Delicia Nahman has led sustainability efforts as far away as Los Angeles and as close as Bethlehem
By Katie Neitz
Delicia Nahman has joined Lafayette as its sustainability director. Nahman, who began Sept. 4, most recently served in the same role at Lehigh. Nahman brings a wealth of experience and deep-rooted passion for building sustainability programming that engages students, faculty, and alumni.
“Delicia’s rich experience working as a sustainability director in academia presents the opportunity for us to fully integrate our campus-wide sustainability efforts with our academic mission,” says Dru Germanoski, Dr. Ervin R. VanArtsdalen Professor of Geology, who chairs the environmental science and studies programs.
Nahman spoke about her background and her excitement for her work at Lafayette from her new campus home in Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center.
What initially sparked your career path?
Growing up in a working class family in Los Angeles led me to have a general sense of awareness about limited resources from a very young age. My father was a Croatian immigrant who grew up close to nature and in a community that valued being close to the land. Similarly, my mom’s family, immigrants who had starved during the Depression, were keenly aware of being resourceful and encouraged investing in relationships over things. As a result, we had a backyard full of fruits, vegetables, chickens, and we composted, which was pretty rare in LA at the time. I think all of that influenced my general sense of living within limited resources as well as recognizing the importance of community cohesion.
I attended UC Berkeley, where I pursued simultaneous degrees in environmental science policy and management as well as political economy of nonindustrial societies. As a member of the university’s community and as a voter, I wanted to see my institution make smart low-carbon long-term investments. So I worked with campus stakeholders and others across the UC system to advocate for the UC Board of Regents to adopt a Green Building and Clean Energy Policy in the early 2000s. That was a very pivotal experience for me because I recognized my ability, in partnership with other focused and passionate peers, to effect institutional policy.
After the UC Regents adopted this policy, my colleagues and I focused on engaging students more deeply in exploring sustainability values with the goal of amplifying the amount of students engaged in campus and community sustainability efforts. We launched an experiential learning program across five of the nine University of California system campuses that still exists on three campuses today.
This experience really shaped my career pathway and fortified the idea that sustainability leadership in higher education was critical. I saw this career as a way to help higher education innovate and transform as well as shape students into future business and community leaders. Looking back, I feel so fortunate that I was able to find alignment between my studies and values and pursue it as a career. I’ve now been doing this work for 15-plus years and still find tremendous meaning.
What positions have you held in higher ed?
I worked for the LA Community College District, the largest community college system in the United States, as a sustainability coordinator. One of my roles was to take the success of the experiential learning program from the University of California system and implement a for-credit sustainability workshop across the nine campuses to help students build knowledge and skillsets. I also focused on supporting disadvantaged populations coming out of homelessness, welfare, and incarceration to find “green” jobs that earned a living wage. It was meaningful work, and I continue to carry the value of building equitable communities and fostering opportunities with me.
After two years in that role, I decided to look for opportunities outside Los Angeles. I decided to move east for the opportunity to work at Lehigh University, where I stepped into their inaugural sustainability officer role. I’m proud of the university leadership and all the hard work of the faculty, staff, and students to deepen the commitment to sustainability over the past nine years. It was hard to leave.
What drew you to Lafayette?
I was impressed by Lafayette’s commitments at the leadership level and that sustainability was identified as one of six academic priority areas. Lafayette has not only committed to carbon neutrality but also is focused on building a diverse and inclusive community and has a long-standing commitment to community engagement. These really shine through the mission of LaFarm, the Vegetables in the Community program, and the College’s overall desire to partner with the City of Easton and community groups. Lastly, leveraging operations to enhance teaching and learning and vice versa is a real sign of understanding the business value that sustainability can bring to an institution of higher education. Lafayette is clearly trying to build a campus to educate future leaders both inside and outside the classroom.
What opportunities do you see here at Lafayette?
