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    Charting the landscape at MIT

    Norman Magnuson’s MIT career — culminating in his role as manager of grounds services in the Department of Facilities for the past 20 years — started in 1974 with a summer job. Fresh out of high school and unsure of his next step, Magnuson’s father, Norman Sr., a housing manager at MIT, encouraged him to take a summer staffer position with MIT Grounds Services. That temporary job would turn into a 48-year career, in which Magnuson found and fed his passion for horticulture.

    Over the years, Magnuson has had a number of roles, including mover, truck driver, and landscaper. In his most recent role, Magnuson was responsible for managing and maintaining the grounds of MIT’s more-than-168-acre campus — work that includes landscaping, snow removal, and event setup — a position where his pride of work could be seen across campus. Now, after nearly half a century at the Institute, Magnuson is retiring, leaving an enormous set of shoes to fill.

    “Norman’s passion for stewarding an immense array of green spaces has delighted the eyes of tens of thousands of people from around the world who have worked, visited, studied, and resided at MIT over the years,” says Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins. Adds Martin O’Brien, senior manager of Campus Services, “Not only do he and his team excel at high-profile events like snowstorms and Commencement, but day to day, they keep the campus shining.”

    Touching six decades on a transforming campus

    Like many who have spent dozens of years at the Institute, when asked what has changed the most in his time here, Magnuson thinks first of MIT’s skyline. He notes that the Landau Building (Building 66) was the first new construction he saw on campus. He remembers seeing E40 and E51 be transformed from warehouses to more functional spaces for research and labs — a pattern that would be repeated often during his time at MIT. As each part of campus dramatically evolved, so did the quiet and steadfast work of Magnuson and Grounds Services.

    When Magnuson first started working for Grounds Services, he says that landscaping was often an afterthought. “We worked with whatever extra budget money there was,” he remembers, speaking of the landscaping support for new buildings. Magnuson says that over his long career, the work of his department became more professionalized and integrated with departments like the Office of Campus Planning. Grounds Services now works closely with that office to support design and management of resilient campus landscapes that incorporate systems of soils, plantings, and hardscapes for stormwater management, as well as mitigating heat island effects while growing and diversifying the urban forest canopy.

    “There’s growing recognition of the contributions that our campus green spaces make to both community well-being and campus resiliency,” explains Laura Tenny, senior campus planner. “Over the last two years, people have rediscovered the outdoors as a place to come together, and so these campus spaces have become part of the social fabric of MIT. As landscapes become more performance-based and more like living green infrastructure, Norman has overseen a complex campus system that’s working at multiple levels, not unlike our sophisticated building and infrastructure systems.”

    Magnuson says he always welcomed change in the landscaping space and has worked hard to drive it. “I like to be on the cutting edge,” he says highlighting environmentally- and climate-friendly change he’s pushed for. “I can remember when we used to do things like throw leaves in the trash in plastic garbage bags,” he says. “These days, we’ve almost eliminated herbicides and pesticides, we’re mindful of the fertilizer that we use, and we’re very cognizant of things like this because we work with teams like the Office of Sustainability (MITOS).”

    As Magnuson and his team have striven to do better for the environment, he notes that he has also seen firsthand how climate change is transforming the campus landscape: “Leaves fall off the deciduous trees earlier than they used to. This year the azaleas bloomed late; the rhododendrons were a little bit early. When you look at particular plants that have been in the ground for many years, you do see the difference,” he says, adding that snow seasons have also become more unpredictable despite improved forecasting technology.

    Enduring connections with the community

    With his craft and campus always changing, one thing remained constant for Magnuson: MIT students. Magnuson and his team have connected with students for countless interviews and research projects over the years — a highlight of his work and a reminder of its impact. “I always tell my staff that we help educate the students — not directly most times, but we are part of the mechanism that makes it possible for them to be here,” he says.

    A recent project for Magnuson was working with students to create and maintain The Hive Garden, MIT’s first sustainability garden and a collaborative project between MITOS, the Undergraduate Association Committee on Sustainability, and Grounds Services. “That was probably one of my favorite interactions with the students,” Magnuson says of the garden. Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager who worked with Magnuson on the garden, says Magnuson played an essential role: “He took real joy in working with the students — they brought him sketches of these complex hexagonal garden beds, and I watched him and his team sit patiently with them and come up with something we could implement quickly that would maintain the integrity of their designs,” she remembers. “His team happily taught the students how to irrigate the beds and which plants to cut back in the winter — little lessons about the natural world they’ll take with them forever.” 

    As Magnuson begins his retirement, he capped off his career with one more go at this favorite MIT event — Commencement. Though the event requires tremendous amounts of work for Grounds Services, Magnuson looks forward to it each year. “It’s our Super Bowl,” he says. Each spring the Grounds Services team partners with the MIT Repair and Maintenance Carpentry crew to ready Killian Court for several thousand people by turning the open court into a massive seating area and stage while protecting and highlighting the grounds. “When the students come in and they announce them, it’s always an emotional moment for me, because it’s, ‘OK, this is it, it started, and everything looks perfect,’” he says. Former executive officer for Commencement Gayle Gallagher, who worked closely with Magnuson for more than two dozen Commencement weekends, agrees with the “perfect” assessment. “His commitment to the campus grounds — regardless of the season — was unparalleled. He spent countless hours each year to ensure our campus looked its absolute best for our graduates, their families and guests, and our alumni,” she recalls. “I always looked forward to collaborating with him — he is simply one-of-a-kind.”

    When Magnuson looks back on his long career, he notes that community and camaraderie are a large part of what kept him with MIT for so long. He’s built many relationships at MIT (his wife, Diane, recently retired from MIT Medical after 44 years, and his daughter Kelsey works with the Department of Facilities Contracts team) and says his department has the unique ability to support individuals and foster careers like it did for him. “We have some very, very talented people and we have a lot of people like me who learned on the job. Landscaping is one of those professions that if you put your all into it, you can get a degree in landscaping without having an actual degree,” he says.

