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Speaking of inequity, a sustainability essential

Social justice is a difficult subject. It can be uncomfortable to talk about, even to think about. Regardless of who you are, or how compassionate, open, and caring, chances are you have some form of bias ingrained in you—from your upbringing, from pop culture, from media, education, personal experiences. The list could go on and on. 

Many people don’t like to acknowledge that these biases exist, which is one reason they can be uncomfortable to confront and discuss. But ignoring the issue is an even bigger problem.

“Part of the problem is that people aren’t used to having these conversations—they’re difficult,” said Kevin Thomas, cultural sustainability coordinator for the PSU Sustainability Leadership Center, last week at a cultural competency webinar hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

“Color blindness is a form of racism,” he said. “We want people to see colors, see diversity.”

Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in urban studies and planning, has been working this year to better link PSU’s diversity and cultural services with sustainability programs and efforts on campus. He co-chaired Social Sustainability Month, which featured more than 15 panel discussions, film screenings, and other events on the topics of social justice, equity, and diversity, and their connections to environmental issues.

He’s also been collaborating with partners across campus to create a Cultural Sustainability Walking Tour map of PSU, which will feature a variety of resources on campus, from lactation rooms and wheelchair accessible sky bridges to the Multicultural Center and Queer Resource Center. 

PSU’s resource centers are open and welcoming to all PSU students, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or background. They encourage students outside of their own groups to enter a new space and learn about diversity.

“Non-dominant cultures have had to learn about dominant cultures as a means of survival,” said Thomas. “Dominant cultures should learn about non-dominant cultures as a sign of respect, and also to expand their own learning.” 

Different cultures tackle problems with different approaches, he says.

And when it comes to sustainability, as PSU sustainability manager Jenny McNamara pointed out after the webinar, learning new approaches to address some of the world’s most pressing problems may now be a means to everyone’s survival. 

“We’re in this together,” she said.

Joining Thomas on the AAHE panel was Markese Bryant, founder of Fight For Light, an organization aimed at transforming historically black colleges and universities into hubs for environmental sustainability and social innovation. Like Thomas, Bryant got involved with these issues as a college student, and used hip hop to make his voice heard in the sustainability movement.

Check out his music video, The Dream Reborn, below.


Watch the webinar, Culturally Competent Sustainability Professionals, here: