Alumni Climate Advocates
Feeling overwhelmed when it comes to the global challenges we face? These fellow Flashes have found ways to help build a more sustainable future—and you can, too.
Climate change is affecting all of us in one way or another, and its impacts will only increase in the near future. It's a daunting problem that will be difficult to solve but we cannot give in to discouragement or despair.
Millions of people throughout the world are dedicated to building a clean, green, healthy, sustainable and just planet. They are developing solutions. And when people and organizations work together, we can put those solutions into practice at a global scale. Yes, we need to discuss the devastating challenges we're facing; we also need to stop doomscrolling and do something about them.
We highlight five Kent State alumni who have decided to take action, in big ways and small, to help make a difference—right now.
Chris Vogliano (second from right) worked with a professor and four registered dietitians from Solomon Islands National University who helped conduct focus group discussions and data collection focused on nutrition and climate change.
Food for a Sustainable Future
Climate change affects food systems around the world. Rising temperatures, increasing rain, droughts, fires and more extreme weather events often harm crops and livestock.
Chris Vogliano, MS ’12, PhD, RDN, saw how devastating climate change can be to a food system when he conducted research a few years ago as part of a PhD program at Massey University in New Zealand. Traveling to the Solomon Islands, he saw people facing challenges to grow food as stronger cyclones and rising sea levels impact their country. At the same time Indigenous Solomon Islanders are relying more on ultra-processed foods imported from the West that are low in nutrients, including white rice, instant noodles, biscuits and sugary drinks.
Working with the community to identify and scale up local foods that contain essential nutrients missing from their diets—such as a bright orange banana that contains 100 times more vitamin A than a typical banana—Vogliano says simple solutions could help protect the villagers from chronic disease and climate change.
That trip informed his philosophy on how we should produce and eat food. For a 2021 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change, Vogliano co-authored a case study on the food system of the Solomon Islands. The study advocated for agrobiodiversity (the biodiversity found within food systems) and preservation of Indigenous and traditional knowledge about food.
Today, as a technical advisor of food systems at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID Advancing Nutrition), Vogliano helps people in both low- and middle-income countries better understand how to improve their local food systems and, ultimately, their health.
About 60% of our global calories come from just three staple crops: rice, corn and wheat. It’s not smart—from a nutritional or climate-change perspective—to rely mainly on just three crops, he says. Instead, he encourages people to embrace more diverse regional foods, as was done in the past. “I don’t want to idealize the past and say it was perfect,” he says, “but there is an opportunity for us to diversify our food systems based on regionally available foods.”
“There is an opportunity for us to diversify our food systems based on regionally available foods.”
For example, while wheat dominates many diets, other grains—such as farro, millet and sorghum—are more nutritious and climate-friendly, Vogliano says. He notes that millet can be grown in “very drought-ridden areas” and is extremely nutrient dense.
And the more diverse foods we eat, the better protected we’ll be from climate change, as well as from the escalating problems of obesity and malnutrition, Vogliano says. He encourages people to make more diverse dietary choices—for instance, occasionally swapping out white pasta for millet or farro.
“There’s an illusion right now that we’re eating a diverse diet because there are so many types of foods in our grocery stores,” he says. “But most of them are packaged and most of them are made from the same few ingredients. I want to see our diets become much more diverse.”
To help promote that diversity, Vogliano has co-founded Food + Planet, a 501c3 nonprofit with a mission to empower 1 million health professionals to advance sustainable food systems by 2025.
We asked Vogliano what we can do to make our diet healthier and more sustainable.
Prioritize plants. Plants are the missing ingredient in the majority of the world’s diet pattern. Eating more fruits and vegetables are better for us and the planet. Research indicates that eating more whole plant foods can improve our well-being, from our mental health to our gut microbiome.
Waste less food. It may seem harmless on an individual level, but collectively (7.4 billion people) food waste is a leading driver of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water overuse. Luckily, there are simple ways we can reduce our food-waste footprint.
Eat a climate-friendly diet. Climate-friendly eating doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite foods. People who follow climate-friendly diets consume meat responsibly, opt for more plant-based foods and aim for ingredients that are sourced responsibly.
Learn more at foodandplanet.org.
Water Equity Leader
You could say that a fishing trip changed the life of Crystal M.C. Davis, BA ’04. As a legislative liaison for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, in 2007 she sponsored a fishing trip for 100 local youths in Akron. That daylong trip, Davis says, “ignited my passion for exposing people to the outdoors and for really understanding the environmental justice aspects of some of this environmental work.”
After a stint as federal relations director for Kent State’s Office of Government and Community Relations in Washington, DC, where she established the university’s office on Capitol Hill, Davis went to work for the Alliance for the Great Lakes at its Cleveland office in 2016. She serves as vice president of policy and strategic engagement—a job that entails advocating for improvements to water quality in the region.
People may not think about water quality or access to clean water as a climate change issue, but Davis says it absolutely is—it’s about climate justice and equity for all.
