Diversity, Sustainability and Social Justice
The University of Denver’s annual Diversity Summit is expanding its scope this year, shifting its focus from issues of inclusivity on campus to the intersection of diversity, sustainability and social justice. As the recent Flint water crisis and Dakota Access Pipeline protests have shown, environmental problems are often caused and exacerbated by deep social inequalities — and vice versa.
Chad King, DU’s sustainability coordinator, has long been interested in these issues. He helped coordinate and plan the 2018 Diversity Summit, which takes place Jan. 25–26 on campus
Q: This year’s Diversity Summit will focus on the intersections and relationships among issues having to do with diversity, sustainability, equity and social justice. Can you outline briefly how those issues intersect and interrelate?
A: When we think about the diversity and social justice movement — when we look at the issues faced by populations of color and low-income populations — the root causes of the problems in many ways are the same as for issues of sustainability. Often there’s a very oppressive or extractive culture and a narrative that leads to exploitation of people and resources. The impact of sustainability issues is disproportionately felt by lower-income populations and populations of color. Where do we site landfills? Where do we site power plants? We site them in areas that usually are [home to] poor communities or communities of color, and those communities are then disproportionately affected by sustainability issues. They’re seeing not only air-quality and water-quality issues, but decreased life expectancy and lower quality of life.
Q: DU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Center for Sustainability and Sustainability Council are working together on these issues and have been for a while. What is the key to getting everyone aligned on the same goals?
A: We can all admit that we’ll probably never get to where we’re shooting for. Our end goals might almost be too aspirational. But it’s very much a process that everybody needs to be involved in, and we all need to be able to speak the language and understand what we’re talking about and clarify that for each other. We’ve been outwardly doing diversity work longer, and there’s a momentum around sustainability now because it’s become the hot topic, but at the end of the day I think they’re very similar discussions. We’re trying to recycle and compost on campus not because that’s the greatest end goal — and not just because it’s a sustainability goal — but if you look at the bigger picture, we’re trying to divert waste out of landfills and landfills are usually sited right beside neighborhoods [serving] people of color and poor folks. Who wants that in their backyard? Let’s deepen the conversation beyond ‘How do I recycle this?’ to ‘I’m recycling this because I’m trying to have a social-justice impact in the community.’ You could say the same thing about transportation. I don’t want you to bike because I think biking’s the greatest thing; I want you to bike because it’s going to reduce air pollution in the city. And who’s most impacted by poor air quality? It’s people living around the freeways who have a 10-year lower life expectancy than people who live in Wash Park. We need to talk about these things in more complex ways.
Q: What can DU bring to the conversation, in terms of research or how we educate students?
A: As a university, we have a great opportunity to frame most of our work through that social-justice lens. To emphasize some of the strengths we already have in the diversity movement, but also [to spotlight] the faculty across campus who are doing this work. [Faculty in] the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, the Graduate School of Social Work and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies — who are figuring out what sustainable international development looks like. There is work in the sciences, too, that actually gets at those impact issues. How do we use GIS and remote sensing to look at changes in tree-canopy cover in areas around the world and how deforestation is impacting people? We’ve got work being done in geography that looks at, as Denver grows, how do we find a system of transportation that works for everyone? We have people in the atmospheric sciences looking at air quality and water quality. Then you get into, ‘How do we use sustainable business or sustainable construction to help solve some of these issues?’ — that’s Daniels and the [Burns] School of Real Estate and Construction Management. And how do you help people in those scenarios? That’s social work.
Q: Is there anything about our location in Denver that gives us a unique way of looking at the issue?
A: Because we are in the city, because we’re a landlocked urban institute — we’re not our land-grant neighbor up north that has farms and thousands of acres spread across the state. We’re situated in a growing, gentrifying city that’s expanding so fast it can hardly keep up with itself, in a place that’s very resource-limited, and now becoming space-limited too. And we are in a city that has some inherent long-term justice issues — you can go back to how water was distributed early on and how water and land were allocated. There aren’t many other private schools that have this applied backyard that allows us to dig right into [the issue]. Especially with the growth going on, I do think we have a unique opportunity to continue to shape this as one our focal areas and one of the things that we’re known for.