Where Social Justice and Sustainability Meet

Written by Nic Esposito

This is a crosspost from Generocity.org. view the original post here. Series Intro: This series, titled Thoughts on a Movement, is intended to explore the philosophical implications and systems changes that are made possible by our society’s shift to sustainable practices. The author hopes to offer thoughts, opinions, and analysis on issues and innovations in the sustainability movement that inspire readers to both connect with and critique sustainable practices.

MLK Day DARE March
Brandon Tate Brown

Even though I’m a commentator who has a platform to reach people with my thoughts and opinions on sustainability, I would be remiss not to talk about recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland where shootings by police have once again revealed the tensions that exist between law enforcement and communities of color. This is something we should all be talking about, and I would like to look specifically at how these events, as well as the tension between police and communities of color across the country, pose a huge challenge for the overall sustainability sector.

One may think that sustainability is an inappropriate subject to focus on at this time. Of course, the first and foremost issue that must be addressed is the fact that communities of color feel that their human rights are being infringed upon by law enforcement. But sustainability is not just about producing solar panels and bike lanes. I view sustainability as an overarching strategy to run society — an ecosystem that works interdependently on all parts to ensure equitable and mindful use of our resources, as well as an improved quality of life, for everyone on this planet.

So if an ecosystem depends on all parts participating, then it is logical to conclude that the system cannot function if you have a large component of it that is not participating. As many activists and commentators have explained, the events in Ferguson and elsewhere are tragic manifestations of the disenfranchisement that communities of color have historically experienced and that in certain circumstances discourage participation in aspects of society such as law enforcement and politics. As someone who devotes much of his life to inspiring people to live more sustainably, it is also my worry that this overall disenfranchisement could further alienate even just one person of color from wanting to participate in the specific systems of sustainability that need his or her participation to fully function in society.

This issue is particularly distressing to me because of my work in Philadelphia, especially in urban farming. Throughout my career, I have witnessed how racial and social justice intersects with sustainability, and that people of color, specifically African-Americans, have been at the forefront of these movements.

My first volunteer experience in a Philadelphia community garden was with Mr. Hayword Ford at Aspen Farms in West Philly. Not only did Mr. Ford show me how much I needed to learn when it came to gardening, but he also revealed to me that African-Americans have historically founded and operated hundreds of gardens in Philadelphia. Seven years later, following my appearance on the WURD “green” radio hour to discuss urban farming and sustainability, a program within a radio station that appeals mostly to African Americans, there was an outpour of interest in urban farming that showed me that this legacy is alive and well.

This also brings to mind my work with the PowerCorpsPHL. This program is a workforce development program that offers job training in environmental stewardship and land care to 18-26 year olds that have had obstacles in joining the workforce. Almost all of the participants are people of color.

I credit volunteer service, environmental stewardship and my exposure to the sustainability movement that I fortunately experienced as a young man with giving my life purpose and focus. And in that way, I’m able to connect with many PowerCorps participants as they experience the same awakening and participate in creating systems of sustainability. The two anecdotes that stand out to me are when a participant has picked up enough litter in a park that he says that he will never throw another piece of trash on the ground, and that he’s going to make sure no one in his neighborhood does so either. My other favorite moment is when a participant discovers a natural land area in Philly that she never knew existed, and she says that she is going to take her kids there next weekend. Again, these are the impacting moments when people are inspired to participate in the ecosystem of sustainability.

It’s a tragedy that three people lost their lives in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island, as well as the two police officers that recently lost their lives in New York City. And I feel that it would be a continued tragedy that these events could further alienate a large community of people of color in our society that we need participating in the systems that make this world a more sustainable place. I’m thankful for programs like PowerCorpsPHL, the urban farms across the city, and the leaders in the African-American community who are doing their individual parts to inspire anyone and everyone to live more sustainably. And I hope that every advocate in sustainability, regardless of race, can continue to come together to keep working toward bettering this eco-system for all of humanity. But as that good work continues, let’s all focus on fixing this broken system between law enforcement and communities of color.