Prevention, Unsung Heroes, and the Big Picture

I heard an NPR piece this afternoon about awards for outstanding work by air traffic controllers.  When they do their best, it doesn’t make the news.  Perhaps even the passengers in the planes are unaware of their close brush with disaster.  One assumes the pilots are aware of the tragedy-narrowly-averted.  At least in this instance, the near-miss is recorded and the one who prevented it can be recognized later.

I had earlier had a brief chance to talk with my friend Judy, sharing the news of an upcoming panel engagement at Bioneers, where I will be speaking as a representative of a “minority-serving institution” about how we are using the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to foster sustainability at Cabrillo College.  I mentioned the unfortunate fact that the students and staff most engaged with sustainability on campus are probably the least diverse groups around.  Judy noted that sustainability issues are simply not a priority for people facing the kinds of challenges and injustices that minority students attending community colleges frequently face.  She’s not wrong.

I recall a similar conversation with another dear friend more than a decade ago.  When faced with such evident, day-to-day injustice and suffering amongst people, it’s nearly impossible to take a step back and see the more distant problems as being all that important.

And yet… the problems are still there, looming in the middle distance.  There are good reasons to believe that the arrival of food and water shortages, increasingly disruptive storms and floods, and the economic upheavals resulting from a failure to transition to more future-minded and sustainable ways of producing energy, food and basic necessities are going to create even more injustice, inequality, war and violence.  That’s what needs preventing.  That’s why we need to be changing things better, faster and smarter than we are now.  And that’s everybody’s issue.

So the challenge is to find a way to say that, a way that isn’t terrifying to the point of paralysis, a way that focuses on all the good we can gain from doing things differently.  At least, that’s what I’ve been working on for the last decade or so.  Green jobs, better health, stronger communities, all the positives that are part of doing things better and smarter.  And that seems to have some appeal in that LOHAS demographic (the folks who can “afford” to care) – it’s stylish and sexy to them.

It also has appeal in low-income communities of color, the folks served by People’s Grocery and Green for All.  They are overcoming injustice and building community, while nurturing the seeds of the kind of change that just might prevent the worst of the problems.  I think it’s sexy.  I think it’s heroic.

But nobody’s gonna listen to a white chick from the ‘burbs on this topic.  I want to foster that kind of change in the diverse communities where my students grew up… I just don’t have the street cred.

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