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Erin Sanborn discusses service and sustainability and the role the University of Redlands plays in the community and beyond with Evan Sanford in this episode of the Inside Our Towns podcast.

Some 30 years ago, students on the campus of the University of Redlands in Redlands, California, were enrolled in a service learning course. Neither the course nor being involved in community-wide volunteering were required by the university at the time. But those students, who’d then opined that it had been the most meaningful thing they’d done during their undergraduate experience, thought it should be. They then worked with some faculty to turn their dream into a reality.

So goes the beginning of the university’s graduation requirement that all students today must complete an immersive service experience, Erin Sanborn tells Evan Sanford.

Sanborn, the director of sustainable education and the associate director of community service learning at the University of Redlands, discusses her work at the university, what led her to service, and more in this episode of “Inside Our Towns.”

You can listen to Sanborn and Sanford’s conversation here:

Subscribe to Our Towns on Spotify here.

Today, University of Redlands students can volunteer to serve youth in the community through programs, such as Roots and Shoots, or can volunteer with a variety of nonprofits, schools, and government agencies thanks to university partnerships, Sanborn tells Sanford. They can also volunteer at the Sustainable University of Redlands Farm (SURF), which Sanborn helps direct.

“I fell in love with being outside — working with our students on our farm, and the things that were happening out there,” Sanborn tells Sanford. “And then an opportunity came up to become a director in that space and spend all of my time out there. I was lucky to be to be brought in to serve in a capacity in which I serve now.”

Sanborn also discusses key partnerships, which include, locally, Esri, the Redlands-headquartered global digital mapping company we have referred to often on this site, like here and here, as well as the state with the California Volunteers, through the Office of the Governor (which we have also reported on often on this site, like here and here). With the Climate Action Corp, one of the Cal Volunteers initiatives, students can serve as Climate Action Corp Fellows.

In their conversation, Sanford mentions that Josh Fryday, who serves in the cabinet-level position of Chief Service Officer for California and leads the initiatives of the Cal Volunteers, was at the university in November. You can read more about and watch here, and listen to the podcast episode featuring Fryday here.

We provide the Otter.ai-generated transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.

Evan Sanford  00:06

Hi there and welcome to this edition of Inside Our Towns. My name is Evan Sanford and I’m a contributor for the Our Towns Civic Foundation, and also the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Now to our guest today, Erin Sanborn has worked at the University of Redlands since 2011, and is currently the director of sustainable education and the associate director of community service learning. Part of her responsibilities include overseeing the campus farm and gardens, along with community outreach related to sustainability, and the California Climate Action Corps program. She was born and raised right here in Redlands, and I’m proud to call her my friend and neighbor. Erin, thanks so much for joining us.

Erin Sanborn  00:51

Thank you so much for having me.

Evan Sanford  00:53

Absolutely. So let’s start off with a little bit more about your background and how it brought you to your current work. And we’ll definitely get into more detail on that just a moment.

Erin Sanborn  01:04

King of surprisingly ended up at the University of Redlands. And growing up here, I had never thought about it as a place to work. My degree is in business. And I actually started at the community center and I fell in love with being outside of the classroom and working with youth and working in our community. An opportunity came up at the U of R and I applied and I got the job in the office of community service learning. And I have just loved it, it’s opened up a whole new world. Our students do an incredible amount of service in our community. And I felt lucky to be a part of that. In my role. I started here overseeing children’s programs, and one of them was Roots and Shoots which was environmentally focused program. I’m connected to Jane Goodall, I just fell in love with it. I loved working with youth, but taking it outside and exploring our environment. It kind of was for some of my hobbies and likes are to come together in the work world. And I always helped out my my co worker who oversaw our farm. And I slowly fell in love with with that space as well. As I started to transition from my role working directly with mainly our youth programs. It just started with interest. And I fell in love with being outside working with our students on our farm and the work and things that were happening out there. And then an opportunity came up to really become a director in that space and, and spend all of my time out there. And I was lucky to be to be brought in to serve in a capacity in which I serve now,

Evan Sanford  02:24

there is something distinctly different about community service at the University of Redlands. And so I’m hoping you can tell us more about the department, its foundation mission, and goals of the Community Service Learning Office.

