CSUS Graduate Spotlight: Rafael Lembi

Rafael Lembi, a Community Sustainability PhD student, found a fit in the CSUS graduate program to help answer one of the important questions of sustainability -- How can people work together to bring about just and sustainable futures?


Rafael Lembi workshop facilitation in Amazon.jpeg


Name: Rafael Lembi

Hometown: Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

CSUS Degree Program: PhD in CSUS

Expected graduation date: Spring 2026

Image Right: Rafael leading a workshop at an off-grid community in the Amazon in the region of Santarém.

Research focus: Social-ecological transformations, energy justice, community engagement

Tell me a little about your graduate work and how it relates to community and/or sustainability?

I am 3rd year PhD student at the Department of Community Sustainability. Broadly, I am interested in the how of transformations: How can people work together to bring about just and sustainable futures? My case study focuses on a current issue within the Brazilian Amazon: approximately one million people live in isolated, off-grid communities with very limited access to electricity. I am exploring the ways in which electrification projects can be designed, planned, and implemented, with the goal of evaluating how they can be done in participatory manners that center community voices, needs, and aspirations. In order to conduct my research, I am partnering with organizations and practitioners that conduct electrification projects, with a network that advocates for policies at the national level, and with an off-grid community.

What inspired your interest in pursuing this degree?

I firmly believe in the transformative potential of higher education. I believe that universities can be drivers of positive change within society by building educational projects that are grounded on emancipation, liberation, and social justice. Being at a university changed the ways I understand and interact with the world in meaningful ways, so I would like this to be extended to others as well. Therefore, I decided to pursue a PhD because I want to help universities realize their transformative potential in just, emancipatory, and sustainable ways.

Why did you choose to study at CSUS?

I came to CSUS because of the departmental focus on interdisciplinarity, community engagement, and environmental justice. Current sustainability challenges demand insights from diverse disciplines and collaborative work between multiple stakeholders that is grounded on values of justice and inclusion. CSUS is aware that we need to do research in different and innovative ways that are aligned with the complex nature of current challenges. So, it has been a great match!

What has been one of your best experiences within the program so far?

The best part of CSUS is the people. Building friendships and relationships with the amazing people that decided to call this Department their “home” has been a constant source of joy.

What do you want others to know about this program?

I would like others to know about how welcoming CSUS can be to a broad array of scholarship. I appreciate how our program can be open to diverse modes of inquiry and how the term “sustainability” can encompass so many different research questions.

Any thoughts or advice for current students?

Find joy in what you do! Have fun with your work! Grad school can be challenging, but it is also a phase in life that we can be creative, passionate, and have time and resources to engage with work that we deeply care about.

What are your future plans?

For the next academic year, I will be working towards my comprehensive exams and the writing of my PhD project. After my PhD, I am trying to keep an open mind for future career options, although I am inclined to seek academic positions within universities.

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