One way to integrate racial equity into your work is to elevate the voices of members of underrepresented communities and non-governmental organizations whose focus is on social justice, racial equity, civil rights and ending poverty. Be mindful of the potential to increase someone’s burden or trigger trauma when approaching people with conversations around racial equity and social justice. Remind yourself to check your biases before starting a conversation with someone you do not know well; everyone has a unique lived experience. Everyone has boundaries that should be respected even when the reasons for them aren’t shared with you. Start by listening and showing your readiness to listen.
Creating and realizing a vision of a socially and environmentally sustainable future requires the work of many people and organizations working together on behalf of current and future generations. Many national civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), have long understood the negative impact that systemic ecological racism and environmental inequities have on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. There are multiple local and national coalitions that focus on grappling with these issues; yet within higher education our internal efforts to address issues of racism, multiculturalism, environmental impacts, and social barriers to student success remain fragmented and artificially divided between operational efforts and instructional ones. (Many of these organizations are listed in AASHE’s community resource on Racial Equity & Social Justice.)
- Partnering with non-government organizations allows things to be said that you may not be able to say yourself.
- Providing other resources allows your message to come from a larger community
- Partnering outside your institution can reduce the tendency to think of social-environmental problems as abstract.
- Sharing campus resources in your community benefits everyone: students gain hands-on learning opportunities and communities may gain increased access to academic and financial resources.
- This work could help Town-Gown relationships, if done well.
Center Programs around Social Justice
Many institutions of higher education include diversity, equity, and inclusion in their missions. Some approach this by working to uplift the voices of historically underrepresented and underinvested communities, whether through curriculum, service learning, programming, multicultural centers, or civic engagement. As practitioners, we understand that climate change, immigration, and the rise of fascism and right-wing nationalism are connected; as ethical practitioners, our responsibility is to protect disenfranchised and historically underrepresented groups. Quality of life issues that impact student retention and quality of student performance are highly likely to be both environmental and equity issues and involve social justice solutions. Examples include housing insecurity, poverty, access to public transportation, and health conditions such as diabetes and asthma.
- Help your students register to vote and inform them about how voter suppression has primarily impacted BIPOC communities. Communicate the importance of civic engagement beyond the national election cycle.
- Learn more about systemic racist practices that have contributed directly to the dominant social paradigm in sustainability and about people who have propagated those beliefs, even while acting for the benefit of the environment
- Attend, support and help promote diversity, social justice, and multicultural trainings, events and other opportunities on campus.
- Create projects and programming that highlight environmental justice concerns. A place to start is The People's Ecochallenge, which can help generate ideas for pledges and student engagement.
- Recognize the ethnic and racial diversity of sustainability leaders and the often unsung or even erased (CNN, 2019) contributions that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have made to the sustainability movement..
- Recognize how critical social justice leaders, principles and strategies have been to the environmental movement. This could look like acknowledging those traditionally recognized for their civil rights work along with others who are mentioned less frequently.
Sustainability practitioners can review their office’s work to ensure and strengthen these efforts. Building Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Into Your Sustainability Program explores this concept further, offering some starting points and longer-term strategies. In taking all of these steps, remember that those facing challenges from institutional racism may be unused to having responsiveness from those in power, which underscores the importance of being authentic and sincere.