Erin Sanborn  02:39

Absolutely, I came and started working at Redlands, it was incredibly humbling to see how much service was being done in the community I grew up in by the students that a lot of them work. So they’re not from our area, they travel here from all over the place. We have a graduation requirement, and they have to complete what we call an immersive service experience as part of their graduation expectations here. And so that is choosing to serve, you know, they can serve youth in our community, conservative any of our really any of our nonprofits, schools or government agencies that and it’s like an internship. So they go there, they spend about 80 hours roughly. And then they do some reflective work. And our hope is is that they really gain an understanding about, you know, the issue that that agency is trying to work with them to help what it’s bringing to the community. And so they gain a little bit more of that kind of social understanding. And they also really positively contribute to the work that they’re doing. And it’s been I think we’ve had the farm. And now for almost 30 years, the office has been around for over 30. And it stemmed from students participating in a service learning course. And coming back and saying that was most meaningful thing I did here during my undergrad, it should be a requirement and they worked with some faculty. And they made that happen. And Tony Wheeler, who is still here today is my supervisor and a pretty incredible person helped get that started and has been a steward of that commitment to service since then. And it is still one of our strongest programs on campus.

Evan Sanford  04:04

Can you tell me maybe a specific story that a student has told you and how it’s impacted them? Some organization, they did some service at something that sticks with you all these years later?

Erin Sanborn  04:18

Oh my gosh, to narrow it down. It’s such a challenge. You know, sometimes students go and they actually have a really challenging experience and and our reflections, were able to talk through that. And sometimes their takeaways are incredible. And they say you know what? I thought this was going to be kind of easy, and and fun, or not as meaningful. But this agency is working so hard and the work they’re doing is incredible. And I didn’t realize how challenging it was to do the work. They did a couple standouts. I would say one time we had a student who was that believed the YMCA Legal Aid Clinic. She did not anticipate helping to the extent in which she did helping a woman with her child custody case. Helping with that You know, they mainly focus on family law, and she got so much hands on experience. And I think her competence increased significantly. And she just genuinely felt and knew that she had helped someone kind of move forward in their life. And that was such a huge takeaway. And I had a student one time, she was an American reads tutor at a school. And she did a reflective paper. And she came in my office and she said, you know, Erin, writing this, I just realized, like, I helped someone learn to read. And that changes their whole life. And maybe if I hadn’t been there, it would have been a little bit harder to do that every competence of that child would learn to read. But I just need to understand the value of that spending time with someone over a semester, to help them achieve something. And there’s something special about I think, being with a college student that’s a little bit easier and doesn’t feel as judgmental, or they connect with or have fun with. So that’s what I love about it is sometimes it’s these really huge, significant things. And then sometimes it’s these little things that really mean so much. And that can really change someone’s life that they might not even realize is happening when they’re there in

Evan Sanford  05:58

service. That’s really inspiring. And it must make every day working. They’re so fulfilling, because you’re making sure that in perpetuity, these students have these opportunities. So every day can bring an opportunity like that. So that must be an amazing feeling for everyone in your department. Now, I want to just ask, What will probably always be the shortest question ever asked on this podcast? What is surf?

Erin Sanborn  06:29

It is the sustainable University of Redlands farm is our acronym. It’s a two acre parcel of land, we actually had students who were out doing their service requirements at some of our local food distribution centers. And they came back and said, you know, the produce of what didn’t look that great. Lots of cakes and leftover cookies from the bakery being handed out, we think we can grow some food and donate it. And that’s how I got started. And it has just slowly since 2009 just evolved and kind of taken over the whole parcel of land that it’s on and my office is out there now. So we have a native demonstration garden, we have a vineyard, we have stone fruit, so your peaches and nectarines often most of my favorites, citrus, avocados, large produce fields that we grow. And we don’t have that to Family Services, and then sell half of it to our campus food vendors, our students get to try it in their comments, we have a greenhouse, a composting area, it’s all kinds of stuff. And we just keep adding to it. I think we’re looking at bees and chickens right now. And they all really come from students ideas, which is also another part of my job that I love is that they usually say, can you try this? Or I read about this? Or what do you think we get to do and sometimes we fail and other times it’s really successful. It’s an amazing little spot to be at.

