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Intersectional Sustainability

banner of earth with hands rising in front of it
What is intersectional sustainability?

Intersectional sustainability is a framework that serves to understand the ways that sustainability topics--such as food, pollution, land use--are inherently topics of race, gender, social class, and other identities that impact marginalized communities. Our perceptions on the environment and sustainability are influenced by the identities we hold, and are therefore inextricably linked to the work that we do. Recognizing these intersections is vital to ensure that the work we do centers those facing the worst of climate change and other environmental injustices. 

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, with inspiration from the Combahee River Collective, to better define the interconnected nature of gender and sex that exasperates discrimination and oppression for Black women. This term was built on by Leah Thomas, based on decades of work from other strong leaders for justice, to identify how injustices targeting frontline communities and the planet are intertwined. We expand this definition to sustainability, understanding how sustainability has historically missed the mark on addressing concerns from underrepresented communities. Intersectional sustainability is a framework and ongoing process, and we seek to continue to be active learners and listeners to identify the best way to support our community in the work we do. 


Intersectional sustainability priorities

In the spring of 2021, after numerous conversations between our staff and students, we worked to identify intersectional sustainability priorities for our Office’s staff and students. These priorities work to highlight points of new engagement, and points new opportunities to better support all of our students in sustainability. These have been updated slightly over time to reflect our continued engagement and reflection in these priorities, and are as follows:

  • Inclusive and Collaborative Programming. Develop programs and initiatives that are inclusive and accessible, utilizing feedback from students, staff, and faculty. Ensure a certain amount of external program includes speakers or presenters that are Black, Indigenous or a person of color (BIPOC). Prioritize accessibility and relevance for diverse participants, that focuses on critical conversations around race, class, gender, etc.
  • Supporting Historically Marginalized Students. Prioritize outreach to and retention of BIPOC students in the Office of Sustainability. Create and maintain programming that supports first-generation and low income (FLI) students, such as the Worthmore free store and reusable utensil distributions.
  • Relationship Building. Build strategic and lasting relationships with community partners (such as Chester, Hawai’i, and Lenape nations), specifically prioritizing lasting and intentional engagement and programming.
  • Training and Capacity Building. Provide regular opportunities for Office of Sustainability staff and student employees to participate in training to build capacity for environmental justice and anti-racism work.
  • Listen and Learn from Indigenous Voices. Integrate programming that highlights Indigenous perspectives and brings in Indigenous speakers. Build and maintain strong partnerships with Indigenous faculty members on our campus and beyond. Explore ways to respectfully collaborate with Lenape nations, whose ancestral land the College sits on.
  • Equitable Zero Waste. Pursue holistic zero waste waste goals and campus policies in order to eliminate waste, which is sent to the incinerator in the nearby city of Chester.
  • Engaging in Global Climate Action. Reach our carbon neutrality goal by 2035, recognizing that the climate crisis impacts people globally, and impacts marginalized and BIPOC communities first and the worst.
  • Public Information and Accountability. Publish the goals and the work of the Office of Sustainability that highlights the intersections between social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, the climate crisis, and more. Keep this information updated and relevant to the work being done by our staff and students.

This framework underlies all of the work in our Office, and so we push to make sure that we continue to reflect on where we have been, where we are, and where we aim to go. If you have any suggestions for initiatives, speakers, or anything else to advance this work, please reach out to sustainability@swarthmore.edu