Learning about racial justice, eco-anxiety and critical environmental issues at the AASHE Conference

Leanne McMillan reflects on her experience attening the first online, global AASHE Conference.


By Leanne McMillan

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by our planet. Additionally, since beginning my degree I find myself being drawn to courses that focus on the injustices and inequity throughout our world and how we can overcome them. When presented with the chance to attend an international conference centred around sustainability, I knew I couldn’t pass it by.

The Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education took place online in October 2020. I attended a variety of sessions about diversity, inclusion, climate change and climate action, food security, and so much more than I ever expected. My hope is to use the knowledge I have gained from the conference to educate and inspire others in the same way I have been.

Equity, racial justice and sustainability

I want to begin by saying that sustainability extends far beyond the environment. When thinking about sustainability we should think about justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and protecting the people of our planet as well as the planet itself so it can continue to thrive for future generations.

A few topics that stood out to me and I thought worth sharing are recycling and where it ends up, water usage and how we can be mindful of it, and diversity and inclusion within sustainability and why it is so incredibly important.

One of the things I learned at the conference is that our recycling tends to be either shipped off to developing countries or ends up in landfills, often near low-income communities or communities of people of color. These are the same type of communities that were once redlined by the US government. Briefly, redlining is what the government would do to keep specific communities stuck in the area they are in with less access to basic resources as surrounding communities and to prevent money being brought in to advance those communities.

1939 HOLC “redlining” map of central Los Angeles (LaDale Winling)

These same communities are drastically affected by disproportionate rates of pollution, toxic waste, coal mining, and pretty much anything else you can think of that has the ability to affect the quality of life of those who live there. Residents suffer from breathing polluted air, drinking contaminated water, and from their children not having safe places to play because they are surrounded by industrial buildings. When our recycling ends up in landfills, the landfills tend to leak runoff which carries toxic chemicals with it and in turn, contaminates the drinking water of surrounding communities.

Learning about systemic and systematic racism and educating ourselves and one another is the only way to hopefully, one day, dismantle it. In doing so, it provides the opportunity for all human beings to have equal access to basic resources and equal opportunities.

Water is essential for life

Water management can be a topic easily overlooked due to the very nature of so many of us having access to clean drinking water at the tips of our fingers. But that is not the reality of everybody. Today, nearly 60 Indigenous communities throughout Canada are living under boil water advisories, some for decades. Our government has failed to address this problem and it only continues to demonstrate the systemic racism that thrives today. These communities are our neighbors and yet many people do not know about this. We must listen to those whose voices have been overshadowed and amplify their concerns so everyone has the opportunity to access clean drinking water in the same so many of us have for our entire lives.

I grew up near one of the biggest, cleanest lakes in Alberta and for the majority of my life I spent my free time in or on the water. Most of my memories are tied to that lake and it is a place where I have always felt the most at home. In the last few years, I noticed the quality of our lake changing. We began to have advisories and were no longer allowed to swim in the lake. Once I moved to Central Alberta, I noticed that many of the smaller lakes experience these same advisories as well.

Bleached corals (Australian Institute of Marine Science)

During Sustainability Awareness Week I had the opportunity to speak with Augustana Campus’ own Glen Hvenegaard. I asked him whether these water advisories stem from the overuse of motorized watercraft or from global warming. He told me it is most likely a combination of both. This reminded me of a documentary I had watched on Netflix called Chasing Coral. The film opened my eyes to the damage warming temperatures are inflicting on our oceans. Coral reefs that were once vibrant, beautiful with glowing colors now look like forests after a raging wildfire had gone through them, places where no living creature could possible survive due to the ecosystem being completely destroyed. They would turn white and glow as if they were screaming for someone to notice and save them and afterwards, they looked burnt and crisp.

The human toll on our water from greenhouse gas pollution and disturbance has a huge impact, from billions of people not having handwashing facilities at home to a dramatic decline in freshwater species. It doesn’t help that waste water is dumped untreated, having the ability to carry diseases and bacteria. But it’s not all hopeless. One important piece of knowledge that I gained was that most countries have enough water to meet household, industrial, agricultural and environmental needs. The problem is with management and distribution. Being aware of our water usage is a very easy task to implement into our daily lives and although it may seem miniscule, individual actions can have watershed-wide impacts. Water is essential for survival and our planet is essential for our survival. We must take care of both.

(Andrey Metelev)

Dealing with eco-anxiety and oppressions

Learning about these topics requires emotional work that easily leaves me feeling drained, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Educating myself on the injustices in our world and the deterioration of all the beautiful things that create our Earth can feel both intimidating and stressful. I attended a session at the conference that focused on the importance of understanding eco-anxiety and creating spaces in order for us to heal. Eco-anxiety is one’s chronic fear of environmental doom and it thrives when we do not take care of ourselves. Pair this with activism burnout and the perfect recipe has been brewed to deplete our motivation and willingness to learn about these important topics. It is so important that we create spaces that allow ourselves to heal, whether this be at home, at work, at school.

We must also create spaces with greater gender and racial diversity. I recently took a psychology course where I learned that, if I want to be presented with new opportunities and challenges then it is crucial for me to reach out to people dissimilar to myself, people that are not close contacts. The people in our lives normally share our same thinking patterns and experiences so when we want to learn news ways of thinking about sustainability, we have to make new connections. A diverse community is what enables us to learn about injustices, systemic racism, and even climate change. A quotation that was shared during the conference really stuck with me: “Staying silent in times of injustice is privilege.” I always say that sensitive topics can be tough to engage in because they make us feel uncomfortable. But those uncomfortable conversations are what allows us to grow as human beings and expand our knowledge of this world and the diverse individuals within it.

You can have an amazing experience too

The conference provided me with an unmatched experience, which is why I want to make students aware of the personal development grants offered by the University of Alberta.

The Green and Gold Student Leadership and Professional Development Grant are open to all current full-time and part-time students. These grants cover 80 per cent of the cost of attending both in-person and remote activities, to a maximum of $1,500. Activities that are eligible include conferences, seminars, skill-building workshops, meetings and events hosted by professional associations, and experiential learning activities. These grants provide the opportunity for students to expand and develop leadership and employability skills, explore future career opportunities, learn about professional practices in different cultures and contexts, establish networks vital to professional practice and advancement, and reflect critically on their career interests and aspirations.

I hope that having even a small amount of knowledge of these grants will encourage others to participate in conferences and activities that leave you feeling motivated and inspired in the same way that I have been.

My name is Leanne McMillan and I am a third-year psychology student in addition to being the Sustainability/Events Assistant at Augustana Campus for 2020–21.

I enjoy reading and anything that involves being around the lake and I am always looking for opportunities and experiences that allow me to learn and grow as an individual.



University of Alberta — Sustainability

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.