Denormalizing the Crisis

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How many of you have lived with rats?”

Fourth-year and Student Union Housing Working Group (SUHWG) organizer Angela Tulio posed this question to the crowd. About 20 of the 70 students in the College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room raised their hands.

All attendees of Enviroslug’s 17th Annual Earth Summit, which took place on April 27, could cite experiences with on- or off-campus housing that were physically uncomfortable or unsanitary. The SUHWG organizers who facilitated the summit’s Housing and Food Justice Workshop stressed that housing and food insecurity are issues of sustainability.

Titled “Now U.C. It: Basic Needs Crisis at UCSC,” this year’s Earth Summit took the conversation of sustainable living from the natural to student’s lived environments. Enviroslug, who organized and funded the event, is an umbrella organization comprised of the Student Environmental Center (SEC), Campus Sustainability Council and Education for Sustainable Living Program (ESLP).

The underlying theme of this year’s Earth Summit was to engage students in a more inclusive conversation around sustainability, inspire them to get involved the sustainability movement and to realize their potential to enact change on campus.

The summit offered workshops on housing and food justice and institutional power and basic needs, and hosted the annual Students of Color Caucus (SoCC). For the first time this year the SoCC coincided with a Whiteness in Sustainability workshop, which discussed how whiteness affects narratives in the environmental movement. Students and organizers at both workshops discussed the intersection of sustainability and social justice issues.

“[There are] misconceptions about what it means to be sustainable and what it means to be environmentally conscious, that cut out a lot of the social implications,” Tulio said. “What we aren’t looking deeper into is that all issues of environmental degradation, no matter where you look, are rooted in social marginalization.”

Enviroslug organizers said global conversations about sustainability often serve limited and homogeneous groups. This has limited the way sustainability is discussed at UCSC as well.

“It is very whitewashed, to be blunt,” said SEC’s media and outreach coordinator Enrique Labrada in regards to conversations around sustainability on campus. “They talk about all these things that sound great in theory but they don’t really help low-income communities.”

While many tend to think of the sustainability movement in terms of green living, organizers stressed that it goes beyond solar energy and buying Klean Kanteens. Basic needs, like access to food and housing, should be integral aspects of the sustainability conversation.

In the “Institutional Power and Basic Needs” workshop, Tim Galarneau, the community-engaged education coordinator at the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, drew a correlation between lack of basic needs and the decrease in student academic success. He highlighted the basic needs work being done by his department to provide sustainable food options.

“We’re seeing research applied to the immediate needs of our community,” Galarneau said. He warned the emphasis should be on creating sustainable communities from the ground up, not just crisis management.

SUHWG organizers sought to denormalize the crisis of basic needs on college campuses in their “Housing and Food Justice” workshop. SUHWG is a new student organization formed in September 2017 dedicated to advocating for student–tenant rights both on and off campus.

“[The basic needs crisis] is the most pressing issue of environmental justice,” said SUHWG and ESLP organizer Olivia Fisher-Smith. “[…] For folks who have marginalized identities, existence on this campus, because of the economic, bureaucratic and institutional power dynamics, is unsustainable.”

This conversation continued in the following jointly programmed Students of Color Caucus (SoCC) and Whiteness workshop. City on a Hill Press was not allowed to attend the SoCC due to the sensitivity of the topics addressed in the space. White students were also not allowed in to make space for students of color.

The SoCC, which began four years ago, seeks to fill the gap in representation of students of color in the environmental movement. The narrative of sustainability is historically not inclusive of more complex cultural and ethnic backgrounds, said SEC media and outreach coordinator Enrique Labrada.

“It’s not fair for people to have to choose whether they want to be a part of their culture or whether they want to be sustainable,” Labrada said.

The caucus provides a space for students of color to discuss how their backgrounds shaped their experience with sustainability and how they can navigate these conversations in the future.

“[The goal of the caucus was] to let our stories and our voices be heard […] and for our stories to not be tokenized by a white sustainability movement,” Labrada said, “but for us to take a step into this movement of sustainability within low-income communities and POC culture.”

Students who attended the Whiteness workshop learned to identify white narratives in environmental history and the sustainability movement. In their discussion, they also learned how to identify microaggressions and call them out within the movement.

At the end of the summit, students gathered around direct action booths discussing the day’s topics with their peers, signing petitions and eating vegan cookies.

“One of the biggest takeaways is that first of all, we have the agency to do something about it,” Olivia Fisher-Smith said. “To challenge the power that the university holds to create this crisis.”