Why do you do what you do? Environmental Justice in Action - A Guest Post by The Aspen Institute

We are very glad at the opportunity to post this article, written by Iris Malfetano of the Aspen Institute as part of her participation in the inaugural "Aspen On the Ground" program.

Iris was critical in the development and implementation of our recent Youth Leadership Institute (you can read about the program's highlights here and its graduation presentation here).


Why do you do what you do? This may seem like a basic question but too many of us, I fear, rarely stop to examine what motivates us and whether our work reflects that answer. Through a service initiative launched this year by the Aspen Institute, I’ve had the opportunity to pursue my “why” with the Human Impacts Institute (HII) while helping others do the same. Over the course of the past few months I supported the development and implementation of its inaugural HII Youth Leadership Intensive.

10 high schools students were immersed in an educational and leadership based intensive focused around environmental justice. Students were challenged every session to ask introspective questions designed to draw out their own personal environmental advocacy narrative. The last session was a dialogue/discussion “branding” day inspired by an article in Fast Company “Find Your Passion with These 8 Thought-Provoking Questions”. The students came prepared to answer deeper questions about their unique skills and talents as well as their ambitions.

“If you can organize your life around your passion, you can turn your passion into your story and then turn your story into something bigger – something that matters.” – Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS.

Miguel Padro, a senior program manager at the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, opened the session with his personal story. Miguel currently leads the program’s Purpose of the Corporation work which delves in to reshaping corporate value, whom it serves and how it contributes to the well-being of society. He shared that he is still looking for his purpose, which he believes is something that should be fluid and challenging. When asked what his advice would be to young people at the beginning of their careers he said “The best thing you can do is to not let failure prevent you from trying something new, you never know where new opportunities can take you”.

After hearing about Miguel’s pursuit of his “why” students answered a few passion and purpose questions. Disclaimer: discovering your purpose doesn’t happen in an hour and a half, it’s a journey that takes constant reflection and revaluation. Some of students were further along than others but the exercise encouraged them to start thinking about how their interests might translate into the workforce. One of the students expressed her passion for education, specifically teaching English as a second language. She recognized that her language skills and interest in education were a unique combination that differentiates her and now she might also teach environmental issues. A theme emerged in response to a question about what energized the students or made them happy. Almost all of the students expressed that having a support network (friends, family, and teachers) was integral to their happiness.

This past Saturday students presented their final projects and accepted their certificates marking the end of the intensive. Encouraged by parents and peers, the students discussed methods to combat air pollution in urban areas, the pros and cons of hybrid cars, and a proposal to reintroduce environmental initiatives in the green school, to name a few. Alan, one of the YLI students who suffers from asthma, decided to draw a picture of urban smog and how it’s impacts on the environment. Malik focused on water conservation and vowed to take shorter showers, he wasn’t sure if his family would be too pleased with his new decision.

Discovering your purpose is a journey. In order to navigate the path towards finding happiness (whatever that might be for you) it’s important to have the knowledge and network to act as your foundation and, of course, reflection. Set aside an hour this week to ask yourself the questions below and once you’re done share it and discuss with your network, your answers might surprise you.

Reflecting on your purpose, passion, and talents

1. What’s something that you have cared about for a long time (i.e. for more than 3 years)?

A cause/issue, a belief/ideology, a person/group of people?

2. What do you enjoy doing, what makes you happy?

What are the things that energize you, and what are the things that detract from your energy?

3. What do you want to be known for?

What do you want people to say, think, or feel when your name comes up, when they communicate about who you are or what you do?

4. What are the unique skills, talents, knowledge you can provide?

What is your key skill set? What is your expertise? What is the unique value that differentiates you? Is it a why you think? Is it a type of knowledge you have?


The Aspen on the Ground initiative provides an opportunity for staff to take their work, skills, and experience to the ground level to positively impact the diverse communities we serve. As part of the Initiative, 3 staff members were selected to participate as Service Providers as part of the pilot year.

Iris Malfetano joined the Business and Society Program in July 2014. As Program Assistant, she supports the Purpose Project and Aspen Undergraduate Business Education Consortium, a network of 40+ colleges and universities that works to integrate the liberal arts more fully into undergraduate business education. She also helps advance outreach to the business and investor community and manages the accounts payable processing, as well as various administrative tasks for the program.

Prior to joining the Aspen Institute, Iris served as the External Relations Officer at Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments (ARCHIVE), a non-profit dedicated to bridging sustainable design and urban health awareness in developing countries. During her time there she developed website content and managed outreach & logistics for fundraising events in New York City. Prior to her role at ARCHIVE, she conducted research for the Environmental Sustainability Commission of her local county government and facilitated public forums to grow the “Westchester Green Business Challenge,” an annual competition among county businesses, helping them to move toward environmental sustainability.

Iris studied at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Political Science and Economics as well as a minor in environmental issues. She serves as co-chair of the Aspen Professional Development Group (PDG) in NYC and is a member of Aspen’s Green Team in NYC. She is interested in urban resource management and intends to pursue a graduate degree. Iris is from Westchester County and in her free time, she enjoys hiking, discovering new books, and competitive ultimate Frisbee.

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