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Beyond Recycling: Reframing Sustainability As A Social Justice Issue

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Sustainability
October 12, 2017 Dawson Davis University of Oklahoma

When thinking about sustainability, the old adage “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” comes to mind. However, the Sustainability Knowledge Community (SKC) would like to take this time to reiterate that sustainability is more than a simple physical environment issue. Due to the ever-changing complexities of our global climate and our current campuses, it is essential to consider sustainability as a subject that addresses multiple interconnected human issues such as racial injustice, gender equality, distribution of wealth, integrity, food security, holistic wellness, and community service. 

The status quo view assumes two things: First, sustainability is about environmental degradation and knowledge must be gained in matters such as recycling, Earth Day, food waste, and campus beautification. Second, sustainability is primarily associated with liberal, white, middle class elitists or what one scholar titles, “the unbearable whiteness of being green” (Harper, 2007). This view is flawed as it provides a very limited and incomplete definition of sustainability which focuses on environmental factors but fails to see the social, economic, and cultural elements.

Colleges and universities influence students who, in turn, impact society when they become scientists, social workers, engineers, teachers, doctors, and other social change agents. This is why higher education – and, therefore, student affairs professionals - must be at the forefront of this sustainability paradigm shift. We must envision sustainability as a multidisciplinary concept that ties together quality of life issues and subsequently share this in teachable moments with our students.

While NASPA and ACPA have added a paragraph regarding campus sustainability to their most recent Professional Competency Areas joint document, its focus is broadly on personnel and the allocation of resources. We must follow the lead of a small group of colleagues in ACPA who years ago embraced an interconnected approach and published a monograph that explicitly detailed how and why student affairs must reassess sustainability. In their study, they offer this advice: “We could use the new paradigm (that considers problems in complex, interrelated ways) to communicate about sustainability: one inclusive of environmental health, social justice, and economic strength, in order to keep our message relevant and inclusive.” (ACPA, 2008, pg. 5).

As you can see, sustainability is a global issue that touches all themes of the social justice dialogues that we facilitate with our students each day – dialogues that include gender and racial inequality, economic development, food insecurity/homelessness on campuses, environmental health, etc. It is now time to redefine sustainability through a social justice lens to help us understand how sustainability complements our work and personal and professional lives, as well as our interactions with students.

SKC would like to end on this quote which best encapsulates how student affairs must reframe the narrative to students: Sustainability is “having sturdy family relationships; living in freedom from threats, violence and coercion; having adequate income or livelihood; and enjoying health and wellness. It also involves the security of the community, nation and planet…severe structural inequalities between people: women and men, people of color and white people; people from the United States and other nations...” (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey, 2007, pg. 4).


1.)    American College Personnel Association (2008). “Toward a Sustainable Future: The Role of Student Affairs in Creating Healthy Environments, Social Justice, and Strong Economies.” http://www.myacpa.org/sites/default/files/ACPA_Sustainability_Monograph.pdf

2.)    Harper, A.B. (Ed.) (2007). “Race and Class Consciousness: Contradictions, Resolutions, and Reconciliation in the Ethical Consumption and Eco-Sustainability Movements” Posted to: http://lists.ysu.edu/pipermail/urbanth-l/2007-September/001630.html

3.)    Kirk, G., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (2007). Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, (4th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Bryan McGrath is the Director of Student Life & Career Services at North Bennet Street School and the NASPA Sustainability KC Region I Representative.

Sean Maguire is the Administrative Assistant for Office of High-Impact Practices at Bridgewater State.

Jessica Morgan is a Student in Master of Higher Education Administration Program at Boston College.