Evan Sanford  07:45

So as I’m understanding what you’re telling us, the students realized it, and the students are making it happen, how much support is from staff? Or are students the ones planning this and planting these things? How does it actually happen?

Erin Sanborn  08:00

Staff wise from the university, it’s me out there. And then I have three fellows who are to state the climate action Corps Fellows. And then we have a crew of about five work study students. And so they really kind of take the lead on what happens out there. So we kind of have our daily stuff that we manage and do. And then we have projects. And so every semester, we tried to find a few things to work on. And they really helped run the show when I’m not out there. They are moving people along. They’re training volunteers, onboarding people. And so we usually get about anywhere from 15 to 20 students that also come out there and volunteer with us on a regular basis as part of their requirements. So they spend some time with us. And then we also bring them to a lot of our off campus partners kind of related to environmental gardening work. So it’s a big crew. And it is all I always joke that they’re all, you know, kind of young people that I try to keep up with.

Evan Sanford  08:47

We’re going to talk more about the climate action core initiative in just a moment. But before, how does climate affect the surf? And are you doing anything to plant drought resistant crops? Is there such a thing as a drought resistant crop?

Erin Sanborn  09:04

I think there’s definitely plants that, you know, water intake varies, we try really hard to be conscientious and I think our biggest push especially this last year, I think a priority of mine has really been looking at our soil because your soil really can do so much it can retain water. Sometimes we don’t think about how much how important is for your soil to retain water, especially where we live in the type of soil that’s kind of naturally in this space. So we do a lot of plants. You know, we have the drought horn native garden. We have a lot of trees that are drought tolerant, that we plant in our spaces and we encourage to be you know, we plant actually in people’s in their home, especially in under shaded areas. We try to use mulch to kind of help with the soil and keep it cool. Our irrigation is I mean that’s a huge thing if we see a leak in our irrigation even if it’s a small leak to fix that and to save as much water as you can be using drip irrigation and keeping things well maintained. Sometimes just those acts actually can can go a really long way which had to capture some rain when we can and save and use rainwater. And so we’ve really tried to be conscientious about that. I think, you know, your soil can also really help with kind of the air quality and taking in and holding in some of that air pollution. And so that can be a really important thing. Our hope is to start using cover crops, I would say that invasive weeds are our main cover crop right now. So we’ve kind of been on a big weed patrol and people know if they say, Erin, do you need me to do anything, the answer is going to be weed this area, especially the stuff that has seen. And so I think that that’s one thing that if people can to use cover crops, you know, planting something that can grow and break up in your soil and absorb carbon and then be able to stay there and kind of add some nutrients back in is a great thing as well. Another huge thing is we do composting, and we take all the pre consumed food waste from harvest table, our campus food vendors, we get two huge trash cans a day, all their post consumed stuff. So after it’s kind of been eaten or gone through the commons goes through the city’s compost posting program. But we take all the pre consumed stuff, and we just make so much of our own soil through that. And it goes pretty quick. And I tell people all the time, you know, my specialty is not composting, but you really start to just know how it works and how it flows. And it’s kind of amazing to see how quickly your scraps can become stuff you’re putting back into your, your garden area.

Evan Sanford  11:21

And for those that don’t have a perspective of this land, how big an area are we talking about? Has it always been this size? And are there any plans for expansion?

Erin Sanborn  11:32

It’s two acres right now. And it started probably on just over probably about a half of an acre. And so it’s kind of a long, thin strip. And so we started on one end of that strip and have slowly just kind of built it out. And my office actually the house on the Konya Avenue, which is on the far end of it kind of further away from the campus. And that’s actually a rental property for the university. So we got finally got to a point where we’ve called our property office and said, hey, the last thing out there, we’re taking it, we’re renting the house, and that has kind of become our home base. So there’s not really anywhere for us to expand on our current land, we’re locked in with an apartment complex and and a neighbor. So we’re kind of stuck where we’re at. But I think we’d be open to, you know, there’s lots of other spaces on campus for kind of little pop up gardens and things like that. So we have some great faculty partner partners that we’ve talked with, about areas where we could do a drought tolerant garden or a couple of research gardens, swap out some of our turf that we have here on campus. Well,

Evan Sanford  12:29

maybe it’s not more of the garden in that physical location. But of course, there’s future goals. And so what about animals or anything like that, that you’re not currently doing? Are you looking into those opportunities.

