. And of course, last but not least, Javon, thank you so much for having us. And thank you to Marshal Curry who made the connection. This is this has been great. And I am so proud of all of the students who support, who’ve participated in this sustainability planning project, as well, as you know, all of the different projects that we’ve been working on with our different communities throughout this academic year, all the way back to 2017. It does take us time to put out those public, public facings project summary reports. But we do have at least the first one currently available for this project. So Javon, I’ll pass that link off to you. And if you haven’t means to distribute it or we’d love to share it. It’s it’s publicly accessible information, and just kind of that first taste of some of the work that went into this project. So with that, I’ll just say thank you so much for having us. It’s been a pleasure.

Javon Davis  47:13

Yes, well, thank you both for coming on. I know everyone’s busy, and I really appreciate your time. This has been also been great to reminisce on my grad school years and my capstone project. So thank you for that. All right, last question. And both of you can answer you can go with one. If you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as your exit music for the episode?

Victoria Caster  47:38

That’s a hard question. So I always like to say each little small finishing finish lines, some of them might be small little little projects, but every time you get one part accomplished, you’d have to celebrate and so mine would be We are the Champions.

Steve Russell  47:55

Nice You know, I think we’re on a similar strain here I mind I went with Another One Bites the Dust because you know you just one thing after another, one step at a time, and keep it moving forward.

Javon Davis  48:11

Love it, both great suggestions. Well, again, thank you so much for joining us. listeners. You can learn more about Epic-N and all of its programs at epicn.org. That’s epicn.org. That ends our episode for today. Thanks again for coming on and talking with me. Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. You can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove, or on Twitter at @GovLovePodcast. Thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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