earth's defender
Abby Reyes, Director of Sustainablity Intitiative Steve Zylius/UC Irvine

Abigail Reyes divides her life into two parts, “B.T.” and “A.T.” – before Terence and after Terence. In February 1999, Terence Unity Freitas, an environmental activist and her “partner in work and love,” was kidnapped and murdered in Colombia. At the time, he was working to halt the plans of major oil companies to drill in territory occupied by the U’wa, an indigenous group.

“[Because of] that experience, which occurred when I was in my mid-20s and a few years out of college, I resolved to create a world in which that doesn’t happen,” Reyes says.

A.T. – after Terence – she became a human rights and environmental lawyer, working primarily with communities struggling to protect themselves from unwanted mining, oil and gas projects.

Reyes now serves as director of UC Irvine’s Sustainability Initiative, with the goal of harnessing the top research university’s scholarship and resources to develop new systems and cultures that no longer harm the planet – or people.

“The initiative is making community-engaged sustainability scholarship an integral part of UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching and service campus.”

“The initiative is making community-engaged sustainability scholarship an integral part of UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching and service campus,” she says, “and we’re doing that so our faculty and students have the support they need to play bigger roles in addressing critical sustainability challenges here in Southern California and wherever their research takes them.

“Many communities that are already living with the consequences of the changing climate are way ahead in finding the solutions, and we see our role in part as making sure we engage them to lift up those solutions. For us, scholars and communities together lead the sustainability shift.”

Staying ‘ahead of the curve’

Leading the Sustainability Initiative is a high-profile job at a university proud of its “Coolest School” status and its significant contributions to the pressing issue of climate change. As President Barack Obama remarked in his 2014 commencement speech: “UC Irvine set up the first Earth system science department in America. A UC Irvine professor-student team won the Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs destroy the ozone layer. A UC Irvine glaciologist’s work led to one of last month’s reports showing one of the world’s major ice sheets in irreversible retreat. … UCI is ahead of the curve.”

Reyes, her husband (Sunil Gandhi, UCI assistant professor of neurobiology & behavior) and their two children were among the fortunate few who met Obama backstage before his speech. She used the opportunity to assure the president of UCI’s commitment to confronting global climate change.

“After our photo, I told the president of the sustainability [efforts] at UC Irvine, and that I was encouraged to see bolder action on climate,” she recounted in her blog. “I told him that he could count on the University of California for leadership. He said he very much does.”

Turning back the tides

Reyes can already point to several efforts sparked by the Sustainability Initiative that put UCI on the front lines with communities grappling with climate change.

She’s co-principal investigator and a team leader of the Flood-Resilient Infrastructure & Sustainable Environments – or Flood RISE – project, which educates and assists communities along the California coast and Tijuana River Estuary that are endangered by rising waters and stronger storms attributed to global warming.

And she helped create UCI’s interdisciplinary Salton Sea Initiative to address public health, land use, water allocation and other sustainability issues facing the desert region, with the goal of finding solutions that will benefit similarly situated communities worldwide.

The Sustainability Initiative also mobilizes campus efforts in the areas of oceansfood, and environmental health and justice. This spring, Reyes’ office will partner with UCI faculty and students at the university’s Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in Borrego Springs to advance the community’s long-range plan for achieving sustainability in an extreme environment. Some students will be chosen to share what they’ve learned with local public schools, teaching a younger generation about the climate crisis and how to foster community change.

Sustainability for all

Reyes is working to incorporate sustainability in all academic disciplines. She and Tom Peterson, UC Merced’s provost & executive vice chancellor, co-chair the systemwide effort to make climate neutrality and sustainability part of the university experience for all UC students by 2020. (Read more about UC’s sustainability commitment at

It can be overwhelming when students recognize how climate change is altering their own world, Reyes notes.

“No matter where we are – whether it’s an urban environment or we’re lucky enough to be in touch with nature – we all develop our love of place, our love of culture, our ability to move in the world supported by natural systems with clean air, clean water, a livable climate and accessible food,” she says. “And then the reality hits, through education and experience, that the ways in which we’re living now in our systems and culture of industrial growth don’t support the long-term sustainability of the things we have come to love and depend on.”

From classrooms to careers

It’s not enough to just make students aware of climate change, Reyes says. They need to learn how to take action.

Her office has joined with UCI’s Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and Division of Undergraduate Education to support the Global Sustainability Resource Center, a hub for student leadership and sustainability education.

Students who participate in the center’s education programs go beyond textbooks to the living lab – to homes threatened by rising seas, parched farmlands, vanishing glaciers and other climate-threatened sites in the real world.

“In our programs, we allow students to have their own experience of what that loss looks like and how it affects them, and then we help them move from that state into imagining the world they want to create,” Reyes says.

“In our programs, we allow students to have their own experience of what that loss looks like and how it affects them, and then we help them move from that state into imagining the world they want to create”

In January, the center held a weekend retreat at the Anza-Borrego facility for about 30 students enrolled in the global sustainability minor to teach them how to become leaders in climate change efforts – and stay ahead of the curve, as Obama exhorted them to at commencement.

The training was one in a series recognized by the White House at the recent launch of a new national Climate Education & Literacy Initiative.

“What’s needed now is action – considered action – so that our activities are about not just improving or reforming the current systems and cultures but creating new ones,” Reyes says. “The intellectual work needed to envision and build an equitable economy based on responsible growth, resilience and regeneration instead of extraction is significant. Research universities like UCI have a big role to play in that.”

Originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of UCI Magazine.