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Decolonizing sustainability: Unsettling the dominant paradigm

Today marks the start of the fourth annual series of events hosted at PSU as part of Social Sustainability Month (SSM). The Women’s Resource Center, Sustainability Leadership Center, and faculty from Indigenous Nations Studies and Sociology have supported this initiative from its roots as a student idea in 2010. Over the years, SSM has identified connections between environmental issues and topics that include gender, race, LGTBQ rights, privilege, globalization, economic disparity, consumption, and biocultural identity. We have learned about the interconnected web of life that weaves social, environmental, and economic issues together as part of our sustainability philosophy.

The theme for this year’s SSM is Decolonizing sustainability: Unsettling the dominant paradigm. This focal point encourages us to consider how the mainstream environmental and sustainability movements may perpetuate processes that lead to colonization and domination. It is important, as sustainability becomes more integrated into our global perspective, to question how widely practiced methods for achieving sustainability may be rooted in historical systems of oppression.

While the environmental movement rightly takes a stand in representing the viability of Earth’s life support systems, SSM re-focuses our lens to think about how social and environmental issues are connected. All humans depend on biological systems for basic survival, from air and food, to water and shelter. While learning about the patterns of colonization, expansion, and imperialism, it is clear that the extraction of resources often goes hand in hand with the subjugation of peoples in the names of greed, power, and consumption. Sometimes I wonder if sustainability and diversity advocates are addressing similar issues from different viewpoints.

The mainstream sustainability movement must be culturally competent to continue building momentum, and we need to broaden our perspectives toward a more holistic, systems-based approach to addressing sustainability challenges. Sustainability leaders can model socially sustainable practices by changing the paradigm with which we think about and build our initiatives. While planning this year’s series of events, the SSM Planning Committee focused on designing a more accessible proposal process, focusing the purpose of the activities toward the theme, and broadening co-sponsorships to highlight the work of departments, organizations, and individuals from across campus and the community.

In past years, SSM has been hosted throughout November. This year, the Planning Committee has moved the timing of the event up by one week. This change serves two purposes:

1) The SSM opening ceremony coincides with the 10th anniversary celebration of the Native American Student and Community Center (NASCC). Contrary to how the movement is often described, sustainability is not a “new” concept. Although some solutions to ecological, social, and economic challenges may be created through new ideas and innovation, many indigenous communities have already found ways to live within the balance of natural systems. By celebrating the NASCC anniversary, we can support multiple perspectives of sustainability and learn from communities that have been sustaining for generations even in the face of great challenges.

2) Moving SSM forward one week allows us to end the month-long series of events prior to Thanksgiving, a holiday that is referred to by some as “Thankstaking.” While fall symbolizes a time to celebrate harvest for cultures throughout the world, Thanksgiving has negative associations for many people whose communities have been subjected to colonization in the Americas.

In 2012, the Sustainability Leadership Center hosted a celebration of indigenous foods and traditions as part of SSM. Our original title had been “Thanks Giving” with an intention to differentiate between the holiday celebrating colonization and a more seasonal appreciation of nature’s gifts in the form of nourishment and cultural tradition. During the planning process, we learned that the title could still be considered offensive, and so we sought to remove the “Thanks Giving” headline as much as possible. As a predominantly European American team, we learned a valuable lesson about assumptions and building initiatives collaboratively rather than “inviting others to the table.”

This year’s SSM events are sure to offer insights and connect initiatives across campus toward a more resilient community. It’s worth taking time from our busy schedules to participate in a conversation that happens too infrequently on college campuses. Although discussions about power and privilege can bring up difficult feelings and reactions, engaging with these topics is critical to the success of the sustainability movement. When we enter the conversation with a gentle heart, we might begin to see creative opportunities for collaboration and find that everyone has a role to play in both the social and environmental movements.

Upcoming Social Sustainability Month events include:

Check out a full lineup of events here: http://www.pdx.edu/wrc/SSM

Heather Spalding oversees PSU's  Sustainability Leadership Center, a department that bridges student life and sustainability at PSU.