Summer Internship Highlight: Sustainability and Design

September 27, 2021

Each summer, SLS hosts an Internship Program, placing students in internships with community and government organizations, focused on gaining real world experience in sustainability and community engagement.  This week, we highlight Michelle Ramirez (Digital Media) who interned with SLS as our Sustainable Communities Graduate Fellow.

This past summer I served as the Sustainable Communities Graduate Fellow at Serve-Learn-Sustain. Over the course of the summer, I wrote a Teaching Tool that highlights local and global examples of advancing the Sustainable Development Goals so that professors can integrate these case studies into their curriculum. Additionally, I supported the summer iGniTe program by providing logistical support, and I even had the chance to attend, record, and edit the Global Grower’s Farm Tour which was a highlight of the summer! 

I entered the internship with a personal interest in sustainability, but I was uncertain how to combine it with my graduate studies in digital media and design. My “ah-ha” moment occurred during the culmination of the internship with a tour of The Kendeda Building and Eco-Commons. 

The first year of my graduate program was completely virtual, so I never heard of The Kendeda Building until I began my internship. I was thrilled to finally visit this eco-friendly space and meet my fellow interns in-person. I was blown away by an elaborate explanation of the team’s commitment to sustainability design and how it impacts society not just ecologically, but equitably. For example, the team knew they wanted to collect and treat collected rainwater on site to reduce their impact downstream. In Atlanta, stormwater runoff was originally designed to leave the city as quickly as possible, and while this sounds like a good design goal, it means the engineers combined stormwater and raw sewage in one line. During heavy rain, this leads to sewage discharge that affects people downstream causing enormous ecological, health, and economic problems. The architects of The Kendeda Building wanted to maintain the stormwater on site, not just reuse rainwater, but to stop perpetuating the problems downstream at the source in hopes the entire city will follow suit.

In my graduate program, we constantly ask ourselves “what is good design?” There will never be one permanent answer, but an ongoing discussion, like social justice. I’ve walked away feeling like I have added tools and understanding to that definition of design. That it doesn’t just solve problems to alleviate the issue now - like how to remove rainwater quickly - but considers its impacts downstream - whether that’s literally or years in the future. It’s pushing yourself to ask, “who is this for?”, “who could this harm?”, and  “how can we do better for the future?”