GCSC Seminar: Reframing the Story of Environmentalism to Highlight Inequality, Justice

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office

What is the role of the university in addressing the climate crisis? How can academics engage proactively in environmental and social justice work? How can we transform our institutions to meet this political moment with the urgency it demands?

In her upcoming Global Change & Sustainability Center talk, “Interdisciplinarity, Intersectionality and Environmental Justice: The Time is Now,” Dr. Julie Sze, author and professor of American Studies at the University of California at Davis, will tackle these challenging questions. Sze, whose background is in English, Ethnic Studies, and Peace and Conflict, was drawn to environmental justice work because of the movement’s intersectional approach to environmentalism.

“Mainstream environmentalism is constructed as mostly white, and wilderness, and conservationist,” Sze says. “That erases the stories of people of color and cities and workers,” whereas “environmental justice as a movement was always about reframing the story of environmentalism.”

Sze’s research, which emphasizes environmental justice, inequality, and the intersection between social movements and policy, has led her to believe that we must construct a different kind of university in order to respond effectively to the climate crisis.

What does a different kind of university look like? Sze explains that there is no hard and fast answer to this question, but that we must think critically in ways that draw upon social movements and systemic alternatives to discover the university’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

“There isn’t one easy model,” Sze says, and the process involves examining what students are taught in classes, who they learn from, and what is left out of the curriculum. She says it also means imagining universities that are not based in neo-liberalism, debt, and extraction, and planning campuses that provide more services and less policing.

“Can we have campuses without cops?” Sze asks. “That’s a different kind of university.”

As a scholar and educator, Sze also values academic spaces as entry points to environmental justice work. She was motivated to become politically engaged as an undergraduate student, but says of her upbringing, “I didn’t come from a very political background. It’s not part of my genealogy, my family history, my community, to be interested in these kinds of things.”

She believes that universities are integral to solving the climate crisis because of the opportunities they create for students like her to learn things outside of their own lived experiences and to develop passion for environmental justice regardless of their upbringing. When universities make space for students to ask questions, feel outraged, and be curious, “more and more of them want to do this work…and make meaning in their lives,” she says.

On creating a “new kind of university,” Sze argues that we must always remember how our work in academia is connected to the outside world. She points out that while scientists have been warning about climate change for years, our response has not met the magnitude of the crisis. “How much empirical evidence do we have to show before something’s done?” she asks.

The crises we face today must be met with creativity and urgency. “On the one hand, we have to do what we’ve always done, because it really matters,” Sze says. On the other hand, we have to do something else.” Join Sze at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22 at tinyurl.com/gcsc-sze to learn more about what that “something else” looks like, and how you can contribute to the movement.

GCSC SEMINAR: DISASTER RESILIENCE IN AN UNJUST WORLD

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office

As climate-induced wildfires rage across the West and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten our communities, many of us have disaster on the mind. How will we respond when disaster strikes close to home? How will we recover? How can we build our communities to be resilient in the face of crisis?

In her upcoming Global Change & Sustainability Center seminar, “A Grassroots View of Disaster Recovery,” Dr. Divya Chandrasekhar will explore these questions, as well as examine what it means to be disaster resilient in a complex, uncertain and unjust world. Chandrasekhar, associate professor in City & Metropolitan Planning and an urban and regional planner who has studied disasters across the globe, is particularly interested in the importance of community autonomy to the recovery process.

Because disasters impact every dimension of our lives, from our collective economy to our individual psychology, disaster recovery must happen at the grassroots level—from the bottom up.

“When you say a community has recovered, it means every individual in that community should have recovered in some meaningful way,” Chandrasekhar says. This can only happen when individuals have agency and power in their own recovery process, so she cautions fellow urban planners and other eager outsiders to take care in their recovery work. Without a deep understanding of the community’s needs and capacities, their efforts will be irrelevant or even harmful, she says. Her call to action? Engage communities in deciding their own futures.

While one might think that a person who spends her life studying disasters would feel rather pessimistic, Chandrasekhar says she finds great hope in her work. While disasters inflict trauma and tragedy, they also present an important opportunity.

“Disasters shake up existing structures,” Chandrasekhar says. “They don’t just destroy your building, they smash government structures. They smash patriarchy.” If a community is ready to address these underlying issues, the recovery process presents a good opportunity to demand justice and build resilience, she says. Climate change and COVID-19, which have hit communities of color and under-resourced communities the hardest, demonstrate that oppressive structures like racism and colonialism cause the effects of disaster to be felt disproportionately.

“The process of going from recovery to resilience requires addressing those larger structural issues,” Chandrasekhar says. “There can be no resilience unless there is social justice.”

So, amidst the grief, the anger, and the loss that disaster brings, Chandrasekhar finds hope—hope for healing, for a more just future and for resilient communities that can withstand disaster.

Whether you’re an organizer doing mutual aid in your neighborhood, an urban planner hoping to better engage communities in your work, or an individual searching for hope in this trying time, Chandrasekhar’s talk will have something for you. Join us from 4-5 p.m. Tuesday, September 1 at https://tinyurl.com/gcsc-disaster as she explores the complexity of disaster recovery and calls for social justice as the only path to true resilience.

Sustainability Leaders Recommit to Centering Equity and Justice

Along with many of you, we spent this past week filled with grief. These feelings are tragically familiar, as is their cause. The legacy of racial oppression played out on city streets around the country and right here in Salt Lake City. We all must play a role in demanding justice in our communities and our nation. Recognizing that our silence would itself be a form of violence, we recommit to working actively against the systems that devalue and disregard black lives and disproportionately impact communities of color. In the Sustainability Office and Global Change & Sustainability Center, we will center justice and equity, reaffirming antiracist practice as a fundamental part of our shared work. We stand in solidarity with oppressed communities, pledge to listen and act, and acknowledge that this is a collective fight.

Brenda Bowen, Global Change & Sustainability Center Director
Adrienne Cachelin, Sustainability Education Director and professor/lecturer in Environmental & Sustainability Studies
Kerry Case, Chief Sustainability Officer