Sustainability’s Social Justice Problem is Social Justice’s Sustainability Problem by Clive Pursehouse

In many meetings and conversations with colleagues about building out a sustainability program, the integration of social equity or social justice into any model of a broader strategic plan continues to feel like trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. The blocking issues are a desire for quantification; lack of communication across departments; and a lack of collaboration at the necessary levels.

The first blocking issue is quantification. It’s a numbers game for campus sustainability professionals; whether that’s the calculation of Kilowatt-hour efficiency, the return on investment of installing air source heat pumps, or the tons of waste that has been diverted from landfills. Results are often measured in watts, joules, food miles, or dollars and cents. For administrators interested in measurable impact of any initiatives or investments, there is comfort in that tangibility. For those working in the social justice front lines on campuses across the country, any commentary that those efforts can be nebulous or hard to quantify is not new, despite stacks of quantifiable data from student surveys, admissions, or retention information. This is further exacerbated (in this context) by just how quantifiable some of these sustainability efforts can in fact be, down to the dollar in many cases.

The second blocking issue is a lack of communication across departments. This further adds to the challenge, as Sustainability and Social Justice colleagues on campus may have long been working on parallel as opposed to intersecting paths. In many cases social justice professionals in higher education have been at it longer and have made substantial progress and inroads within the larger campus community. It may not appear as competition but rather a disconnectedness in terms of mission. While never working at cross purposes it’s possible that a unit, division or campus is making decisions about allocating time, money or effort to one or the other of these directions.

At the root of these challenges, however, is a lack of collaboration at the necessary levels, stemming from the fact that in most cases social justice educators see their work as unique and independent and so do their sustainability counterparts. Therein lies the problem.

Competing priorities will continue to keep the conversation segregated while in reality the two are intertwined. It’s time to re-frame the missions and in some cases perhaps even language. We’ll continue to have this challenge as long as “sustainability” is seen as the work of the “sustainability people” and “social justice” belongs to the “social justice people.”

Perhaps the most difficult element of correctly positioning social justice within the sustainability framework is that in most cases there is a harmonious yin and yang between the conservation of resources or energy or reduction of waste and monetary savings. The numbers pencil out quite positively when considering why retro-fitting or designing a process, building or business model is a sound decision: there is an obvious and sometimes nearly immediate return on investment. In contrast, the social justice component of sustainability is not about an immediately measurable return on investment. Though it nets immediately measurable appreciation in quality of life, opportunities for access, or community or personal pride, those don’t appears as figures that factor in the balance sheets.

Sustainability, however, refers to three elements: economies, ecology and social equity. Therefore sustainability sine qua non requires that commitment to the human and community components of the equation. This means that, by definition, Social Justice Educators and advocates are an undeniably important component of any sustainability effort. They, however, have not asserted that role in their campus’ conversation, so that air time has continued to be filled by the “greener” elements of the conversation and in many ways this has shaped the definition for our colleagues and ultimately our students.

In order to claim their rightful place within the sustainability conversation, social justice educators will likely need to be the initiators on their campuses. Thankfully important higher education benchmarking tools use social justice metrics when it comes to scoring a university’s sustainability accomplishments. Both the College Sustainability Report Card and AASHE’s STARS ratings rely upon metrics that measure access, effort and transparency in terms of social equity. Areas like access, support for under-represented students and faculty, socially responsible investing, gender-neutral housing and the systemic measuring diversity and equity efforts are part and parcel of a campus’ overall sustainability mission, and they are measured that way.

To communicate the unity of mission, student affairs professionals will need to leverage that reality—drawing attention to it and taking an active role and interest in all elements of sustainability will help communicate the unity of mission. AASHE 2012 participants expressed a genuine desire on the part of our sustainability colleagues to hear more from and about the social justice elements of their campuses and the sustainability mission. It’s essential to keep in mind that this is not their area of expertise, and rather than bemoaning its absence, it’s time that social justice educators dig into the sustainability conversation and advocate. We’ve been down this road before.

Clive Pursehouse, an Administrator for Residential Life & Sustainability Initiatives at the University of Washington, was a member of ACPA’s original Taskforce on Sustainability and a contributing author to New Directions in Student Services: Enhancing Sustainability Campuswide. He has spent the last 7 years working to integrate the Social Justice elements into the Sustainability conversations, efforts and strategic plans wherever he finds them. Connect with him on Twitter: @clivity.

Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.

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