We spoke with Sara about her role at Victoria and Albert Museum and experience across sectors within sustainability.
What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?
I guess I’m Indian but my parents were born in Tanzania and Zanzibar. I studied Geography at the University of Nottingham and then went on to a fast track scheme for local government. Since then I’ve worked on sustainability for local authorities, a university and an engineering institution. Whilst working I’ve gained a postgraduate diploma in Local Government management and a postgraduate certificate in Low Carbon Buildings.
What does your role at the V&A entail?
Everything! I have a multi-site remit to embed sustainability expertise and implement systemic change in museum operations and behaviours. In one day I can be incorporating sustainability requirements into exhibition tenders, organising sustainability-themed learning and development webinars for staff and tracking down travel data to calculate Scope 3 emissions.
What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?
At university I was elected as the Students’ Union Environmental & Social Justice Officer and one project I worked on was with the local authority and Local Agenda 21 Partnership. That inspired me to work in the public sector and help people to make positive changes.
Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about this career choice from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it?
Not really, although my parents had expected me to become a doctor!
How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?
So many things over the years! Most recently, we’ve been using our local refill shop as much as possible. I buy honey from a local beekeeper, we bake our own bread, subscribe to an Oddbox for fruit and veg, purchase renewable electricity for our home and I try to only buy ethically made or second-hand clothes.
Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?
For example, countries in South Asia are experiencing the impacts of climate change severely and people are suffering – we know this from relatives, stories of floods and droughts and visits ‘back home’. But this isn’t necessarily being connected with behaviours here e.g. car use, home energy efficiency etc.
What have been your greatest successes and learnings?
The power of networks can never be emphasised enough, sustainability is a very collaborative field and learning from/being inspired by others has been one of the biggest motivators for me. Learning to be patient has also been a major lesson, being able to persuade others and waiting for the stars (budget, circumstances etc) to align!
You’ve worked in a really diverse range of sectors within sustainability, what has been a highlight for you?
It’s hard to pin down to one highlight! I loved organising a solar car challenge for primary schools in Richmond upon Thames, organising a ‘green move out’ for students in halls of residence at the University of East London, producing a much more diverse annual conference for CIBSE and have launched the V&A’s first public Sustainability Plan.
What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future?
If humans are to realign with nature and live in harmony, we need to be taking drastic action. It is everyone’s responsibility and time is limited so younger generations have no choice but to get involved if we want to have a habitable planet!
Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?
I found the story of Daniel O’Connor, the founder of WarpIT inspiring. He saw a problem when he worked for a university (huge amounts of perfectly good items being thrown away) and created a solution to help people deal with it. His exchange platform now has over 1000 schools, 1000 charities and over half the University sector in the UK using the service, as well as Councils, the NHS and the private sector plus overseas users.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Everyone can make a change. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and those around you. And don’t aim too low, we need systemic change, not just fiddling around the edges.
Sara’s blog: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/design-and-society/a-renewed-focus-for-sustainability-at-the-va
Recent appointment: https://www.museumsassociation.org/new-trustees-october-2021/#