During my final year at Portland State University(PSU), I came to find out about a conference happening in Seattle. While completing my undergraduate degree at PSU, I had attended a range of environment/sustainability conferences around the US. However, I always came across the barrier, my peers were not like me.
When I got an email with an invitation from Mobilize Green, I decided to give them my information. Little did I know what was ahead of me. I was contacted a few days later, a phone call where a lady asked about my interest in equity, racial justice, and environmental justice.
I was shocked to have these questions directed to me, so I spoke out to the lady on the phone, I started to question their real intensions. Historically underrepresented communities have a hard time getting investments - I agreed to attend.
A few months later, I was in Seattle being welcomed by the Michael Shiosaki, the first gentlemen of the city. He was joined by an array of professionals of color from the Forest Service, University of Washington, and the Attorney’s office. They meant business. What was first an empty auditorium, was quickly filled with students of color from across the west coast.
As I looked around the auditorium, I felt so privileged to be able to sit next to so many inspiring individuals. I was most excited to hear the great ideas a group of black ladies had to engage their campus, brilliant ideas, the men in the room were mostly quiet. Being part of such a diverse audience was so new to me, meeting other individuals like me brought clarity to my pathway moving forward. I career in the environmental field is possible.
I would like to share three of my memorable moments of the conference. First, was coming to learn about the recent studies on life expectancy between south and north of the city. Seattle Times released an article on it, environmental justice was never presented so clear to me, black and white.
Second, was a lunch session at City Hall. Upon arrival, we were joined by a range of City of Seattle employees, from various bureaus and offices. They took the time to meet us face-to-face, discuss our goals, and really dive deep into the challenges of getting into the environmental field. Many of the students walked away feeling hopeful, empowered, and determined to continue their journey.
Lastly, I participated on an activity that I picked because it was the most hands on, rather then another presentation. The session, “What is your red ball?”, guided participants through a process of making a cardboard box. The box was then decorated with a range of supplies, colors, cutouts, of things that one loves. In the middle of the box, one was to place the things they always seek. The idea was to be able to have an object that described what you always looked for in life (the red ball you chase). I encourage you to find out more about it here.
If you are student of color, that will soon enter into the workforce, I advice you to attend the conference. The next one is taking place in Oakland, CA, on March 2017.
Last month I was at a panel session for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions launch of the Students Fellow Program, a student at the event asked a question regarding whether his work at a Head Start program (a program that helps young prepare for 1st grade) was related to sustainability, I didn’t get to answer his question but I wrote this.
The City of Portland, Oregon, is a unique area of the United States. The census in 2010 found it to be over 70% white in population. The Coalition of Communities of Color, a group advocating for the wealth, interests, and needs of people of color living in Oregon recently released a report on the status of the communities. It outlined that today nearly one in every two kids in Multnomah County, home to the City of Portland, is a person of color. Tides are quickly changing in the city, and consequently the same is taking place with college students.
The City of Portland and Portland State University (PSU) have such a symbiotic relationship, that it is vital to understand the city before you dive into PSU. My experience at PSU, given the context provided above, was in many ways alienating and in others home-like. When meeting with students, a concern that often seems to be brought up is the alignment of their current work with their interest towards sustainability. This is why I am going to narrowed down 3 tips for all students who are considering or attend PSU, and coming out on top.
1.Figure out who you are, and your role
Given that you and I share the mutual interest in sustainability or the environmental field, then you got a role to play, no matter your ethnicity, race, or orientation. Familiarize yourself with your roots, and learn about others. At some point, you will identify how you and your family have been privileged, and at some point, you are going to identify when you were oppressed.
It is important that you come to realize where you stand so that you know how to direct the time, work and resources to addressing the injustices we live in now… climate change, gang violence, lack of food or shelter.
If you self-identify to be part of a dominant group, then step back and listen. If you self-identify to be part of a group who has been/is oppressed or marginalized, it is your turn to step in and share your ideas. Yes, those ideas are important, and no you don’t need a college degree to participate.
2.Step out of your ‘comfort zone’
Your comfort zone, for those science nerds, is your day-to-day habitat and niche. It is where you spend most of your time, who you know best, what hobbies you take part of, the behavior you have. In order to get out of this zone, you need S.M.A.R.T. goals to quantify your progress in expanding it into the ‘risk zone’ or where you don’t feel comfort.
We are in need of green jobs, yes there are alternatives to oil, gas & coal, but no they are not perfect technologies. We need innovation to create sustainable solutions. Those are most likely to come from an environmental workforce, a diverse one. Literature tells us that diverse teams perform the best, in order to overcome the barriers ahead of us, we need to perform at a prime form. This means we diversify our environmental workforce, and ultimately follow and support the new ideas that are brought in by diverse communities.
For a student that may be part of one or many dominant groups come to understand that there is a difference between being racist, and not preparing for exclusive outcomes. Equity should be one of the first things you familiarize yourself with. The environmental field has historically, and still is most dominantly white. To put it simply, we must equitably build wealth. If you belong to a minority group, such as a person of color, I encourage you to be persistent. I remember feeling like my experience as an immigrant was not valuable, but you matter and will have a say on your future. Every one other kid in the city is a person of color, we are the future. This means you engage, learn, and lead.
Once you got somewhat of a handle on who you are, where your ‘risk zone’ is, the next logical step for me is for you to collaborate. There are plenty of opportunities in the City of Portland to engage in the environmental field, and chances are they can find a way to include you in some work. Volunteer, intern, build your network and take initiative to propose funding for a position.
This gets back to my previous point; those who have not been included in the conversation must be included. Literature tells us that a resilient project is one with good community structure. In order to get there, we need to collaborate, take initiative to find out how others work, their leadership styles. Knowing how your teammate's work allows you to have better communication, and ultimately better performance.
If you belong to a dominant group, don’t seek to start a complete own idea. When working with people of color, for example, seek the user experience rather than the design experience you wish them to take. Analyze the barriers that don’t allow people of color to participate in your programs, and allocate time, work, and resources into meeting them at their table.
To end - I will answer the question that the student posed at the launch event, he asked if his work with kids at a Head Star program is something aligned with his sustainability aspirations.
My answer to you - yes they are connected!
My own brother participated in the Head Start program and is now attending college. Had he not had that extra assistance, perhaps he wouldn’t know about recycle, compost, or other ‘sustainable solutions’. Knowing about sustainability is a privilege. Allocating time, work, and resources to help people learn about it …in my mind… is a great collaboration strategy. More power to you, and more power to any other person out there who is taking down barriers, because that is just as important as creating sustainable solutions.