Finding My Place in Sustainability

Last week, I found myself in a familiar situation; let me paint the scene. I, along with several other of my Sustainability Scholar peers, had been invited to the Summer Sustainability “Lunch-Bunch”, an illuminati-esque meeting where sustainability directors from organizations in and around the Charlotte area gather to match wits and discuss current affairs surrounding issues of sustainability. This meeting happened to be a special one since it was the group’s annual “intern-meeting”, a time where each member was allowed to bring us, their summer interns, and have us fight to the dea—I mean… to share about what we’ve been doing and what we’ve learned.

So there we were, sitting around tables and quietly munching on our sandwiches and veggie wraps as the meeting started and stragglers trickled into the room. Think Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo meets Elrond except substitute out dwarves and tunics with interns in semi-casual business attire. It was this moment when I realized something. I sat up straight in my seat, took a glance to my left and my right, and then leaned back with a smirk on my face. Like I said, I had found myself in a familiar situation not to different than the one I face in the Sustainability Cooperative (our base of operations at Davidson, if you didn’t know) or even in the Davidson classroom. I was one of four people of color sitting at this table surrounded by white people.

Some might say, “Hey, no big deal. It’s expected; you’re in the South. There’s a reason they label people of color in the United States as ‘minorities’.” To them, I reply with a nod. It’s true. In many ways, being surrounded by white people is not a big deal to me. It’s how I’ve grown up. For example, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, I went to a predominately white private school in Charlotte where I was one of three Asians in my graduating class of approx. 125 students. This is somewhat similar to Davidson. For the class of 2019, students of color only make up 35% of the five hundred or so students coming in this fall.

So again, was I uncomfortable in this situation? No, not really. At the same time, however, this time I thought about my situation a bit more than I typically would have. See, I am currently the only person of color working as a 2016 Sustainability Scholar. (Oddly enough, this wasn’t something I realized at the beginning of the program.) Combine this with last week’s shootings and flare-ups of violence between African-Americans and white cops and you could say that race was on my mind.

Now, I don’t mean for this to become a conversation about race or politics. However, I do think that the lack of minority representation in conversations surrounding sustainability raises an interesting question. More specifically, how does the subject of race factor into how we define issues of sustainability in addition to how we define the word itself? What does sustainability mean when you peek into a “Sustainability Lunch-Bunch” and only see four individuals of color out of a room of thirty?

On its front, I think that mainstream sustainability attributes itself to a mainly wealthy, middle-class white American audience. For most people, being “sustainable” involves a plethora of services and goods that can only be acquired by having enough money. This includes everything from buying solar panels for your house, driving in a hybrid or electric car, to growing your own organic vegetable garden. Most everything that society has defined as “sustainable-living” involves buying some product or gadget that is supposed to make our lives better in some shape or form. It has gotten to the point where most people give up on being sustainable if they don’t have access to these hybrid cars or those solar water heaters.

This is why I believe the current state of sustainability lends itself to affluent, white Americans. Because those individuals are in the best situations to buy and use these “sustainable products”, they inevitably become the only ones defined in society as being “sustainable”. Meanwhile, a majority of communities of color either do not have enough money to buy said products or just do not care about the sustainability movement because they are preoccupied with other more-pressing problems such as their jobs. As an extension, it’s a similar argument to what critics say about outdoors recreation, about how the sport is dominated by affluent whites able to afford equipment and to take the time away from work.

So now that we have this idea, what are we supposed to do? Do we just sit back and let these practices run their course or do we do something about it? I believe that the least we can do is acknowledge that this situation exists and begin to have a conversation about it. Even if mainstream sustainability is tailored to affluent, white Americans, this does not necessarily mean that there is a problem. However, because we are able to see and recognize these trends as they relate to sustainability signals for us to pay greater attention at what is going on. If anything, we ought to be exploring the reasons why this intersection of inequality and sustainability might exist and why I think that it’s something worth mentioning.

All in all, I believe that Davidson is in a prime position to be exploring the issues surrounding sustainability and racial inequality. First of all, the increasingly interdisciplinary education of Davidson offers us the tools necessary to solve problems not bound by one or two disciplines. As issues of inequality reach a climax in this country, I believe Davidson students will be prepared to at least bring new perspectives to these often age-old conversations. Secondly, Davidson is currently in the process of hiring a new Director of Sustainability. As a result, we as students need to take advantage of this opportunity and voice our desires to make this issue an important action piece for the future of sustainability at Davidson College. Again, why is it that I am the only minority Sustainability Scholar this year? Is it because no minorities applied or is it because they’ve never been exposed to the idea?

Let’s go back to the lunch-bunch. Most people have eaten away at their sandwiches at this point and have been listening to the same couple of people speak for the last half-hour. However, just as we were about to conclude, an intern, our very own Kate Meeks, spoke up and asked a question to the group. She asked, and I’m paraphrasing, how the organizations represented in that room were working to share and solve issues of sustainability in communities that did not have the “privilege” to even discuss those problems. For the most part, the people in the room were silent; they could not answer her question. Herein lies the problem. If these people promote sustainability and live sustainable lifestyles, why do they not have an answer ready to share with this intern? With this in mind, let us keep asking these hard questions, especially to the people in charge. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something better.

-Jonathan Lee

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