Interview with “Creative Conservationist” Asher Jay

by Wendy Hapgood for Columbia University Women & Sustainability

Asher Jay is a National Geographic emerging explorer and self-described “creative conservationist”. She uses art, poetry, sculpture, animation, online media, and her sheer force of personality to help save the planet. She has dedicated her career to raising awareness of biodiversity loss and the importance of sustainable development. Her art has been used in conservation campaigns for rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers, sea turtles and more.

I met Asher at her favourite neighbourhood cafe, LA Burdick hot chocolate, in Flatiron Manhattan. It’s a high-end cafe, filled with handmade chocolates including in the shape of adorable bite-sized penguins, rabbits, and elephants. With her hurried entrance, a ball of frenetic energy enters the room.

Asher has a unique talent for connecting people visually and emotionally to the tragedy of our planet’s dwindling biodiversity. She begins by telling me passionately about the challenges of our crowded planet and our disconnection from nature, “there’s 7 billion of us, going to be 9 billion soon. And to me, that is staggering. Do we not understand how that is basically to our own detriment? We can’t live independent of the fabric of life. We are not disparate from life and yet we’ve come to think of it as separate.”

We spoke on two occasions over our rich hot chocolates. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

When did you know that wildlife conservation was your calling?

“When I was really young, growing up between India and England, I brought anything that fell out of a tree back home. I think it came from my Mum who would go on long walks thru parks and constantly bringing wildlife back home. Together, we’d fill up my Granddad’s empty pill bottles with different millets, grains, insects and seeds, so that when we rescued an animal, we’d be ready to feed it it’s precise natural diet. I think this early passion bled into everything I did thereafter.”

She says that growing up, she truly believed she was part of the animal kingdom, and imagined that she was raised by wolves or part of the bat world. “I really did believe I was a bat”, she explains. “And I had fangs. These are actually veneers”, Asher points to her front teeth, “I was missing my two incisors at birth so my fangs were right up front”

Asher Jay sees herself as a part of the natural world – at one with nature. She feels connected to nature “at a cellular level”, as an extension of herself. “I do feel mountain when I’m with mountain. I feel rhino when I’m with rhino. I don’t see the difference. How can I not protect that part of me that is out there?”

Deep Rooted Truths (c) by Asher Jay

In a world that is rapidly urbanizing, with more than 50% of the global population now living in cities, how do people connect with nature?

“I think early education needs to emphasize why and how we are dependent on ecosystem services and biodiversity. It’s great that we’re moving into urban areas and ‘verticalizing’ our systems. When you’re vertical, your entire impact on the planet is building upon itself. We’re rewilding areas that were once suburban sprawl. I think we need to keep moving in that direction, but with a conscious understanding of why so that when the baseline has shifted, and all we are experiencing is a human-curated area in our lives, we know that we’ve consciously chosen that path for a reason.

We have a huge surge of shows that are currently focused on survival behavior, but we have done a masterful job of surviving. We are literally the most dominant species on the planet. We have an impact on every system of the world, every species has been eclipsed by us. We literally consume everything. We take everything. And then we market it. We scale it up. We take for the possibility of making more than we need so we can make an extra buck out of it. It’s a bizarre appropriation mentality. We are voracious consumers.”

What species do you work with?

“I work with different species every day. Take elephants for example, whose population count is now estimated at between 350,000 to 400,000 elephants in Africa. This sounds like a lot given that we are working with a species that is critically endangered, on the brink of extinction. But we need to look at that number in relation to the fact that we’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes, close to the count of 35,000 to 50,000 elephants every year. That’s a six year timeline to losing elephants as we know it.  And then there are the ones that are not loved, the ones that aren’t often spoken about: amphibians, reptiles even insects. 400,000 insects can be killed in a single column of the Amazon rainforest each time we cut down the rainforest. I think it’s tremendous that we are killing so much life on a daily basis. Our entire way of life is basically tethered to a system of death. We’ve perpetuated life at the cost of other lives, which is not natural at all. It’s not cradle to cradle. It doesn’t bring life back into a moment of death, that cycles back into life. Death is somehow separate and we’re feeding life with it. The planet’s bearing the cost.”

Same Same but Different (c) by Asher Jay

How do we move away from our culture of consumption?

