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Staff Snapshot: Matt St. Clair, fighting to keep UC, and the planet, healthy

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For sustainability, from the beginning

“I grew up in the Inland Empire with childhood asthma and horrible air pollution, watching PBS nature shows and working in my parents’ organic garden,” says Director of Sustainability Matt St. Clair, when asked when his interest in sustainability began. “I also went to elementary and middle school in Mount Baldy Village, where they taught outdoor environmental education without calling it that. It was a public school that I was bussed up the mountain to each morning.” 

He went to college at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, where he majored in economics with a minor in environmental studies. In summers, he pursued environmental internships and began to participate in environmental activism. After graduation, he joined a volunteer service program run by a small pacifist church, which connected him with an environmental activist group in the Czech Republic. It was an experience that would change his life. The volunteer service took place from 1998 to 2000 — just 10 years after the fall of communism — and his colleagues there taught him the value of taking a more radical activist perspective. “I started to understand that the heroes that I grew up with, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, were considered radicals in their time but were motivated by a sense of justice.” 

Making an impact for Californians and UC

The two-year volunteer service was a glamorous experience, despite sleeping on many office floors and couches. Matt met with the Czech president’s political advisors, a former minister of the environment and a former prime minister. He traveled throughout Central and Eastern Europe while working on international environmental campaigns, and he and his Czech colleagues were hosted by leading environmental activists in each country. When he returned to the U.S., he struggled to find an equally rewarding role — and to plug into the established environmental movement.

To build his knowledge and connections, Matt decided to pursue a master’s degree at UC Berkeley in the Energy and Resources Group. There, he joined a student-activist campaign organized by Greenpeace called “UC Go Solar,” which focused on persuading the UC Regents to adopt a clean energy/green building policy. Because of his experience, Matt became the UC student activist coalition’s spokesperson. When the campaign was successful, the UC Office of the President (UCOP) hired him to implement the new policy.

Matt has now served as UC’s head of sustainability for nearly 17 years. He has grown his role from an initial focus on energy efficiency and green building standards into developing and leading a comprehensive sustainability program for the 10 campuses and five medical centers that comprise the UC system. He grew UC’s green building portfolio from one Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building when he was hired in 2004 into more than 350 LEED certifications today. In addition to implementing green building and other sustainability policy goals like sustainable food, water efficiency and zero waste, Matt partnered closely with former UC President Janet Napolitano in developing UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative — an industry-leading effort for UC to become carbon neutral by 2025. 

Inspiring peers and the next generation

A founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s board of directors, Matt has helped to grow the movement for sustainability in higher education far beyond UC. In 2007, he contributed to launching the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, of which all 10 UC chancellors were initial signatories; today, it includes over 600 college and university presidents. Eleven years later, he helped former President Napolitano launch the University Climate Change Coalition, which now includes 21 universities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. He has helped universities throughout the U.S. adopt sustainability policies, and even assisted U.S. House of Representatives’ buildings in adopting sustainable practices. In addition, he continues to share his passion for and knowledge of sustainability with the next generation of environmental activists through a number of educational programs and initiatives that benefit students throughout UC and beyond.

Because of these efforts, among many other accomplishments, Matt was recently named a 2020 LEED Fellow by Green Business Certification Inc. This prestigious distinction recognizes leaders who have demonstrated mastery of LEED, “exceptional work in advancing green building practices” and “10 years’ worth of exceptional impact on LEED.” Matt was one of just 25 fellows chosen from worldwide nominees.

Despite this prestigious accolade, Matt’s focus remains on what’s most important to him: remaining true to his core values. “One of the things I learned from my Czech colleagues is how to live consistent with one’s values and the changes we know society needs to make to become more just and sustainable,” says Matt. “I live that every day — from what I buy, to the transportation I take, to how I power my own home. What each of us does makes a difference; we are all voting every day, with our actions and our dollars.”

Meet Matt

Name: Matt St. Clair

Job title: Director of Sustainability

Department/unit: UC Operations, Energy and Sustainability

Location/campus: UCOP Oakland

When did you start working for UC? 2004

In five words or less, what do you do for UC? Lead system-wide sustainability program

Why do you love working for UC? I get to work with amazing, passionate students, faculty, and staff who are committed to doing everything possible to address the climate change crisis and ecological crisis. I feel very privileged to work for an organization where I believe fully in the mission and don’t have to compromise my values. I am also privileged as an environmentalist to get to work on positive, tangible change where I can see the immediate impacts.

What’s something people don’t know about you? I speak Czech, although it has faded from lack of use since I lived there from 1998-2000

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? Van Jones. I had an inspiring conversation with him once when he gave me a ride home from a climate activist meeting years ago. His lack of ego, huge heart and deep wisdom blew me away.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and take risks.

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