Stronger in Solidarity: Takeaways from AASHE 2017

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

Each year, many of the world’s institutions of higher education gather together to address the growing and ongoing need for environmental and climate action. This year, the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE, was held in San Antonio, Texas and took place from October 15th to the 18th. The conference’s theme was “Stronger in Solidarity,” focusing in on how campus sustainability “can break down walls, build bridges, and continue to make progress toward a healthy and equitable future for all.”

And certainly, the conference offered multiple opportunities for its attendees to reflect upon that theme. In comparison to last year, more of the presentations commented, or focused outright, on the intersection of diversity, social justice, and sustainability. The opening keynote speech, delivered by climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, highlighted decades of widening divides in our country – both in regards to our politics and in regards to positions held on the issue of climate change. The closing keynote speech, delivered by Heather Hackman (a consultant on deep diversity, equity and social justice), turned our attention inwards – prompting us to ask ourselves if we hold biased, racist beliefs and how we open our hearts and our minds to those around us who experience life in a far different way than we do. Her speech highlighted where the overlaps really are when it comes to challenging deeply held biases, as well as challenging deeply ingrained practices that may be environmentally and socially unsustainable.

The conference also lacked the presence of a number of California public universities and colleges, particularly the University of California and California State University schools, due to CA Assembly Bill 1887 – which prohibits state-funded and state-sponsored travel to states with discriminatory laws. Texas is included on this list due to having passed legislation that threatens or impinges on the rights of members of the LGBQT+ community.

The conference itself concluded unusually with an uncertain future. Normally, next year’s host city is announced before the conference’s end. However, AASHE announced this year that AASHE 2018 was originally set to be held in St. Louis, Missouri. However, considering the recent events in Ferguson, ongoing racial tension and conflict, and travel advisories for Missouri on behalf of the NAACP and the ACLU, AASHE chose to sever its agreement and relocate the conference to another location – which is currently unknown.

All of this certainly does not take away from the positivity of a conference like AASHE. Like every year, the AASHE conference is a unique opportunity for sustainability professionals to share best practices, and for colleges and universities around the world to share their experiences and learn from those of other institutions. The massive presence of faculty, staff, students, and businesses, all of whom are passionate and committed to principles of environmental sustainability, is incredibly uplifting. The experience is educational and inspiring, without question. I truly appreciated each conversation I had with representatives of other institutions, as well as the empathy that came with those conversations. The conference certainly left me with a number of insights, contacts, and goals to follow up with upon returning to Claremont.

But with all of that said, AASHE 2017 was not a buffer from the larger societal issues we are seeing and experiencing. This conference does not shield us from what is happening ‘out there,’ – we must directly come to terms with and face the growing and complicated challenges of our time. It felt like a cleaning of the lens, only to put the glasses back on and see that these divides are strongly felt, and that they are threatening our ability to address very real problems.

For instance, AB 1887 is certainly a stand on behalf of the state of California for the LGBTQ+ community – and it is meant to prevent tax dollars from supporting states who have seemingly chosen to exclude that community. But what happens when a state like California can’t send its institutions to a conference like AASHE? The UCs and the CSUs are world leaders on campus sustainability – and many of their staff members are friends and colleagues of mine. At this conference, we missed their accomplishments, their insights, their lessons, and their support. This is not to challenge the legislation, but it is, instead, an open lamentation of how an open and sincere effort to stand up for certain communities might be compromising opportunities we have to develop solidarity and act together.

Obviously, this may have more to do with the policy itself, and the efficacy and impacts of AB 1887 and other legislation sit outside the scope of this blog post. However, it brings me to a particular point, and one that AASHE strived to make throughout the conference: what unites us is, and should always be, greater than what divides us. We are truly stronger when we stand and act together in solidarity. Sustainability is the tantamount expression of that very premise – we will all come to face the impacts of climate change in ways that will hurt us, and only a united and committed effort to reducing our footprint will be enough to address the problem and to build our personal and institutional resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Coming together on the rigorous challenges we face requires empathy and appreciation for one another, and it was this point that AASHE 2017 sought to drive home. Hayhoe’s opening keynote speech suggested that for us to address climate change, we must talk about it, but talking about it should not be a simple delivery of the facts or a shaming of disbelief. Instead, our conversations should begin with getting to know one another, to learn each other’s struggles and passions, and to calmly weave climate change into a conversation as a means to address how its impacts may only exacerbate our problems. Hackman’s closing keynote emphasized that challenging what we may not realize are deeply held biases should not just come from a desire to improve one’s self, but more importantly, it should also come from empathy and understanding.

There’s so much I could share about what I learned from AASHE 2017, but the call for empathy and solidarity was the true takeaway from the conference. It embodied the entire experience, and I hope that in sharing this, I might inspire others to reflect on these issues too.