Alumni Impact Story: Fern Gookin, ’10 – Jefferson M.S. in Sustainable Design Program

Alumni Impact Story: Fern Gookin, ’10 – Jefferson M.S. in Sustainable Design Program

Fern Gookin works for a full-service recycling company, Revolution Recovery, which helps recycle and reuse construction & demolition waste materials. She also founded the nonprofit RAIR (Recycled Artists in Residency), where artists can use the recycling center as their studio and create new works with the discarded materials.
MSSD Thesis Title: Out of Sight, out of Mind: Bringing the Waste Stream Back Into the Public Eye
Director of Sustainability at Revolution Recovery
Founder of Recycled Artists in Residency


MSSD Background

Why did you come to the MSSD Program?
I was determined to go back to grad school for something to do with Sustainability, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. I chose the Jefferson [Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University] program because it would allow me to broadly explore a lot of aspects of sustainability, and then focus on one of those aspects with my Thesis.

What Stood out for you in the Program?
I was able to build an instant network in the city, even though i was coming from out of town. The class sizes were small and the professors were very approachable. It was exciting that people were coming from all different backgrounds and they were there for all different reasons. Everybody was just so friendly.

How has it helped you achieve your goals?
I really looked at my thesis project as something that could help me test out what I wanted my next career to be. I didn’t know for certain that it was going to result in a career, but I’m happy that it did. Through the program, I was introduced to the owners of Revolution Recovery during my thesis project, in order to develop RAIR. After I graduated, I was offered a full-time job with Revolution Recovery and RAIR has developed into a growing organization. All of that stemmed from the connections I made through the program.


Alumni Impact

The following questions are structured around the Integral Framework, which the MSSD Program uses to guide the design process. The framework allows us to explore a topic fully through the lenses of Experience, Culture, Performance, and Systems.


How have you improved people’s experience of the world around them?
Waste is not typically something a lot of people see. I mean, they see it when they throw something away, but where is “away?” So when people come to the recycling center on tours and see the sheer volume of it, that is a pretty powerful experience. Just witnessing that scale of waste changes a lot of people, even before they see any art that’s been created. 

Once artists go through the residency program, they think differently about where they get their materials and what their subject is. As they move forward with their careers and keep making art that is conscious of waste culture, there’s kind of a multiplying effect where more and more people are impacted by their experience through their art.


Cultural/ Equity

What kinds of initiatives have you led to make society more equitable?
The artists can choose whatever projects they want when they come to RAIR; we don’t require that they participate in any social or environmental projects as part of their residency. But some of them do want to get involved with the community, so we will make connections for them as much as possible. Outside of the residency program, RAIR has also partnered with other nonprofits that are focused on social and equitable work all over the region. For example, we worked on a project with Fresh Artists, a nonprofit that provides art-making opportunities to low-income students in Philadelphia. We worked with a class from Nebinger Elementary to teach them about the waste stream and have them design a mural for one of Revolution Recovery’s dumpsters. Through the creative process, the students learned about the waste stream and developed a design that is now encouraging more people to think differently about waste.


Here are a few numbers we collected that help us measure the impact of Fern’s interventions so far.

~1000 Tons of Materials Recycled/ Day

80% Construction Waste Diverted from Landfills

40+ Different Building Materials Processed


Systems and Processes

What innovative technologies or processes have you created to achieve your goal?
Revolution Recovery is a full-service recycling company that focuses on the construction, demolition, manufacturing, and industrial markets. We put dumpsters at construction or manufacturing sites for materials like wood, plastic, etc. We sort through all of the materials brought in so we can recycle them. The standard for waste companies is still “landfill”; we are the new kids on the waste management block, trying to do things in a new way. Although RAIR and Revolution Recovery are very different (one is heavy industry and one is art), we’ve found that they can coexist and have a mutually beneficial relationship because they want the same thing – to get people to think differently about waste. It’s a working model, and unique in many ways. By having artists that are creative and constantly pushing boundaries on the same site as an industrial company doing basically the same thing, they inspire each other.