    “Everybody that works for Grounds is so proud of what they do — you can see it in the work,” he adds. “I’m so proud of the work I’ve done.” More

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    Migration Summit addresses education and workforce development in displacement

    “Refugees can change the world with access to education,” says Alnarjes Harba, a refugee from Syria who recently shared her story at the 2022 Migration Summit — a first-of-its-kind, global convening to address the challenges that displaced communities face in accessing education and employment.

    At the age of 13, Harba was displaced to Lebanon, where she graduated at the top of her high school class. But because of her refugee status, she recalls, no university in her host country would accept her. Today, Harba is a researcher in health-care architecture. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University, where she was part of the Global Education Movement, a program providing refugees with pathways to higher education and work.

    Like many of the Migration Summit’s participants, Harba shared her story to call attention not only to the barriers to refugee education, but also to the opportunities to create more education-to-employment pathways like MIT Refugee Action Hub’s (ReACT) certificate programs for displaced learners.

    Organized by MIT ReACT, the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), Na’amal, Karam Foundation, and Paper Airplanes, the Migration Summit sought to center the voices and experiences of those most directly impacted by displacement — both in narratives about the crisis and in the search for solutions. Themed “Education and Workforce Development in Displacement,” this year’s summit welcomed more than 900 attendees from over 30 countries, to a total of 40 interactive virtual sessions led by displaced learners, educators, and activists working to support communities in displacement.

    Sessions highlighted the experiences of refugees, migrants, and displaced learners, as well as current efforts across the education and workforce development landscape, ranging from pK-12 initiatives to post-secondary programs, workforce training to entrepreneurship opportunities.

    Overcoming barriers to access

    The vision for the Migration Summit developed, in part, out of the need to raise more awareness about the long-standing global displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 82.4 million people worldwide today are forcibly displaced, a figure that doesn’t include the estimated 12 million people who have fled their homes in Ukraine since February.

    “Refugees not only leave their countries; they leave behind a thousand memories, their friends, their families,” says Mondiant Dogon, a human rights activist, refugee ambassador, and author who gave the Migration Summit’s opening keynote address. “Education is the most important thing that can happen to refugees. In that way, we can leave behind the refugee camps and build our own independent future.”

    Yet, as the stories of the summit’s participants highlight, many in displacement have lost their livelihoods or had their education disrupted — only to face further challenges when trying to access education or find work in their new places of residence. Obstacles range from legal restrictions, language and cultural barriers, and unaffordable costs to lack of verifiable credentials. UNHCR estimates that only 5 percent of refugees have access to higher education, compared to the global average of 39 percent.

    “There is another problem related to forced displacement — dehumanization of migrants,” says Lina Sergie Attar, the founder and CEO of Karam Foundation. “They are unjustly positioned as enemies, as a threat.”

    But as Blein Alem, an MIT ReACT alum and refugee from Eritrea, explains, “No one chooses to be a refugee — it just occurs. Whether by conflict, war, human rights violations, just because you have refugee status does not mean that you are not willing to make a change in your life and access to education and work.” Several participants, including Alem, shared that, even with a degree in hand, their refugee status limited their ability to work in their new countries of residence.

    Displaced communities face complex and structural challenges in accessing education and workforce development opportunities. Because of the varying and vast effects of displacement, efforts to address these challenges range in scale and focus and differ across sectors. As Lorraine Charles, co-founder and director of Na’amal, noted in the Migration Summit’s closing session, many organizations find themselves working in silos, or even competing with each other for funding and other resources. As a result, solution-making has been fragmented, with persistent gaps between different sectors that are, in fact, working toward the same goals.

    Imagining a modular, digital, collaborative approach

    A key takeaway from the month’s discussions, then, is the need to rethink the response to refugee education and workforce challenges. During the session, “From Intentions to Impact: Decolonizing Refugee Response,” participants emphasized the systemic nature of these challenges. Yet formal responses, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, have been largely inadequate — in some instances even oppressing the communities they’re meant to support, explains Sana Mustafa, director of partnership and engagement for Asylum Access.

    “We have the opportunity to rethink how we are handling the situation,” Mustafa says, calling for more efforts to include refugees in the design and development of solutions.

    Presenters also agreed that educational institutions, particularly universities, could play a vital role in providing more pathways for refugees and displaced learners. Key to this is rethinking the structure of education itself, including its delivery.

    “The challenge right now is that degrees are monolithic,” says Sanjay Sarma, vice president for MIT Open Learning, who gave the keynote address on “Pathways to Education, Livelihood, and Hope.” “They’re like those gigantic rocks at Stonehenge or in other megalithic sites. What we need is a much more granular version of education: bricks. Bricks were invented several thousand years ago, but we don’t really have that yet formally and extensively in education.”

    “There is no way we can accommodate thousands and thousands of refugees face-to-face,” says Shai Reshef, the founder and president of University of the People. “The only path is a digital one.”

    Ultimately, explains Demetri Fadel of Karam Foundation, “We really need to think about how to create a vision of education as a right for every person all around the world.”

    Underlying many of the Migration Summit’s conclusions is the awareness that there is still much work to be done. However, as the summit’s co-chair Lana Cook said in her closing remarks, “This was not a convening of despair, but one about what we can build together.”

    The summit’s organizers are currently putting together a public report of the key findings that have emerged from the month’s conversations, including recommendations for thematic working groups and future Migration Summit activities. More

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    “The world needs your smarts, your skills,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells MIT’s Class of 2022

    On a clear warm day, the MIT graduating class of 2022 gathered in Killian Court for the first in-person commencement exercises in three years, after two years of online ceremonies due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, director-general of the World Trade Organization, delivered the Commencement address, stressing the global need for science-informed policy to address problems of climate change, pandemics, international security, and wealth disparities. She told the graduates: “In these uncertain times, in this complex world in which you are entering, you need not be so daunted, if you can search for the opportunities hidden in challenges.” She urged them to go “into the world to embrace the opportunities to serve.”

