GPSEN Co-Founder Kim Smith’s expertise in — and passion for — environmental sociology has made her an international leader in sustainability education, representing the U.S. in global efforts, while also bettering her own community in Portland, Oregon.
In addition to teaching sociology at Portland Community College (PCC), Smith co-founded the Greater Portland Sustainability Education Network (GPSEN), which is acknowledged as a Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development by United Nations University. GPSEN aims to create and scale up solutions to address issues like climate change and other threats to our communities and planet through education, workforce training and public awareness.
Smith has taught sociology at PCC since 1996, but it was her involvement outside the classroom that changed both her outlook and teaching.
“As a professor studying and teaching social problems, we would talk about heavy topics and my students and I were all struggling,” Smith said. “It is a horrible experience to see the light go out of students’ eyes — to have them become apathetic or cynical or to lose hope.”
“We were exploring the problems, but we weren’t empowering the students to figure out how they could make a difference. And at that time, we weren’t really establishing pathways to help students engage.”
Then, Smith got involved with community-based learning at PCC, as an instructor and program coordinator, and that powerless feeling shifted. She began to see the possibilities of a better future where sustainability education and civic engagement could drive change.
As Smith felt more hopeful and energized, she shared that with her sociology students and colleagues. It inspired a new teaching motto for her: “Educate ˜ Empower ˜ Engage,” which later became a vital part of GPSEN’s mission statement.