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Sustainability, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education

This summer Elizabeth attended a workshop on Sustainability, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and several local colleges. The following is a reflection on her experience:

I am grateful to the organizers for hosting the timely discussion on the intersections of equity, sustainability and environmental justice, issues increasingly seen as inseparable. Our communities can’t truly be sustainable if they don’t sustain the lives and livelihoods of all residents.

My goal in attending was to learn strategies to better support all students in my increasingly diverse classroom at the University of Minnesota, where I teach the capstone project class for the Sustainability Studies Minor, Sustainable Communities. I also hope to infuse more lessons on environmental justice into the curriculum. It is difficult for students to engage in basic sustainability issues like recycling and energy efficiency when they observe greater injustice in the Twin Cities, most visibly in recent high-profile police shootings but also in persistent, every-day acts of violence to communities of color such as inequity in access to clean air, energy independence, healthy food, and walkability.

My experience over the three-day event provided lessons well beyond the classroom and helped me to review my perspectives on advocating for environmental justice in higher education, architecture, and daily life.

Classroom in the round at North Hennepin Community College allows students to more fully see each other, leading to enhanced engagement

‘I see you’

Creating inclusive and equitable communities starts with the recognition of the full personhood of the people with whom we interact. This starts when we look our students and colleagues in the eye, seek to understand their perspective, and gradually come to see them in their full richness and diversity. While unconscious bias lends us to assume that people who look like us have similar life experience, we miss out if we don’t look beyond first impressions and take the time to see people as their full selves, welcoming their individuality.

Architecture can play a role in helping people to more fully see each other. In a classroom, that can manifest by arranging tables in a circle so students can physically see one another, rather than in rows where they face the front. Discussions are emerging on designing higher education environments that are less institutional and more welcoming to first-generation college students. How can architects create spaces where people can fully be themselves?

Michael Birchard, Diversity and Affirmative Action Officer at North Hennepin Community College, shared his favorite classroom to teach in, designed so all students sit around a circle and can see each other clearly.

The details of how we plan engagement matter

You know the scene – a windowless and chilly convention center room, chairs in rows facing a screen with a speaker on a platform speaking down to us. Unsurprisingly, this is not the only, or most effective, way to learn - particularly for first-generation college students and others more comfortable in less rigid formats. Often informal activities spur the best connections, and the workshop organizers aimed to do this by including music and movement activities, facilitating a tour to the Shakopee Mdewankaton Sioux Community, and providing food from local businesses with a social impact mission. I particularly enjoyed an activity that brought us out into the campus to observe examples of sustainability and inclusionary practices in place, enabling us not only to see real-life examples of the issues we had been discussing, but providing opportunity for movement and reflection. I also appreciated that we were organized in small group cohorts that gathered periodically for reflection throughout the event, allowing us to get to know participants on a deeper level. We can learn from a presentation, but learning that happens through non-traditional means is likewise valid and valuable. How can we engage stakeholders in more authentic and meaningful ways, and have fun in the process?

Touring the greenhouse at the Shakopee Mdewankaton Sioux Community farm

Create brave space, not safe space

I came to the workshop intent on finding strategies to make my classroom a ‘safe space’ for students. Safe space implies that it is possible and desirable to be truly safe, when in reality the fight for justice requires us to be vulnerable. As a white woman, while I may experience injustice in some situations, I can easily find safe spaces where I can blend in and escape bias. Many people don’t have that option. One of the men in my cohort suggested that I instead consider making my classroom a ‘brave space’ instead of a ‘safe space.’ How can we empower students to speak and share their experience in the classroom, so they are more effective as they work with communities?

Individual exploration of the NHCC Campus allowed time for reflection and place-based contemplation

I am grateful for the provoking questions and the connections made at this workshop, and will strive to continually integrate sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion into my work and daily life.

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