    An expert in global finance, economics, and international development, Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and first African to lead the WTO. She earned a master’s degree in city planning from MIT in 1978, and a PhD in regional economics and development in 1981.

    Okonjo-Iweala began her address by paying tribute to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who earlier this semester announced plans to end his decade-long tenure in that role. Calling this a “bittersweet day” because of his departure, she honored “his academic, institutional, and thought leadership of these past 10 years.”

    She spoke warmly of the way MIT had helped her while she was a graduate student struggling to pay the bills. She was assured that the Institute would do whatever was needed to make sure she could complete her studies, she recalled, saying, “They had my back.” Noting that this year’s graduating class had their own educational journeys challenged by the global pandemic, she described how her own early education was interrupted for three years by civil war in her home country of Nigeria. She also noted the recent tragic shootings in Uvalde, Texas, saying that “I feel grief as a mother and a grandmother.”

    “MIT has helped make me who I am today,” she said. “My parents made it clear to me that education was a privilege, and that with that privilege comes responsibility — the responsibility to use it for others, not just for yourself.”

    She said that what the world needs in this time of multiple global challenges, including Covid-19, climate change, public health, and international security, is an approach “combining science, social science, and public policy, to meet the challenges of our future.”

    Friday’s Commencement ceremony celebrated the 1,099 undergraduate and 2,590 graduate students receiving MIT diplomas this year.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    MIT President L. Rafael Reif walked near the head of the procession to Killian Court, followed by Commencement speaker Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and others.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Temiloluwa Omitoogun, president of the Class of 2022, told his classmates, “MIT is hard. MIT during an unprecedented pandemic is even harder, but we did it.”

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    In a longstanding MIT Commencement ritual, graduates turn over their class ring, the “brass rat.” The ring’s image of the Boston skyline faces students until they graduate, and thereafter they will see the Cambridge skyline, in effect looking back at campus.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Members of the Class of 2022 celebrated on Killian Court.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Fifty years after their own graduation, members of the Class of 1972 attended the ceremony as special guests, wearing signature red jackets. Members of the Classes of ’70 and ’71 also joined the festivities.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    Members of the Class of 2022 celebrated on Killian Court.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    President Reif urged the assembled graduates to shout out a loud “thank you!” to all family, professors, friends, and others who helped them reach today’s milestone.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

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    Okonjo-Iweala, who was formerly head of the World Bank, said that “a common thread running through many of these challenges is the central role for science,” and she stressed the need for technological innovation to address the global problems facing humanity. “New inventions and new ways of doing things will have an impact, mainly to the extent they are scaled up across the dividing lines of income and geography,” she said.

    “We don’t just need vaccines,” she continued. “We need shots in arms across the world, to be safe. We need new renewable technologies diffused not just in rich countries to fight climate change, but also in poor ones. We need new agricultural technologies built to local conditions and culture, if we’re to fight hunger. In other words, we need innovation. But we also need access, equity, diffusion.”

    In the case of the global response to the pandemic, she noted that only 17 percent of people in Africa and 13 percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, compared to 75 percent of people in high income countries. “Since we all know that no one is safe until everyone is safe, the risk of more dangerous variants and pathogens remains real because of this public policy lapse and the lack of timely international cooperation,” she said.

    As for climate change, she pointed out that the world somehow managed to come up with $14 trillion to address the Covid-19 pandemic but has not managed to fulfill the pledges nations made to provide $100 billion to help less-developed nations build renewable energy solutions.

    To address these global challenges, she told the new graduates, “the world needs your smarts, your skills, your adaptability, and the great training you have received here at MIT. The world needs you for innovation, for policymaking, for connecting the dots so that implementation can actually happen.”

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    President Reif, in his charge to the graduates, urged the assembled crowd to shout out a loud “thank you!” to all family, professors, friends, and other who helped them reach today’s milestone. He pointed out that research, including from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, shows that “simply expressing gratitude does wonderful things to your brain. It gets different parts of your brain to act in a synchronized way. It lights up reward pathways!”

    “All of us could use a reliable device for feeling better. So now, thanks to brain science, Course 9, you have one! The Gratitude Amplifier is unbreakable. Its battery never dies, it will never try to sell you anything, you can use it every day, forever — and it’s free!”

    He recalled the example of the way students banded together to create a new space for relaxation on campus, now known as the Banana Lounge, a central location where students could relax with free coffee and bananas. “The students have done this all essentially themselves, applying their skills and the most delightful MIT values.” The project has already distributed a half-million bananas, he said, and produced a “wonderful, tropical, perfectly improbable new MIT institution.”

    He urged the graduating students to work to “make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind.” And, he added, “try always to share your bananas!”

    Adam Joseph “AJ” Miller, president of the Graduate Student Council, said, “Today marks the end of a chapter, the culmination of so many late nights, to forge lifelong friendships, to hold onto new experiences, to shape our dreams.” He added that “Something I heard a lot about when I first got here was all the doubt so many of us had in ourselves. I can say unequivocally today though, there are no impostors before me. Nobody sits where you sit by accident. You’re all now graduates of MIT, carrying on an incredibly impressive history.”

    Miller urged his fellow students to “stay confident in yourselves because of the challenges you’ve overcome. Be courageous in trying, because failure is learning and investing in each other.”

    Temiloluwa Omitoogun, president of the Class of 2022, told his classmates, “MIT is hard. MIT during an unprecedented pandemic is even harder, but we did it. Even if you don’t realize it, this is a huge accomplishment.” He added that “it’s sad that we’re all parting ways at the moment, but I’m even more excited than sad. I’m excited to see what more you all will accomplish. I look out and I don’t just see friends and classmates. I see future leaders, people who will change the world. I’m going to try my best to keep up and change the world too.”

