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Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

'Partners for Change' Fellows Connect Public Service with Academic Success

Partners for ChangeMayra Mahmood, a Colin Powell School 'Partners for Change' fellow and student of architecture, explores the future of "building green" in urban environments while working for right-now solutions in her community.

When Mayra Mahmood, an Urban Sustainability fellow with the Colin Powell School’s Partners for Change program, moved from Islamabad two years ago to study architecture at City College, she arrived with an intimate knowledge of the need for improved sustainability in urban environments. She merely had to picture the home she grew up in.

“Like most houses in Pakistan, it wasn't designed by an architect, so there were always problems with the heating, cooling, electricity, and [plumbing],” Mahmood says. “My mother was always struggling to fix something.”  Additionally, dwindling reserves of natural gas due to an energy crisis in Pakistan often leaves homes and public buildings dark and cold when electricity is unavailable. “We never constructed cities to thrive without these amenities,” she said, “We just kept building concrete jungles, ignoring our historic architecture and our environment.”

Though Mahmood’s major is housed in the Bernard Spitzer School of Architecture, she has found another home at the Colin Powell School through a fellowship in the Partners for Change program, an initiative designed to harness the energy of CCNY students and the resources of the university for the community in innovative ways. Under the guidance of program manager Rochelle Smarr, the program connects students with a devoted leader-in-residence in one of five key areas: health justice, economic development, college action and success, urban sustainability, and international development. Each leader-in-residence is a professional in his or her field who mentors and guides a group of students through a community-based project. 

“In these past six months, the Powell School has helped me gain a more complete understanding of what it means to build sustainably,” Mahmood said. “It’s not just about the climate, but also about the social and cultural environment. The fellowship helps connect me to people in my community, Harlem, to help them with problems they're facing now."

Broadening definition of academic success

Mahmood’s attraction to the dynamism of the Partners for Change program is echoed in applications from other students seeking these fellowships: they want to expand their definition of academic success beyond acing tests and begin to apply their knowledge to projects and issues that are often deeply resonant. Mahmood, in fact, returned home to Islamabad between semesters this year to study regional methods of “green building,” many of which, perhaps surprisingly, are centuries-old. “Pakistani and Indian architecture from the Mughal dynasty was perfect in terms of sustainability,” Mahmood said. “The architecture responded to the climate and the surrounding environment. Without electricity or gas, they were able to create systems that met their needs.” 

Last semester, Mahmood, along with two other fellows, interned with West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT for Environmental Justice), a community-based organization whose mission is ensuring “people of color and/or low-income community members participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.” Other community partner internship sites include Sustainable South Bronx, the International Rescue Committee, Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, and the New York Academy of Medicine. 

A fellowship 'for everyone'

Instead of becoming the next “starchitect,” Mahmood says, her heart remains with her mother and others in need of green building solutions as the world faces the next set of challenges: overhauling energy policies developed in the Industrial Age and further investing in new energy technologies.

Mahmood considers her Partners for Change fellowship an integral ancillary to her studies in architecture, and a step forward on her professional path. "Public service is what I came to City College to do," Mahmood said. "What attracted me to this fellowship was its unique focus on public service. While many other scholarships focus on GPA or professional development in a certain major, the Partners for Change fellowship is different: it's for everyone, not a particular major or group of honor kids."