Skyline College fighting social injustice through sustainability

Skyline students have reason for optimism about their future. There is a movement to connect sustainability and social justice on college campuses and Skyline is one of many schools linking these issues.

In a 1972 essay, Native American filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin observed: “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted, you will realize, too late, that you can’t eat money.”

According to the basic tenets of the Skyline Sustainability Plan, Skyline College is “driven by a commitment to social equity, environmental stewardship and collaborative higher education.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sustainability is defined as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

The Foundation Center, a national authority on philanthropy, defines social justice as “to increase the opportunity of those who are the least well off politically, economically, and socially.”

Fight For Light is a nonprofit organization that orients students in social justice and sustainability, primarily at historically black colleges and universities. The Co-Founder, Markese Bryant, speaks of social justice in terms of “inclusiveness” and “breaking down false borders.”

In his book “The Green Collar Economy,” activist Van Jones writes of “a “Green Growth Alliance” to unite the best of business, labor, social justice advocates, youth, people of faith, and environmentalists to move towards an inclusive, green economy.” (79)

For Earth Day, Skyline College sponsored a two-day lecture and workshop titled “Social Justice & Sustainability: It’s Not So Black and White” led by Bryant. The goal is to empower students to take action around the related issues of social justice and sustainability.

“First, we inspire, we speak, we connect the dots,” Bryant said. “The workshop is focused on creating a space to develop a way to be creative again.”

“There is a schism — with social justice and sustainability — and he is trying to tie it together,” Luis Gomez, Skyline communications student said about the workshop. “People don’t see the connection that people who are disenfranchised can’t rise up because they have to live in a negative environment.”

In order to solve social justice struggles, communities must resolve their sustainability issues, according to Katrina Pantig, Skyline’s Program Services Coordinator in the office of Student Equity and Support Programs (SESP).

“Social justice has everything to do with sustainability for so many reasons,” Pantig said. “For social justice, it’s about people who’ve been wronged. At the same time we have to take care of the globe or there will be no time to heal the social issues that we’re suffering.” She added that “a lot of marginalized people — in the Western world — are affected by environmental issues more so than everyone else.”

The workshop creates room to brainstorm around these issues, according to Bryant. It “brings new perspective to the sustainability space,” Bryant said. “We create a space for folks to come to their own conclusion and to see how social justice and sustainability connect to have a more robust conclusion.”

Bryant’s exposure to sustainability and social justice comes from growing up in the Bay Area and meeting people from the civil rights movement. At Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male, liberal arts, historically African American college, he grew “to be in the social justice space,” he said. Morehouse College‘s Counseling Resource Center describes their mission as developing students that “have a commitment to social justice and ecological sustainability.”

After starting as a student project for Bryant in 2010, Fight For Light became an organization that focuses on forging the intersection between social justice and sustainability.

As a new way to shake up sustainability and social justice, it is a significant shift to see academic institutions as not just about learning, Bryant says.

“Protests create the space to do the right thing; for us to have a dialogue around these issues,” Bryant said. “Lot of universities are siloed,” he said about the disconnect with the institutions and their surrounding community.

Vigorous conversations are taking place about sustainability and social justice at college campuses across the United States. In addition to Morehouse College, USC has a Social Justice Specialization that examines “socio-political and ecological challenges.”

Skidmore College in New York has a first-year course called “Sustainability and Social Justice” and an environmental studies course called “The Politics of Food, Agriculture, and Social Justice.”

Sustainable Skidmore teams up with the Office of Student Diversity Programs to offer more dialogues around topics that link social justice, diversity and sustainability.

Skyline’s Sustainability Coordinator, Dainen Bocsary, highlights two sustainability groups on campus: The Environmental Club (meets first & third Tuesday from 3-4 p.m. in building 6, floor 2) and The Sustainability Ambassadors Network, a group of students, staff and faculty that meets monthly (third Wednesday 3-4:30 p.m. in building 6, room 203) to work on sustainability issues.

Skyline students also connect to sustainability through the Sustainability Blitz in classes such as journalism, math, biology and business. Skyline partners with Climate Corps Bay Area to connect students to the issues, to show how sustainability impacts them and to think about these issues on a deeper level.

The Social Justice & Sustainability workshop teaches students to work together. “We learned to come up with ideas and to expand our thinking,” Jocelyne Moreno, third year Criminal Justice student said after the workshop. “There are so many problems all over the world experiencing the same things like racism and we learned how to make this a better place to live.”

Yet, the fear is that people are not seeing much change in the patterns of disparities across racial lines and in poorer neighborhoods. Bryant sees a current “stagnation,” but is hopeful that the intersection of social justice and sustainability will move things forward to solve problems.

The evidence exists of challenges related to social justice and sustainability as referring to The California Endowment, one of the largest health focused philanthropic organizations in the state says “Your zip code is more important than your genetic code”.

Studies show “almost a complete overlay between premature death and poverty rates,” says Paul Rueckhaus, Skyline Faculty Coordinator for the Allied Health Career

Advancement Academy. “We can’t fix the sustainability issue without fixing the environmental justice issue,” he said.

The office of Student Equity and Support Programs (SESP), one of the sponsors of the Social Justice & Sustainability lecture and workshop, is developing initiatives that address student equity, both inside and outside the classroom.

“It’s important because equity in education is a big solution to a lot of the social ills that our society has been experiencing,” Pantig said. Some people “may not think about sustainability as another entry point. It’s giving students another perspective through environmentalism.”

Bryant fears that “sustainability is stuck in environmentalism,” he stated in his lecture. “They use that environmental science language and when folks don’t show interest they make assumptions that people don’t really care.”

One Skyline student sees a reason to look on the positive side. “There’s always a lot of problems around our community and we always look at negatives and we need to look at positives, too,” Cathleen Parra, first year Cultural Anthropology student concludes after attending the social justice and sustainability workshop.

“Social justice and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. It’s all tied together,” Bryant said about Fight For Light’s importance. When asked if sustainability showcases social justice or the other way around, Bryant responds: “I think if social justice is the question, then sustainability is the answer!”