Smith Is Uniquely Positioned for Climate Action Says Activist Kathy Sharp Borgen '64
By Nicole Pellaton
The way climate activist Kathy Borgen ’64 sees it, her life has been a weaving together of threads that were formed in earliest childhood.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn't running around outside,” says Borgen, whose parents, both geologists, recognized the existential threats to the earth long before the environmental movement took shape. They taught their daughter to love the earth and understand the dangers human behavior could pose. “Degradation and exploitation of the natural world were anathema to me, even as a child.”
Science and more at Smith
Smith was a logical choice for Borgen, she says, because it offered the perfect combination of the life of the mind and access to the outdoors. (“We used to skate on Paradise Pond at night. The moon would be out, and you really felt like you were away from everything.”)
“It's been joyous to see how CEEDS is developing. … CEEDS is providing ways for all members of the Smith community to participate in mitigating or adapting for climate change.”
Continuing the family tradition of science education, Borgen majored in bacteriology. She loved the broad exposure to the liberal arts at Smith, minoring in music and exploring widely. One class in particular changed the trajectory of her life: The History of Christian Thought. “That course was my first real experience in feminism because it taught me that whoever was in power in the church made history and women, if they questioned it, were labeled heretics.”
Feminism and environmental activism
Fast forward several decades and Borgen, now the mother of three grown children, enrolled in a master’s program at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Her thesis, “Women for Social Change: Religious Perspectives on the Environment,” focused on feminism, activism and the land, and helped clarify Borgen’s understanding of her spiritual connection to the earth and her path forward in the fight to save it. “My sacred beliefs are found in the natural world and in the interrelationships of the universe with the human,” she says. “Because humans can speak and act, we have the awful responsibility of caring for the natural world and trying to heal the damage that we have wrought.”
At about the same time, in the early 2000s, Carol Christ, then president of Smith College, invited Borgen to participate in early discussions of environmental sciences as an area of study at Smith. “It was a dinner of people interested in interdisciplinary studies,” Borgen remembers, with faculty from various departments and specialties: chemistry, art, landscape studies, zoology, sociology, ornithology. “Everybody went away energized. The professors were eager to work across departmental lines with academic partners.”
These and similar discussions led ultimately to the creation of the Environmental Science and Policy program and were an early manifestation of what Smith’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability (CEEDS) would become.
Established in 2009, with Borgen as a founding advisory board member, CEEDS has become a hub for innovative interdisciplinary research, education and activism around the environment. The center’s impact is felt strongly on campus and also in the local community and around the world.
“It's been joyous to see how CEEDS is developing,” says Borgen, who remains on the CEEDS advisory board today. “A concern for the environment has become universal at Smith—for faculty, administration and students. CEEDS is providing ways for all members of the Smith community to participate in mitigating or adapting for climate change.”
CEEDS oversees and participates in many projects, including the conversion of Smith’s campus to geothermal heating and cooling, a six-year undertaking that will allow Smith to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. The 250-acre MacLeish Field Station, managed by CEEDS, supports faculty and student research in ecosystem resilience, biodiversity enhancement and carbon sequestration. CEEDS also serves as Smith’s internal consultant for all things sustainable at Smith, from reducing food waste in the dining halls to working with students to pilot energy solutions on campus (the “campus as learning lab” model).
Smith’s authoritative voice
Over the years, Borgen has become involved in many activist and philanthropic efforts. She chooses only organizations that illustrate a serious commitment to addressing climate change, such as Smith. Her philanthropic interests include the Colorado Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Colorado Mountain College and Rachel’s Network, which supports women environmental leaders. At Smith, in addition to her involvement with CEEDS, she created and endowed the Gaia Fund to support students of any major who are working in the environmental field.
“Smith is uniquely positioned when it speaks about climate change based on the work done at the college and also by its graduates,” says Borgen. “It’s the top women’s college in the world, so people coming from Smith have authority when they speak.”
A CEEDS gift challenge
To support the important work of CEEDS, Borgen is donating $10,000 with a goal of inspiring others to join her, at whatever level they can, and contribute $50,000 in total gifts. The funds will be added to the CEEDS Endowment Fund, where they will support student and faculty climate action research and help ensure the center’s future.
“The grief about what we are doing to the earth has been a constant all my life, but you can't let that grief overwhelm you,” Borgen says. “You have to work.” And she knows that Smith has the right approach. “Instead of the prevailing philosophy of scarcity, Smith looks at plentitude. What can we do to make things better? If we act from knowledge of what our skills are, and what our niche might be, we can really make a difference.”
To learn more about the CEEDS challenge and to make a gift to the CEEDS Endowment Fund, contact Marea Wexler, Senior Philanthropic Advisor, 413-585-2672 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 18, 2023