Danika Lâm knows it can be hard to feel hopeful these days, so she makes sure her work always reminds her to be optimistic.
“My mantra in life is that hope is a discipline,” Lâm said. “The only way I keep going is by creating hope for myself.”
Lâm, an Administrative Aide in the Liberal Studies Dean’s Office, creates this hope through her work as a community organizer and sustainability advocate. She coordinates volunteers for Haki Compost Collective, a grassroots compost initiative on Roosevelt Island, where she has lived for the past three years. In addition to running a weekly food scrap drop-off site, Haki Compost Collective also redistributes goods from local food pantries and island residents to reduce food waste, and hosts free community building initiatives like voter registration drives and yoga classes.
In her work as a community organizer, Lâm strives to make composting and conversations about environmental justice more intersectional. Lâm recently participated in a conversation about environmental justice hosted by A Luta Continua Dialogues alongside fellow Haki volunteer Dawit Kiflemarian, a musician and environmental educator and activist. During this talk, Lâm discussed how the word “haki” means “earth as well as dirt, ground, and land,” in Lenape, the language of the Indigeous people of New York City. This name was given to the compost collective by the Lenape Center, who works with the organization to emphasize both the history and continued presence of the Lenape in their initiatives.
“Intersectionality is a key undercurrent for our work,” Lâm said. “In the environmental movement, Black, Indigenous, People of Color and low-income communities have often been ignored and excluded despite being the most affected by environmental degradation and climate change, and so it’s really important for us to center BIPOC and uplift their leadership in our environmental work and activism.”
To bring these same ideas about environmental justice to NYU, Lâm developed the role of Sustainability Liaison at Liberal Studies, and is serving as its first. Lâm came up with the idea for this role after seeing how NYU’s Global Inclusion Officers—a role that exists within each of the University’s schools/units—were leading conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.
“It's important to have established leadership to ensure forward movement. Otherwise it’s so easy for structural issues like these to be ignored, forgotten, and left behind,” Lâm said.
As Liberal Studies Sustainability Liaison, Lâm implemented compost collection at in-person Liberal Studies events for the first time, starting with the 2019 Global Lecture Series. When in-person activities resume next semester, Lâm hopes to pick up right where she left off, strategizing on how to make the Liberal Studies office one of the first at NYU to have compost bins alongside regular trash bins. She believes Liberal Studies would serve as a great testing site for expansion of composting at the University beyond dining halls and other select locations. Given that faculty and staff offices and community spaces for students are all located on just one floor, logistics could be streamlined and progress trackable. To promote adoption of this practice, Lâm intends to create an education campaign that shares the benefits and importance of composting at home and in the office with students, faculty, and staff.
In addition to composting, Lâm will serve as the Liberal Studies lead in a pilot of the Office of Sustainability’s Green Workplace Certification Program, which aligns well with her established focus on making the Liberal Studies office and its practices more sustainable. This includes switching out common office supplies, like the single-serve coffee machine, with more environmentally friendly options. Lâm also wants to work with more BIPOC vendors in the procurement of these materials to ensure that the department supports a diverse range of businesses.
While advocating for sustainability at Liberal Studies, Lâm balances managing events, student office assistants, the Dean’s schedule, and more. She spends most of her weekends helping out at her neighborhood food scrap drop-off site, and other free time coordinating volunteers and new community-building initiatives. Lâm can see how difficult juggling all these roles might seem: she’s not an early bird, so she admits to having to drag herself out of bed in the morning for early volunteer shifts. During the winter months, she sometimes stands at the compost site alone in the rain or snow. But once she gets to the drop-off site, Lâm forgets all about the things she could complain about.
“Every single time, without fail, I have the best time ever, because I get to interact with my community,” Lâm said. “I get to meet new people and catch up with friends, and nothing gives me more hope than talking to my neighbors about what we can do together to solve the problems of our time and create the world we want to live in.”