Shortly after University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 asked the University’s senior leaders to identify how they could confront racism, the Office of Sustainability posted a draft of initial anti-racist action items. The Office invited feedback on 19 proposals written in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Recent tragic events, in a long history of injustice, have pushed us to assess what we need to do going forward to be a better organization, and one that is actively anti-racist,” the Office of Sustainability wrote in an announcement. “This living document will identify the actionable steps that our office plans to take and will be annually updated as part of our broader sustainability progress reporting.”
The current proposal includes committing to a mission of racial and environmental justice, centering the voices of Black and Indigenous people in programming and communications, and incorporating a “Land Acknowledgement statement at all office-sponsored campus meetings and events.”
Additionally, the framework acknowledges that the Office’s employees are “a primarily white staff in a predominately white field” and proposes diversifying applicant pools and prioritizing inclusivity in hiring.
“We think most of the things we’ve put in that list of ideas are things we can actually do as an office,” said Shana Weber, the Office’s founding director.
“There will probably be more things that we can do,” she added.
Eisgruber’s late-June message tasked the University Cabinet, a group of 23 senior academic and administrative leaders, to “identify specific actions that can be taken in their areas of responsibility to confront racism” by Aug. 21.
The Cabinet includes Vice President for Facilities KyuJung Whang, whose office oversees the Office of Sustainability. The proposed action items state that the Office of Sustainbility “will advocate for and support anti-racist initiatives within the Facilities Organization that the Office of Sustainability is a part of.”
After absorbing the information submitted by individual departments, the University will “come up with not just a summary [of inputs], but a thoughtful organization of an approach that benefits from all the inputs,” Weber said.
The current draft includes reviewing the University’s 2019 Sustainability Action Plan. Released on Earth Day in April 2019, the document sets a 2046 target for zero greenhouse emissions.
The Office of Sustainability reports on the University’s greenhouse gas emissions but excludes the numbers’ social impact, according to Weber.
The draft’s subsection on Ethos and Culture states that the Office of Sustainability staff “will engage in environmental and racial justice planning discussions in higher education networks, and invite dialogue with practitioners in the environmental justice field.”
Prioritizing environmental justice, Weber said, will allow the Office to more fully understand its progress.
Environmental justice movements often focus on people from communities of color and low-income areas. These communities remain disproportionately impacted by environmental and health burdens.
“We recognize that sustainability is not separate from racial justice. The two are, in fact, intertwined,” an Office of Sustainability message noted. “We must practice Intersectional Environmentalism, by advocating not only for our planet, but also for the people who inhabit it.”
According to students working with sustainability programs at the University, too often, environmental justice is left out of the conversation.
“Pipelines, oil spills, extraction of different resources, or deforestation often aren’t really impacting wealthier white communities,” said Hannah Reynolds ’22. “They’re often done in places that are communities of color or places where Indigenous people live.”
Reynolds is a summer columnist for The Daily Princetonian.
This summer, Reynolds is studying the loss of Indigenous language and biodiversity in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
The Office of Sustainability avoids projects considered overly political, Reynolds said — adding that she once recommended the Office collaborate with Divest Princeton, a student group pushing the University to divest its $26.1 billion endowment from fossil fuels, but was turned down.
In this instance, Weber wrote that while her Office supports and encourages private, individual civic engagement, it is not the role of an administrative office “to participate in activism within its own organization.”
She added that there is “an established process underway within the CPUC to address the question of divestment within the University.”
Still, Reynolds felt that Office administrators might have previously considered projects that promoted racial equality too political. Increasingly, she said, “it’s becoming less political” and a “moral obligation” to address these issues.
“Something that people are calling for a lot lately is diversity training and education, a distribution requirement, or something during orientation about racial justice,” Reynolds said. “What’s offered currently is usually an alum, professor, or someone who did a lot of work in sustainability or technology, but there’s not as much about the social justice component.”
The recently-proposed framework contains several action items focused on expanding offerings by recruiting students to facilitate environmental justice programing, updating EcoReps training to include environmental justice education, and evaluating the establishment of an “Environmental Justice post-grad Fellow position.”
“I’m really hopeful that under this new framework, [the racial justice component] is something that’s really pushed for,” Reynolds said. “It looks like there are some efforts, but I’m hoping to see that it’s really followed through in the future.”
As the Office of Sustainability aligns its curriculum and culture with anti-racism initiatives, student activists emphasized the importance of talking about environmental justice.
“One very important thing in this process of implementing and creating the final framework would be to listen to the people from environmental justice communities,” said Mayu Takeuchi ’23, a Bogle Fellow working on environmental justice initiatives with community organizers in New Jersey.
The Office of Sustainability has started conversations with parallel offices from other institutions. They hope to host joint workshops that welcome representatives from environmental justice areas, according to Weber.
“I want environmental justice to be a more amplified and central concern as we move forward with climate policymaking, but it’s not like everyone lives in environmental justice communities, and that’s not something that any of us want,” Takeuchi said.
“It’s still important to educate people and bring awareness to environmental justice, so it’s important for people outside of environmental justice communities to better understand what environmental justice is really about,” Takeuchi said.
The framework outlined the Office’s plan to engage in difficult conversations about environmental and racial justice with practitioners in the field.
Weber reiterated that the draft is in its preliminary phase and the beginning of more discussions to come.
“What’s really important is to challenge people, especially students like me who are interested in climate topics or who are already active with good intentions, to improve and promote environmental justice,” Takeuchi said.