Inclusive Sustainability: Collaborative Approaches through UC Santa Cruz’s People of Color Sustainability Collective

University of California, Santa Cruz

Project Overview

The People of Color Sustainability Collective (PoCSC) works to make the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) a leader in sustainability and environmental justice, in recognition of our changing demographics and pressing ecological challenges, by:

  • Raising awareness about the contributions people of color have made to the environmental sustainability movement
  • Reexamining the definition and values of the sustainability movement to be more inclusive of all underrepresented populations
  • Undertaking student-centered research and dissemination to center the experiences and expertise of people of color around sustainability
  • Creating critical dialogue about environmental justice through discussions, student of color caucuses, social media awareness campaigns, workshops, and speaker presentations.

PoCSC is a groundbreaking collaboration between the Ethnic Resource Centers (specifically the American Indian Resource Center), Colleges Nine and Ten, and Sustainability Office. It also works closely with UCSC’s Institutional Research, Assessment and Policy Studies (IRAPS) and Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI). PoCSC also partners with a Latinx youth-founded and -led organization, Leaders for Environmental Activism Reclaiming Their Health (Leaders4EARTH), based in Salinas Valley, CA, with whom it runs an environmental justice youth leadership academy.

Background

In 2014, students of color started a #pocsustainability social media campaign as an outlet to share marginalizing experiences they were having on campus in white-dominated, mainstream environmental spaces. Working with staff and faculty, the group developed formally into PoCSC. PoCSC programming has opened up conversations among students, faculty, staff and administrators in an effort to bridge historical divisions between the social justice and environmental movements on campus. It recognizes that developing a welcoming, inclusive space for broad student environmental participation must address issues of power and privilege, namely how race, ethnicity, class, gender, etc. shape and inform conceptions of and efforts to promote sustainability. PoCSC’s mission is not only to support the retention and success of an increasingly diverse student body at UCSC, but to promote a more viable, equity-centered, and intersectional environmental movement.

PoCSC is grounded in the experiences of underrepresented groups on campus as well as in the broader community. Early in its formation in December 2014, PoCSC brought a dozen environmental justice leaders from across California and Arizona to speak with faculty and students. The audience was deeply moved hearing about the struggles facing families in Kettleman City, Bayview Hunters Point, North Richmond, and the Gila River Indian Reservation, and how local communities manifested their power and amplified their voices to resist contamination, desecration and dispossession. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History “Bodies” event, PoCSC asked local community members to reflect on connections between environmental racism and police brutality–invoking the cry of “I can’t breathe” to interrogate who has access to safe environments. From the “Sparking Change through Environmental Justice” workshop at the Bioneers Conference, to diversifying participation at the Sustainability Inter-Organizational Retreat, to hosting a discussion entitled “Reimagining the Environmentalist,” PoCSC has created new spaces for critical dialogue about the intersections of race, class, culture, power, and sustainability.

In 2015, PoCSC developed the concept of “Inclusive Sustainability,” which has inspired our programming and research priorities since. PoCSC has brought a number of guest speakers and innovative programs to the campus community since 2015.

Goals

**For PoCSC, Inclusive Sustainability is a framework for organizations to support student success, retention, and sense of community in higher education. Inclusive Sustainability:

  • Acknowledges efforts made by BIPOC folx to advance sustainability
  • Recognizes that many sustainability efforts have historically discriminated against communities of color
  • Embraces different cultural approaches of caring for the environment and centers people of color as leaders, knowledge producers, and positive change agents
  • Challenges predominant power dynamics and epistemological hierarchies within and beyond the university
  • Emphasizes intersectional identities and interdisciplinary approaches**

Enacting Inclusive Sustainability entails a multifaceted approach that includes:

1. Conducting academic research: Funded, disseminated and analyzed results of campus-wide survey on undergraduate knowledge and experience within the environmental movement

2. Creating robust and interactive spaces that center student voices: Launched PoCSC Meet & Gre(at)s in 2020

3. Expanding formal partnerships with the local community: Formed partnership with Leaders4EARTH in 2020

4. Increasing learning and development opportunities on diversity, inclusion and anti-racism amongst University of California higher education sustainability professionals: Launched Sustainability & Diversity Learning group for UC systemwide sustainability officers in 2019

In 2021, UCSC Sustainability Director will be co-directing the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) - Equity project to ground the CNI and UC Sustainable Practices Policy in the principles underlying equity, inclusion, environmental justice and climate justice.

