UCSF Sustainability Stories

Robert Hood, April, 2021

UC Makes Progress in Addressing Climate Change as a Social Justice and Equity Issue

There is a growing understanding among sustainability professionals in the UC System, and beyond, that to successfully work on climate change the issues of social division, oppression and injustice within society must also be addressed.

Later this month, the UC Center for Climate Justice will be launched. This systemwide initiative will address climate change as a social justice and equity issue. For UC Santa Cruz Sustainability Director Elida Erickson (pictured below), who has worked for much of her career at the intersection of climate change and social justice, this is a step in the right direction.

Erickson will also participate in a virtual event on Friday, April 30 at noon titled, “Tackling Our Climate Health Crisis with Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI).” This event is part of the UCSF 2021 Earth Month Challenge. RSVP is required.

Elida Erickson“To successfully work on climate change we also need to address these critical social issues – the work is intrinsically linked,” she said. “In my role as sustainability director, I am often in a position where I am sharing information with an audience that only expects to hear about more traditional environmental perspectives such as how to reduce carbon emissions, build greener buildings, save water or increase habitat for threatened species. I believe that it is my role as director to take sustainability to the next level and make sure that I am consistently speaking to how environmental issues intersect with social justice to every audience I am speaking to, in every presentation and in every area of work that we do.”

UCSF Sustainability Director Gail Lee said Erickson and UC Santa Cruz have been leading the way in emphasizing the relationship between sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s important that we understand how these issues are linked,” Lee said. “Elida and her team have been at the forefront of this effort.”

Following a six-year career in student affairs at UCSC, Erickson joined the university’s Sustainability Office as a program coordinator in 2011. She was surprised to find that the issues of diversity and inclusion were not being discussed in the office, which had an all-white staff. “I quickly realized it was a priority to help my colleagues learn more about the importance of diversity and inclusion in higher education as a whole, and how it directly intersected with our work in environmental conservation and sustainability.”

For Erickson, this was just the start of a journey that evolved over time and led to amazing collaborations with colleagues across campus and the UC system in the years to follow.

Following her appointment as director of the UCSC Sustainability Office in 2016, Erickson prioritized professional development and learning initiatives for her team that allowed for them to attend events and collaborate with colleagues outside of traditional environmental conservation work. “Over time, this helped evolve perspectives about how to define sustainability and be more inclusive of multicultural ways,” Erickson said.

For colleagues across the UCSC campus, Erickson worked with Dr. Rebecca Hernandez and Dr. Flora Lu, to develop a course called Intersections Between Diversity and Environment that was part of the Sustainability Office Employee Sustainability Certificate Program.

“The overwhelming feedback we’ve received from workshop participants is that it helps open their eyes to diversity and the history of racism that exists within the environmental movement,” she said. “This class is just one example. I also try to support and promote the important work of colleagues across campus who are working on these important issues.”

Erickson, Lu and Hernandez also partnered with students to form the People of Color Sustainability Collective at UCSC. “Student voices were the primary driver behind the establishment of PoCSC. In 2014, students of color seeking a place in the environmental movement at UCSC were unfortunately often having negative experiences with microaggressions within environmental spaces. They created PoCSC to provide a space for students of color to start talking about those experiences and increase the relevance of more diverse perspectives within environmental work,” she said.

Staff and faculty joined in formally supporting the students and PoCSC developed more formal terminology by coining the term “inclusive sustainability”. They also developed a mission, created paid student leadership positions, and conducted academic research into the degree to which students felt included within the sustainability movement.

“As a result of PoCSC’s work, the term inclusive sustainability was formally included in the 2017 update to UCSC’s Campus Sustainability Plan and the concept drives the identification of goals and priorities in campus sustainability planning,” Erickson said. “In 2018, PoCSC students were able to formally present to the UC systemwide steering committee regarding their experiences as students of color working on and learning about sustainability, which helped committee members understand the relevance of considering incorporating diversity within sustainability policy.”

In the wake of the aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings, Erickson helped write a diversity, equity and inclusion statement that was signed on to by all UC sustainability offices. “We need to continue pushing ourselves on these important issues,” she said. “I am excited to see how we can start emphasizing the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion directly into the UC Sustainable Practices Policy.”

Erickson believes the number one thing that sustainability professionals across the system need to do is to start talking with colleagues and students outside of their usual circles, which tend to focus on improving the environmental operations on their campuses. “It is equally important to improve the environmental culture on our campuses,” she said. “The more we can build relationships with folks in offices of diversity and equity and inclusion, in multicultural offices, in ethnic resource centers, and attending events that they host even though they may not appear on the surface to directly relate to our environmental work – the better we will do in serving our students and our communities. Building effective, genuine and productive relationships with colleagues doing diversity-related work is key, and it can take years to build the kind of trust required to create meaningful collaborations. I cannot overemphasize the importance of building these relationships. If we want folks to engage with us in environmental and sustainability work, we need to show up for their work and start understanding their perspectives.”