Sustainability: It’s not just the Earth we should care for

Posted on Dec 18 2013 - 10:04am by Guest Writer

By Jenny Taylor , Guest Columnist

I began my time at Pacific Lutheran University as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first-year, excited about being a part of a new and progressive university community.

Now, I want to take the chance to look back at that time. As an environmental and Hispanic studies major, I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about what “sustainability” means in a variety of contexts.

Sustainability is the favored poster child of PLU. We talk a lot of talk about our agreements to become carbon neutral by 2020, the habitat restoration areas on campus and the comprehensive recycling and composting program led by the Sustainability Department.

These are all important goals and accomplishments, but a key aspect to community involves caring for the wellbeing of the people as well as the environment. I think we’ve got to start digging deeper and think about what sustainability truly means to us as a community.

At PLU, students, staff and faculty are all part of the university community. Expressions of care include inclusivity, awareness and actions to deconstruct forms of oppression and privilege that infuse all of our lives in unique ways.

In order to be a “sustainable” campus, PLU must also encourage the discussion of individual, societal and systemic forms of privilege that exist among people. By interweaving human wellness with environmental care, we could be on our way to building a more aware, supportive and just community to which we can all claim a part.

It is quite true that there are many groups and individuals doing incredible work on the social justice front such as the Diversity Center, the Women’s Center, the Community Garden, CCES and many others.  I do not intend to minimize the efforts of such groups in the slightest.

Rather, I believe there is a lack of institutional and economic support for groups and people such as these to make a more meaningful change and help create a more sustainable community on campus.

The PLU Women’s Center for example is an incredible space for individuals of all genders, sexual orientations and identities to come for academic and personal support and resources. The Women’s Center puts on a number of events from Sex Positive to Green Dot trainings. Such events help to create a safe and healthy campus community.

Yet the annual budget of the Women’s Center is less than $2,000. What this means for our community is that a center as creative, progressive and clearly successful as the Women’s Center is barely receiving enough funds to keep in operation.

As Suzanne Pharr, an American social justice organizer, argues in “Reflections on Liberation,” power is given through “who is allowed to lead, who makes the highest and lowest salaries, who is allowed to participate in the major decision-making, who decides how the resources are used.”

To truly demonstrate that we value the work that helps create a sustainable community, we need to financially support the efforts of the Women’s Center and other groups promoting social justice in a more viable way.

PLU Green Fees is a fund that collects roughly $10 from every student’s tuition to create a pool of money. Any student can propose a project that would draw from this sum of money to reduce PLU’s carbon emissions or energy use.

This fund is an opportunity to expand our definition of sustainability by not only including projects that reduce our carbon emissions and energy, but to also work toward social justice as well. With over $30,000 collected for the Green Fees fund this year, this is another clear economic route to supporting the wellbeing of our environment and its people simultaneously.

Dave Veazey, the new researcher on PLU’s campus, recently compiled statistics from a study conducted last year that examined the experience of self-identified black and African American students at PLU. The study demonstrated that, compared to the rest of the student population, black and African American students felt less welcome at PLU and noted a lack of racial harmony.

Race is an uncomfortable topic to discuss in our society, but this study shows that at least some minority students at PLU do not feel welcome in the campus community. Everyone needs to begin addressing this fact  by discussing our larger societal context in which racial discrimination and oppression is very real and damaging.

While these examples may seem disconnected or strange to consider in the context of a discussion on sustainability, they are exactly what makes up the bread and butter of a movement toward making a sustainable community.

Over the past four years at PLU, I’ve come to realize that working for environmental change is simply not enough to create a truly sustainable community. There is important and positive work being done at PLU, but we need to start digging deeper into what it means to care for the wellbeing of us all now and in the future.

By exploring different ways that we can become more aware and responsive to the needs of our students, faculty, staff and the environment we all share, we can begin to move toward a more sustainable campus and society at large.