The idea that sustainability jobs are about solving environmental problems tends to ignore the fact that environmental issues do not take place in a vacuum, but demonstrate systems of exploitation, oppression, and domination. Solving environmental issues equitably necessitates looking at the other obstacles that bar Black, Indigenous and People of Color from full participation in our society. The narrowness of a sustainability construct that is purely environmental, as opposed to intersectional, also leaves out concepts like food justice, transportation and climate equity, or the links between poor environmental health, poverty, and race. Sustainability professionals must have a holistic understanding of the interconnectedness of our social and economic problems to environmental ones in order to make these connections for others, even when our school’s commitment may be more narrowly constrained, so our solutions can address the root causes of problems, rather than create new ones.
Sustainability professionals have also inquired how they could better address social sustainability and support students of color on their campuses in the aftermath of racially motivated violence or on civil rights issues. For example, in the wake of Heather Heyer's murder and multiple injuries suffered by peaceful counter-protesters during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, sustainability staff at the University of Virginia and across the nation were left asking how to respond and support students, particularly students of color. Sustainability professional networks, such as VASHE (Virginia Association for Sustainability in Higher Education) were filled with email messages asking for advice, examples of social media posts or event ideas that dealt with racial and social justice. Most wanted to learn how sustainability and Alt-Right violence connected and what they could do on their campus to raise awareness (University of Virginia).
Some sustainability professionals are actively detailing how their work is connected to DEI and to social justice; however, the severe political polarization of US politics often impacts how well we are able to center anti-racist practices in our work. Events like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the water disaster in Flint, Michigan have clear ties to our environmental work, and our interest and involvement are therefore less likely to be questioned. However, supporting students involved in social activism or other issues with less direct environmental implications has been more challenging.
Sustainability staff are housed in a wide variety of offices and have a multitude of job titles, and our connections to supporting other offices and activities can be fuzzy. What's more, not all of our institutions have offices of equity and inclusion or their equivalent. This raises challenges for sustainability staff attempting to bring in the social side of sustainability in jobs that are perceived as being entirely environmental and operational. What can we do within the confines of budgets that are intended for operations or for program-specific purposes? Would we be overstepping our mandate to use our programming and offices in supporting vigils, speakers, and similar activities? How, when, and where could we provide support and when might we step back? What form does that support take? What are the dynamics in play related to our group identities? How might we work through any obstacles those identities may create in building a collaborative and supportive system?
Another aspect of this issue for sustainability offices is in addressing the shaping of our sustainability programs by social justice and DEI. In doing so, we can ensure that the need to respond to flagrant racism does not obscure the need to address more subtle forms of racism, including how institutional financial and educational systems perpetuate existing inequities. We must reflect on critical questions: How might we contribute to creating justice with sustainable solutions? To whom are we accountable? How do we know when we’re doing it well? Whom can we work with to do more of it or do it better?
Despite any misapprehensions we may have about being politically involved, there is also a long history of activism in higher education that has worked to dismantle systems of power and oppression. Whether we recall the history of the admission of women and Blacks into US colleges and universities, the participation of college students in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the environmental movement of the 1970s, the apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s, or the Black Lives Matter movement, students have been and continue to be actively involved in social change. The national response to Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is having a deeper impact than these past movements. Dozens of seemingly neutral institutions have issued statements in support of the movement, though some have been accused of tokenizing their students or prioritizing commitment statements rather than addressing the inequities that Black, Indigenous and People of Color are facing. There are other signs that the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement is reaching Americans on a deeper level, including the fact that several of the country’s best-seller book lists took on topics about race and anti-racism for at least two weeks in June (Harris) or that sites like Etsy started to feature Black-owned shops. In the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and shortly before their participation was expected in the NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks walked off the basketball court in protest, along with the other teams in the playoffs (Taylor).
We hope that in future essays, we will be able to delve deeper into topics such as ecoracial narratives, equity in climate action planning, accountability, immigration, labor, links between race and class, and qualitative metrics for diversity, teaching resources, equity, and inclusion in sustainability. More importantly, this essay series is missing your voice. We invite you to make contributions to this collection of essays, case studies, and other resources on racial equity, social justice and sustainability.