    Later in the day, in a separate ceremony on Briggs Field, each of the members of the undergraduate Class of 2022 had a chance to hear their names read aloud as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Right before this presentation, senior and physics and mathematics major Quinn Brodsky performed a heartful rendition of “Hypotheticals” by Lake Street Dive.

    Addressing the graduating seniors, Chancellor Melissa Nobles urged them to “absorb and relish this celebration of what you’ve achieved during your transformative time at MIT. How much you have grown, academically, professionally and personally!” She added that “the lifelong friends and mentors you found here are the people who I know will continue to be sources of encouragement, support, and inspiration as you make your way in the world.”

    Recalling the way the pandemic altered their academic careers, she said “you should know now that you can handle whatever life throws your way. Never forget that you are stronger and more resilient than you think you are.” She added, “hold on to the way this pandemic has put certain things into perspective. Time with people we care about is precious. So are our health and wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of the ones we love. Looking out for others and feeling a sense of shared responsibility for the common good are paramount.”

    Nobles concluded that “your journey into the future holds countless possibilities, risks, joys, rewards, sometimes failures, and always surprises. … We wish you well on the road ahead.” More

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    Living Climate Futures initiative showcases holistic approach to the climate crisis

    The sun shone bright and warm on the Dertouzos Amphitheater at the Stata Center this past Earth Day as a panel of Indigenous leaders from across the country talked about their experiences with climate activism and shared their natural world philosophies — a worldview that sees humanity as one with the rest of the Earth.

    “I was taught the natural world philosophies by those raised by precolonial individuals,” said Jay Julius W’tot Lhem of the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest and founder and president of Se’Si’Le, an organization dedicated to reintroducing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream conversation about climate. Since his great-grandmother was born in 1888, he grew up “one hug away from pre-contact,” as he put it.

    Natural world philosophiesNatural world philosophies sit at the center of the Indigenous activism taking place all over the country, and they were a highlight of the Indigenous Earth Day panel — one part of a two-day symposium called Living Climate Futures. The events were hosted by the Anthropology and History sections and the Program on Science, Technology, and Society in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), in collaboration with the MIT Office of Sustainability and Project Indigenous MIT.

    “The Living Climate Futures initiative began from the recognition that the people who are living most closely with climate and environmental struggles and injustices are especially equipped to lead the way toward other ways of living in the world,” says Briana Meier, ACLS Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and an organizer of the event. “While much climate action is based in technology-driven policy, we recognize that solutions to climate change are often embedded within and produced in response to existing social systems of injustice and inequity.”

    On-the-ground experts from around the country spoke in a series of panels and discussions over the two days, sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to think differently about how to address the environmental crisis.

    Gathering experts

    The hope, according to faculty organizers, was that an event centered on such voices could create connections among activists and open the eyes of many to the human element of climate solutions.

    Over the years, many such solutions have overlooked the needs of the communities they are designed to help. Streams in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have been dammed to generate hydroelectric power — promoted as a green alternative to fossil fuel. But these same locations have long been sacred spots for Indigenous swimming rituals, said Ryan Emanuel (Lumbee), associate professor of hydrology at Duke University and a panelist in the Indigenous Earth Day event. Mitigating the environmental damage does not make up for the loss of sacred connection, he emphasized.

    To dig into such nuances, the organizers invited an intergenerational group of panelists to share successes with attendees.

    Transforming urban spaces

    In one panel, for example, urban farmers from Mansfield, Ohio, and Chelsea, Massachusetts, discussed the benefits of growing vegetables in cities.

    “Transforming urban spaces into farms provides not just healthy food, but a visible symbol of hope, a way for people to connect and grow food that reflects their cultures and homes, an economic development opportunity, and even a safe space for teens to hang out,” said Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability and an event organizer. “We also heard about the challenges — like the cost of real estate in Massachusetts.”

    Another panel highlighted the determined efforts of a group of students from George Washington High School in Southeast Chicago to derail a project to build a scrap metal recycling plant across the street from their school. “We’re at school eight hours a day,” said Gregory Miller, a junior at the school. “We refuse to live next door to a metals scrapyard.”

    The proposed plant was intended to replace something similar that had been shut down in a predominantly white neighborhood due to its many environmental violations. Southeast Chicago is more culturally diverse and has long suffered from industrial pollution and economic hardship, but the students fought the effort to further pollute their home — and won.

    “It was hard, the campaign,” said Destiny Vasquez. “But it was beautiful because the community came together. There is unity in our struggle.”

    Recovering a common heritage 

    Unity was also at the forefront of the discussion for the Indigenous Earth Day panel in the Stata Amphitheater. This portion of the Living Climate Futures event began with a greeting in the Navajo language from Alvin Harvey, PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics (Aero/Astro) and representative of the MIT American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the MIT Native American Student Association. The greeting identified all who came to the event as relatives.

    “Look at the relatives next to you, especially those trees,” he said, gesturing to the budding branches around the amphitheater. “They give you shelter, love … few other beings are willing to do that.”

    According to Julius, such reverence for nature is part of the Indigenous way of life, common across tribal backgrounds — and something all of humanity once had in common. “Somewhere along the line we all had Indigenous philosophies,” he said. “We all need an invitation back to that to understand we’re all part of the whole.”

    Understanding the oneness of all living things on earth helps people of Indigenous nations feel the distress of the earth when it is under attack, speakers said. Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth and an elder of the Lumbee tribe, discussed the trauma of having forests near her home in the southeastern United States clear-cut to provide wood chips to Europe.

    “They are devastating the lungs of the earth in North Carolina at a rate faster than in the Amazon,” she said. “You can almost hear the pain of the forest.”

    Small pictures of everyday life

    “People are experiencing a climate crisis that is global in really different ways in different places,” says Heather Paxson, head of MIT Anthropology and an event organizer. “What came out of these two days is a real, palpable sense of the power of listening to individual experience. Not because it gives us the big picture, but because it gives us the small picture.”