Erin Sanborn  12:44

One of the professors here at the University has a consulting class and you get a little team of students and you give them a project. And then they just go out they do these, this incredible work. And so last semester, they looked at the feasibility of us having goats and having chickens. They didn’t recommend goats due to kind of like the care and the needs. And they said, they’ll just eat everything. But they did recommend chickens. And so we are in the process of building a chicken coop, we just put our design in with facilities. I always get nervous that it’s so you know, it sounds so fun and wonderful to have chickens, but I’m always like, well, who’s gonna feed them and who’s coming in on Sunday to make sure they have water. And so as long as everybody stays committed to their care, so they’re proving it to me right now with coming on the weekends to water our greenhouse. I’m like if we can keep the greenhouse alive, and I have hope we can keep some chickens alive. So we’re headed in that direction. And they’re a great part of a regenerative gardening cycle, what they can just do, they won’t necessarily be for profit or anything but to really eat bugs and dig up our soil and fertilizers is the goal with them. So and they are kind of fun to have around. I do love chickens. So

Evan Sanford  13:46

now let’s talk about the California Climate Action Corp initiative. The University of Redlands has some key partnerships to make this happen. Like local technology, giant ESRI and the state of California. When did all of this come together? And why does it make sense for you all to team up?

Erin Sanborn  14:04

Going back to the business consulting class, we had a group of students look at our area using the Esri GIS mapping. And they were looking at heat islands in places where they were under shaded and actually that were creating heat not just hot, but actually warmer than areas around it. And they looked at the warehouses in our area, and then what they call urban heat islands. So some, you know where people are living maybe it’s a large apartment complex or an empty vacant lot. Um, you know, but places where there isn’t any green and it’s it’s really warm, especially as our climate is heating up. So you had Mars class looking into that. Jack Dangermond who is the owner of ESRI and a local person himself and pretty wonderful for I think it was Earth Day said I want every kid in the Redlands Unified School District to go home with a tree on Earth Day and then COVID hit and everybody went home and there was 1000 trees that didn’t have a home and so we did a drive thru kind of pop up tree giveaway They said, this is something we’re committed to, we want to support it every year. And then the state is coming out with this climate action core program and really looking at service being the way in which young people are able to engage and contribute. And knowing that a challenge that a lot of young people are facing is student loan debt, and how do you pay that off. And so they created the program, our pilot year was 2021, we started with three fellows, then the business plan that the business class did was kind of the catalyst for our application, it really gave us all of that GIS data and said, look at this as an area, which this program can matter. And then we also have this funding for these trees to help this. So those things came together really nicely. My first year involved, I was kind of just a project manager for the group, but I fell in love with it. And it was very obvious that having the support of this program in these three fellowships for fellows, were going to be something that could really take serve from just being a little bit of kind of a sort of student engagement place to really an experiential learning center, and bringing in our, you know, significantly bringing in the amount of community members to our space, which hadn’t really been there before. So we started our pilot year with him, we’ve been partners ever since the program continues to get better. I’d love it because they really let us decide, you know, there’s, there’s no mission creep, I don’t ever feel like oh, we need to kind of change the what we’re doing. If anything gets made us better at what we do, because we’re paying a lot more attention to the weight of our compost and how much food we are our composting and how many trees were planting and maintaining. So we’re watching our numbers so much more. So that’s been a really cool component as well. So that’s kind of how we got started, I just turned our application in for another year. So fingers crossed,

Evan Sanford  16:40

fingers crossed. Absolutely. Let’s talk more about those fellows projects, you’ve got three of them. And they’re all working on very exciting things. So tell us more about each of them.