“When you talk about climate change, you’re talking about more frequent heavy rain and storm events,” Davis says. “If my house flooded, I would be able to pay for a plumber to come out tomorrow and clean it up. But for a lot of people, especially in this pandemic, that’s just not their reality. They don’t have the disposable income to have water remediation in their homes.”
Also during the pandemic people were told to frequently wash their hands and face masks but “many people didn’t have water at home because it had been shut off due to inability to pay,” she says.
It’s an aspect of climate change that people don’t often talk about. “Who wants to be the poster child for unaffordable water?” Davis says. “These are people who are suffering in the shadows. There’s just no face for this important issue.”
Last September, Davis received a Great Lakes Leadership Award from the Great Lakes Protection Fund for her efforts to raise awareness of environmentalism for the people who rely on Lake Erie for drinking water. The award recognized her focus on fair and equitable access to the benefits that come with clean drinking water and the removal of toxins from the lakes and surrounding waterways.
“The power to solve complex water challenges lies at the intersection of authentic community engagement and public policymaking.”
The Alliance for the Great Lakes and its partners embarked on a listening tour in 2017 to hear from people of color in some of Northeast Ohio’s most economically and politically marginalized areas. Davis led the development of the 2018 report, Shut Up and Listen, which shares what they learned from those conversations. It also serves as a guide for others who want to listen to community concerns and tailor programs to meet those needs.
“The power to solve complex water challenges lies at the intersection of authentic community engagement and public policymaking,” Davis says.
In 2020 Gov. Mike DeWine appointed Davis to a three-year term on the Ohio Lake Erie Commission. Davis and the Alliance for the Great Lakes also partnered with environmentalists of color in Ohio to discuss inequities in environmental policy during a virtual forum held in November 2020. The forum developed a first-of-its-kind statewide environmental justice policy platform that lays out policy recommendations in the areas of water, land, air and energy to address Ohio’s environmental justice issues. And she has led a study about water affordability in Ohio.
But she doesn’t want to stop there; Davis wants climate justice for all people: “I’m hoping to reorient environmentalism so it’s not only for one segment of the population.”
Learn more at greatlakes.org.
Time to Protect the Oceans
Brad Baumeister, BA ’16, developed successful entrepreneurial skills through Kent State’s LaunchNet program, which helps students turn business ideas into reality. Then, in 2021, he launched Tropiq Watches, a watch brand with a mission for outdoor lovers.
The company is about more than fashion: Baumeister has partnered with the Marine Conservation Institute and its Blue Parks initiative, which recognizes outstanding protected marine areas and helps set a science-based standard for marine conservation. A portion of each Tropiq watch sale helps support endangered sea life and sustainable marine conservation practices around the world.
“We couldn’t really build a watch that promotes outdoor activity without helping to conserve our planet.”
We asked Baumeister to share more about his company and how it’s helping protect the world’s oceans.
Q: What is your vision for Tropiq Watches?
A: Before Tropiq, my experience with watches wasn’t great, and my friend and former business partner had similar issues. We’ve dealt with broken straps, water damage, bad designs. And we realized the need for a watch that performs well in all types of activities without sacrificing its design. We wanted something that could handle the outdoor elements but also look good in a formal setting—and didn’t break the bank. And we couldn’t really build a watch that promotes outdoor activity without helping to conserve our planet.
Q: Why did you choose to partner with the Marine Conservation Institute?
A: We had discussions with multiple organizations, and we really liked the mission and story of the Marine Conservation Institute and its Blue Parks program. It aims to help protect 30% of the world’s oceans and its playgrounds by 2030. That’s a pretty strong mission.
Our aim is to empower our customers to stand up for similar ocean conservation. The Marine Conservation Institute is funding ocean cleanup and preservation, and those are goals we really align with. We believe our customers have a similar idea—they want to leave each outdoor space better than they found it and to protect it for future generations. Our goal right now is to donate a portion of our proceeds to the Marine Conservation Institute to help with this effort
Q: Why are you passionate about marine conservation?
A: You see in the media a lot of devastation of the oceans and coral reefs. And I’ve visited beaches littered with plastic and waste. When you look at the data on the amount of garbage that ends up in the ocean, it's enough to make your stomach turn. We felt that our brand fit well with ocean conservation, and it gave us the ability to not only create a brand but to promote ocean cleanup and protection at the same time.
A Clean Start in the Solar Field
Solar is the future, says Emilie Oxel O’Leary, BS ’93. That’s why in 2016 the Marietta, Georgia, resident started Sunshine Solar, which has become one of the largest mechanical solar companies in the United States. The company has installed solar-powered systems for some of the world’s best-known brands—including Amazon, L’Oréal, Target, Perry Ellis and Blue Cross Blue Shield—to help support their goals of being sustainable companies.