    Trinity Colón, one of the leaders of the group from George Washington High School, impressed on attendees that environmental justice is much more than an academic pursuit. “We’re not talking about climate change in the sense of statistics, infographics,” she said. “For us this is everyday life … [Future engineers and others training at MIT] should definitely take that into perspective, that these are real people really being affected by these injustices.”

    That call to action has already been felt by many at MIT.

    “I’ve been hearing from grad students lately, in engineering, saying, ‘I like thinking about these problems, but I don’t like where I’m being directed to use my intellectual capital, toward building more corporate wealth,’” said Kate Brown, professor of STS and an event organizer. “As an institution, we could move toward working not for, not to correct, but working with communities.”

    The world is what we’ve gotMIT senior Abdulazeez Mohammed Salim, an Aero/Astro major, says he was inspired by these conversations to get involved in urban farming initiatives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he plans to move after graduation.

    “We have a responsibility as part of the world around us, not as external observers, not as people removed and displaced from the world. And the world is not an experiment or a lab,” he says. “It’s what we’ve got. It’s who we are. It’s all that we’ve been and all we will be. That stuck with me; it resonated very deeply.”

    Salim also appreciated the reality check given by Bianca Bowman from GreenRoots Chelsea, who pointed out that success will not come quickly, and that sustained advocacy is critical.

    “Real, valuable change will not happen overnight, will not happen by just getting together a critical mass of people who are upset and concerned,” he said. “Because what we’re dealing with are large, interconnected, messy systems that will try to fight back and survive regardless of how we force them to adapt. And so, long term is really the only way forward. That’s the way we need to think of these struggles.” More

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    MIT Climate “Plug-In” highlights first year of progress on MIT’s climate plan

    In a combined in-person and virtual event on Monday, members of the three working groups established last year under MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan reported on the work they’ve been doing to meet the plan’s goals, including reaching zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.

    Introducing the session, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that “many universities have climate plans that are inward facing, mostly focused on the direct impacts of their operations on greenhouse gas emissions. And that is really important, but ‘Fast Forward’ is different in that it’s also outward facing — it recognizes climate change as a global crisis.”

    That, she said, “commits us to an all-of-MIT effort to help the world solve the super wicked problem in practice.” That means “helping the world to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, to deploy currently available technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” while also quickly developing new tools and approaches to deal with the most difficult areas of decarbonization, she said.

    Significant strides have been made in this first year, according to Zuber. The Climate Grand Challenges competition, announced last year as part of the plan, has just announced five flagship projects. “Each of these projects is potentially important in its own right, and is also exemplary of the kinds of bold thinking about climate solutions that the world needs,” she said.

    “We’ve also created new climate-focused institutions within MIT to improve accountability and transparency and to drive action,” Zuber said, including the Climate Nucleus, which comprises heads of labs and departments involved in climate-change work and is led by professors Noelle Selin and Anne White. The “Fast Forward” plan also established three working groups that report to the Climate Nucleus — on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s carbon footprint — whose members spoke at Monday’s event.

    David McGee, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, co-director of MIT’s Terrascope program for first-year students, and co-chair of the education working group, said that over the last few years of Terrascope, “we’ve begun focusing much more explicitly on the experiences of, and the knowledge contained within, impacted communities … both for mitigation efforts and how they play out, and also adaptation.” Figuring out how to access the expertise of local communities “in a way that’s not extractive is a challenge that we face,” he added.

    Eduardo Rivera, managing director for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) programs in several countries and a member of the education team, noted that about 1,000 undergraduates travel each year to work on climate and sustainability challenges. These include, for example, working with a lab in Peru assessing pollution in the Amazon, developing new insulation materials in Germany, developing affordable solar panels in China, working on carbon-capture technology in France or Israel, and many others, Rivera said. These are “unique opportunities to learn about the discipline, where the students can do hands-on work along with the professionals and the scientists in the front lines.” He added that MISTI has just launched a pilot project to help these students “to calculate their carbon footprint, to give them resources, and to understand individual responsibilities and collective responsibilities in this area.”

    Yujie Wang, a graduate student in architecture and an education working group member, said that during her studies she worked on a project focused on protecting biodiversity in Colombia, and also worked with a startup to reduce pesticide use in farming through digital monitoring. In Colombia, she said, she came to appreciate the value of interactions among researchers using satellite data, with local organizations, institutions and officials, to foster collaboration on solving common problems.

    The second panel addressed policy issues, as reflected by the climate policy working group. David Goldston, director of MIT’s Washington office, said “I think policy is totally central, in that for each part of the climate problem, you really can’t make progress without policy.” Part of that, he said, “involves government activities to help communities, and … to make sure the transition [involving the adoption of new technologies] is as equitable as possible.”

    Goldston said “a lot of the progress that’s been made already, whether it’s movement toward solar and wind energy and many other things, has been really prompted by government policy. I think sometimes people see it as a contest, should we be focusing on technology or policy, but I see them as two sides of the same coin. … You can’t get the technology you need into operation without policy tools, and the policy tools won’t have anything to work with unless technology is developed.”

    As for MIT, he said, “I think everybody at MIT who works on any aspect of climate change should be thinking about what’s the policy aspect of it, how could policy help them? How could they help policymakers? I think we need to coordinate better.” The Institute needs to be more strategic, he said, but “that doesn’t mean MIT advocating for specific policies. It means advocating for climate action and injecting a wide range of ideas into the policy arena.”

    Anushree Chaudhari, a student in economics and in urban studies and planning, said she has been learning about the power of negotiations in her work with Professor Larry Susskind. “What we’re currently working on is understanding why there are so many sources of local opposition to scaling renewable energy projects in the U.S.,” she explained. “Even though over 77 percent of the U.S. population actually is in support of renewables, and renewables are actually economically pretty feasible as their costs have come down in the last two decades, there’s still a huge social barrier to having them become the new norm,” she said. She emphasized that a fair and just energy transition will require listening to community stakeholders, including indigenous groups and low-income communities, and understanding why they may oppose utility-scale solar farms and wind farms.

