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EPA intern combines justice, education for a sustainable future

July 17, 2012

Vanessa Davis has been interested in sustainability ever since she was a child. In elementary school, she held environmental-related positions in student government and encouraged fellow students and administrators to recycle.

Davis is now an intern within the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA CID). She earned her associate’s degree in justice studies and crime scene technology in 2006. Davis is currently working towards another degree at ASU, studying sociology and sustainability.

Davis also works full-time as executive assistant to Rob Melnick, executive dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability. She lends her time to the EPA internship as interesting or appropriately matched cases arise.

The EPA internship combines her interests in criminal justice and sustainability. Davis analyzes cases, examines lab reports, and conducts site interviews with special agents.

“One of the most intriguing things is the interview process,” she says. “I look for verbal and nonverbal clues from our interview subjects. I help listen, take down information, and ask questions the agent may not have thought of. We pull together an analysis of data, reports, and interviews to build cases against suspected offending organizations.”

Students with diverse interests, adept analytical skills, a passion for environmental law, and some knowledge in justice studies or sustainability would be ideal future candidates for this internship, says Davis.

Looking ahead, Davis is interested in influencing behavioral change that promotes sustainability in social systems.

“Sustainability crosses environmental, societal, and economic boundaries and is not solely about creating new sources of renewable energy or other ‘future’ technologies; that alone will not encourage a sustainable way of life,” Davis says.

“We owe it to our current and future generations to be better at teaching and consistently supporting sustainable behavior as a core value,” she says. “There is, for example, a sincere need for reform in education and in the justice system, and sustainability needs to be a part of that.”

Davis hopes to see K-12 curriculum spread knowledge and teach habits that encourage sustainability. She sees both the classroom and the justice system as pivotal points to stimulate conversations and action towards environmentally responsible behavior.

“Environmental law and sustainable practice within the justice system writ large doesn’t currently appear to be a great political priority,” says Davis. “Should the tone change and the opportunity arise, we ought to use a sustainability lens towards reform by assessing what benefits the stakeholders – in this case – the greater public. This, of course, calls for inclusion of the public voice and opinion.”

Davis would like to see all stakeholders’ views considered when tackling challenges and creating solutions.

“If a solution does not work for a majority of people, it’s likely going to fail or require significant modification somewhere down the road,” she says. “It’s important to take the time necessary, from the get-go, to address viewpoints and assess compromises in favor of getting it right the first time.”

Davis knows that behavioral change in adults is challenging. So to start, she plans to focus on the future which means educating children about sustainability. Davis has a children’s book series in the works. She plans to tailor the series for entry-level education years to foster an early appreciation of the natural world that may engender sustainable behavior.

“One book will focus on the overarching theory of sustainability, and how you can live a better life and share resources with the rest of the world,” says Davis. “Others will be more targeted to specific concepts.”

Davis has come full circle since she was a little girl advocating for recycling at her school. That same spirit will surely be a hallmark of her future in pursuing sustainability for education, the justice system, and beyond.