“It’s convenience. Our entire paradigm has to shift.  Especially those of us who are in the know, it’s a privilege for us to spread the word, it’s our duty to act and shift our personal behaviors. Beyond that, you also have to come from a space of non-violence, of not being violent to yourself, to not hate yourself for being human, to not hate others for being human, because we are natural whether we like it or not. We’re just a really destructive, large-impact species that needs to figure it out.

We don’t see the systems connecting anymore. We don’t see our effluent treatment, dumping raw sewage into the rivers. We don’t see our plastic lids going down the gutters or flying around as trash and then ending up on the shoreside, ending up in the oceans, ending up in the rivers. We don’t realize the global impact of our local choices because we are not even localizing those choices anymore. What we source is from the world, and then we throw it wherever we want. It’s the tragedy of the commons.”

How do you define sustainability?

“The idea of sustainability is constantly being tweaked. Personally, I believe the term should encompass the welfare of as many living things as possible: both human, wild and domestic animals, and plants. Everything you do, if you think about the ripples it has, and how many lives it intersects with, and how far can you reduce that impact, then it becomes better.”

What is your advice for women in sustainability?

“People grow up thinking they can only be one thing, and place limits on themselves. But why? You have one life. You have 80-100 years on Earth. Do whatever you want. Do as much as you can. Live as big a life as possible because you’re not going to get out of it alive. You get one shot at it. Who says you can’t, other than you? You’re the only person dissuading you from doing what you want with your life.”

Later that week, I visit the United Nations to watch Asher Jay in action as a keynote speaker for the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly, on the theme “Transforming our World: The Role of Youth in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals”. Asher on stage is a bright flash of color and enthusiasm, dressed in a colorful Hermes scarf, zebra print tights, and animal-themed stick on nails. The young audience loves her. Combined with the visual impact of her art, projected up high in the grand general assembly hall, her words bring energy and inspiration to the youth assembly. That’s where Asher’s talent lies. She reaches people through her art, reconnecting them with a wilder world.

Asher speaking at the UN on the Role of Youth in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals



Lauren Yarmuth on Sustainability for Smart Business

Watch Lauren Yarmuth, LEED Faculty for USGBC, principal at YR&G who is teaching the course CNAD4130 Green Building and sustainability: Tools and Techniques speak about state of sustainability in the business environment.


Lauren Yarmuth.

Lauren Yarmuth teaches “Green Building and Sustainability: Tools and Techniques” in the Construction Administration graduate program at Columbia’s School of Continuing Education and is co-founder and principal of YR&G. With over ten years of experience spearheading the sustainability industry, she is a recognized leader skilled at helping people, companies, buildings, and communities to implement and benefit from sustainability-focused solutions.

An architect by training, Yarmuth applies her diverse project experience and whole-systems perspective to enable teams of people to develop creative approaches to realize greater success in their work. This process draws upon Yarmuth’s skills in teaching, facilitating an integrative process, and inspiring people to engage with their work and surroundings in more meaningful ways.

Yarmuth is also a celebrated presenter, educator, and facilitator. She is LEED Faculty for USGBC, and she teaches at various colleges and universities including as faculty at Columbia University and New York University.

She has worked with the LEED Rating System since its inception including supporting hundreds of projects nationally and internationally to earn LEED certification, and as a technical consultant to USGBC for project certification reviews, credit interpretation (CIR) responses, reference guide content development, and training curriculum.

Source: MSSM Program Website

New SUMASA Board

Congratulations to our new SUMASA board, the recent graduates and all of you for finishing the Spring 2012 semester! Thank you to everyone who voted and please join us in extending a very warm welcome to your new:


President – Saami Sabiti
VP of Academic Affairs – Kwesi Daniels
Co-VP of Communications – Sarah Volkman
Co-VP of Communications- Nick Turchak
VP of Community Outreach and Events – Ian Estes
VP of Finance – Tobi Li
VP of Community Outreach – Henry Fernandez

The outgoing board will be working over the coming few weeks to help them transition into their new roles. We look forward to helping them get off to a great start for the 2012-2013 year! We would also like to host a kickoff to summer/welcome event for the new board, stay tuned for more details. Please note that the newsletter will be on hold for the next few weeks as we move into summer and get the new communications folks on board.

