Advocating for Inclusive Sustainability

People of Color Sustainability Collective expanding the definition of sustainability

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A 2016 survey by UCSC People of Color Sustainability Collective (PoCSC) showed that only 74 percent of students of color felt that people of their ethnic background participate in environmentally related activities at UCSC compared to 92 percent for white non-hispanic students.

PoCSC presented these research results at the Inclusive Sustainability Research Dissemination on May 25 at College 9 and 10 multipurpose room. The group also PoCSC introduced ways they are expanding the definition and boundaries of sustainability to the around 50 students, staff and faculty.

“What started as an intern project by Ariana [program coordinator of POCSC] has now become one the most successful, collaborative efforts on the UCSC campus and a national model in sustainability circles,” said Rebecca Rosser, director of the American Indian Resource Center at the dissemination.

PoCSC’s project began with a survey after members heard that students of color were feeling excluded from the campus sustainability movement. Even though the survey showed students of color make up about 49 percent of overall participation in sustainability at UCSC compared to about 54 percent of white non-hispanic students.

“There is a stereotype where people of color don’t care about the environment, that we don’t participate, we don’t have time, we just have different values or only the educated people of color would address this issue,” said program coordinator of PoCSC Adriana Renteria. “So it’s kind of with these stereotypes in mind that we wanted to better understand what is happening in our campus.”

PoCSC conducted the survey in winter quarter of 2016 and of the over 15,700 enrolled at UCSC, one fifth responded to their campus-wide online survey and about 62 percent of students of color participating.

The idea started as Renteria’s intern project for the American Indian Resource Center in her fourth-year at UCSC to highlight the contributions of people of color to the sustainability movement with a with the hashtag #POCsustainability.

“The goal [of the intern project] was to start a conversation and see the narratives of students of color who were in these environmental spaces, including myself, to see what we were going through,” Renteria said. “Also, to see what sustainability meant in their culture since their stories usually are not acknowledged in the sustainability conversation.”

Sarina Sylavong, a second-year who identifies as Thai-Lao,attended the dissemination and said she was not surprised to learn that many students of color feel unattached to the mainstream environmental movement. The survey found 78 percent of people of color agreed that their social class participated in environmentally sustainability related activities at UCSC compared to 90 percent to white non-hispanic students.

“It’s crazy being a person of color you would think that more people in my background are involved,” Sylavong said. “Sustainability is not this white phenomenon it’s been around for centuries. It’s like your parents using composting to help grow their gardens in your backyard.”     

PoCSC intern and first-year psychology major Stephanie Hernández also comes from a low-income background and before coming to UCSC she never heard the word sustainability in the context of saving the environment.

“I never considered the whole beans in an ice cream tub being sustainable I just thought it was something that my mom did,” Hernández said. “Saving energy, saving water, saving food so suitability has always been a means of survival.” 

This year, Hernández created a magazine called “Zine,” made of only recycled paper, with PoCSC to show students how to make more sustainable choices like saving energy, water and food. Hernández promotes the magazine by tabling around campus where she asks students what it means to be sustainable.  

“We […] ask students to reflect but it’s hard because it’s trying defy these perceptions or associations [about sustainability],” Hernández said. “It was cool because students would stay for like a minute and would say ‘I couldn’t believe that’ or ‘I never thought of it that way” and I think that is the answer.”    

PoCSC will showcase their research program at the 16th annual Higher Education Sustainability Conference at UC Santa Barbara later this month to help other schools achieve sustainability goals of inclusivity for people of color.

At the conference PoCSC will also be presented with the Best Practice Award in Efficiency and Sustainability in the field of higher education for their research in sustainability, which highlights achievements in innovative and effective energy efficiency projects and sustainable operations. The highest honor in the field of higher education sustainability in the state.

“The word sustainability is a word that [people of color] don’t know because it’s called something else,” Hernández said. “They do know what it means they just don’t what they know it’s [called] sustainability.”