But as the business grew, Oxel O’Leary watched something else grow: the trash the company was contributing to landfills. “We were building these massive, beautiful, energy-efficient systems,” she says. “But on the back end, we were accumulating tons of cardboard, metal, broken solar panels—and we didn't know what to do with any of it. So, we were putting it in containers and hauling it to landfills. And I just thought, ‘This is crazy.’”
So Oxel O’Leary, who had sold Sunshine Solar in January 2020 but remained CEO until January 2022, stepped away from the company. In February 2022, she launched another woman-owned company, Green Clean Solar. It specializes in the removal and disposal of waste and recyclable materials accumulated during the construction phase of commercial solar sites in the Southeast and East Coast regions.
“I’m trying to eliminate the footprint that we’re leaving here on the Earth by recycling all this solar waste material.”
With just a few months under its belt, Green Clean Solar and Oxel O’Leary have already done big things. In her third project, she worked with a client to haul and recycle more than 2,500 broken or leftover solar panels from a large-scale utility project. The panels weighed a total of 157,500 pounds. That’s 79 tons that would have ended up in a landfill, she says, but instead was recycled to be reused around the world.
“That shows there is a solution for these broken panels,” says Oxel O’Leary, who notes that she has “always had an entrepreneurial spirit.”
She graduated from Kent State with a degree in fashion merchandising, and later pursued a master’s degree in business with a concentration in e-commerce before founding her own consulting business. While working with a client on solar projects, she realized the value of solar power and soon decided to start her own business in the solar field.
“I knew I was doing a good thing for the Earth by building these massive solar systems,” Oxel O’Leary says. “We were producing electricity through the sun, through the panels. But now I’m taking it a step further, where I’m trying to eliminate the footprint that we’re leaving here on the Earth by recycling all this solar waste material. So, it creates a win-win situation.”
As she reflects on what she wants her climate change legacy to be, she thinks of her three teenage daughters, one of whom has decided to become an environmental engineer. Oxel O’Leary wants to influence young people to make the world a better, cleaner place—to have a bigger impact than her generation has had.
“Through my affiliation with Girl Scouts of America, I can instill the benefits and science of solar in young girls,” she says. “It gives me great joy to empower future generations of solar enthusiasts.
“I feel like I can influence the younger generation to say, ‘Hey, we can really focus on recycling. We just have to put the pieces of the puzzle together.’”
Learn more at greenclean-solar.com.
Better Body, Better Earth
Ryan Andrews, MS ’05, MA ’05, had been a nationally competitive bodybuilder for five years before he earned graduate degrees from Kent State in nutrition and exercise physiology. After completing his training to become a registered dietitian at Johns Hopkins Medicine, he worked as a dietitian, movement/exercise coach and yoga instructor—and he wrote his first book, Drop the Fat Act and Live Lean, focused on weight loss and healthy nutrition.
During that time, however, he also became increasingly concerned about the harmful treatment of animals and farm workers, the poor health outcomes people experience from eating fewer nutrient-dense foods and the way the planet suffers from how Americans produce food. “I felt I needed to spend more time on bigger food system issues,” Andrews says.
He pivoted his career toward educating people about sustainable food systems, teaching classes at SUNY Purchase and volunteering at sustainable farms and nonprofit food recovery organizations. In 2021, he wrote and self-published an e-book, Swole Planet: Building a Better Body and Building a Better Earth (swole being an informal adjective for having a physique enhanced by bodybuilding exercises).
“I’m a big believer that if people can make a small change in their own life, those changes matter.”
We asked Andrews what we can do to benefit our bodies and the planet.
Walk with a purpose. We spend a lot of time at gyms walking on treadmills, riding bikes and things like that. And I think that’s great. I’ve done it. I’ve recommended it. But what if we could incorporate more walking and biking that’s purposeful? So, walking or biking to get around—to get to work, to get to the store, to go grocery shopping, to go to the movies. That would benefit our health. And that would require less fuel for transportation. That’s a win-win.
Eat more beans. The average adult in the United States eats nearly 180 pounds of meat each year, compared to 10 pounds of beans. And the majority of farm animals are raised in conditions that are catastrophic for their health, farmworkers and surrounding communities. If we collectively increase our bean intake while at the same time decreasing our meat intake, it would have a ripple effect helping animals, ecosystems and our own health.
Volunteer for an environmental cause. Volunteerism can have a big impact on your health and the Earth. What if you could spend one day a week—or even one day a month—helping at a farm? You’d be getting some physical activity, because you're moving your body in ways that it’s not used to: You’re lunging, you’re twisting, you’re pushing, you’re pulling, you’re getting outside, getting fresh air, getting in the dirt, getting around people who are like-minded. All these different things are good for our overall health and positively impact the planet.
It’s OK to start small. I’m a big believer that if people can make a small change in their own life, those changes matter. For anybody who can give a little more thought or energy or time to these things, any small change matters and adds up. I’m not confident that we’re going to see a lot of big, top-down legislation to make things better. I think it has to start with people and communities making small changes, and hopefully it spreads and becomes the social norm over time.
Learn more at ryandandrews.com