Implementation

Student voices and lived experiences were at the center of the inception of the #pocsustainability campaign. Upon graduating in 2016, a key student leader in the campaign, Adriana Renteria, was hired on as the first ever PoCSC Program Coordinator. As the initiative evolved into the more formal PoCSC model, students have continued to play a central role in the program through paid internships.

PoCSC is housed at the American Indian Resource Center, with ongoing support by its core partners at Colleges 9 and 10 and the Sustainability Office. Staff and faculty partners meet regularly with PoCSC students to collaborate on the long-term vision for the initiative, update academic research, and implement innovative programming. Campus leaders supporting the initiative over the years have included the Chancellor, Executive Vice Chancellor and Vice Chancellor for Business and Administrative Services.

Timeline

2014 - BIPOC students created #pocsustainability campaign and convened space to discuss their experiences within campus environmental spaces.

2015 - #pocsustainability campaign formally developed into the People of Color Sustainability Collective partnership. The term “Inclusive Sustainability” was coined.

2016 - Launched academic research to survey undergraduate student experience and perspectives on sustainability. Hired first PoCSC program coordinator. Presented at AASHE conference. Model developed for sustainability practitioners: “What can YOU do as a Sustainability Officer?” (see link)

2017 - Published article entitled “Inclusive Sustainability: Environmental Justice in Higher Education” (see link). Launched “Intersections between Diversity & Environment” workshop at California Higher Education Sustainability Conference and UCSC’s Diversity & Inclusion Certificate Program. Institutionalized the concept of Inclusive Sustainability within the 2017-22 Campus Sustainability Plan (see link). Received a Best Practice award from the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference.

2018 - Pursued grant funding through various sources to update academic research. Co-organized a day-long conference, Dig In: Cultivating Inclusive Approaches to Food Justice, that centered BIPOC, women, community, and inter-generational voices and expertise.

2019 - Launched second round of academic research surveying undergraduate student experience and perspectives on sustainability. Presented preliminary survey results at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Vancouver as part of a panel, “Pedagogies of Environmental Justice to Imagine Alternative Sustainabilities.” Received the Outstanding Student Program Award from NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education's Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community.

2020 - Academic research findings disseminated (see attachment). Granted a book contract with Springer Press for an edited volume documenting our efforts entitled, “Critical Campus Sustainability.” Moved to graduate student program coordinator model. Partnership with Leaders4EARTH was formed.

2021 - Coordinated academic year Educational Xchanges and summer Environmental Justice Youth Leadership Academy (EJYLA) Educational with youth from Leaders4EARTH (see attachment). Launched UCSC student PoCSC Meet & Gr(ea)ts and other events (see attachment).

Financing

Finances are re-assessed annually. Currently, the PoCSC initiative does not have its own source of permanent funds. However, all campus permanently funded units within the partnership pool together funds to support PoCSC. Special one-time funding through an external donor, and grants through student fees including the UCSC Carbon Fund have provided additional support on a project-specific basis.

Costs vary annually depending on staffing and programming levels. Recurring costs include hosting events, speaker fees, and support for 3-4 paid student interns. During years when there is professional staffing or a graduate student, costs are higher.

The authors of this Case Study request to be contacted directly for more detailed financial information.

Results

Recent Project Results:

1. Conduct academic research: Funded, disseminated and analyzed results of campus-wide survey on undergraduate knowledge and experience within the environmental movement.