Erin Sanborn  16:51

So they all share in the the management of our site out on serve. And I think one of the most unique things about our Redlands site is the amount in which they kind of mentor and manage our student volunteers, a big component of that program is is community engagement and getting people to volunteer. So in some ways, they’re very lucky, because that’s kind of set up for them. But then they’re each tasked with going above and beyond, you know, students on our campus and working on our farm with their project areas. So we have one, Brian who is focused on our tree stock program, which is growing trees, we get them really small, so we tried to keep them alive and grow them into where they’re in like a 1525 gallon pot and can be planted in someone’s tree, J always say sounds really easy. But sometimes it’s really hard to make those connections and find those spaces. Sometimes people are renting and they can’t put a tree, there’s all these different factors that come into it. So he spends a lot of time working through all of that, and sourcing the trees that we’re looking for, we try to be really intentional about the trees we get. So he spends a lot of time on that. And he brings some students along and does it has a lot of partnerships in our community to help make that program and happen. We have another one who focuses on our composting, as well as our student food pantry. So kind of diverting food from being wasted to going into food pantries and distribution centers, composting, and really that person also kind of helps take the lead on our produce. And then the third one focuses on our native and habitat gardens. And so you know, partner kind of improving some of our spaces, but also helping people swap out, you know, native landscaping, community education, and then they each kind of dabble in, again, I would say shared responsibilities. They do a lot of community outreach. So they all work with different partners. So sometimes they run youth programs, we, you know, we’re in a lot of schools, we do some stuff with a bridge mansion, which is an after school program and in our area, and then any community events that they can be at and attend. Even if they’re not climate related. I think they’ve gone to touch a truck kind of these pop up things in the park that happened, but where they can find an audience that gets excited about trees and what they can do in their yard and learning more about climate change. They go to and they kind of share all kinds of their good information.

Evan Sanford  19:00

Josh Fryday, the chief service officer for the state of California was on campus for an event in November and toured surf. So tell us what that was like. And what did it mean for the university and the students?

Erin Sanborn  19:14

It was honestly it was it was really great to have him here. And I think there was a little bit of nervousness, but once he got here just felt so easy. And it was fun to have him in our space. And his whole team was wonderful, you know, with us having a service requirement. And I think the opportunities that that has opened up for us. You know, one of the things that I love is that we don’t have students that are you know, when they come out of want to do their service on on serve. It’s not necessarily because they are wanting to learn more about climate change, or an environmental studies major. Some of them are out there because they’re like, I’m a senior, it’s my spring semester and I have to get this requirement done put me to work these, but they love it and they have an incredible time and they learn so much and they kind of go out and they have these little pieces and this knowledge that they take out and I always say if you leave here committed to using drip irrigate Shouldn’t you be mindful about the plants you’ve put in your yard or to have a small garden wherever you end up, that’s a win for us. The variety of our audience because we have the different interests of students out here with us is always appealing. I think being in Redlands, part of why we are successful, what we do is because of our partners, we’ve worked with Anca, which is, stands for accelerate neighborhood neighborhood climate action. They’re fairly new, they’re modeled after a program in Boulder. But they have been great, they’ve been great mentors for the fellows. And the fellows have really helped them significantly with with their program and what they’re trying to do. Rather than family services. We go there every Thursday, we bring our produce there. They’re a great partner of ours, and they’re so engaging. And so I think knowing that we have those connections, and so that the service doesn’t just happen here. But there really is that, you know, people kind of coming together. We had an event the other day, and it was like, my fellows were there to do, you know, they brought the trees, and then another resource conservation district, you know, brought the information flyers, and it was hosted at an after school program. And then onca did this education, it was like six different people came together. And everybody just loved the event. Didn’t necessarily realize all these people had brought different components together to make this thing happen. But you feel like there’s a willingness in Redlands to always do that. And it sets us apart a little bit from other spaces.

Evan Sanford  21:19

It certainly sounds like it’s the case. And for anyone that’s interested in hearing more about Josh Fryday, and his visit to the region, he was on actually, this is a quick plug on another episode of podcast. So check that out on Spotify or the our town’s civic Foundation’s website. Okay, back to Erin, I couldn’t let you finish this podcast without asking you what are some of the challenges that you’re facing? It’s not so easy to be able to do all of the things that you’re doing. So what are things that you’re encountering on a somewhat regular basis? And how have you overcome previous challenges?

