Green.org sat down with Saul Petersen, CEO of Engage NJ, to learn how his nonprofit is helping students engage and take action by provide knowledge, experience, and hope to the next generation of public servants, executives, and influencers.
Who is Saul Petersen?
Saul Petersen has spent his entire 25-years of professional life fighting for the underdog and seeking out the potential in all people. With a board of public and private higher education presidents, and with established partnerships with the Department of State, Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, NJ Business & Industries Association, state-based foundations, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, Petersen is a proven force with state leaders’ common agenda of supporting prosperous communities for all its residents.
Over the past 12 years in particular, Petersen has demonstrated expertise as a nonprofit CEO with Engage NJ (formerly Campus Compact), building inclusive and innovative systems in New Jersey’s nonprofit and higher education sectors. Having successfully designed and managed several multi-year, $2m+ grant and partner-funded programs, he has established campus-based student success pathways, 21st century skill-building initiatives, an annual student engagement conference and opportunity fair, $1,000 scholarship opportunities, and comprehensive resource centers which, taken together, are helping many thousands of New Jersey’s public and private college students of all backgrounds.
Most recently, his work is propelled by the recognition that, to bring the fight for equity into the 21st century and to support prosperous communities, we must at the same time be stewards of a healthy planet. This has informed the business transition and strategic planning Petersen is overseeing to nonprofit, Engage NJ, which is now devoted to equipping campuses to build people’s competencies to thrive in life and work, including those that address the human causes of climate change. For Petersen, climate change is the threat to which all of this generation’s greatest struggles are now fused. Petersen, like many, believes there can be no social justice without climate justice.
Saul, thanks for being here! Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
Bit of a wanderer! Born and raised next to a seal colony in Wicklow, Ireland. Married with 3 kids, and living in Maplewood NJ. Avid outdoorsy type, interested in all things marine to mountain. Former high performance tennis coach, model, and college lecturer, among other things. Ph.D in educational psychology (2009) from the CUNY Grad Center. These days… I an CEO of a nonprofit, Engage NJ, since 2010. We focus our efforts and equity lens on graduating students to thrive in life and work. As every NPO director knows, you have to be a jack of all trades, but trade nothing for your passion.
What would you do with $1 Billion dollars?
Count it first to make sure it’s all there! I think, to most of us on the planet, including me, that kind of money just sounds fanciful. I mean, can you even spend an actual $1B ? But, indeed I have thought about it a bit and I always said the first thing I would do is recruit a board of advisors – the best minds in social justice, geopolitics, lobbying, environmental law, K-12 education, and probably a monk just to keep us humble!
First, just the access to that kind of knowledge and insight would excite the hell out of me! But, together, we would develop a plan to leverage opportunities found in the Inflation Reduction Act, UNSDG, COP26, and triple bottom line investing, so as to move markets and profiteering in a carbon reduction / no harm to life, direction. Similarly, and with some urgency, we would develop holistic and comprehensive supports for new climate change education standards such as those in NJ, Italy, and New Zealand, developing educational opportunities that meet the place the find ourselves in our evolution. I mean, we raced head on into the Industrial Revolution. Surely, we can race with similar vigor into a regenerative revolution, and show a bit of love to ourselves and to all life in the process – hard work and happiness on the same plate, you know?
Why do you think sustainability is such an important topic today?
Why is sustainability important? Simple. The lesson of the fish. Corporate rights and protections under the law are the driving force in our race to extinction, enabled and guarded by legislators who rely totally on their corporate bedfellow for their power and massive but shrouded campaign contributions. Sell a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; sell him all the fish and it’s all over. “Thanks” to the global experience of Covid, our generation can say now for sure that we have had our trial run regarding global collaboration in the face of catastrophe.
We have seen and felt both the value of, and need for, mutually reinforcing cross border efforts. “Rich” countries can only be protected when other nations are similarly protected from the pandemic. Sustainability requires a similar urgency and willingness to see that our own prosperity and that of others across the globe are completely interdependent. So, too, it must be with our corporations and those who protect them. Viewed appropriately through a long term lens, the sole corporate practice of inexorable profit is, in the end, only killing itself. Corporations, for the sake of their long term survival, and legislators, for the sake of us all, must learn the lesson of the fish to survive. Added to it, when we learn the lesson of Covid, we realize we can are in it together.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
My main concern is the general lack of civic and environmental literacy in our children. Public schools in America are not teaching children the very things they need to do when we hand them the keys – they are not learning about how problems arise and how they get solved (or made worse) by our creativity and by legislation. Added to that, since Covid, many US children are being taught on the internet and are not being taught basic study and problem-solving skills. Will they be ready to take the car?
What can the average person do to make a difference?
Talk to people – face to face – across differences; get your head out of that screen (and out of your arse); insist your children become aware – deeply aware – of what they are facing and inheriting; learn about your legislators and speak out against bad plans before they happen, remember to be kind to yourself and, most importantly, spend that $1 Billion wisely!
Saul, thank you for joining Green.org. To Support Engage NJ visit their website today.
Dylan Welch is the CEO and Host of Going Green, a podcast, website, and social media brand that highlights renewable energy, cleantech, and sustainable news.