Miriam Keep brings a global background to her new position as iSEE’s Sustainability Programs Coordinator. After receiving her Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Illinois, Keep spent six years in international development working with refugee settlements and communities in severely climate-affected regions. Now she has returned to the U of I, where she hopes to make an impact within her own community.
Joining iSEE in late September, just before Campus Sustainability Month, Keep has hit the ground running. iSEE Communications Intern Kratika Tandon talked with Keep about her diverse professional experience, her new role, and her hopes for the future.
I can imagine you must already be balancing a lot of responsibilities here. What does a day at work look like for you?
I’m not sure that there really is a typical day on the job. The role is quite dynamic, so ultimately my work involves making progress toward implementing the iCAP: the Illinois Climate Action Plan. This entails coordinating with different student groups, the iCAP topical teams and working group — which consist of students, faculty, staff, and community members — and trying to move forward with the recommendations for iCAP and understand what it takes to make progress. That can also mean coordinating with different units on campus. From what I’ve seen so far, the work changes quite a bit. I also work closely with the campus sustainability interns to plan events and programs related to sustainability and to raise awareness about the kinds of sustainable actions or habits that students, staff, and faculty can implement here on campus.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
After I graduated from UIUC in 2017, I worked for about six years with international NGOs that are mostly involved in different kinds of poverty alleviation work. The most recent one was a small organization called Trickle Up that does economic inclusion programming in refugee settlements around the world. That involved working closely with partners in affected countries to try to come up with feasible small business models that people living in extreme poverty can engage in to increase their income, build their savings, and improve the situation for their households. A big part of that involved working in countries that are deeply impacted by climate change, and understanding how this crisis hits some of the world’s most vulnerable communities where agricultural practices, for example, have been affected by drought, flooding, or extreme heat. I think that work experience was a big part of what made me interested in acting toward sustainability change.
Did you work with climate-induced displacement and climate refugees?
Not specifically, but I worked on some projects that were designed for communities heavily impacted by climate change. Before Trickle Up, I worked on a project that was based in Tunisia. It was specifically targeting a region that has been impacted a lot by climate change, mostly through drought. We were partnering with the International Fund for Agricultural Development at the U.N., which was funding the project and working with the government of Tunisia. The idea was to find sustainable agricultural practices for people in this community who were living in extreme poverty so they could make money and have sustainable livelihoods that would allow them to provide for their families long into the future.
Could you elaborate on what sparked your initial interest in sustainability as a potential career choice, and how your work with international development and urban planning ties in with sustainability?
My studies in urban planning and my work in international development have always been tied to sustainability. With international development, the goal is to make change that will benefit people long-term. That means thinking about sustainability at all levels and making sure that we’re taking into consideration all the environmental factors and the risks associated with climate change — and addressing those head-on so that we’re not telling people to grow a crop that won’t be viable in three years’ time, for example. But I also think that work made me realize the urgency of focusing on sustainability, particularly in rich countries producing most of the carbon that is causing climate change.
At my last job, I worked at a project site in northern Kenya, which is in an area that’s been impacted by severe drought for eight years. Just seeing that and realizing like how many people had lost their entire source of revenue because of the drought’s impact was eye-opening. I think one of the biggest social justice issues of our time is addressing this climate challenge.
What brought you back to the U of I and specifically to iSEE?
I was really excited to have the chance to focus on working a bit more locally, making an impact in my own community. I enjoy working with different stakeholder groups on campus, coordinating with departmental units and student groups to find common goals and figure out how we can work together to make progress toward change. I think that trying to balance stakeholder interests and come up with solutions that work well for everyone is the kind of complicated challenge that really motivates me.
For me, my work had always touched on sustainability, but it had never been a primary focus. This is an interesting opportunity for me to delve more into this topic and better understand what it means to implement sustainable practices at an institution like the U of I.
How did your first Campus Sustainability Month go?
It was great; we organized a lot of great events that had good turnout. Green Quad Day was a big success. We combined a few different events this year with Green Quad Day — Kindness Rocks and the Clothing Swap — and I think that was effective and garnered a lot of interest. The Campus Sustainability interns put a lot of work into organizing these events, as well as the Sustainable Habits Challenge. It’s been exciting to see all the great work that’s been going on.
What do you like most about working with iSEE so far?
I like that every day is different. I enjoy working with different groups across campus, especially the student groups. It’s exciting to see the energy and creative ideas that the students bring to address current issues. I really like figuring out how I can give student initiatives the support that they need to succeed. This coordinator role brings together a lot of the skills that I’ve been developing and hope to continue to develop in my career. I want to continue to grow into a role where I’m making an impact. I think that’s what’s most important to me. I hope to focus on the program management side of working with communities to create a positive impact.
Where do you think the campus is in terms of its climate action goals, and where would you like it to be?
I think the campus has made a lot of great progress in terms of the Climate Action Plan and its goals, particularly those related to energy. There’s been a lot of great awareness-raising, engaging with different units across campus to help them better understand what the goals are, why they’re important, and how they can contribute. There’s still some work to be done in that area to help other stakeholders on campus understand more about the iCAP and how they can contribute. But I think the progress that the University of Illinois has made is quite impressive — and we can see it through the carbon footprint of the university continuing to decrease.
What do you hope to accomplish through your role as Sustainability Coordinator?
I hope to help the university move forward with reaching the iCAP objectives and serve as a support for all the different actors involved in that process. With the student groups and the iCAP working groups, I want to be able to connect them to the resources and information that they need, and try to facilitate reaching our goals and moving the university closer to carbon neutral.
Do you have any recommendations for students, staff and faculty who are committed to living sustainability? What can people do to make a difference on campus?
There are lots of great resources on the iSEE website and social media pages. Every semester iSEE organizes great events like Illini Lights Out, which helps save energy over the weekend when buildings aren’t in use, trash pick-up events, recycling events, and more. There are also opportunities to get involved directly in supporting the iCAP by joining an iCAP working group. Finally, there are lots student groups focused on sustainability. There is so much great work going on across campus, and many ways to get involved!
What are some of your favorite tips that you personally implement?
My favorite sustainable practice is shopping secondhand! It’s fun to find unique items, save money, and avoid creating additional clothing waste.