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RapidChat: Gayle DeBruyn on sustainability from an educator's perspective

Associate Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design Gayle DeBruyn has a knack for design, but a passion for sustainability. As the college's Sustainability Officer, DeBruyn emphasizes the importance of leading by example. "It’s not just about the environment. Sustainability isn’t just about recycling. It’s social and it’s economic."

Associate Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design Gayle DeBruyn has a knack for design, but a passion for sustainability. As the college's Sustainability Officer, DeBruyn emphasizes the importance of leading by example. "It’s not just about environmental. Sustainability isn’t just about recycling. It’s social and it’s economic."
Rapid Growth: For nearly 30 years you’ve been working with Kendall College of Art and Design. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience there?

Gayle DeBruyn: In the undergraduate world I share the Program Chair role of Collaborative Design and Furniture Design. Collaborate design birthed itself out of the furniture program, which means we’re basically married.  At the masters level, KCAD supports the Ferris MBA program with the four-course certificate (Masters Certificate in Design and Innovation Management), in which I am an associate professor. I also play the role of sustainability officer at the college, which is something I really enjoy. I think it’s important to lead by example when it comes to sustainability. The community expects it. The students expect it. And, well, why not?

RG: What sort of weight is placed upon sustainability at KCAD?

GD: There is a process on what Kendall has been doing revolving around sustainability, because anything done through the lens of sustainability is a process. We need to collectively think in systems. When we think of our own personal impact, there is power in one. But we have to see the power of the system to really see the power of one. If you are a student working towards a career in design, your impact on the world during your 40-50 year-long career can be remarkably huge and positive—or negative. So we (at KCAD) try to set folks out with a good base, with good foundations and goals.

Almost every school in this region, we sit down with at least six times a year. We each talk about what we are doing as a University, as well as what we are doing together to impact our city. We also talk about how we can learn from one another. I personally look at Aquinas a lot and how they are establishing  their initiatives—especially since they are similar in size to KCAD.

I think what is really lovely, and what I celebrate, is that Grand Rapids is full of cooperation. Across industries, the government, and so on, with a very high expectation with we are working towards the same goal with sustainability. It’s not just about the environment. Sustainability isn’t just about recycling. It’s social and it’s economic. It asks questions, such as “what does it mean to be inclusive and welcoming?” The Average Joe probably thinks that we mean ride your bikes more, use public transit, and recycle. But it can be a very broad conversation.

RG: Do you have any other involvement within the sustainability community? 

GD: I am also on the leadership team for the Community Sustainability Partnership of Grand Rapids, which was actually named (alongside the City of Grand Rapids itself) a Regional Center of Expertise (RCE) for Education for Sustainable Development by the United Nations University. We were previously the only one, but now Grand Rapids is one of four RCEs in the United states. Worldwide there are 143 RCEs. 

What we understand in Grand Rapids, about any development revolving around sustainability, is contextual. Our needs are specific to our place and our people in our place. RCE is structured in that way, as well. I think that Mayor Hartwell set us on a really important path to be a more sustainable city. The way we govern ourselves is really uniquely West Michigan. 

RG: How would the “Average Joe” go about getting involved in these sustainability conversations?

GD: We are all stakeholders. We all have a voice. We are all welcome to these conversations. It’s more importantly about getting engaged. Find a thing that you are passion about. If it is hiking in the woods, get out there and take care of the woods. If its fishing, help take care of the streams. There is something for everyone.

RG: Where does your advocacy stem from?

GD: During the '80s there became conversation about “Sick Building Syndrome,” air quality, and the impact of the materials used in buildings have and how they contribute to Sick Building Syndrome. At the time I was working at Haworth as a Showroom Designer (my undergraduate degree is in interior design), so the conversation naturally got brought up. This is when we realized we were contributing to these negative environment impacts with the development of our projects. It was also at the very beginning of the LEED certifications and green building movement. Because of where I was in my career, I was lucky enough to be a part of the beginning of that conversation. That was also when I decided sustainability was going to be my focus, particularly with how design impacts the environment.

RG: What do you mean by your focus?

GD: I got really involved in the sustainably business forum, which encompasses some of the brightest minds in the region. I highly recommend any business to listen in to the conversations this forum is having. I love working within this network. The people are amazing and life-long relationships are created.

RG: Which of these conversations do you think businesses should be paying closer attention to?

GD: A business is an extension of yourself. If you don’t care, you don’t care. But businesses are going to be motivated about their customer base to be better, at the end of the day. If the client asks for it, the designer does it. An informed client and consumer, or an informed purchaser or buyer, will change the market. Think of the way you and I buy clothes. It will change if we demand more. If we change the way we eat or where we source from, we will be healthier. We are the power in the conversation —the customer. Business is going to follow that; Demand drives the supply. We vote with our dollars. 

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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