The journey toward social sustainability

Author: Christina Williams


The environmental movement has a diversity issue—a significant one at that.

A report released in September by Green 2.0 looked at the staffing of 191 environmental nonprofits, 74 environmental government agencies, and 28 environmental grant-making foundations. The researchers found that despite increasing racial diversity in the United States—people of color make up some 39 percent of the population today and is expected to swell to 57 percent by 2060—the racial composition of staff in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12 to 16 percent “green ceiling” that has been in place for decades. The lack of diversity in these organizations has led to an overwhelmingly white “green insiders club.”

Steps are being taken to change this picture nationally, which is good news. Meanwhile, those of us working on sustainability at Portland State became concerned that our own staff and the curricular programs and student activities we help develop and make available to the PSU community are being perceived similarly—by and for middle-class white people.

At the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and in the partner organizations we work closely with, we have become increasingly convinced we need to address this perception head on and make the sustainability movement at PSU as inclusive and welcoming as possible—to all humans.

Before I get to the steps we’re taking, a quick note about sustainability. We define sustainability as recognizing the interconnections between social, environmental, and economic systems, and using an integrated approach to meet the needs of the present without constraining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability is much broader than just preserving our environment, it’s about creating a thriving society that supports all life—now and into the future. A society that is not just is also not sustainable. And a sustainability movement that does not support and reflect all people isn’t either.

So where do we start? We start by spending some time to collectively develop a vision and a practice for better understanding the social aspects of sustainability, and how those apply within our organizations at PSU. We look carefully at our hiring practices, the partners we work with, the language we use to describe our programs, and the ways we promote those programs.

Earlier this month, we spent the day in a training workshop led by Sally Eck, an instructor in Portland State’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department and a social justice advocate and trainer. Sally worked with us through a series of exercises and discussions inviting us to examine the definitions of oppression and privilege and our own social identities. We discussed microaggressions—brief, common, unintentional or intentional comments or actions that communicate derogatory, biased insults—and that ally is a verb, not a noun. We started to map out plans to make our organizations more conscious of identity and oppression and to address areas where we are falling short.

We’re just getting started, but those of us in the room—from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Campus Sustainability Office, Community Environmental Services, Sustainability Leadership Center, and from our Sustainability Internship program—were energized by the opportunity to make our work more inclusive and more successful. And we’re looking forward to follow-up workshops with Sally where we’ll continue this tough but necessary work.

In recent weeks, which have been punctuated by protests sparked by troubling legal decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner homicides, it’s become increasingly clear that we cannot separate the movement to end institutionalized racism in this country from the task of creating a more sustainable society. These efforts are intertwined. Ultimately, sustainability is about ensuring that all people have the opportunity thrive—to live healthy, happy lives. Not just the select few in the insiders club.