Projects to Come: Annie McDonnell

A year ago, I noticed a clearing between the academic and family housing buildings on the campus belonging to the Institute of American Indian Arts. Built on the rolling hills of Rancho Viejo on the outskirts of Santa Fe, the campus overlooks Interstate 25 running North and South, the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

It started as a large square of overturned dirt. As the semester progressed, the square took shape as irrigation mounds rose in rows and signaled that someone, or someones, had started a project.

That someone is IAIA faculty member Annie McDonnell and the students belonging to the sustainability club on campus.

McDonnell sits in a rolling chair, casual and comfortable in a room made small by a black bookshelf lined with worn books. I’m sure I look just as comfortable sitting in  her broken-in, striped love-seat in the corner of her office. Sunlight pours into the dim room, warming everything as  she explains the start of the sustainability class at IAIA.

“I think I just was naturally thinking about it,” she starts. McDonnell holds a bachelor’s degree in English with a focus in poetry from the University of Colorado and a master’s degree in Environmental Humanities from Prescott College. It is her fifth year as faculty at IAIA. She began teaching English, and just a year ago, was able to enroll students in a sustainability class.   Before the class, the projects started small.

“We wanted to do stuff related to [sustainability],” she says.”So we started integrating it into the first year seminar and that’s how we got that garden out there.”

She tucks strands of blond hair behind her ears and gestures to the back entrance of the library building. She knows how different the space was before the first sustainability projects started. A couple of years ago, the small oasis of indigenous plants, the bench built of straw and mud, a large wooden shade-structure, none of it was part of campus.

“Slowly,” she continues, “the space started to transform through different class collaborations.”

I think of the transformation of the clearing in the middle of campus. It is impossible to ignore the corn, pumpkins,  trees and sunflowers belonging to the garden that started with an interest and just a few hands. The garden  was  finished first in  a long list of goals that the sustainability course hopes to achieve.

“I hope to see us have solar energy on campus and to…”  McDonnell takes a breath, signaling the recognition of the time that the projects will take. “”¦so we made this commitment,” she continues, “to move towards being carbon-neutral and I hope to actually make that a reality.”

This spring, the class will host a sustainability conference on campus.

“It will be an intergenerational conference on indigenous people and climate change,” McDonnell explains. “So we wanted to invite local elders and native youth activists and the student sustainability leaders that have been working will help in facilitating and participate in dialogue.”

Perhaps McDonnell’s most ambitious project for the course  is engineering a sustainable building campus.

“We’ve talked about this dream of having a living building,” she   says with a fleeting smile.

McDonnell explains that the living house would catch all of its own energy.

“It would be inspired by locality, using the best of both western and indigenous perspectives for sustainability and stuff like that so maybe it would be straw bail and adobe but it would have water catchment and natural light and stuff like that,” she says as she sways in her rolling chair.

McDonnell  believes that defining sustainability is an on-going and individual process.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability is based on a single principle. The definition on its website reads:

“Everything that we need for a survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permits fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

McDonnell applies her definition of sustainability to community, in both her life and the IAIA campus.

“I think it means being more connected to what sustains us, so energy, food, water and being more responsible for the relationships with those things…it means thinking about community, not just in terms of people but in terms with all kinds of life.”

“I think it’s a rich and interesting topic,” she continues, “sustainability means culture and language to all these students from different tribal communities. It’s a unique place to have this dialogue.”

She glances out of her office window, thinking of the projects of to come, I’m sure.

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