I am delighted to share this month a summary of the Plenary Panel discussion from the annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) held in June 2018 at American University. Our topic for deliberation was Inclusion and Legitimacy as the organization addressed the structural issues of racism, entitlement and exclusion that afflicts many organizations and institutions in America today. Environmental organizations in particular face challenges from a traditional perception as “white, liberal, elites”, yet at no time in our history have the issues of environmental justice loomed more starkly as existential issues for many communities. Connecting the value of clean air, fresh water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species to the social equity issues afflicting people and communities of color is an essential part of finding a way forward that encompasses all people and reserves a viable future for all of our children. Patricia M. DeMarco
Inclusion, legitimacy, diversity and socio-environmental justice in professional organizations
Elizabeth Beattie1, Michael Finewood2, and Teresa Lloro-Bidart3
The theme for the 2018 AESS Conference was “Inclusion and Legitimacy.” This was prompted by out-going AESS president David Hassenzahl’s comments on the need for professional and scholarly associations concerned with environmental issues to “understand who participates in asking questions and developing answers and whose information is used to inform decisions. That is, who is included and how they are included, and what information is deemed legitimate” (Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2017). This theme is timely and critical, both in terms of the wider political climate in America and within the field of environmental studies and sciences. Environmental organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency are under attack and being stripped of their power, commitments to reducing greenhouse gases such as the Paris Accord are being ignored or revoked, and xenophobia is touted as acceptable foreign policy.
We opened the conference with a panel composed of Patricia DeMarco, PhD, Jacqueline Patterson, Ian Zabarte, and Elizabeth Beattie, discussing strategies for achieving inclusion, diversity, and legitimacy in AESS and similar organizations. Like many in our field, they are each working to increase the diversity of voices involved in conversations about environmental challenges and socio-environmental justice.
DeMarco has dedicated her life to improving communities through social and environmental action and policy-making. To learn about her work, see https://patriciademarco.com.She opened the panel with a reflection on Hassenzahl’s remarks about the theme of the conference and the panel.
Thank you to Dave Hassenzahl for the vision of this conference and commitment to addressing the many issues where sustainability and environmental studies and sciences cross not only the silos within academia but also the great gulf between the academic and wider communities we all serve and are part of. His guide for our deliberations was the compelling observation that “those who are at greatest risk often have disproportionately less voice in policy making processes and less access to scientific, legal, and other expertise” (Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2017). Inclusion and Legitimacy is a huge topic that encompasses so many issues. But the heart of the matter boils down to two driving questions: Who sits at the table where decisions are made? Who has standing to speak?
This arena is no longer the purview of ‘old White men.’ It is enriched and expanded to include stakeholders whose voices cannot be stilled: those who speak for women, for people of color, for Indigenous peoples, for the unborn of the 21st century, for the ecosystems of the living Earth. Academic specialists in environmental studies and sciences have an especially compelling place in the struggle to expand inclusion and legitimacy not only within the halls of academia but also in the global community, to give voice to the needs of all living things as part of the interconnected web of life.”
To close the panel, DeMarco asked the panelists,“What can organizations like AESS and their members do to be more inclusive and enhance legitimacy?”
In this post, we draw on the words of the panellists, to consider some of the ideas that emerged from their conversation in response to this question. While these are most certainly not all of the ideas that were discussed during the panel, they do provide guidance for how professional organizations such as AESS, in seeking to overcome our “unbearable Whiteness” (AlterNet Media, 2018), can explore strategies for becoming more diverse and inclusive. Having these important conversations is a necessary part of the ongoing process, and we must continue to engage in them. As AESS’ 2018 William Freudenberg Award winner, Dr. Dorceta Taylor, expressed, AESS still has a significant amount of work to do in these regards. Dr. Taylor is an environmental sociologist who examines environmental justice, particularly in the context of racism. Find more information about her work at http://seas.umich.edu/research/faculty/dorceta_taylor.
Zabarte is the Principal Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians and a board member of the Native Community Action Council. He works to challenge governmental and industry claims about the risks to western Native American Nations associated with uranium mining, nuclear weapons testing, and nuclear waste disposal, and also advocates for Native American land rights. Find out more about Zabarte’s work at http://www.nativecommunityactioncouncil.organd https://www.unr.edu/nevada-today/news/2018/ian-zabarte. During the plenary panel, Zabarte spoke of the need to recognize the corrosive power of patriarchal institutions that substitute cruelty for strength. He emphasized that many Indigenous societies are matrilineal and highlighted the importance of listening to women. Additionally, he has provided the following response to the question of how we can advance legitimacy and inclusion:
As an Indigenous person, my goal is to share the story of my Indigenous people, the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians. While some error occurs through the use of the term ‘Indian,’ it is important to recognize, figuratively and literally, that the names we as Indigenous people are recognized by in Treaty negotiations with America are the names that identify us as legitimate sovereign nations with the ability to enter into international Treaty negotiations with other countries, such as America. The term ‘tribe’ is a more recent construct used to divide one people into groups based on the subjective organizational and managerial vision of the United States. The Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians has been divided into many ‘tribes’ and placed onto different reservations along with members of other ‘tribes,’ creating confusion. Stop using the word ‘tribes’ and look to the past to understand the organic, natural, and cultural origins of the Indigenous people of this land.