Erin Sanborn  21:59

You could think about large challenges. And immediately I think about finances and who’s funding WHAT and HOW LONG WILL programs last and things like that. So there’s always kind of that worry, I have always felt lucky that it seems like when there’s a lot of good intentions and people that come to the table to make things work, because it’s the right thing to do it, we somehow find a way forward. So I don’t think that there are these large challenges. I mean, I would say climate change is a large challenge that definitely worried about. But what I love is that every day, I share with with my team that if you can live each day and just feel like maybe you did the right thing, or you were a little less wasteful. That does matter. And I think that that is so many of the little challenges that we see, it might be, we show up to a school for an after school program. And for some reason our applications didn’t make it through and we’re not in their system as clear to be volunteers there for that day, and we get turned away. That’s a challenge, right? And that’s frustrating and students are disappointed. So sometimes it’s working through those little things will show up in our water has been turned off for some reason, because the pipe broke somewhere on the campus. And we think oh my gosh, how are we gonna get everything water today. So there’s all those little things that pop up the energy from the students, the energy from the fellows have always kind of having the attitude of like, we’re going to figure it out, we’re going to do what we need to do is probably the most critical thing and the thing that I’m so appreciative of, because I will worry a lot and they kind of always bring it down to like, we got this, we’ll figure it out, we’ll show up. And they do they just keep showing up and figuring out how to how to make the best of it. And in some ways get through the day, but also make sure that we try to avoid some of those things in the future.

Evan Sanford  23:34

Yeah. And finally, basically our whole conversation is revolved around the idea of of major impact. And, of course, the important town and gown relationship, which it certainly sounds like it’s it’s alive and well, at the University of Redlands in the greater community. So you’ve talked about the impact and reach that you’ve had, but how can what you are doing be replicated and scaled up for other universities or other organizations across the state across the country? How can they do what you’re doing,

Erin Sanborn  24:05

you know, thinking specifically for a university or you know, some sort of agency that has the land I think if you have the space, you have access to some water, and you have some people that are willing to give it a shot. Sometimes it’s simply just doing it. I think that is truly helps or excuse me how sir started another plug to Tony. He kind of just said, Okay, let’s see what happens. And that’s like, wow, look, what did sometimes that can be really scary to just go into things. But we really did that out there. And I think that, you know, one thing I share with people is we don’t have an agriculture department at the University of Redlands. I am not, you know, educated, I don’t have a degree in agriculture, or even anything climate related, but we have a willingness to figure it out. And so I even think for that, like, you know, utilizing the partners in our community. So there’s a lot of people that I go to that are mentors. They’re such an energy around helping each other and wanting people to succeed. and really understanding the value of having this kind of experiential educational space. So finding the right partner, you know, having the space to do it, finding the right partners, we have some great faculty, some great people on campus that helped us along, getting creative and how you find ways to get funded. There’s so many different grant programs, you know, for us, we have a few of our alumni that are really supportive of what we do. And when there’s a call to support or to fund something, sometimes they will step up the state in this program, if you if you’re eight people are able to apply and to have them come in. Like I said, it’s great because they really allow you to do what the right thing in your community is to do. So I think that that would be the biggest thing is to just kind of go into it know that you don’t have to be agriculture department or specialist, or things like that. But ours in some ways, it’s kind of a project space. And I think when we put that cap on, it’s a little bit more doable. It’s less intensive, like this is where we try things. And like I said before, sometimes they’re really successful. Sometimes, not so much so but we always get excited about giving it a shot. And I feel like we can at least tell people, maybe something not to do in the future. Well, I

Evan Sanford  26:03

appreciate you telling us about all the things you’re working on. So thank you so much, Erin, for joining us today.

Erin Sanborn  26:10

No problem. Thank you so much for having me. Absolutely. And thank

Evan Sanford  26:13

you to our listeners for joining us as well. Until next time, I’m Evan Sanford and this is Inside Our Towns