University of Vermont

Students on the Lawn

Guest Student Blogpost: Reflections on AASHE 2013 Student Summit

by Alyssa Church-Smith '14

The theme of this year’s AASHE Conference was resiliency and adaptation.  This focus did not go without notice throughout my experience during the Student Summit, a one-day pre-conference event.  Underlying the conversations and presentations at the Summit, I felt my peers were pushing for a concerted effort toward resiliency within this sustainability movement. We have a responsibility to create a better, livable future for the generations ahead of us.

The resiliency within the sustainability movement depends on how we communicate within our communities and between our communities.  When it comes to bridging our communities, inclusivity is vital to the momentum of this movement.  The keynote speaker, Markese Bryant, gave our generation a call to action. He told every student at the conference that it was our responsibility to start a national conversation around sustainability that includes every race and socio-economic status.  I learned from this speech that the largest threat to the sustainability movement is a lack of inclusion.  When we start this national conversation, then we will be able to stop marginalizing communities that have been left out.  Specifically, I am speaking of communities of color.

When I looked around the room at the students that attended this conference with me, I could not help but notice the sea of predominantly white faces I was surrounded by and a part of.  As a student at UVM, in past classes and organizations I have had conversations about how many of our social movements have been championed by white people even though the problems at hand almost always disproportionately affect people of color more.  I have come to understand that this is due to the amount of privilege that my race has. The voice of our sustainability movement has been largely white and upper-middle class, but those are not the identities that make up the majority of the American demographic or the ones that suffer the majority of environmental consequences.  People of color in lower socio-economic communities disproportionately bear the brunt of the health and socio-economic consequences of our environmental problems. 

America is no longer a rich and white country; it is a country of many colors and socio-economic classes.  The resiliency of this movement is dictated by how people of privilege adapt to the new America that is not all white and upper-middle class. Our current social trends need to change in order to make this movement resilient.  As this movement becomes more resilient so will our communities, which in turn makes this movement stronger.  Continuing the momentum of this movement is a cyclical and holistic process, just like the environment we wish to sustain.

Climate change is often seen as a problem that only white upper-middle class people talk about, but it is something that affects everyone, especially those minorities that are not a part of the conversation.  It can be difficult to recognize that sustainability is everyone’s thing, but it looks different for everyone.  We all have different connections to it to make us realize the impacts we can have on a system.  It is important to meet people where they are at in their understanding of environmental issues.  This does not have to come in the form of preaching environmentalism, but it should come in the form of learning people’s stories.  We are all walking stories.  If you want to communicate these issues to those that do not see their significance in their lives, you need to start with an “I” story and end up with a “we” story.  For example, Eriqah Foreman-Williams from the NWF spoke of when she was engaging with students at Spelman College about recycling and pollution.  During this conversation, the students were initially unreceptive to how important proper waste management was. All of the students in this conversation were students of color, many of which came from low-income neighborhoods in the south.  Eriqah is also a person of color who came from a low-income community, so she felt that she needed change the angle at which she was coming at the issue, so she could show her connection to the students.  She started to talk with them about the asthma that these students’ siblings had, and how that is directly related to the amount of pollution going on in their neighborhoods. She learned that her students were more concerned with the wellbeing of their families than recycling as a singular act, and used that to help them form connections between the issues.  A connection to community and asking people what they need and what’s important to them helps you create problem frameworks.  These frameworks can start to empower people to cultivate leadership in their communities and make others want to take action. 

As a white student in higher education I have the privilege to focus on sustainability in my life and how it impacts the life of others.  Sustainability is not a black and white topic, it is a topic that revels in the grey, and being in higher education allows me the time to better understand that grey area. I have come back from this conference better understanding my position as student, and the privilege it holds.  I understand that I have a unique position and privilege to start conversations around the intersections of sustainability, race, and socio-economic status, and to use that intersection as a framework when discussing solutions for problems and seeking out diverse opinions on issues.  In my position at Champlain College working with the Eco-Reps, I have included environmental justice as a central focus in all of our monthly topic chapters.  This is now going to be something that we discuss throughout the year because environmental justice is not just one conversation.  It is a topic that has to be included in other conversations because it is a pervasive issue that deserves our full attention. 

The issues I learned about at this conference and the skills that I brought back further affirmed my passions for storytelling to catalyze change.  In my work as a student and in my career with sustainability and higher education telling stories and creating spaces for conversation is the key building relationships and making connections in order to create change agents in our communities, whether it be a campus community or neighborhood.  In order to have a resilient and adaptive society we must create these connections. Connections give momentum to the sustainability movement and provide flexibility in the diversity of perspectives from those involved in the movement to adapt to our ever-changing environmental and societal conditions.