I can only hope that my speaking to the members of AESS provides some measure of understanding of the fact that Indigenous people walk in two worlds, holding both ancient knowledge and modern competency, and can provide leadership in an ever-changing world. To that end, we all benefit from vigorous debate. In his book, Indigenous Sovereignty in the 21stCentury, Michael Lerma, PhD, explains that the farther a people go from their own creation story, the easier it is for them to take Indigenous peoples’ land and justify the taking. My goal is to help everyone, Native Americans and settlers in America, find and connect to their Indigenousness. What is your story? Finding your roots will help you or at least give you some understanding of Indigenous peoples’ perspectives and purposes in maintaining a connection to the places we are connected to Mother Earth.
Beattie is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia, which is on part of the traditional, ancestral, unceded lands of the Musqueam Nation. She is a privileged, White female, as well as a Canadian settler. She believes that acknowledging the colonial history of the lands we occupy, as well as how our own privileged positionalities shape our own understandings of Place, is one way to begin to legitimize Indigenous voices as valuable and worthy of consideration within the academy. In her work, Beattie also considers how we can learn from children and from Place when we think about and teach about the environment. For example, she attends to the relationships between children and the many non-human elements that combine to create a Place, and the ways that Places act as agentic teachers, offering children different opportunities for learning through the presence of trees that can be climbed, animals that can be known and communicated with, and other direct, embodied experiences that shape the children’s meaning-making. The field of ESS can then learn from the meanings and understandings the children have developed. Find Elizabeth Beattie’s work at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Elizabeth_Beattie2.
In order to ‘include’ these and many other voices, she believes we need to go beyond ‘inclusion,’ which suggests that we add seats to the table, but does not mean that we make structural or cultural changes ourselves or in our organizations. Instead of requiring under-represented groups to conform to the dominant ways of knowing and being, to sit at the table so to speak, we need to make changes that create a space that doesn’t have a table at all, and that welcomes multiple and diverse presences in the ways that they choose to come forward. Thus, Beattie suggests we talk about ‘diversity,’ and not ‘inclusion.
Beattie puts forward three crucial steps that members of the ESS community, who are overwhelmingly White North American settlers, can take to welcome diversity in our professional organizations. First, listen to people of colour, Indigenous people, and people from other frontline and under-represented groups. Listen so that we begin to understand what their needs really are, rather than assuming that we already know. Second, learn about the history of oppression in North America and how it is so closely tied to the environment. Third, give up our own privilege and power, and work toward the empowerment of under-represented communities.
Patterson, the Senior Director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP, spoke specifically about Black American communities which are so close to nuclear power plants that Red Cross aid workers aren’t allowed to set up relief stations in their neighbourhoods. She told of Black neighbourhoods denied levees, although it was certain that they would be destroyed by flood waters, because the cost of installing the levees was greater than the calculated economic productivity of the neighbourhoods. These examples of environmental racism, and the imbalance of power that allows people of colour’s lives to be judged and found wanting on an economic basis are appalling.
Patterson reminded us that the words we use don’t ultimately matter if the intention to make change isn’t also there. She also suggested that intentions need to be translated into actions, and that talking isn’t enough. Patterson gave examples of actions that can contribute to increasing socio-environmental justice, such as when White, male directors of organizations give up their positions and intentionally appoint highly qualified Black women to these leadership positions, knowing that Black women’s accomplishments and achievements are often overlooked or under-valued. Actions like these have a ripple effect, as organizations that welcome diversity in their leadership are more likely to attract a diverse group of applicants or members. Further, leaders from under-represented groups are strong role models for the children and students who may be interested in environmental fields, and will be encouraged by seeing people who resemble them in highly visible positions in environmental studies and sciences. Follow Jacqueline Patterson on Twitter at @jacquipatt and learn more about the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program at http://www.naacp.org/issues/environmental-justice/.
DeMarco closed the panel with these words:
As we struggle to examine our own ingrained prejudices and biases, it is helpful to recognize that we are all more alike as humans than different in culture, religion, race or political persuasion. In our common humanity we can respect the dignity and value of all humans, and empower voices to speak of their experiences with the confidence of being heard as legitimate witnesses. As environmental scholars and scientists, we can bear the common responsibility to give voice to the living Earth so the decisions made in the halls of power will preserve Earth’s life support system for current and future generations.
1Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Musqueam, firstname.lastname@example.org
2Environmental Studies and Science Department, Pace University
3Liberal Studies Department, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, (2017). “Plenary Panel Announcement for the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2018 Annual Meeting,” [website]. Retrieved from https://aessconference.org/2017/12/aess-conference-plenary-panel/on July 3, 2018.
AlterNet Media, (2018). “The Unbearable Whiteness of Green,” [website]. Retrieved from https://www.alternet.org/story/52166/the_unbearable_whiteness_of_greenon July 16, 2018