    Joy Jackson, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, said that the implementation of research findings into policy at state, local, and national levels is a “very messy, nonlinear, sort of chaotic process.” One avenue for research to make its way into policy, she said, is through formal processes, such as congressional testimony. But a lot is also informal, as she learned while working as an intern in government offices, where she and her colleagues reached out to professors, researchers, and technical experts of various kinds while in the very early stages of policy development.

    “The good news,” she said, “is there’s a lot of touch points.”

    The third panel featured members of the working group studying ways to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint. Julie Newman, head of MIT’s Office of Sustainability and co-chair of that group, summed up MIT’s progress toward its stated goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2026. “I can cautiously say we’re on track for that one,” she said. Despite headwinds in the solar industry due to supply chain issues, she said, “we’re well positioned” to meet that near-term target.

    As for working toward the 2050 target of eliminating all direct emissions, she said, it is “quite a challenge.” But under the leadership of Joe Higgins, the vice president for campus services and stewardship, MIT is implementing a number of measures, including deep energy retrofits, investments in high-performance buildings, an extremely efficient central utilities plant, and more.

    She added that MIT is particularly well-positioned in its thinking about scaling its solutions up. “A couple of years ago we approached a handful of local organizations, and over a couple of years have built a consortium to look at large-scale carbon reduction in the world. And it’s a brilliant partnership,” she said, noting that details are still being worked out and will be reported later.

    The work is challenging, because “MIT was built on coal, this campus was not built to get to zero carbon emissions.” Nevertheless, “we think we’re on track” to meet the ambitious goals of the Fast Forward plan, she said. “We’re going to have to have multiple pathways, because we may come to a pathway that may turn out not to be feasible.”

    Jay Dolan, head of facilities development at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that campus faces extra hurdles compared to the main MIT campus, as it occupies buildings that are owned and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, not MIT. They are still at the data-gathering stage to see what they can do to improve their emissions, he said, and a website they set up to solicit suggestions for reducing their emissions had received 70 suggestions within a few days, which are still being evaluated. “All that enthusiasm, along with the intelligence at the laboratory, is very promising,” he said.

    Peter Jacobson, a graduate student in Leaders for Global Operations, said that in his experience, projects that are most successful start not from a focus on the technology, but from collaborative efforts working with multiple stakeholders. “I think this is exactly why the Climate Nucleus and our working groups are so important here at MIT,” he said. “We need people tasked with thinking at this campus scale, figuring out what the needs and priorities of all the departments are and looking for those synergies, and aligning those needs across both internal and external stakeholders.”

    But, he added, “MIT’s complexity and scale of operations definitely poses unique challenges. Advanced research is energy hungry, and in many cases we don’t have the technology to decarbonize those research processes yet. And we have buildings of varying ages with varying stages of investment.” In addition, MIT has “a lot of people that it needs to feed, and that need to travel and commute, so that poses additional and different challenges.”

    Asked what individuals can do to help MIT in this process, Newman said, “Begin to leverage and figure out how you connect your research to informing our thinking on campus. We have channels for that.”

    Noelle Selin, co-chair of MIT’s climate nucleus and moderator of the third panel, said in conclusion “we’re really looking for your input into all of these working groups and all of these efforts. This is a whole of campus effort. It’s a whole of world effort to address the climate challenge. So, please get in touch and use this as a call to action.” More

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    At Climate Grand Challenges showcase event, an exploration of how to accelerate breakthrough solutions

    On the eve of Earth Day, more than 300 faculty, researchers, students, government officials, and industry leaders gathered in the Samberg Conference Center, along with thousands more who tuned in online, to celebrate MIT’s first-ever Climate Grand Challenges and the five most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition.

    The event began with a climate policy conversation between MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, followed by presentations from each of the winning flagship teams, and concluded with an expert panel that explored pathways for moving from ideas to impact at scale as quickly as possible.

    “In 2020, when we launched the Climate Grand Challenges, we wanted to focus the daring creativity and pioneering expertise of the MIT community on the urgent problem of climate change,” said President Reif in kicking off the event. “Together these flagship projects will define a transformative new research agenda at MIT, one that has the potential to make meaningful contributions to the global climate response.”

    Reif and Kerry discussed multiple aspects of the climate crisis, including mitigation, adaptation, and the policies and strategies that can help the world avert the worst consequences of climate change and make the United States a leader again in bringing technology into commercial use. Referring to the accelerated wartime research effort that helped turn the tide in World War II, which included work conducted at MIT, Kerry said, “We need about five Manhattan Projects, frankly.”

    “People are now sensing a much greater urgency to finding solutions — new technology — and taking to scale some of the old technologies,” Kerry said. “There are things that are happening that I think are exciting, but the problem is it’s not happening fast enough.”

    Strategies for taking technology from the lab to the marketplace were the basis for the final portion of the event. The panel was moderated by Alicia Barton, president and CEO of FirstLight Power, and included Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jack Little, CEO and co-founder of MathWorks; Arati Prabhakar, president of Actuate and former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and Katie Rae, president and managing director of The Engine. The discussion touched upon the importance of marshaling the necessary resources and building the cross-sector partnerships required to scale the technologies being developed by the flagship teams and to deliver them to the world in time to make a difference. 

    “MIT doesn’t sit on its hands ever, and innovation is central to its founding,” said Rae. “The students coming out of MIT at every level, along with the professors, have been committed to these challenges for a long time and therefore will have a big impact. These flagships have always been in process, but now we have an extraordinary moment to commercialize these projects.”