In the Spring of 2019, the second iteration of the PoCSC survey was administered with 2,546 undergraduate participants. The noteworthy findings from the 2016 and 2019 PoCSC survey were turned into five infographics with the following themes: (1) Environmental Health Threats; (2) Race and Environmental Justice at UCSC; (3) Growing Environmental Concerns at UCSC; (4) “Environmental Belief Paradox”; and (5) Diversity and Sustainability Definitions. Each infographic highlighted crucial findings (see attachment).

With the “Environmental Health Threats” infographics, it was found that overall, 49% of respondents said that someone in their immediate family (including themselves) suffers from environmentally-caused health problems. Within the 49%, students of color levels of environmentally-caused health problems compared to white, non-Hispanic students.

Within the “Race and Environmental Justice at UCSC” infographic, it was found that housing insecurity, food insecurity, lack of greenspace, and toxic waste were the most prevalent among students of color over White-non-Hispanice students.

Within the “Growing Environmental Concerns at UCSC” infographic, it was found that when comparing survey findings from 2016 to 2019, students shared more concern around environmental issues. The topics fit into categories such as: environmental equity, sustainable infrastructure, and land and resource use. In 2016, water conservation, renewable energy/waste reduction, and transportation were the top three concerns. In 2019, environmental health, renewable energy/waste reduction, and conservation/water conservations were the top environmental concerns.

Within the “Environmental Belief Paradox” infographic, it was found that environmental issues are important to UCSC students as a whole, across race, not just among White-non-Hispanic students. Pearson et al. (2018) introduces the idea of the “Environmental Belief Paradox” as people of color report higher levels of environmental concerns than whites in a national survey, which pushes back to the mainstream idea that “environmentalists” are white and wealthy.

Within the “DIversity and Sustainability Definitions” infographic, it was found that students of color and White-non-Hispanic students rank ordered definitions of sustainability the same. There is a plurality, not a majority, of preferences among sustainability definitions.

2. Create robust and interactive spaces that center student voices: Launched PoCSC Meet & Gre(at)s in 2020

Despite the challenges of a screen-based academic year due to COVID-19, PoCSC adapted to host triquarterly virtual Meet and Gr(eat)s, aggregating to a total of 9 meetings. The aim of these gatherings was to provide an informal but informative outlet for students to converge and discuss pressing eco-social issues of our times. These topics ranged from polluting plastic to fast fashion, from local sacrifice zones to global environmental injustice, from consumer products to liberation pedagogy, and much more. The Meet & Gr(eat)s served as rallying points to help students critically consider the structural and cultural underpinnings that reproduce widespread disposability. The facilitating interns asked stirring questions to the participants to generate reflexive discussion on these relationships between individual, communal, and corporate accountability. While participation levels varied across the quarter, with as many as 27 participants in some and as few as 11 in others, the consistent triquarterly approach ensured students had a recurring space to share expertise, vent frustrations, talk trash (literally), laugh, and navigate eco-grief in a time when students have experienced high incidences of isolation and numbness. Launched PoCSC Meet & Gre(at)s in 2020

3. Expand formal partnerships with the local community: Formed partnership with Leaders4EARTH in 2020

Leaders 4 Environmental Activism Reclaiming Their Health (Leaders4E.A.R.T.H) is a youth founded and led working group that focuses on leadership development through a social and environmental justice lens. They approach grassroots community organizing through education and youth-led engagement to promote healthy and thriving communities within the environmental movement. Their vision is to provide a safe space for youth where they can learn about environmental and social justice as it relates to their lived experiences, leadership development, pathways towards environmental justice, and general resources create resilient community leaders. They empower youth who live in locations with environmental health threats to find pathways towards co-creating positive change by harnessing youth power to lead community based research projects, outreach, and environmental activism to strengthen social movements. Leaders4EARTH believes that in order to create a healthy and just environment for long-term sustainability, education needs to begin at a young age, to develop future generations of environmental community leaders and stewards for our planet.