SUMASA Executive Board Election

The SUMA student community is an important and unique aspect of the SUMA experience. The Student Association plays an integral role in the development of this community. If you are interested in taking an active role in student life, please consider running for a position on the Executive Board.

Important Dates

Candidacy Deadline: April 30
Candidate Night: May 3, location TBD
Voting Opens: May 7
Voting Closes: May 13
Results Announced: May 14

About the Election

The Executive Board positions and responsibilities are listed below. If you are interested in running, please submit your candidacy by the deadline noted above. Candidates must be enrolled for both the fall and spring semesters in the coming academic year (2012-2013) in order to be eligible to run for a position.

To submit your candidacy, please send an email to with the position of interest in the subject line. Include a concise one-paragraph pitch explaining why you are qualified and why you want the position. Pitches will be emailed out to our classmates before the election.

Candidate night will be held on April 18th, location TBD. All candidates will have the opportunity to give a 2-5 minute pitch to their classmates. Depending on the number of candidates there may be time for questions from voters in the audience.

After the newly elected board members are announced, a comprehensive transition process will begin and continue through the remainder of the Spring semester and, pending everyone’s schedules, through the Summer where there will be joint-leadership by the incoming and outgoing boards. This is to ensure that the new board will be able to organize programming and hit the ground running in September with a strongly start.

Details About The Executive Board         

Responsibilities for each Executive Board position are provided below. All board members are expected to attend and participate in weekly meetings, strategy sessions and other extra-curricular activities, and as such, the positions require their active engagement and leadership. No board member will have to shoulder the responsibility alone; students are encouraged to participate and assist as committee chairs or team members under the direction of the Executive Board members.


The President manages the administration of the executive board, works to set strategy and objectives of SUMASA, serves as the liaison between SUMSA and the University, and acts as the face of the MSSM program to the campus and community. More detailed responsibilities include:

Administration and Management

•  Work with VPs to execute the mission and vision of the student association.

•  Schedule SUMASA board meetings to conduct regular SUMASA business.

•  Provides support, direction and guidance to the VPs in order for them to succeed.

•  Ensure all VPs remain on track completing projects agreed upon by the board in a timely manner.

•  Set meeting agendas and prioritize action items with VP input. Facilitate meetings and keep them running smoothly. Communicate promptly by email with the board on decisions that cannot wait for a meeting to be scheduled.

Involvement and Campus Leadership

•  Attend SUMASA, EI, SCE and other functions regularly and consistently.

•  Participate actively and represent SUMASA in inter-school, inter-program groups on campus and in NYC at large to promote networking, collaboration and brand profiling for the program.

•  Meet regularly with EI and SCE administration: keep them abreast of SUMASA initiatives, ask for support when needed, identify and pursue opportunities for collaboration, provide feedback coming from the student body.

•  Listen to student concerns and suggestions, bring back to the board where appropriate and act quickly to address issues of serious concern.

Relevant skills: strong leadership, interpersonal, networking, conflict resolution and other managerial skills are necessary.


The VP of Academic Affairs acts as a liaison between students and faculty and focuses on helping the administration develop the program curriculum. They also act as a primary conduit for feedback from students to collect and share with program administrators. More detailed responsibilities include:

• Organize opportunities for students to provide input and facilitate constructive dialogue.

•  Solicit, record and aggregate curriculum feedback from students and present to program administration.

•  Identify trends amidst the professional needs and wants of the students and works with administration to establish additional professional development opportunities to enhance learning opportunities and skill development.

Relevant skills: good communication, facilitation and adult education experience are an asset.


Given the importance of this role, there will be TWO co-chairs elected to fulfill the position. The two VP’s will determine how best to divide the responsibilities, but will both be responsible for the SUMASA website (including keeping an up-to date calendar), providing internal SUMA updates such as newsletters, and developing SUMASA’s external communications, such as creating an online presence and profile, messaging and marketing. More detailed responsibilities include:

            Internal Communication

•  Collect and disseminate relevant resources weekly through the SUMASA newsletter (e.g. events on campus/in NYC, sustainability news, networking opportunities and extra-curricular opportunities).

•  Market all SUMASA (and partner) events to students, including the creation of coherent and consistent messaging.

•  Author an interim and final report to the student community.

