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Savannah Miller: Saying yes to environmental advocacy

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Feb. 24, 2016

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After trips to the Amazon River basin, Africa and the Paris climate talks, Emory College senior Savannah Miller is bound for Antarctica next month. Learn where her passion for environmental policy will take her next.

Growing up the daughter of two Emory alumni and the granddaughter of a retired Emory professor, Emory College senior Savannah Miller knew the campus was in her future.

She expected to find a clear-cut career path into journalism. Instead, she found a passion for environmental policy that has taken her from the Amazon River basin to the Paris climate talks and soon, a trip to Antarctica to see first-hand the effects of climate change. In the fall, she heads to New York for graduate school.

“I love stories, and I love people,” Miller says. “I had no idea that this would evolve into full-blown environmental advocacy.”

Miller got a taste of both while still in high school living in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a formerly small, coastal town across the river from Charleston that has seen explosive growth in the past 20 years.

As part of her graduating thesis, she self-published a non-fiction novella about Mount Pleasant residents that captured the voices of its long-term residents and their impressions of its recent rapid development.

Seeing how environmental degradation affected the health and happiness of her community, Miller wanted to understand more about the science behind those stories.

That’s how the granddaughter of J. Maxwell Miller 65G, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament and former director of Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, became a double major in environmental sciences and creative writing.

Her attitude was shaped by the mantra her mother encouraged her to adopt: never say no to an opportunity. (Her parents, Charles Miller and Julianne King Miller, both attended Oxford College and graduated in 1990 from Emory College).

“It’s something I’ve been able to feed while at Emory, this insatiable curiosity,” Miller says. “It’s been a crazy four years, but I take every opportunity I can.”

From the Amazon to Africa to Atlanta

The first opportunity presented itself her sophomore year, in the “Ecology of the Tropics” course taught by Lawrence Wilson, adjunct professor in environmental sciences. The lecture course unlocked for her the mechanics of the Amazon region’s ecology and biology, while the field work in the Peruvian Amazon River basin helped her understand the real-world effects of climate change.

Miller wanted to take action. Shortly after returning from her first study abroad, funded by a Lester Grant in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Miller sought a new opportunity.

She would intern in Emory’s Office of Sustainability for the next year. To reach her goal of sustainable events on campus, Miller assisted in creating and implementing a zero-landfill waste certification program for campus events.

She taught more than 200 faculty members, students and staff how to plan everything from freshmen orientation to homecoming by considering ways to avoid trash. One legacy from her tenure was a new nickname.

“I was known as 'Compost Girl,' but I never felt nervous about what I believe in,” Miller says. “Environmental stewardship is something that everyone can benefit from.”

That drive to help everyone prompted Miller to reach beyond Emory’s campus. She met with environmental attorney and former state representative Stephanie Stuckey Benfield at Emory’s Green Networking Night.

Soon after came a new opportunity: interning for Benfield at GreenLaw, a nonprofit environmental action group in Atlanta.

That opportunity grew even bigger when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tapped Benfield to be the city’s sustainability director. When Benfield left for the city last spring, she asked Miller to come along.

“I’m just so impressed with her,” Benfield says. “She’s super smart and energetic. She comes up with great ideas and then is the one doing the work to implement them.”

Miller started this fall, after another a trip to Namibia and Botswana this summer with Wilson, studying the ecology of the desert and how residents relate to the biomes there.

She also launched a blog, Sustainable Directions, to draw together what she was learning about environmental studies and encourage conversations about the issues.

“I feel like if I just spell it out, show the simple science as I learned it, people can talk about making their own educated decision in their everyday lives and in the political sphere,” Miller says. “I want to aid in those discussions.”

To Antarctica and beyond

Miller kept the conversation going, especially between Emory and Atlanta, at the recent United Nations climate conference. She was among 10 Emory undergraduates and two faculty members who observed the discussions and negotiations of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

She organized student attendance at the summit that focused on what actions municipal leaders can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce water consumption.

Miller already has applied some of those lessons to her work in Atlanta, where she advocated against a state proposal to gut the city’s 2015 energy policy for large commercial buildings to report their energy usage.

She expects to broaden it further with a spring break trip in March in Antarctica. Led by Sir Robert Swan, the first person to walk both the North and South poles, the expedition focuses on climate science with morning lectures and afternoon hikes on the glacial sheets.

Miller will be one of only two representatives from the Southeast on the expedition, but won’t have much time to bask in the achievement.

A week after she returns, she is assisting in coordinating Emory’s Climate Week programming through the Emory Climate Organization. Three weeks after, she will lead Atlanta’s Earth Week celebration in her new role as a special events coordinator.

“I knew I wanted to learn and also have my handprints on the work I was doing from what I’ve learned,” Miller says.

Neither will end with Miller’s graduation. She has been accepted into Columbia University’s joint program within the School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute for a masters of public administration in environmental sciences and policy. Twenty days after Emory Commencement May 9, she will launch into her year-long intensive curriculum.

The program gives her access to an international network of policy experts and the chance to intern at the United Nations. Miller is open to using those opportunities for environmental policy work either in nonprofits or government, or even private firms.

“As long as I am moving, I am moving forward,” Miller says. “And I look forward to where saying yes takes me next.”