This student run blog reflects writing by students from their own perspectives on topics related to sustainability. It does not reflect the position of the University.
Kelly Perymon is a second year Environmental Science and Policy student also working on her minor in Global Sustainability. She is the Climate Neutrality Initiative Climate Action Fellow at the Sustainability Resource Center and Office for Physical and Environmental Planning, and has dedicated her education to climate activism and social justice.
Reflections on the AASHE Global Conference on Sustainability
By: Kelly Perymon
Published: November 4, 2020
The AASHE Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education took place from October 20th-22nd, 2020 for the first time in a virtual space. This change allowed students and faculty from all parts of the globe to come and participate in keynote speaker presentations, smaller workshops, networking, and interacting with games and a photo booth in the online platform. As an undergraduate student of color, this conference was an amazing opportunity for me to take part in and greatly took me by surprise by its content. Throughout the 3 days, I was introduced to a different side of sustainability that I was unaware this conference would address, and was pleasantly surprised when panelists focused on anti-racism, wellness, and indigenous beliefs in their presentations.
One of the most notable keynote speakers was Professor Ibram X. Kendi, who presented Wednesday in the large virtual speaker “room”. Professor Kendi is an award winning author and Boston University professor, who is an anti-racist activitst and policy historian. Kendi discussed a new frame on racism and ways for individuals to be anti-racist while critiquing capitalist systems. Kendi also provided steps to guide institutions on creating comprehensive anti-racist policies, and addressed steps systems of higher education can take to address racist problems. He emphasized that the nature of inequalities will be different from campus to campus, but the framework of collecting and tracking racial data, analyzing policies and practices, and creating policies to eliminate these disparities should remain constant. Kendi ended his keynote speaker presentation by talking about a theme from one of his books. It started with the quote from the Will Smith movie After Earth “fear is a choice and danger is real”, and wrapped up by emphasizing that we can still do good even in the face or fear.
On Wednesday, there were also smaller workshop sessions centered around a variety of topics, for which I attended the “Student Healing in a Time of Climate Crisis” session put on by Sharon Daraphomhdeth (UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center Director), Theresa Yu (UC Berkeley Geospacial Innovation Facility Coordinator), and Dante Gonzales (UC Berkeley Environmental Educator). This session defined key topics around wellness like eco-anxiety, burnout, and community care. The speakers emphasized the importance of self healing and forgiveness, and reiterated that sustainability includes yourself, your workplace and the planet. The presenters talked about mental health and techniques for young activists especially to avoid burnout, and addressed that eco-anxiety can affect people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds differently. The concept of radical love was also introduced, describing that choosing love is one of the most radical things we can do. This session was especially meaningful to me because eco-anxiety is something many students in my field, including myself, struggle with. It is so easy to feel like whatever efforts you are making to the sustainability movement are not enough, and without time and energy to forgive yourself and take care of yourself, those efforts will be wasted. It is a big positive change for this kind of support to be offered in a global conference for all kinds of students and professionals in this field.
The next small session “Leading with Social Justice to Advance Sustainability:Learning from Indigenization” with Kory Wilson and Jennie Moore from British Columbia Institute of Technology Sustainability Institute took place on Thursday. This session was more information based and centered around the BCIT’s efforts for equity and inclusion in indigenous communities. The program directors talked about the differences between sustainability and indigenization, showing the needed shift to collectivism and prioritization of the environment. A massive cultural shift away from colonialism and capitalism and towards indigenous practices was deemed as necessary. The directors also laid an outline for running an organization that fights against colonialism, where officials must take steps like: meeting with first nation chiefs and indigenous leaders, incorporating visual expressions of Native American communities, and including Native American demographics and curriculum. Overall, this session added essential information to this conference about indigenous practices, education and added BiPOC voices to represent Native American’s in these conversations.
The AASHE Conference ended with a keynote speaker panel of diverse activists; Wanjiku Gatheru (Founder of Black Girl Environmentalist), Joshua Dedmond (Youth Organization for Labor Network for Sustainability) and Suparna Kudesia (Decolonial Educator and Director of the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive). The panel addressed the many aspects needed for a “just transition” economically away from fossil fuels and into a green economy that prioritizes community and equity. Wanjiku Gatheru, the Founder of Black Girl Environmentalist, gave an emotional response where she emphasized the need for inclusion of communities of color in the sustainability movement and prioritized wellness for activists of color. Having a Black woman who is such a young leader in the field address the lack of representation in the movement at a global conference was so powerful and visceral it no doubt sent chills into the audience. Because of the deep personal connection to the issues she was addressing Gatheru’s address led me to tears, and had a noticeable effect on the moderator as well as she voiced her emotion. The panelists also addressed the need for wellness for activists, especially BiPOC workers who need equal payment for emotional labor, and alternative ways of getting their needs met. The panel wrapped up by discussing higher education’s role in a just transition, by decolonizing curriculums, creating spaces for equity based conversations, and intentional inclusion of BiPOC students in environmental positions.
The overarching themes of these presentations included anti-racism, wellness, sustainability, decapitalization and de-colonialism. The majority of the content over the 3 days emphasized community wellness and inclusion of BiPOC voices instead of the usual mundane information about sustainability and climate change. The conference included views from many different races and perspectives, from students to award winning authors. The virtual space was organized well and allowed the inclusion of a whole new group of attendees, diversifying the audience overall. As a young undergraduate student it was very affirming to be able to enter a global conference and find a space that was inclusive for youth activists of color. I enjoyed attending the AASHE Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education, and learned a lot about aspects of sustainability that I thought I would not encounter in this setting.
*All photos sourced from AASHE GCSHE Conference Website