Sharing Social Justice Approaches to Sustainability at AASHE

By Molly Craft Johnson, University Sustainability AssociateThis week, I had the privilege of traveling to San Antonio, Texas to present on behalf of the Tishman Center at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Each year, college and university sustainability staff, faculty, and students gather at the AASHE conference to share progress made toward sustainability on their campuses, and to learn from each other about strategies to implement and support sustainability in curriculum, operations, culture, and community engagement.

I led a session on Monday morning called “Community Partnerships for Environmental Justice,” which focused on the Tishman Center’s unique approach to community-academic partnerships. We ground all of our work in the Principles of Environmental Justice and the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. These principles emphasize the importance of working in solidarity and mutuality, letting communities speak for themselves, inclusivity, self-transformation and building just relationships. After giving this presentation, and in conversation with my counterparts at other schools throughout the conference, I hear the same thing over and over: “I wish we could talk about social justice and sustainability like that at my school.”

The AASHE conference is a great place to find out about tactics and strategies other colleges and universities are using to tackle some of the big sustainability challenges we are also working on here at The New School. Some schools represented at the conference are doing groundbreaking work related to their energy, waste, and water (you can learn about The New School’s efforts on Buildings’ Sustainability Dashboard). Others are leading the way in economic and human health-focused aspects of sustainability. Others are just getting started on their sustainability journey. What I knew heading into the conference, and had reaffirmed in almost every conversation I had is that a social justice-based approach to defining and acting on sustainability really makes The New School stand out.

Other schools are operating in a variety of contexts that are very different from our reality here at The New School. Sustainability officers across the country are contending with responsibilities to manage on-campus organic farms or make their athletic events more sustainable. They are trying to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions in states where many people still deny that climate change is real. Our urban setting and seamless integration into the city make The New School uniquely poised to engage with our community. It also helps us focus on sustainability as a social phenomenon and a matter of systems thinking as opposed to over-emphasizing generic calls to “go green” or connect with nature. There are a large number of active environmental justice organizations in New York and New Jersey that we are able to partner with when the expertise of The New School aligns with their goals or needs. The university’s overarching commitment to social justice further bolsters our dedication to connecting justice with our sustainability work.Across the board, justice and equity are issues that cannot be extracted from a holistic view of sustainability. Colleges and Universities have an important role to play as part of the communities that extend beyond the borders of their campuses. Figuring out how to engage with communities in a democratic, supportive, and meaningful way can be difficult, especially for sustainability offices on other campuses still trying to convince folks at their schools that simple steps like recycling are important. The Tishman Environment and Design Center is providing a model, though, to show that higher ed can be an ally in the environmental justice movement.

I’ve always known The New School’s approach to sustainability was special for prioritizing a social justice-based understanding of the concept. That’s what drew me to the University to pursue my Masters in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. The unwavering attention to and solidarity with the environmental justice movement is one of the primary factors that make me so proud to now work full-time at the Tishman Environment and Design Center as The New School’s University Sustainability Associate. This approach is something that we can and should all be proud of, and that we should constantly strive to strengthen. 

Molly Craft Johnson is the University Sustainability Associate at the Tishman Environment and Design Center. Molly holds an MS in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management with a Specialization in Finance from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School, and a BA in Environmental Ethics and Policy from the University of Portland.