Expanding the Role of Sustainability Leadership

Independent Scholars
Destin flying

SUMMARY: JMU Alumnus Destin Webb plans ‘big change’ initiatives in energy, peace education, corporate compliance, and government affairs

Destin grew up in Powhatan, Virginia, a census-designated place proudly named for the father of Pocahontas. He says that his high school education was surprisingly varied despite the town’s limited resources. Powhatan High School also gave Destin creative license to build his own curriculum while fulfilling state requirements for graduation. He recalls studying everything from international affairs to culinary arts, with much in between.

Destin asserts that he might not have found his way to James Madison University were it not for the advice and support of his high school social studies teacher Lee McCullough, who brought joy to every single class period of U.S. History. “His methods were rather unconventional,” Destin remembers. “Mr. McCullough would sometimes have us jump up and down while clapping and reciting historical figures. He also loved mock trials and challenged us to hone our research skills to defeat the competition.” McCullough’s classes engaged Destin, and represented one of the first true instances where he relished learning. “I realized just how much you can learn if you enjoy the process, and how much that process could make better my entire life.”

At JMU, Destin majored in Independent Scholars, specifically Sustainability Leadership. He recalls that, initially at least, it was what he did not want to do that drew him to Independent Scholars. “I’d taken a critical thinking class in my first year with Dr. Eric Pappas, where I began to realize how much executive power I really have over my own life.” Then he had an epiphany: he didn’t want to take a traditional route through the university. “At the time, I decided I liked people. I wanted to work with people in renewable energy, but not in a lab,” he recalls. “Which is funny now, as I’m currently consulting for a solar research institution in Germany.”  

Destin hoped that the Independent Scholars curriculum would help him integrate his love of humanity with a passion for sustainability and advocacy. “There were plenty of people around me opposing ‘the Man’ from the outside. But what about helping corporations change their own practices? Who was trying to correct the course of corporations on an institutional level?” Destin felt that it would be beneficial to convince corporate leaders that change needed to come from within, and needed to come soon.


With the help of his advisor Dr. Ed Brantmeier, Assistant Director of Scholarship Programs for the Center for Faculty Innovation, and Associate Professor in the Learning, Technology, and Leadership Education Department, Destin began assembling a toolkit for integrating sustainability, inclusive leadership, and peace studies into educational experiences. “It’s difficult to describe Dr. Brantmeier as a faculty advisor without sharing an entire novel about our adventures learning together,” he says. Dr. Brantmeier initially came to Destin with a request. He needed to shadow a JMU student for the day to understand campus culture and all of the various competing demands on student time – which Brantmeier hoped would also help him gain insights for his next course.

That course – now called Inclusive Leadership for Sustainable Peace – turned out to be of deep interest to Destin. “Those first 12 hours together became an incredible academic relationship that endures to this day,” he says. Dr. Brantmeier eventually asked Destin to serve as his teaching assistant in the class.

Inclusive Leadership for Sustainable Peace was created to combine the two sub-disciplines of sustainability leadership and peace education. Research on university level courses focused on integrating sustainability leadership and peace education were, to their knowledge, non-existent. The course aimed to cultivate sustainable peace leaders. Together, they invited students to clarify their own core values by examining macro UNESCO Sustainable Development Goals, values and approaches of global sustainable peace leaders, and local organizations and their leaders who are committed to the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

“Working with Destin while co-teaching and advancing our joint research project added a whole new layer of meaning and purpose to my work as a professor at JMU,” says Dr. Brantmeier.  “Our joint practice of contemplative learning for sustainable peace gave me the courage to go deeper into those pursuits in my JMU faculty development work, work with local school districts, and in my future JMU courses. Destin and my core values are aligned, and the relationship was and is mutually beneficial — the perfect recipe for engaged student research.”

Destin’s participation in the class led him to the primary research question for his Independent Scholars capstone project: “What do students learn about themselves, others, and their ability to change the world from engaging in this course?” He found that class participants gained personal value and career clarification, and a deeper understanding of the navigation of opportunities and barriers to achieving sustainable peace. In addition, they affirmed their commitment to furthering their education, and actively reflected on benefits garnered from engaging in contemplative practices such as quieting the mind and development of empathy for others. Fifty percent of research participants gained an understanding of the motivations of global sustainable peace leaders, and 80% exhibited good systems thinking by the end of the course.

Different from other degree pathways, Independent Scholars allows students to determine their own paths as scholars. The approach allows students to really ‘dig into’ their topics, but also requires curiosity and proactivity.

Destin is mindful of all of the people who helped him along the way. “My grandfather never had much and struggled for what he did have,” he remembers, “One of the key principles he emphasized was the value of an education. He sacrificed daily so that we had a chance at a better life. He encouraged me to pursue my own path, and to live a life I was proud of, and help other people along the way.” When his grandfather passed away in his senior year, the burden of supporting the family fell to Destin. “I wanted to give up, but every time I thought of him, I couldn’t help but remember that no matter what, I owed it to my grandfather to keep it together, and to finish what he helped me start. So I got back to work, and every time I face a challenge, I remember him, and just keep going.”

In his time at JMU, Destin held an internship with Virginia Clean Cities, attended the national Energy Independence Summit, performed experiential research at the International Center for Peace Studies in Innsbruck, Austria, interned at the Wind Energy Research Laboratory in Saarbrucken, Germany, coordinated a community garden, and served as the President of the Environmental Management Club. Destin also carved out time to minor in Integrated Science and Technology (ISAT) and Honors Interdisciplinary Studies. Someday, Destin would like to lead the change by becoming a Chief Sustainability Officer for a Fortune 500 company and possibly do some teaching to give back what he’s received. Destin is currently an energy consultant on federal Energy projects at Booz Allen Hamilton. He will begin working on his master’s degree in Energy Policy and Climate Change at Johns Hopkins University this fall.

“Independent Scholars is unique,” Destin says. “I can tell you that in the real world they value the independence, focus, and academic rigor found and developed in this major. I am proud to have been part of such a wonderful program, comprised of such amazing people.”

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Published: Thursday, August 29, 2019

Last Updated: Saturday, January 2, 2021

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