Thursday night University of Michigan students — Social Work student Lauren Beriont and LSA senior Lello Guluma — led a group of about 30 undergraduate and graduate students in a discussion on the topic of eco equity: a social justice initiative aimed at improving intersectionality in environmentalism.

However, Beriont noted before the discussion that eco equity can take on different meanings to different people.

“Eco equity is pretty multifaceted,” Beroint said. “I think everyone has their own definition. I think part of what we’ll try to explore a little bit is how people are coming at it from different perspectives tonight. For me, equity is about how your organization works, so equity in terms of culture and organization, what you as an individual are doing, and then how your organization approaches its work. So both in terms of how its setting up its priorities for programming, but also who is a part of it.”

Beriont, a University alum, said she returned to the University of Michigan for graduate school to help bring a stronger social justice lens to the issue of equity in the environment.

Stressing the importance of community engagement, Beriont said she would like to see further awareness of eco equity.

“The University of Michigan has focused a lot on diversity in the environmental movement, but one barrier to actually getting diversity is that we are not also focusing on inclusivity.” Beriont said. “(This is) something that has been identified as a need by both the students and the faculty alike.”

Beriont’s undergraduate associate, Guluma, shared her hope for this event was that it was just the start of an eco equity movement at the University. 

Guluma, who is a student in the Program in the Environment, noted her eco equity talk was a byproduct of a grant she submitted as part of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity plan.

During the event, Beriont went over the ground rules for the discussion. These rules included respecting one another and everyone’s learning curve, treating the space as a brave space, using “I” statements, monitor your airtime, challenging ideas not people and adhering to the Las Vegas rule: What happens here today, stays here. She encouraged everyone to go outside their comfort zone and embrace discomfort.

The event was organized into individual tables of smaller groups to facilitate discussion. The first activity of the evening was to write one thing each person is doing for DEI and one for sustainability and then discuss both.

After this preliminary activity, a video of Rinku Sen, an Indian-American activist and author whose activism spans race, gender, immigration, social class and poverty, was screened.

Sen’s recording covered intersectional environmentalism, the concept of “impact over intent” — which speaks to how the ways that actions affect people matter more than the ideas behind the actions — and the work she has done through Race Forward, an organization whose mission, according to its website, “is to build awareness, solutions, and leadership for racial justice by generating transformative ideas, information, and experiences.”

Following the Sen video, Beriont and Guluma asked the tables to discuss a series of questions to prompt the attendees to consider how they can promote eco equity in their daily lives.

Beriont commented the University has often failed at achieving intersectionality in its initiatives.

“The University focused a lot on diversity in the environmental movement, but one barrier to actually getting diversity is that we are not also focusing on inclusivity,” she said.

As the event wrapped up, attendees shared their ideas for how to best approach the issue of eco equity at the University of Michigan and in the Ann Arbor community. Medical student Liz Yates suggested the creation of a Yelp page that guides patrons to environmentally conscious establishments.

“I thought it was really wonderful to see not only sustainability and DEI crossover, but also graduate and undergraduate crossover tonight,” LSA junior Rachel Beglin said. “I also thought the facilitators did a really wonderful, and intentional, job of keeping the space light hearted, open, collaborative and safe, which is harder to manage than you might think.”

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