By Shaun Daniel, Sustainability Resource Center
Diversity. Justice. Resilience. Possibility.
These are some themes at the heart of the second annual Earth U Sustainability in Diversity Mentorship Dinner, being held in the Gould Auditorium of the Marriott Library on Feb. 25, from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
The free event aims to bring together many different voices to talk about sustainability issues and develop a network of diverse people, ideas, and opportunities. Registration is limited to 75 students and those interested can sign up online.
The Earth U event was founded last year by sustainability ambassador Jai Bashir, working in partnership with Amir Law, director of student services at the Office for Equity and Diversity. The idea grew out of Bashir’s interest in empowering communities not historically part of the sustainability movement. “Sustainability is not a niche concept. It doesn’t belong to a certain discipline or identity,” she says.
Bashir says that Law explained to her his belief in the transformative power of mentorship and its capacity to change lives. Thus the Earth U Sustainability in Diversity Mentorship Dinner was born.
Through the dinner, students have a chance to connect with mentors from different sustainability fields and with one another. Kat Nix attended last year. Going in, she says, she didn’t know what to expect and was a little nervous. Once she was seated at the Urban Ecology table, though, she found the dinner to be a great networking experience that offered her more avenues to explore.
To students considering attending, Nix says, “Expect to exchange ideas. You’ll meet new people doing different things but with similar values.”
Erika Longino is another student who attended the dinner last year. Impressed by the range of interests and backgrounds reflected in the attendees, she describes, “a whole world of opportunity; an abundance of creative minds.”
She was particularly struck by the keynote delivered by Professor Jose Galarza, in which he spoke about the idea of expanding one’s identity to be more inclusive of the planet and its manifold inhabitants, so as to keep greater interests in mind. Galarza also described his work with DesignBuildBLUFF, a U program with hands-on building opportunities in collaboration with the Navajo people, with a particular emphasis on solutions that respect the cultural and environmental needs of the region.
After the dinner, Longino introduced herself to Galarza and the two went on to collaborate on research together. Since then, Longino has traveled to the Navajo Nation 10 times, put in over 250 hours of research, and will be presenting at several symposia on her work.
“It’s a grand opportunity I wouldn’t have been exposed to it were it not for this dinner,” she muses. “It would have been easy for me not to have introduced myself to Jose, but it resulted in this life-changing experience for me.”
Of his own experience, Galarza says, “I enjoyed meeting and interacting with folks from a wide range of backgrounds, who were each doing incredibly important and interesting work. I wished I would have been able to meet everyone at the event.”
This year’s keynote will be presented by Biology Professor Nalini Nadkarni, whose creative work has included the pioneering study of rainforest canopies, a successful Plants in Prisons project, the integration of hip hop culture with tree canopy science, and a campaign for Treetop Barbie to offer an alternate role model.
Additionally, Elizabeth Archuleta and Adrienne Cachelin will talk about the connection between social and environmental justice. After the speakers, students will have a chance to talk in small groups with mentors in their fields of interest. Austin Holmes, organizer of this year’s dinner, wants those conversations to be as organic and self-organizing as possible so that mentors can share how sustainability relates within their work and students can ask about what interests them.
This year’s list of mentors includes Vicki Bennett, Tariq Banuri, and Erika George, among others. Holmes says that the event has grown since last year, from 10 to 15 tables, and will include mentors from the broader community as well as the University. Because seating is still limited, those interested in attending next week’s dinner should register right away.
Bashir adds, “We really hope the takeaway is that no matter who you are, sustainability is pertinent to your life.”
The event’s emphasis on “sustainability in diversity” gets at something that underlies both justice and healthy ecology.
Longino sees diversity as a principle for the many different parts that work together in a complimentary way. In contrast to the resilience of a forest ecosystem or natural grassland, she points to the monoculture of vast cornfields with their susceptibility to blight and their need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. “You can extend that analogy to people,” she says. “If you don’t have voices that come from distinct backgrounds, you’re going to have a system weakness.”
“Sustainability is huge for those underrepresented, underserved populations,” agrees Nix. “A focus on diversity lets every voice be heard.”
Think about your favorite small world story, or a friendship or love that came about because of a chance meeting. In the face of complex social, environmental, and political issues, what exciting solutions might arise from a chance meeting among strangers at a dinner? What life-changing force might emerge from the forging of new friendships and collaboration?
Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.