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Letter from the Chief Sustainability Officer

Kerry Case, University of Utah Chief Sustainability Officer

The past year was unprecedented in terms of grief, pain, and fear, but it also has much to teach us about how to build a better future. Systems of oppression and extraction that have shaped our country for hundreds of years were exposed in new and important ways. Deeply rooted racial injustices were laid bare in the violence captured on cell phones and in the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Indigenous peoples and communities of color. Reckoning with these can help us craft viable alternatives. This will be the work of the year(s) to come. Together, I think we’re up to the task.

Here are three of last year’s lessons I carry with me into our university’s sustainability work.

  1. Climate action and racial justice are deeply intertwined and must be addressed in concert.
    Much of our work in the Sustainability Office this year has focused on better understanding the connections between racial justice, community wellness, and environmental protection. As environmental justice leaders have made clear for decades, the systems that devalue the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color also devalue the non-human world.
  2. We have immense capacity for care and community.
    As we were shaken from our usual ways of being, communities of support and mutual aid proliferated to help those left out of established safety nets. New ways of taking care emerged at the university, in our community, and around the globe. These responses offer essential clues for navigating climate disruption and other future disasters, and taking care of one another must be central to a sustainable path forward.
  3. We are resilient but must become more so.
    Resilience is the ability of a system to adapt to disruption. The scale and scope of adaptation the past year was staggering. We have proven that when challenged, we are able to radically adjust to new situations with surprising quickness. Our challenge moving forward will be to assure that all members of our university and larger communities have access to the tools needed to be resilient in the face of future disruptions. This year, the Sustainability Office is completing the first climate resilience assessment for the University of Utah, and the past year has taught us that equity must be front and center in this work.

It is understandable that many want to forget the past year. I will not. I will use it to fuel the hard, messy, and wonderful work ahead. I invite each of you to gather your own lessons and join me in using them to move forward.