Students Reflect on Privilege in Environmentalism at WOHESC

Sylvie Corwin

Members of Divest Whitman and Campus Climate Coalition (CCC) returned from Seattle on Feb. 27 after attending the Washington and Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WOHESC).

The conference took place over two days of panels, speakers and networking breaks. Panels were led by students, professors and various people working to promote sustainability. They covered topics ranging from land management and campus bee keeping to the relationship between social justice and environmentalism. All activities took place at the University of Washington (UW) and featured both students and faculty from the UW and other colleges in the region.

First year and member of Divest and CCC Ruthie Colburn felt the conference catered more to the adults attending.

“There were definitely some students present but I would say not more than 20 percent maximum,” Colburn said. “I think some of us felt [that] there was useful information that was given but it was [better] applied by members of the faculty than by students.”

WOHESC was sponsored by a variety of companies this year, including Coca Cola. First year and member of CCC Em Perry was surprised by the number of companies present.

“One of my biggest problems was the amount of — pardon my french — capitalistic bullshit that was going on at that conference,” Perry said. “Every single lunch break they would have somebody going up and advertising their new compostable dishware.”

“There was a brief talk by a company that wanted to implement electric scooters on campuses, and that was the thing that was going to change our situation,” Colburn said. “And that just didn’t feel productive.”

Each day included two panel sessions with five options during each session. Perry was particularly inspired by a presentation by an alumnus of the University of Oregon.

“One thing that I’ve been trying to do on campus is help with resources for students who are food insecure or housing insecure… And I thought that that would be a really difficult thing because I hadn’t really seen that before on a college campus done well,” Perry said. “And then I went to a talk led by a grad student of U of O who was talking about how his school already has a homeless shelter on campus with two rooms people can stay in, and a food pantry, and a laundry machine…And I was like ‘Oh my gosh this is so great, this already exists somewhere’.”

An hour on the first day of the conference was dedicated to afternoon “Meet-Ups.” First year and member of Divest and CCC, Karsten Beling, attended his most-meaningful presentation, titled “Towards Black Environmentalism: Introspection of Land and Place,” during this time.

“My Meet-Up really solidified some of my concerns with the conference and with the discussion around sustainability in general, kind of incorporating talking about racism and environmentalism,” Beling said. “A lot of the sessions were made by white people who didn’t really care about [the social justice side of sustainability] or know about that and a lot of [the sessions] felt out-dated.”

Only three of the 12 students from Whitman attending the conference were upperclassmen. A large proportion of both Divest Whitman and CCC is made up of first years.

“Sustainability at Whitman is mostly comprised of first years and seniors, so when [the seniors] leave, what are we going to do?” Beling said. He partly attended the conference to get ideas for how to continue sustainability at Whitman next year.  

Besides Whitman, there were student delegations sent from Western Washington University, the University of Oregon, various of the Portland community colleges and other schools in the area. The conference presented a chance for Whitman students to connect with students at other schools also interested in sustainability.

“Whitman doesn’t put enough emphasis on sending people to conferences,” Perry said. “Building connections with other schools is one of the most important things I think colleges can do. Because if you isolate yourself as like this hoity-toity Mr. College, it’s just so counterproductive to isolate your school if you’re trying to build a network of knowledge.”