Making space for racialized voices
Building a diverse and sustainable future so humanity and the planet can thrive
Celine Isimbi is an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Environment and works to support equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives across campus. She was formerly the environmental education co-director with Black Girl Environmentalist, a non-profit aimed at creating space for underrepresented voices in the mainstream environmental movement.
The sustainability of our quality of life is intricately connected to our social, economic and environmental well-being. However, the realities of the climate crisis have not impacted everyone equally. We asked Isimbi how we should enact the intersectional changes required to ensure a prosperous future for the planet and everyone on it.
Opinion by Isimbi
Growing up in South Africa, I saw the lasting impacts of apartheid-era policies. It had been years since the apartheid system ended, yet many Indigenous South Africans and racialized people still did not have access to basic rights and resources to sustain themselves. I constantly wondered how a country could be so abundant in nature while its residents could not easily access clean drinking water or green spaces without being racialized. Those years in South Africa played a significant role in shaping my academics today and my future goals of working towards sustainability and environmental liberation.
There are multiple ways we can rebuild our communities to become more diverse and sustainable. There are steps we can take to address social and political challenges such as addressing unjust government policies that continue the legacy of colonialism and segregation that harm racialized communities, and understanding how our institutions can redress the exclusion of Black, Indigenous and racialized people within academic spaces.
During my co-op work terms, I worked at the University of Waterloo as an equity project lead in the Centre for Career Action, where I helped implement an EDI framework that centralized the services and resources offered to students. Then as an educational programming assistant in the office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-racism, I assisted with training and staff workshops on EDI and anti-racism in the workplace. Through both placements, I could understand how an institution plans, develops and executes policies and programs around EDI initiatives.
In the summer term of 2020, due to long-time student advocacy and organizing, we witnessed the University create the President’s Anti-racism Taskforce (PART). At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, students were able to encourage the University to take action. As a result, faculty members, students and staff have established a framework to engage the community and address systemic racism across Waterloo campuses. Our individual experiences and intersectional identities allowed us to address the issues on campus and make change happen. Now, the University holds a particular responsibility to students to build sustainable and diverse communities on campus.
I have learned the importance of community-centred and place-based solutions. Advocating for marginalized groups can start small by setting up community fridges and making housing more accessible in local areas. It can allow students with multiple marginalized identities to contribute to EDI initiatives and policymaking. It is imperative to make space for Black, Indigenous and other racialized students to break existing cycles of oppression.
I envision a world where future generations will face fewer barriers in all aspects of life, and that begins with acknowledging how to make space for racialized voices in the sustainability movement. If we can understand the interconnectedness between humanity and nature and acknowledge the history of colonialism and systemic racism, I am hopeful we can finally move toward healing our relationship with nature to create sustainable, diverse communities. I believe hope sustains us in difficult moments while we strive to build a more sustainable future so humanity and the planet can thrive.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.