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Making sustainability and environmental justice more inclusive

By Roisin Cowan-Kuist

Western will be getting an environmental justice minor by fall 2019. But for keynote speaker, author, PhD and environmental justice advocate Dorceta E. Taylor, that isn’t enough.

“It should be an environmental justice major,” Taylor said to a packed audience in Fraser Hall the evening of Monday, Feb. 26.

Taylor, a professor and director of diversity, equity and inclusion at University of Michigan’s School for Environmental Sustainability, spoke to audience members about the side of environmental movements that, according to Taylor, is far too often ignored.  

“People of color have been major contributors to the environment, and to conceptualizations of the environment, we just don’t give them credit,” Taylor said.

The event, titled “Power, Privilege, and Conservation: The Quest for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” offered a perspective on sustainability and environmental justice that includes the contributions of people of color.

When framing narratives around the environment, Taylor said it’s essential to first acknowledge how people of color have systematically been left out of the conversation.

However, Taylor reiterated, it’s also equally as important to remember that communities of color were often on the forefront of sustainable practices. And many of the historical figures we revere as forefathers of environmental movements, such as Theodore Roosevelt, were often building on the backs of indigenous communities, Taylor said.

“We are perpetuating them as being these great people, above all of us, with no flaws. They had their flaws,” Taylor said. “Many of our national parks were created in this kind of warfare, in this kind of forced, bloody extraction.”

Taylor went on to discuss how commonly-held perceptions of national parks as wide, open spaces ignores the fact that Native American tribes once called those lands home. She also said the erasure of native people from their homeland is still being perpetuated today.

“They’re now considered trespassers,” Taylor said. “We are not questioning. Why do they stop being stewards of the land just because we created a national park there?”

For Western student Lee Alder, reframing our history to include the perspectives of people of color is essential when moving forward.

“It seems like a lot of what Dorceta Taylor was talking about was being willing to look at the actual origin stories of the movements we’re trying to build,” Alder said. “And also the things that have built the school that we’re studying at.”  

Andrew Westenbroek, another student who attended the event, said inclusion is paramount in order to move toward positive change.

“We need to include everyone who is being affected in our country, and that’s especially true for the people who were here before any white people,” Westenbroek said. “If we’re going to make any progress, everyone needs to have a say, everyone needs to have a voice.”

When discussing social and environmental justice in higher education, pretending that race is not intimately connected is failing to see the bigger picture, Taylor said.

“If we sit in spaces like this and we say Black Lives Matter isn’t related to the environment, then we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about and we’re doing a disservice to students,” Taylor said.  

Taylor concluded her speech by taking questions from the audience. One audience member asked how students of color who feel excluded from environmental movements at Western can overcome those barriers and stereotypes.  

“What I suggest is stop thinking of yourself as outside. Own it. Tell yourself you’re in the center,” Taylor said. “Don’t think of the exclusion. Think of the opportunity.”

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