•  Screen and triage emails addressed to the SUMASA email account

•  Take meeting minutes.

            External Communication

•  Maintain and update the SUMASA website on an ongoing basis.

•  Manage and update the online calendar of events on an ongoing basis.

•  Post relevant content regularly on the SUMASA Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn accounts and other social media outlets.

•  Market all SUMASA events to relevant student organizations outside of the MSSM program (GreenGrads, SIPA Eco, Net Impact, Consilience, etc.)

•  Create a strong and consistent brand for the SUMASA in collaboration with program administrators.

•  Maximize social networking opportunities that help the student body to connect and share resources and information.

Relevant skills: familiarity with WordPress and MailChimp, strong command of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media applications. Writing and communications, branding, web design and/or public relations experience an asset.


The VP of Community Outreach seeks to ensure that SUMASA builds a strong presence on and off campus. More detailed responsibilities include:

•  Cultivate lasting relationships with other groups on campus and develop meaningful partnerships to bolster SUMASA’s mission/vision.

•  Organize networking events in collaboration with other relevant programs.

•  Research and explore relevant regional sustainability events and identify opportunities for SUMASA involvement.

•  Organize sustainability-related volunteer opportunities at events across NYC.

•  Constantly seek opportunities outside of Columbia to promote the program and form strategic relationships with potential partners and collaborators.

•  Coordinate, motivate and support the continued development of SUMASA’s clubs, including helping to bolster their outreach and partnership efforts both on campus and off.

Relevant skills: strong relationship building, networking, leadership, communication and interpersonal skills are required. Must have or develop a good sense of NYC and Columbia’s sustainability pulse.


The VP of Events leads the planning of all SUMASA events. They work closely with other VPs on conceiving, scheduling, promoting, facilitating and communicating events. The VP of Events is supported by an active committee of volunteer members from the program who help with the planning of ongoing social events, so the VP can focus on cornerstone events like the Symposium.

•  Solicit interest and mobilize a team of volunteers to form the Events Committee.

•  Plan social events for SUMA students to socialize with fellow classmates. Examples:

  • Weekly mixers
  • General assemblies
  • Winter holiday party
  • Spring graduation party
  • Family days
  • Field trips

•  Organize event logistics, including event location, special student discounts, promotion via newsletter/website, photography/videography, follow up communication, etc.

•  Plan, oversee and execute the annual SUMASA sponsored Sustainability symposium.

•  Coordinate with VP Communications to promote events to the student body.

•  Coordinate with VP Finance to budget for SUMASA events.

•  Coordinate with program administration on planning speaker and networking events.

Relevant skills: experience in event planning is essential. Highly developed interpersonal, organizational, communication and teamwork skills are necessary.


The VP of Finance will oversee the budget, develop and execute fundraising strategies, administer fees, bookkeeping, solicit and process in-kind gifts/sponsorships and

Work to establish a larger budget for SUMASA. More detailed responsibilities include:

•  Manage and oversee budget allocated SUMASA from Earth Institute funds.

•  Manage a budget-tracking system incorporating funding needs and expenditures for full 12-month term.

•  Assist other VPs on budgeting for activities and events.

•  Research and vet possible opportunities for additional funding, if necessary.

•  Approve expenditures and expedite reimbursement for SUMASA expenditures.

•  Actively engage other executive board members on their funding needs, including holding periodic budget planning meetings with the executive board.

Relevant skills: organization, teamwork and event planning experience skills are recommended. Previous experience with budgeting, managing project funding and basic financial reporting is an asset.

All questions regarding the election should be directed to Emily Briggs at If you have a question related to a specific SUMASA VP position, feel free to reach out to them directly.

Field Trip: Omega Center

Thanks to all those who came out Saturday for a trip to the Omega Institute Living Machine! Learn more HERE.

OMEGA Institute Visit
WHEN: Saturday, March 3rd, 2012, 8:45AM-3:00PM
WHERE: Meet outside of Hogan Hall for the bus

Depart CU: 9AM, please aim to be there by 8:45AM! We will pick up the bus outside of Hogan Hall
Tour of Omega Institute: 11AM
Depart Omega Institute: 1PM
Arrive CU: 3PM

Transportation Cost: $10 per person
Other: Pack your lunch