Topher Anderson ’17 has always had a passion for the environment. Informed by his biology major, Franciscan education, and Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, Topher felt called to put his passion into action. He serves as the founder and president of Students for Sustainable Stewardship (SSS), a student-run organization seeking to improve responsible stewardship at Marian University and in Indiana.
"Two years ago, I read online that Pope Francis was publishing a new encyclical called Laudato Si, which in English is ‘praised be,’ which are the first words of St. Francis' ‘Praise of Creation,’ Topher said. “It's about the environment and care for our common home. I saw it and I was like okay, St. Francis and the environment: I'm a science major, so this sounds awesome!"
Topher saw SSS as an opportunity to take the message of Pope Francis and apply it at a Catholic, Franciscan school. It became apparent to him that Marian University had the opportunity to grow in a lot of ways in regards to sustainability, and he felt called to take action.
"I read the encyclical, and that was the beginning of Students for Sustainable Stewardship,” Topher said. “It has a strong moral imperative that says ‘if you're going to take care of the poor and the least among us, you need to take care of the earth they live on.’
He began reaching out to other students, and selected five student officers for SSS. One of their core beliefs is that SSS is based on the gifts of its members. "Everyone has a gift to give to sustainability. We designed SSS so that students would have a way to showcase their gifts and to use them productively," Topher said.
With this in mind, they formed four main groups: environmental justice, ecology enthusiasts, waste management, and sustainable artists. Group members' skills and ideas are used to affect people's conversations about the environment.
"Our first ever campaign was Reuse Your Brews. A student in a First-Year Seminar class suggested using reusable cups at the campus Starbucks,” Topher said. “We did some digging and found out that we throw away about 5,000 cups a week just at Marian. There are a lot of perks to using reusable cups for consumers, the university, and corporate Starbucks, who is trying to encourage reusable cups on a corporate level, too."
By encouraging students to switch over to reusable cups, SSS hopes that 25% of all sales at the Marian University Starbucks will be done in reusable cups. That would mean 5,000 cups a month, and 60,000 cups a year would be saved on campus. Reuse Your Brews strives to show students that one small habit change on an individual basis can lead to a greater communal change.
This campaign is just one example of how SSS strives to be student-driven. Their vision comes from students, and their work is for students. Topher hopes that sustainability can become and remain his generation's "thing."
Another belief of the group is that sustainability should be a unifying force: "It isn't a fringe issue, it's a Franciscan issue. It's something that should bring us together to help create a more just and peaceful society."
To help create and foster this community of sustainability, SSS first focuses on encouraging people to get to know nature. "If we're going to motivate people to work for a more sustainable environment, first they have to know and love the environment," Topher said.
The group works to give students a hands-on interaction with the natural environment by bringing students and faculty into the Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab on campus, which Topher calls the "hidden gem" of Marian University. Last April, SSS hosted a five-day Earth Week featuring events, discussions, movies, and programs in the EcoLab.
Topher, who will graduate in May, views SSS as one of the most formative parts of his collegiate experience.
"From the beginning of this work, I've viewed it as a ministry,” Topher said. “It's been really empowering because my entire job has been to get out of the way and encourage other people to do good work, to teach others to live out justice through sustainability with the gifts they have.”
Before starting this program, Topher planned on attending medical school with hopes of serving as a medical doctor in a third-world country.
“This work has absolutely changed my career path. I'm really hoping to take the skills I've learned through SSS and work in a community organization on urban agriculture or something like that. If I could do something like SSS for the rest of my life, I'd be happy."
In addition to campaigns like Reuse Your Brews, SSS has been working to better recycling opportunities at Marian University and plans to bring sustainable sculptures to campus. They also collaborate with a number of different community organizations, advocating for sustainability in legislature, completing days of service, and sharing resources. SSS is also active within the Marian University community, working with administration and faculty to create initiatives that will last beyond any one student's time at Marian University.
For those interested in getting involved in sustainable stewardship initiatives, Topher says, "You don't need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to be involved and read about what others are already doing. But you also have to be willing to put your nose to the grindstone and work for it. It's not always going to be fun, but you can make good things happen when you work for it."
Like any great leader, Topher knows the work of SSS couldn't be done alone. With a team of five leaders, and about 25 group members, he credits them with the success of the program. "This isn't something three people can hop on a computer and fix," he says of sustainability. "It's something that requires everyone to come together and be a part of. It's been an honor to be a part of a group working toward peace and justice.
Though Topher has just two more months as a Marian University student and as president of SSS, the impact of his work will continue to live through SSS. A new generation of officers, under the leadership of sophomore Therese Miller, is already lined up and making plans to continue the great work of SSS next year. To learn more about Students for Sustainable Stewardship and how to get involved, find them on Facebook or Twitter.