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Intersections of Sustainability: 2019 Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference Recap

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It’s hard not feel a sense of helplessness about the fate of our planet these days, that’s why it was truly encouraging to be a part of this past week’s second annual Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WOHESC). The conference took place at The University of Washington, and hosted at least 700 students, staff, and faculty from across the Pacific Northwest. There were many great takeaways from the event; however, there were also areas that benefit from being addressed from a more critical lens.

This year, WOHESC incorporated 5 different “tracks” to differentiate the presentations and workshops. They were: Equity & Diversity, Engagement, Academics, Operations & Facilities, and Community. This was likely done in an effort to give attendees a way to focus in on what they are most interested in, and get the most out of their conference experience. Although, it quickly became clear that this method of organizing would present conflicts of its own.

For instance, the workshop I took part in presenting, entitled: “You’re Not Done Yet: Challenging and Empowering Institutions and Individuals to Stay Focused on Equitable Sustainability Practices” was part of the first full day of the conference; and while we were pleased to have a full room, there were over a dozen folks who were unable to attend our session because there was not enough room. The Equity & Diversity track was given the smallest room of all the five tracks at the conference, another session at the same time had nearly twice the sized room and was under half full. This proved to be the case at all of the Diversity & Equity track sessions, and it was difficult not to wonder whether this disparity reflected the values of the conference.While WOHESC organizers put forth effort to make their event more inclusive, diverse, and equitable, it is impossible to effectively accomplish these goals without dismantling the foundations of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy on which these ecological threats were built. It was clear that WOHESC had failed to stay consistent with these values when a representative from a primary sponsor (Swire Coca Cola, USA) gave a talk on why we should be proud of the effort Coke is making when it comes to sustainability. This speech was especially problematic in light of recent reports on an international protest of Human Rights Violations by Coke.

In the span of just an hour, the room was bubbling over with ideas for ways to confront the issues that had arose in the first day of the conference. Eventually, these ideas evolved into a general consensus that the conference should operate through a lenses of critical race theory, with students of color and other marginalized groups leading efforts to organize future conferences at a grassroots level. Participants demanded that the event examine the role capitalism plays in inhibiting holistic sustainability efforts; and that the conference be funded by community investment and sponsorship from small, locally owned businesses rather than from big corporate sponsors. This strategy, not unlike that used in Senator Bernie Sanders presidential campaign,would raise sizeable amounts of money for the conference, celebrate small business owners in the area, and align with the values of those who attend the conference.

As a result of this meetup, attendees were able to draft a living document of the demands listed above, along with a variety of other requests. This letter was placed in the hands of conference organizers, which prompted them to immediately address several points of contention; including allocating more space than was originally dedicated to the Equity and Diversity track sessions. The conference website of WOHESC now states: “WOHESC 2019 will continue its work advancing equity, diversity and inclusion through thematic elements, speakers and attendees. We aim to examine systemic change and generate dialogue that guides and inspires action.” Ideally, what has arisen from this years conference has achieved just that.

Of course, the initial intention of the conference had many redeeming qualities as well; in that it was able to provide resources, education, networking, and new friendships that will ultimately further individual efforts to advance sustainability in their communities. One of the highlights of the conference was a panel discussion by folks involved in the Our Children’s Trust Juliana V. Gov case, including a senior attorney for “Our Children’s Trust”, and two of the plaintiffs in the case. Their plenary panel was called: Julian v. United States: Using Constitutional Rights to Force Climate Recovery. The panel  was so well appreciated by the entire audience of the conference that they were given a standing ovation at the end of their talk. There were many highlights to this panel’s talk,  though easily the most uplifting, was news of the upcoming injunction case set to be held in Portland on June 3rd-7th. This case has major implications for the fossil fuel industry, and it would place a moratorium on all present and future project permitting until their case is over.

Portland Community College had a strong presence of student, faculty, and staff in attendance at  WOHESC. Teri Fane, the student body president at Cascade Campus was part of the opening plenary panel, and assisted in two other sessions. I personally was able to get a lot out of the conference, and believe that WOHESC organizers will incorporate as many of the suggestions as they can while they plan next year’s conference. Of course, we can always take community organizing into our own hands; Pacific Northwest Eco-Social Justice Conference 2020 anyone?

(This article was originally published on The Bridge, PCC’s Student Newspaper)