    The panelists weighed in on how to change the mindset around finance, policy, business, and community adoption to scale massive shifts in energy generation, transportation, and other major carbon-emitting industries. They stressed the importance of policies that address the economic, equity, and public health impacts of climate change and of reimagining supply chains and manufacturing to grow and distribute these technologies quickly and affordably. 

    “We are embarking on five adventures, but we do not know yet, cannot know yet, where these projects will take us,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “These are powerful and promising ideas. But each one will require focused effort, creative and interdisciplinary teamwork, and sustained commitment and support if they are to become part of the climate and energy revolution that the world urgently needs. This work begins now.” 

    Zuber called for investment from philanthropists and financiers, and urged companies, governments, and others to join this all-of-humanity effort. Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester echoed this message in closing the event. 

    “Every one of us needs to put our shoulder to the wheel at the points where our leverage is maximized — where we can do what we’re best at,” Lester said. “For MIT, Climate Grand Challenges is one of those maximum leverage points.” More

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    A community approach to improving the health of the planet

    Earlier this month, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) hosted a Health of the Planet Showcase. The event was the culmination of a four-year long community initiative to focus on what the mechanical engineering community at MIT can do to solve some of the biggest challenges the planet faces on a local and global scale. Structured like an informal poster session, the event marked the first time that administrative staff joined students, researchers, and postdocs in sharing their own research.

    When Evelyn Wang started her tenure as mechanical engineering department head in July 2018, she and associate department heads Pierre Lermusiaux and Rohit Karnik made the health of the planet a top priority for the department. Their goal was to bring students, faculty, and staff together to develop solutions that address the many problems related to the health of the planet.

    “As a field, mechanical engineering is unique in its diversity,” says Wang, the Ford Professor of Engineering. “We have researchers who are world-leading experts on desalination, ocean engineering, energy storage, and photovoltaics, just to name a few. One of our driving motivations has been getting those experts to collaborate and work on new health of the planet research projects together.”

    Wang also saw an opportunity to tap into the passions of the department’s students and staff, many of whom devote their extracurricular and personal time to environmental causes. She enlisted the help of a team of faculty and staff to launch what has become known as the MechE Health of the Planet Initiative.

    The initiative, which capitalizes on the diverse range of research fields in mechanical engineering, encouraged both grand research ideas that could have impact on a global scale, and smaller personal habits that could help on a smaller scale.

    “We wanted to encourage everyone in our community to think about their daily routine and make small changes that really add up over time,” says Dorothy Hanna, program administrator at MIT and one of the staff members leading the initiative.

    The Health of the Planet team started small. They hosted an office supply swap day to encourage recycling and reuse of everyday office products. This idea expanded to include the launch of “Lab Reuse Days.” Members of the Rohsenow Kendall Lab, including members of the research groups of professors Gang Chen, John Lienhard, and Evelyn Wang, gathered extra materials for reuse. Researchers from other labs picked up Arduino kits, tubing, and electrical wiring to use for their own projects.

    While individuals were encouraged to adopt small habits at home and at work to help the health of the planet, research teams were encouraged to work together on solutions on a larger scale.

    Seed funding for collaborative research

    In early 2020, the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering launched a new collaborative seed research program based on funding from MathWorks, the computing software company that developed MATLAB. The first seed funding supported health of the planet research projects led by two or more mechanical engineering faculty members.

    “One of the driving goals of MechE has been fostering collaborations and supporting interdisciplinary research on the grand challenges our world faces,” says Pierre Lermusiaux, the Nam P. Suh Professor and associate department head for operations. “The seed funding from MathWorks was a great opportunity to build upon the diverse expertise and creativity our researchers have to address health of the planet related issues.” 

    The research projects supported by the seed funding ranged from lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to high-performance household energy products for low- and middle-income countries. Each project differs in scope and application, and draws upon the expertise of at least two different research groups at MIT.

    Throughout the past two years, faculty presented about these research projects in several community seminars. They also participated in a full-day faculty research retreat focused on health of the planet research that included presentations from local Cambridge and Boston city leaders, as well as experts from other MIT departments and Harvard University.

    These projects have helped break down barriers and increased collaboration among research groups that focus on different areas. The third round of seed funding for collaborative research projects was recently announced and new projects will be chosen in the coming weeks.

    A community showcase

    Upon returning to the campus last fall, the Health of the Planet team began planning an event to bring the community together and celebrate the department’s research efforts. The Health of the Planet Showcase, which took place on April 4, featured 26 presenters from across the mechanical engineering community at MIT.

    Projects included a marine coastal monitoring robot, solar hydrogen production with thermochemical cycles, and a portable atmospheric water extractor for dry climates. Among the presenters was Administrative Assistant Tony Pulsone, who presented on how honeybees navigate their surroundings, as well as program manager Theresa Werth and program administrator Dorothy Hanna, who presented on reducing bottled water use and practical strategies developed by staff to overcome functional barriers on campus.

    The event concluded with the announcement of the Fay and Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Research Fellowship, awarded to a MechE student-led effort to propose a new paradigm to improve the health of our planet. Graduate student Charlene Xia won for her work developing a real-time opto-fluidics system for monitoring the soil microbiome.

    “The soil microbiome governs the biogeochemical cycling of macronutrients, micronutrients, and other elements vital for the growth of plants and animal life,” Xia said. “Understanding and predicting the impact of climate change on soil microbiomes and the ecosystem services they provide present a grand challenge and major opportunity.”

    The Chandler Fellowship will continue during the 2022-23 academic year, when another student-led project will be chosen. The department also hopes to make the Health of the Planet Showcase an annual gathering.

    “The showcase was such a vibrant event,” adds Wang. “It really energized the department and renewed our commitment to growing community efforts and continuing to advance research to help improve and protect the health of our planet.” More

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    Empowering people to adapt on the frontlines of climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fifth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    In the coastal south of Bangladesh, rice paddies that farmers could once harvest three times a year lie barren. Sea-level rise brings saltwater to the soil, ruining the staple crop. It’s one of many impacts, and inequities, of climate change. Despite producing less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions, Bangladesh is suffering more than most countries. Rising seas, heat waves, flooding, and cyclones threaten 90 million people.

