Diversity and Inclusion in Sustainability: Reflections on the November Conference

On Sunday November 5th, the Sustainability Student Leaders Symposium conference at Swarthmore hosted a student panel on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the field of sustainability. The conference consisted of a lunchtime panel, followed by various workshops centered around sustainability and climate justice. Students from surrounding universities, including University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University,  joined in the day’s activities. Emerson College (MA) and Champlain College (VT) were also part of the symposium via video conference. The online symposium was chosen as an alternative to flying students to the conference in order to reduce emissions.

The morning panel was facilitated by Alliyah Lusuegro ‘20, who is a Green Advisor at Swarthmore.

“This is a conversation worth having,” she asserted in her introduction of the panel.

The other participants in the panel were Shayla Smith ‘20 who is studying environmental studies and has done work with ocean conservation in her home of South Florida; Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20 a coordinator in the Swarthmore Sunrise Movement, which is part of a larger national movement to make climate an urgent political issue across the country; and Sacha Lin ‘20 an environmental studies major and a recipient of the sustainability research fellowship at Swarthmore, an academic internship focused on making sustainability-related change on campus.

Lusuegro began by speaking of her hometown in Chicago, and the sustainability work she did in high school. “[My teachers] gave us a platform to speak with our individual voices on something we became so passionate about, even though we were so new to it,” said Lusuegro.

In introducing the topic of diversity and inclusion in sustainability in higher education Luesuegro stated, “We acknowledge that it can’t possibly cover all existing issues of disparity in this field, but again we feel that this conversation is important.”

Shiney-Ajay commented during her introduction that she never considered climate and environmental justice to be an issue she was passionate about. “The summer after my senior year, I started to realize how climate change had impacted the Syrian refugee crisis...and realizing the magnitude of what was going to happen to our world,”  she stated.

The first question Lusuegro posed to the panel was about identity: “How do people’s identities and values inform their sustainability work?”

Shiney-Ajay started by saying that although she had been doing work on fossil fuel divestment for the past year, she never thought to connect all these changes to those which she witnessed in her home state in India.
“The streams drying up, the waters rising, people having to move, our rubber plantations drying up because of the rising temperatures, farmers not being able to survive… I never attributed that to climate change. Somehow I just thought it was just something that was happening.”

It was when she connected her work to her real-life experiences that she realized her work was more than just another extracurricular activity.

“[Our personal fears] are what gives us the ability to give so much of our time and ourselves to these issues,” she explained.

Smith continued the conversation by discussing her experiences with finding her place in ocean conservation work.

“That’s not something you would typically see a black person in. There wasn’t any representation at the non-profit that I was volunteering at.”

Smith said this motivated her to get more black people involved and aware of  conservation issues.

“During an internship I had, I did a junior lab where I brought sea turtles into a camp that had primarily black kids there,” Smith explained.

Smith used sea turtles to introduce the children at this camp to ocean conservation and engaged them with the question of how we can protect our oceans. Through projects like this Smith has been able to find her place in an area that she states doesn’t seem like it is “for her” as a black person, as well as introduce the topic to a younger generation so that they can also be aware of these issues at a younger age.

Lusuegro highlighted how identity is often the main motivating factor in sustainability work, commenting on her own interests in the Philippines.

“I’m looking at the eco-villages there and how to provide resources in a neighborhood called Palau which is close to my home.”

Doing research and planning work in the Philippines helps her to feel connected to her home country.

Lusuegro then prompted panelists to speak about what the field of sustainability gains by being more inclusive.

Chen started by stating that she felt that climate change and sustainability work was such a huge issue, and that there was a lot of pressure on her as an individual to take action. However, after reading about all the work that other people were doing she realized that sustainability work necessitates human interdependence.

“Therefore, sustainability really needs to be more inclusive because this process of saving humanity is something that everyone needs to be involved in...it’s something that we have to do together,” she stated.

Shiney-Ajay followed up by highlighting that her work focuses on climate change, more so than on sustainability, but that a lot of lessons can be shared between the two.

She stated that in order to properly address the issue of climate change,  we must first change the ways in which people think about sustainability.

“Sustainability is often perceived as a white issue, and it’s not a white issue. It affects everybody and it disproportionately affects people of color, people in the global south and working class families,” she stated.

Smith continued by highlighting the fact that conversations around sustainability and climate change are often centered around statistics and figures.

“Where are the people? Why aren’t we talking about the communities that are actually being affected?” Smith asked.

Smith commented that oftentimes women of color do a lot of sustainability work without realizing it.

“They’re taking on that role of being the caretaker or the mother of their communities because that’s what’s expected of them,” Smith said.

Shiney-Ajay comments on her experience leading a hub of the Sunrise Movement in the Twin Cities over the summer.

“As a person of color leading the training, I saw more other people of color being willing to get involved and willing to see this as their place,”  Shiney-Ajay said.

Shiney-Ajay also made the point that diversity gives us a deeper understanding of the problems that we are facing, and brings in different perspectives on how to address these issues.

Chen pointed out that working with people in underserved communities, which are often the target of unsustainable and discriminatory policies, is key.

“If you can have people fighting for their home communities then that’s how you’ll win,” Chen stated.

The panel proceeded with the panelist discussing diversity in sustainability at Swarthmore College.

Chen highlighted that incorporating the topic of sustainability into more academic courses that we offer would be a direct way to inform a larger amount of students about these topics.

Shiney-Ajay added that incorporating information about sustainability into fields where it is not usually discussed is very important. She for example stated that economics courses should have a section focusing on environmental economics.

“Dialogue is really important,” Smith stated.

She talked about the college’s relationship with Chester, a city with a predominantly black and low-income population just outside of Swarthmore. She highlighted the fact that a lot of people don’t know that all of Delaware County’s incinerator waste goes to Chester, or that a lot of Swarthmore’s trash goes to Chester.

“Bridging those gaps [in information] and forming connections with what we’re doing and what else we could be doing [is the first step] to talking about ways to improve,” Smith said

Shiney-Ajay suggests having an initiative where GAs talk about why they chose to do the work that they’re doing.

“Framing the conversation in terms of not, ‘are you composting?’ but ‘why are you doing these things?’ is a really essential part of motivating other people to get involved,” she stated.

Lusuegro finished off the panel by asking how we can get those who are not directly involved via courses and their work to be more engaged in the topic of sustainability.

Shiney-Ajay mentioned that talking to people is key, and she discusses her work with Sunrise which involves a lot of tabling and canvassing.

“I also agree with reaching out and talking to people you might not even think would be interested in something like this, because you never know,” said Smith.

Smith said she would like to see more collaborations between affinity groups and the sustainability office on campus to discuss issues of intersectionality such as environmental racism.

As the panel came to a close Lueseugro left us with these parting words: “We really encourage you to self-reflect and think about your identity and your experiences, and how they play a role in what you do.”