Through the implementation of 2021 Winter Quarter Education Xchanges and Spring Quarter Farmers Panel led by Leaders4EARTH and PoCSC, Leaders4EARTH has established meaningful relationships with UC Santa Cruz students in anticipation of the Salinas Valley Environmental Justice Youth Leadership Academy (SVEJYLA) collaboration with PoCSC upcoming in summer 2021. The Education Xchanges provided a safe, BIPOC centered, space for youth and UCSC students to share their lived experiences and community concerns with one another. Some of the topics discussed in these educational Xchanges were consumerism, plastic pollution, environmental racism and justice, environmental education, along with ideas around praxis. Many of the students were aware of environmental health disparities regarding their own communities but once personal stories were shared, they were impacted differently.

Participant comments include:

Salinas Youth: “Having older students there did enhance further my understanding of the topic because not only did I relate to some of their comments, but I also gained some knowledge on how they are reducing the use of plastic.”

UCSC Student: “I learned that there are youth who really want to discuss sustainable solutions and who are going out of their way to educate themselves at this event so they can give back to their community.”

4. Increase learning and development opportunities on diversity, inclusion and anti-racism amongst University of California higher education sustainability professionals: Launched Sustainability & Diversity Learning group for UC systemwide sustainability officers in 2019

UCSC Sustainability Director partnered with UCLA Sustainability Manager Erin Fabris and UC Davis Sustainability Specialist Skylar Johnson to co-lead the UC Diversity & Sustainability Learning Group for Sustainability Officers. 14 Sustainability Officers from across the UC system participated in bi-quarterly meetings to learn about and debrief issues related to white privilege in the environmental movement, key diversity-related terminology, and environmental justice issues. Guest speakers included Dr. Teresa Maria Linda Scholz from the UC Santa Cruz Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned have been multiple and ongoing. Key lessons learned include:

Existing organizational models in academia generally are not conducive for this kind of innovative, interdisciplinary, praxis-oriented work. For example, the administration’s recommendation to create a traditional “task force” or “committee” to address the campus climate around diversity and sustainability was not well received, as it was not perceived as an inclusive model. PoCSC students and partners insisted on the collaboration at the heart of PoCSC--one that strives to work more in a more egalitarian fashion between faculty, staff, grad student and undergraduate interns, community partners.

Academic research gauging student experience must be undertaken regularly, as the student population as well as views on sustainability, diversity, social justice, environmental justice and anti-racism are continually evolving.

Both undergraduate and graduate students continue to experience microaggressions in campus environmental spaces - ongoing engagement, education and training of campus professionals is key to improving the student experience.

Troublingly, we are seeing the rise of examples of environmental fascism. For instance, the far right is now framing the climate crisis as a nativist issue, demonizing migrants. Indigenous scholars have critiqued the invocation of ecological crisis as a way of expediting policies that promote corporations and reproduce inequity and colonialism. Environmentalism and conservation have a long history in which being pro-nature has been used to oppress minoritized peoples.

Through the various programs, the educational component that has been created reveals a need for more spaces that not only center BIPOC voices and perspectives, but that celebrate the diverse understandings of the environment, ideas of sustainability, and how to move beyond the social-ecological divide.

Students are eager to participate in spaces that center BIPOC voices regarding environmental conversations. The Educational Exchanges between Salinas Valley youth and students from UCSC's PoCSC, AIRC, and the Sustainability office is an example of how diverse perspectives and voices can enhance the dialogue to push the boundaries of environmentalism.

Funding: Lack of permanent funding for this kind of initiative impedes the kind of progress that could be made, and increases the needed time and effort on the part of the PoCSC team. For example, we do not have a reliable funding source to hire a long-term program coordinator. Internal processes for things like honoraria for community partners must be streamlined to recognize the role of collaborators who are outside of the university.

There is significant power behind the collaborations between faculty and staff who share areas of expertise, and yet whose roles are different on campuses. These partnerships are a model that illustrates that subject-matter expertise in environmental justice exists along all levels of an institution. Intersections between social justice and environmental sustainability must be a prism through which we examine all pressing societal issues today--migration, Covid, carcerality, etc. Efforts like PoCSC are needed because they cut across academic silos. They are transdisciplinary and co/curricular, and foster 21st century skill development among students.


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