A More Intersectional Sustainability Movement

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Art by Sophia Huang.
Art by Sophia Huang.

When Melanie Fornés found out she was the first woman of color to direct the annual Earth Summit in its 14-year history, she knew she needed to make the conversation about sustainability more inclusive for people of color.

“It all began for me when I was told that I was the first woman of color to be in this leadership position as the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Intern for the Student Environmental Center,” Fornés said. “The seed was really planted when that was brought to my attention. It led the way for me [to realize] how predominately white, in a cultural sense, the environmental movement is.”

On April 24, the 14th annual Earth Summit fused activism and art with spoken word, a keynote speaker, sustainability-related workshops, student art, free food and the first People of Color Caucus.

“[The Earth Summit] began as a collaborative effort between students to celebrate sustainability,” said fourth-year Lily Urmann, the Student Environmental Center (SEC) co-chair for event planning. “The ‘Blueprint for a Sustainable Campus’ has evolved over the last 14 years as a way to build these ideas and visions into action.”

The Earth Summit serves as a celebration of the ‘Blueprint for a Sustainable Campus’ — a document updated annually at forums to bring together community members’ visions of sustainability at UC Santa Cruz. The summit showcases the history of sustainability on campus and provides a platform to brainstorm new project ideas for sustainability.

SEC chose Favianna Rodriguez as this year’s keynote speaker because of her history in leading environmental justice movements through her artwork, which focuses on migration, patriarchy, economic injustice and female sexuality.

Rodriguez said that growing up, she never gained the tools and knowledge she needed to learn about her own sexuality. At 21, she had an abortion, but felt stigmatized to open up publicly.

“At a global level, we still live in a world where the moment you are born with a vagina, you are going to face a life of violence and people second-guessing you,” Rodriguez said. “The way we have organized society is completely detrimental to our social justice goals.”

There’s a commonality between the fight for women’s equality and ecological devastation.

“We all emerged from a vagina, and yet the level of disrespect women face in a global level is so mirrored to what we do to the earth,” Rodriguez said. “We are exploiting, killing and disrupting the natural lubrication of the world.”

Rodriguez cares about climate change because she has been impacted by environmental injustice. She said it’s unfortunate that poor working-class migrants who work in exploitative toxic jobs, like agriculture and slaughterhouses “are in the machine that is destroying the planet.”

“There is a connection between exploitation, racism, anti-immigration and climate change,” Rodriguez said. “This is how intricate this monster is. When we talk about climate change and the earth, we have to understand and put a face to who is being exploited to serve who.”

The caucus was created as a collaborative effort between the SEC and the ethnic resource centers’ #POCsustainability campaign to bring people of color together to discuss disparities within the environmental movement on campus and showcase contributions people of color have made to the environmental movement.

The caucus used alumna Cheslea Pack’s senior thesis on disparities in student perceptions and participation in the environmental movement at UCSC as a basis for the discussion. From statistical surveys, Pack found that out of 401 undergraduate students, 19.4 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that environmental efforts at UCSC addressed issues of race and class.

“What we can infer is that the form of environmentalism that predominates UCSC’s campus either does not resonate with students of color and of low socioeconomic status, or does not make an adequate effort to engage them,” Pack wrote.

During the caucus, people discussed how sustainability in their culture and household affected their identity growing up.

“We often talk about the sustainable practices that are considered new age and innovative, but in reality those practices have been in peoples’ heritage and culture for decades and generations, not because they thought it was the new fad but because it was the way of life for those more indigenous cultures,” said Earth Summit director Fornés. “We often feel this homage to the history of sustainable practices aren’t acknowledged.”

The caucus and #POCsustainability campaign coordinator Adriana Renteria said that growing up as a Chicana taught her to never throw anything away. Her family often cooks together and has leftover tortillas that are saved to later cook chilaquiles.

“We don’t think, ‘Oh, let’s be sustainable,’” Renteria said. “We do it because we cannot afford to throw tortillas away. We need to feed a lot of people and chilaquiles have a really big cultural aspect. Having students reconnect with their cultural sustainability practices is important for us.”

As a coordinator for #POCsustainability, Renteria works with the ethnic resource centers to show how people of color have been and will continue to be in the environmental movement, but it’s often difficult to gain momentum around the issue.

“Our campus is not a safe space for students of color to talk about their experiences,” Renteria said. “The current definition of sustainability, especially the definition our campus prides itself and is known for, excludes a lot of cultural sustainability practices.”

Favianna Rodriguez is a printmaker and digital artist who uses abstract portraits and an explosion of vivid colors to comment on issues of globalization, economic injustice, immigration, war and social movements. Beyond her art, Rodriguez partners with social movement groups around the world and has co-founded Presente.org, a website focused on the political empowerment of Latina/o communities. Photo courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez.
Favianna Rodriguez is a printmaker and digital artist who uses abstract portraits and an explosion of vivid colors to comment on issues of globalization, economic injustice, immigration, war and social movements. Beyond her art, Rodriguez partners with social movement groups around the world and has co-founded Presente.org, a website focused on the political empowerment of Latina/o communities. Photo courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez.

Fourth-year Dayton Andrews said he saw a lack of outreach to different spaces on campus, with the caucus having only 13 attendees. Creating the caucus is the first step, but there needs to be more outreach to the rest of the student body.

“The Earth Summit has happened for 14 years, but no one knows about the caucus. I didn’t see any fliers. The lack of outreach shows what state in the game we’re in,” Andrews said. “I hope [future caucuses] are more inclusive and have a wider range of perspectives having frank and difficult discussions about these issues.”

Renteria said low attendance could mean students don’t feel safe on campus to speak out about these issues. She hopes there is a change in the sustainability culture on campus and more spaces will be created for students of color to support each other on these topics.

“Decades of white supremacy and white mainstream environmental movements have made it so sustainability is very narrowly defined,” Renteria said. “We need to redefine what sustainability means to us and not have somebody define it for us.”