    A platform being developed in a collaboration between MIT and BRAC, a Bangladesh-based global development organization, aims to inform and empower climate-threatened communities to proactively adapt to a changing future. Selected as one of five MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects, the Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet) will forecast the local impacts of climate change on people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods. These forecasts will guide BRAC’s development of climate-resiliency programs to help residents prepare for and adapt to life-altering conditions.

    “The communities that CREWSnet will focus on have done little to contribute to the problem of climate change in the first place. However, because of socioeconomic situations, they may be among the most vulnerable. We hope that by providing state-of-the-art projections and sharing them broadly with communities, and working through partners like BRAC, we can help improve the capacity of local communities to adapt to climate change, significantly,” says Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Eltahir leads the project with John Aldridge and Deborah Campbell in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners across MIT include the Center for Global Change Science; the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. 

    Predicting local risks

    CREWSnet’s forecasts rely upon a sophisticated model, developed in Eltahir’s research group over the past 25 years, called the MIT Regional Climate Model. This model zooms in on climate processes at local scales, at a resolution as granular as 6 miles. In Bangladesh’s population-dense cities, a 6-mile area could encompass tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people. The model takes into account the details of a region’s topography, land use, and coastline to predict changes in local conditions.

    When applying this model over Bangladesh, researchers found that heat waves will get more severe and more frequent over the next 30 years. In particular, wet-bulb temperatures, which indicate the ability for humans to cool down by sweating, will rise to dangerous levels rarely observed today, particularly in western, inland cities.

    Such hot spots exacerbate other challenges predicted to worsen near Bangladesh’s coast. Rising sea levels and powerful cyclones are eroding and flooding coastal communities, causing saltwater to surge into land and freshwater. This salinity intrusion is detrimental to human health, ruins drinking water supplies, and harms crops, livestock, and aquatic life that farmers and fishermen depend on for food and income.

    CREWSnet will fuse climate science with forecasting tools that predict the social and economic impacts to villages and cities. These forecasts — such as how often a crop season may fail, or how far floodwaters will reach — can steer decision-making.

    “What people need to know, whether they’re a governor or head of a household, is ‘What is going to happen in my area, and what decisions should I make for the people I’m responsible for?’ Our role is to integrate this science and technology together into a decision support system,” says Aldridge, whose group at Lincoln Laboratory specializes in this area. Most recently, they transitioned a hurricane-evacuation planning system to the U.S. government. “We know that making decisions based on climate change requires a deep level of trust. That’s why having a powerful partner like BRAC is so important,” he says.

    Testing interventions

    Established 50 years ago, just after Bangladesh’s independence, BRAC works in every district of the nation to provide social services that help people rise from extreme poverty. Today, it is one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations, serving 110 million people across 11 countries in Asia and Africa, but its success is cultivated locally.

    “BRAC is thrilled to partner with leading researchers at MIT to increase climate resilience in Bangladesh and provide a model that can be scaled around the globe,” says Donella Rapier, president and CEO of BRAC USA. “Locally led climate adaptation solutions that are developed in partnership with communities are urgently needed, particularly in the most vulnerable regions that are on the frontlines of climate change.”

    CREWSnet will help BRAC identify communities most vulnerable to forecasted impacts. In these areas, they will share knowledge and innovate or bolster programs to improve households’ capacity to adapt.

    Many climate initiatives are already underway. One program equips homes to filter and store rainwater, as salinity intrusion makes safe drinking water hard to access. Another program is building resilient housing, able to withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds, that can double as local shelters during cyclones and flooding. Other services are helping farmers switch to different livestock or crops better suited for wetter or saltier conditions (e.g., ducks instead of chickens, or salt-tolerant rice), providing interest-free loans to enable this change.

    But adapting in place will not always be possible, for example in areas predicted to be submerged or unbearably hot by midcentury. “Bangladesh is working on identifying and developing climate-resilient cities and towns across the country, as closer-by alternative destinations as compared to moving to Dhaka, the overcrowded capital of Bangladesh,” says Campbell. “CREWSnet can help identify regions better suited for migration, and climate-resilient adaptation strategies for those regions.” At the same time, BRAC’s Climate Bridge Fund is helping to prepare cities for climate-induced migration, building up infrastructure and financial services for people who have been displaced.

    Evaluating impact

    While CREWSnet’s goal is to enable action, it can’t quite measure the impact of those actions. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a development economics program in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, will help evaluate the effectiveness of the climate-adaptation programs.

    “We conduct randomized controlled trials, similar to medical trials, that help us understand if a program improved people’s lives,” says Claire Walsh, the project director of the King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL. “Once CREWSnet helps BRAC implement adaptation programs, we will generate scientific evidence on their impacts, so that BRAC and CREWSnet can make a case to funders and governments to expand effective programs.”

    The team aspires to bring CREWSnet to other nations disproportionately impacted by climate change. “Our vision is to have this be a globally extensible capability,” says Campbell. CREWSnet’s name evokes another early-warning decision-support system, FEWSnet, that helped organizations address famine in eastern Africa in the 1980s. Today it is a pillar of food-security planning around the world.

    CREWSnet hopes for a similar impact in climate change planning. Its selection as an MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project will inject the project with more funding and resources, momentum that will also help BRAC’s fundraising. The team plans to deploy CREWSnet to southwestern Bangladesh within five years.

    “The communities that we are aspiring to reach with CREWSnet are deeply aware that their lives are changing — they have been looking climate change in the eye for many years. They are incredibly resilient, creative, and talented,” says Ashley Toombs, the external affairs director for BRAC USA. “As a team, we are excited to bring this system to Bangladesh. And what we learn together, we will apply at potentially even larger scales.” More