What Does it Mean for Institutions to "Mobilize for a Just Transition"? Reflections from AASHE's Annual Conference

Brittany Florio, Program Coordinator

AASHE conference poster Co-authored by Brittany Florio (FINE Program Associate) and Tania Taranovski (FINE Director of Programs)

The 2020 Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education, hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), had a powerful program built around the concept of Just Transition, defined by Climate Justice Alliance as, “a set of principles, processes, and practices that build regenerative economic and political power.” This three day virtual gathering of higher education sustainability professionals, faculty, staff, students, and partners emphasized the connection between environmental sustainability and justice. Just transition was a dynamic thread woven throughout the 2020 Conference (#GCSHE) and racial equity arose as a vital aspect of repairing and restoring social justice and therefore, a critical pathway to advancing campus sustainability.

FINE’s Brittany Florio and Tania Taranovski attended to build upon the movement of just transitions in higher education and examine how it can be addressed across all operational aspects of institutions. Although the focus of this conference was on colleges and universities, the key messages shared at the conference can be applied to most other institutions.

Acknowledging and Addressing Our Histories

Speakers emphasized that higher education is not inclusive to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students, staff, or faculty. Higher educational institutions lack racial equity, explains Davarian Baldwin, a distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, because of a long history of colonization, impacts from the slave-trade, and the military-industrial college complex. Historically, and even today, higher education institutions relocate people of color to make way for campus housing and expansion; local communities suffer under increased land taxes; residents are excluded from access due to rising property values. 

The creation and siting of some college campuses has caused lasting harm to Native Americans. Meghan Red Shirt-Shaw (Oglala Lakota), founder of Natives In America​, an online literary publication, noted that campuses were often built on land stolen from indigenous people. Some universities are working to rebuild the relationships with local tribes, which takes time and effort. Ms. Red Shirt-Shaw asked conference participants to consider, “What is a land acknowledgement without land for indigenous people? It is empty without acknowledgements of the people who created the land, buildings, space, and empty if indigenous folks don’t have their land rights.” One call to action for universities is to return institutional land to native nations. If this is not possible, then at least provide free tuition for native students. 

Decolonizing Curricula

Another call to action came from keynote speaker, Robin Wall Kimmerer, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She challenged institutions to decolonize education curriculum by integrating both western science and indigenous wisdom as is being done at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Dr. Kimmerer explained that a combination of approaches leads to greater understanding of our natural world and is critical to advance sustainability.

Engaging and Training on Anti-Racism

Ibram X Kendi, keynote speaker announcement with photo Often the institutional response to racism is training programs. Keynote speaker Ibram X. Kendi, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, shared that these types of programs are effective only when individuals are trained on understanding their own racist ideas and how to overcome them. Campus efforts must focus on understanding how specific policies and practices at their institution are problematic in advancing racial equity. Each campus has a different set of inequalities and therefore each institution needs to create its own unique anti-racist policy programs. 

Some elements of anti-racist policy programs:

  • Begin by tracking racist policies and practices. Use that data to determine policy changes. Track the impacts and re-evaluate the policies again.
  • Consider what policies can be implemented to eliminate the under-representation of BIPOC faculty.
  • Evaluate administration policies to ensure students are not being excluded based on lack of financial resources, cultural upbringing, or skin color.
  • Question if campus policies are currently supporting equality and justice in the community or creating further challenges and extraction? What policies might support reallocating money from some departments such as campus police to other departments such as financial aid?

Addressing Food Equity

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food insecurity across the nation, and highlighted existing racial inequities. Keynote speaker Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University shared findings from a recent survey to assess the impact of the pandemic on college students. She noted that even before the pandemic, 72% of Black students reported experiencing food and housing insecurity compared to 56% of whites, a 16% difference. Just a few months into the pandemic, that difference increased to 19%. One way that institutions can help is by supporting policy changes so college students can access resources such as SNAP benefits and to deploy aid equitably and without judgment. One session shared the successes at the University of the Pacific, which developed food pantries across their campuses that blended in with all other food programming. This approach to creating accessible food without stigma helped address food insecurity on that campus.

Two other sessions that centered around food equity provided tools and guidance for colleges and other institutions. One session, led by Karen Spiller, shared information about the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, which motivates participants to recognize and begin to address structural and institutional racism in our food system. The upcoming 2021 Challenge will feature new information for colleges and begin to engage college students as well. Another session, led by Tina White of Real Food Challenge, provided details on a new grassroots effort called Uprooted and Rising (UNR). The aim of UNR is to reduce the influence of large food corporations on college campuses while uplifting the voices of marginalized people.

What other actions can colleges and universities take to advance racial equity?

  • Ask, what will our community look like when racism has been jettisoned?
  • Advocate for sourcing products from BIPOC producers and businesses
  • Enroll in the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge by Food Solution New England
  • Incorporate racial equity into curriculum
  • Address food insecurity on campus by advocating for policies (e.g. SNAP) and helping students access these resources
  • Adopt reparations for Native American students

What more could you and your campus be doing to advance racial equity? Advancing equity and inclusion on campuses promotes respect, acceptance, wellness, and innovation. Higher education leaders can use the just transition principles to create transformative and lasting change. If you are interested in connecting with the Farm & Sea to Campus Network about diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, contact Tania Taranovski, Program Director, Farm to Institution New England.

Thank you to all the conference organizers at AASHE who created an engaging, thoughtful, and powerful virtual conference. 

Systems map showing aa movement from Extractive economy to regenerative economy (above) Strategic framework for a just transition, Climate Justice Alliance.