Centering Racial Equity: Listen, Learn, Lament, Leverage, Love

August 3, 2020

Isabelle Musmanno has been involved with SLS throughout much of her time as a student at Georgia Tech.  In addition to attending events and workshops, she served as an SLS Global Student Ambassador in the Summer 2018 Leadership for Social Good study abroad program and in the Summer 2019 Costa Rica study abroad program.  Most recently, Isabelle has been part of the Summer 2020 SLS Internship Program, working with SLS partner Global Growers.  

On July 20th, I was able to attend “Centering Racial Equity in Equitable and Sustainable Development” virtually through BlueJeans (recording of the event can be accessed HERE). This event, hosted by Serve-Learn-Sustain and the summer  iGniTe program, could not have come at a more pivotal time. With the revitalized urgency around the Black Lives Matter movement following the unjust murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, I have been trying to attend any conversations around racial equity that I can. As I near graduation, it is important for me to learn about how to bring anti-racism into my future workplace - something that is not actively taught in my standard engineering classes. I particularly seek out lectures from leaders in the sustainability community, like the ones present at this lecture, as their wisdom can help me understand what opportunities exist in this sector to which I am dedicated.

The goal of this discussion was for the esteemed panelists to discuss how and why racial equity is central to their work and how others can engage in that mission. The discussion began with Carol Hunter, Executive Director of Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture (TLW). Carol shared the historical context of her work, including that Black Americans have lost 90% of their farmland by the 21st century, the importance of growing one’s own food on one’s own land, and how TLW is leading the urban-ag movement in Atlanta through education and community empowerment. Odetta MacLeish-White, Managing Director of the TransFormation Alliance (TFA), then detailed the racial injustices in the public transportation sector in Atlanta with examples from the BeltLine project and MARTA’s expansion. Odetta explained how transit can ‘shift the market’ against historically Black communities and how TFA uses these themes to grow membership and make change. Nicole Moore, Director of Education with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, closed the opening remarks with a recognition of the importance of understanding the past in order to make change in the present. The museum's mission of ‘reflect, inspire, transform’ is applied to local and international civil rights movements.

The panelists stressed that systems of oppression do not occur organically, they are products of decisions made by developers that touch everything in society. Because these injustices were formed intentionally, we must be equally as intentional in coming together and dismantling them. However, when coming up with solutions to these problems, we must critically think about what constitutes ‘innovation’ - a word I often hear at Georgia Tech. Many times ‘new discoveries’ are actually the reopening of other cultures' pathways and histories. These multidimensional problems can be overwhelmingly complex, and keep me up at night. Carol, Odetta, and Nicole all agreed that when attacking these systems of oppression, we must listen to those in the community first and learn from them before we respond. “Listen, learn, lament, leverage, and love” is a new mantra I will take with me.

The major theme that will stick with me and I hope resonates with other GT students is that it is imperative for future leaders to not only be aware of but to actively work against all forms of oppression that can come as a negative side effect from innovation. We must marry racial equality and system thinking to become the real problem solvers we at Georgia Tech hope to be. Thankfully, conversations like this bring justice to the forefront of everyone's minds, and I am proud to learn about how to achieve equitable and sustainable development with my peers, SLS and the greater Atlanta community. Outside of this conversation, SLS has compiled and shared resources on racial inequity and its relationship to opportunities and barriers to advancing community sustainability. Find SLS’ most recent list of resources on the COVID-19 Pandemic and Racial Justice here.

Tips from the question and answer portion of the discussion: