HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Taking responsibility for racism and #build(ing)backbetter

Director’s Almanac: Taking responsibility for racism and #build(ing)backbetter

In my last blog post, I wrote about #buildbackbetter, a hashtag on Twitter that was helping me, and others, feel more hopeful about COVID-19. I was thinking about how important it is not to go back to “normal” as we awake from this global pandemic, but to use the crisis as an opportunity to rediscover what’s important and make lasting investments in sustainability when pursuing economic stimulus.

And then Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Protests and civil unrest erupted across the Twin Cities, and within days, the nation and the world. More than a month later, large peaceful protests continue on a regular basis.

Police violence is a trend here in Minnesota; George Floyd’s killing was not an isolated incident. In just the past few years, Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police, and Philando Castile was shot, repeatedly, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. We also know that there is substantial racial inequity in Minnesota in education, income, home ownership – and now, coronavirus deaths.

None of these injustices and inequalities is ok.

Because of George Floyd, many Americans are awakening to the systemic racism that runs through our society (I’d include myself in this), realizing that we must address racial injustice head-on in policies and practice, each becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Many voices I know and trust – from smart graduate students, to Black journalists, to environmental justice advocates – have been calling over the last several weeks for White people to take responsibility for educating themselves about racism and taking action on racial equality. We all need to heed that call: Reading and self-education is a small but essential step toward action.

Personally, I’ve been focused on the ways in which the environmental movement has historically privileged White lives over other lives, and plants and animals (and even carbon molecules) over struggling communities. And I’ve been reading about racism and barriers to racial equality in our universities and scientific institutions – organizations I’ve dedicated my life to serving. I know there are many voices out there worth listening to, but a few that are speaking to me right now are:

On environment and racial justice–
The green movement is talking about racism? It’s about time, by Brentin Mock
Why every environmentalist should be anti-racist, by Leah Thomas
Black environmentalists talk about climate and anti-racism, by Somini Sengupta

On being White in a racist society–
For our white friends desiring to be allies, by Courtney Ariel
Bystander intervention, from ihollaback.org
6 ways to be anti racist, because being ‘not racist’ isn’t enough, by Rebecca Ruiz
Continuum on becoming an anti-racist multicultural organization, from Crossroads Antiracism


I like to read and learn, but – I’ll be honest – I feel uncomfortable writing and talking about race and racism. This discomfort has affected my ability to be an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, as a student of the environment and environmental movements, learning from giants such as Bunyan Bryant, I know about environmental justice, but I didn’t see a clear role for myself as a White person in confronting (let alone causing) environmental racism. As a researcher, I’ve studied the differential impacts of climate change, but I hadn’t examined my own race and biases.

I have to tackle these shortcomings because, as an institute leader and senior scholar, I’m responsible for – and in a position to implement – institutional changes that are necessary to address racial inequities. There are a number of ways I know I can bring about that change, but I commit to doing more – and doing it more visibility and intentionally.

I also know we must confront White supremacy culture, including at the Institute on the Environment (IonE). Within the institute, we have begun grappling with what it means, and what it will take, to become explicitly anti-racist in our operations and programming.

So what can I do?

For my part, I first commit to making funding, staff time, and space available in IonE for research and education on environmental justice, and learning from those in our network who have already invested themselves in this work. Second, I will include equity in my own scholarship and the work of my institute, by incorporating demographic data and evaluating environmental impacts and solutions across a wider range of stakeholders. And, third, as a mentor and hiring supervisor, I will prioritize and hold our unit accountable for the diversification of students, IonE staff, and institute affiliates.

I also have power and seniority – and I will use it: I will speak for equity, diversity, and inclusion and call out institutional racism in faculty meetings, professional societies, social media, and blog posts, like this one. And as a person with a platform, both organizational and individual, I will seek Black voices to give talks and share ideas, data, and experiences.

This is not an exhaustive list; I’m just getting started. I expect this list to grow and change as I learn. Further, these actions seem rational and reasonable; they should be expected of me. But it’s not always easy to be accountable for action and leaning into White discomfort. Still, I understand that my individual leadership toward anti-racism is necessary if our institute is going to achieve its mission to help people and the planet prosper together.


Lastly, I’m beginning to understand that sometimes things have to come down to #buildbackbetter. In an essay in the LA Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar expressed this in a way that makes sense to me:

“The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges…

Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”

This means that #buildbackbetter – as I wrote about earlier in the pandemic – should take on a richer meaning. In the Twin Cities, #buildbackbetter now includes restoring damaged buildings, businesses, and infrastructure. More important than physical reconstruction, however, we need better policies and cultural change. And I realize that for many, “better” isn’t enough because our pre-pandemic “normal” was downright bad.

Nationally and globally, we must #buildbackbetter in a way that creates a sustainable future with equality and justice – for Black people, for Indigeous people, and other marginalized groups. That future must topple White supremacy and White supremacy culture. In a globally connected world experiencing rapid environmental change, we are all related and intertwined. Therefore, the path toward justice is also the path toward a sustainable future.

In prosperity for all,

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