I see a few opportunities. One is to grow partnerships between the Office of Sustainability and academic programs as well as with campus departments like the Landis Center, Dyer Center, and Office of Intercultural Development just to name a few. On the former topic, I learned during the interview process that Lafayette has very engaged faculty, which is great. Faculty use the campus as a living laboratory, and I think there is lots of potential there to both enhance and expand those opportunities.
I’m particularly interested in that because my own personal entry into learning about sustainability came from when I was a student. That was a transformational experience for me, and I’ve carried that everywhere I’ve worked. There are real opportunities to teach students how organizations work, how decisions are made, what policies are important, and how you can be a partner with administration to enact transformational and meaningful change. There is so much valuable learning that comes from that. Knowing that there is interest in aligning the Climate Action Plan with courses and learning opportunities for students is wonderful, and I’m eager for the Office of Sustainability to be a true partner in those efforts.
Are there any new initiatives you hope to explore?
I’m looking forward to connecting with alumni who are passionate about Lafayette and the sustainability efforts of the College. I’d like to explore how Lafayette can further engage alumni and leverage their incredible knowledge and breadth of experiences to support sustainability efforts. In addition to creating career pathways for students, I hope to also invest time in engaging alumni as speakers, volunteers, and project advisers. In addition to connecting alumni with the campus sustainability community, it could be valuable to help strengthen an alumni network of sustainability-minded and career professionals to one another. With 20,000 Lafayette alumni spread across the world, I think a sustainability-focused alumni community is a powerful resource for networking, sharing best practices, and welcoming newly graduated Lafayette alumni into the fold.
How might your local experience be advantageous?
The best education is often living where you work to get a deeper understanding of the socioeconomic and political factors at play. I have found it to be advantageous to my work. I was pleased that the Lehigh Valley mayors signed renewable energy commitments. It was an important value statement. It does then require community partners like institutions of higher education to start thinking more robustly about how they can partner in that leadership toward a low carbon future.
In my previous role, I participated in Bethlehem City Council’s Climate Action Planning committee. It was a great collaboration among the city, citizens, and institutional partners. That experience allows me to be more keenly aware of how Lafayette can learn from other best practices and share our leadership position for the benefit of others.
Lafayette is in a really unique position to both be a leader in sustainability and also to leverage our position to bring along other entities who have not yet made our commitment. We can have deep and meaningful conversations with other schools and communities to see how we can work collectively to transition to a low-carbon future.
How do you stay motivated and positive about your work amid the climate challenges we face?
The best available science tells us we need to act with urgency. The actions that we take now may not immediately reverse the effects of climate change that we are seeing and have long affected marginalized groups at a disproportionate impact. However, there is an opportunity in front of us is to transition to a low-carbon future in a way that is more inclusive—that may ultimately lead to a world that is more equitable.
I think a number of communities, businesses, and institutions of higher education have long been arguing that this transition needs to happen. We are seeing more and more momentum; the sense of urgency is starting to become more mainstream. Institutions of higher education are in a unique position—to amplify and catalyze the opportunity. Our students will be the leaders making the critical decisions that are going to lead us to the future where our economy services life, not consumption.
I personally don’t feel a sense of defeat but rather a sense of both vision and urgency around why I do the work I do. Working in higher ed with students who have strong visions for the future is really empowering. Their passion will make our initiatives successful.
What’s something we should know about you?
I love traveling, especially internationally. I’ve lived abroad in Mexico and Chile, and my father was from Croatia, so I have spent a lot of time there. I speak Spanish and Croatian. My next trip is to Spain in the winter to get my Spanish citizenship. The Spanish government is providing an opportunity for descendants of Spanish Jews who were expelled centuries ago to gain citizenship. Eleven members of my family decided to take advantage.
For the past year, I’ve been working toward that goal, collecting all the documents, taking language tests, taking civics tests. It’s been a lot of work, and it’s coming to a close. I’ll be traveling there with my mother and 2-year-old son, who are also getting their citizenship.