The Study of Sustainability: A Student’s View

By: Sam, Mattie Lili, Patricia, Taylor, and Quentin

The word sustainability has spiked in usage between the years 2019-2022.  Society coined this word as a necessary topic for discussion, enabling change and encouraging the new generations to take a step to ensure a safe and healthy environment for the future. Sustainability is a broad policy concept, historically, primarily centralized around the global public discourse, and defined by the three known pillars – environmental, economic, and social. Though the original definition stated that it was the ability to continue over a long period of time, recently the thoughts on this subject and the definition itself have evolved.

Within our community, sustainability has been emphasized on numerous occasions to encourage people to make responsible and efficient decisions to ensure the general welfare of those around us without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Written on SUNY Geneseo’s webpage are these ideals – stating “In an effort to work on and commit to all three pillars, SUNY Geneseo has joined world leaders at the United Nations in adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all” (“Sustainability at Geneseo…”). Along with this, a Sustainability Map is included to further explain and express how this institution leads sustainability efforts both on-campus and worldwide in an interactive map format. With these ideals in mind, sustainability has morphed its way into a major at the college for students to further the conversation about how to maintain future generations’ successes. The college offers multiple internships and work studies to grant students the opportunity to be involved in local endeavors, such as the Genesee Valley Conservancy and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. There is also a tab on the side of the website in which students may click on, entitled “Get Involved” – showing on-campus initiatives, clubs/groups on campus which focus on sustainability (Arboretum Board, GOLD program, CAS, EcoHouse), and the necessary contact information for the Office of Sustainability where students can “take a directed study with other interns in the office, volunteer, or utilize Office resources for [their] research, projects, and initiatives” (“Get Involved”). There are a number of paths that students can take following this major, such as Climate Change Policy Analyst, Conservation Scientist, and Soil and Plant Scientist. Along with these careers, there are even instances in which students are given the opportunity to immerse themselves into sustainability at SUNY Geneseo directly on campus, such as our own class’s recent trip to the Heating Plant in which we learned about the work done there and how it impacts Geneseo students. These resources available for students and the opportunities that we are presented with on the topic of sustainability offer chances for growth, knowledge, awareness, and appreciation.

In class, we have also been exposed to multiple texts that cover sustainability. One text that goes more in-depth on raising awareness about sustainability is The Invisible Man, written by Ralph Ellison. In chapter 10, Ellison engages the audience with questions about sustainability and its various impacts on us. It is here where questions revolving around sustainability in the workplace and the different social and economic impacts are grappled with by the reader.   “Why, you’d a-thought I’d done cursed him or something. ‘What kind of talk is that from you, Lucius Brockway,’ he said, ‘taking it easy round the house when we need you out to the plant? Don’t you know the quickest way to die is to retire?” (Ellison 17). This quote pushes the reader to think about the effectiveness of a company that relies so heavily on one man and furthers the conversation on how sustainably such a company can be operating. This is also a subjective and thought-provoking phrase when the reader interprets what exactly Ellison is saying. Is saying “the quickest way to die is to retire” meant to show that a worker’s value deteriorates when they stop working? Or perhaps is it being suggested that the worker’s own life deteriorates when they leave their working life behind? Which is sustainable – the worker’s value, the workplace, both, neither? The idea of this one man being so important becomes more complicated when the reader realizes how much pride Lucius takes in his role. “everybody knows I been ever since there’s been a here — even helped dig the first foundation. The Old Man hired me, nobody else; and, by God, it’ll take the Old Man to fire me!” (Ellison 12) Lucius’ tense greeting to our narrator also demonstrates his fear of being replaced, thus his fear of not being able to sustain himself. The ecosystems of a factory setting are complex and intricate, and he understands how a replacement could destroy him individually, yet not the company in any way. While reading Invisible Man, certain questions arose and were identified by our group surrounding the topic of sustainability. These questions included the following: What defines something or someone’s value that leads to it being sustained? What does it take to maintain a sustainable work environment? Can other things sacrifice their own sustainability while keeping another thing or person’s sustainability alive? How does the production of paint in the factory interact with the idea of economic sustainability? And lastly, how does the union’s reaction to hearing Lucius’ name and Lucius’ reaction to hearing about the union contribute to the idea of social sustainability? Having these questions before the visit to the Heating Plant provided a framework for the thought process. Each man in the plant had their role and were imperative and dedicated to that role. 

Not only did questions arise from the Heating Plant visit, but we also arrived at a realization regarding our own appreciation when it comes to some of the essential parts of our life. We saw that the Heating Plant follows a very complex process in which daily life and functions are often not thought about by the general public, and oftentimes, the work at the Heating Plant can be taken for granted by those who benefit from it every day. When the radiator turns on and makes a noise, we are quick to comment on it, but how often do we take time to appreciate its purpose and the work that is put into sustaining it, along with our warmth and comfort? How often do we question who is running this system, and appreciate the work they do for us? One text from class called Farming While Black, written by Leah Penniman, connects to this idea of underestimated complexity. In the chapters that we read and discussed, we made note of how Penniman also covers a process that the general public can often go unnoticed yet offer us something necessary to sustain our lives. There is so much work that goes into these things that sustain our lives – alluded to in the words “We ask a lot of this land. Each year we coax around 80,000 (36,500) of mineral laden vegetables from the hard clay soils” (Penniman 59). Oftentimes, the public is unaware of dedication and labor which goes into these things. For example, the soil itself provides a complicated pH index for those working with it. “Farmers in Africa combine these soil characteristics to create complex soil classifications. For example, Marnprusi people of the northeast of Ghana Kokua Sabbi have four dark soils with iron/magenese nodules and a general low fertility, especially in drought conditions” (Penniman 90). The fact that such intense work goes into creating the food that we enjoy and that sustains our lives on a daily basis yet so many of us are ignorant of the process itself is a parallel we drew between our text and our visit to the heating plant. If ignorance is still an issue then there are other careers and areas of life that are similar to the Heating Plant and farming – ones in which we take for granted and do not give the necessary credit to on what they do for civilization and for the sustainability of comfort and life. The realization that we are largely unaware of the work that goes into sustaining the world we live in illuminates the complexity of sustainability issues.

Sustainability is as inadvertently subjective as it seems. There are multiple aspects of sustainability we learn and utilize in our local communities and beyond. Economic,  environmental, social, individual sustainability just to name a few, are filtered through our brains in this current generation to execute change responsibly and maintain our general wellbeing.  Our own desires of sustainability may differ, as well as what our resources and education provide us to learn about sustainability. As Penniman states, “We ask a lot of this land” (59) – and with that being said, it is okay to not be aware and to recognize your own lack of appreciation or understanding – as long as there is growth that stems from it, and knowledge that is gained. We must actively learn to care and to ask ourselves “so what?” In order to fully appreciate and acknowledge the sustainability that certain things grant us through our lives, comfort, and happiness. We, as humans, do take a lot from this earth, and it is imperative to maintain a sense of sustainability for future generations. Although we came to an agreement on what sustainability means to us for this essay’s purpose, we can’t speak for everyone in this class, our community, or our environment. Our admittance of our own ignorance means that we are prepared to grow and learn through further collaboration with our peers. 

Call and Response: Rhythm and Identify Unifying a Culture Together

Looking deep into the content we’ve learned and discussed thus far within this course, our reading and learning of the Call and Response anthology has educated me in a lot of different facets outside of my current knowledge behind African American culture  a handful of my peers were also intrigued by the influence of music impacting African American culture, but I felt that the video presentation of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon was a perfect visual representation of the magnitude music has upon one culture.  Through the readings we’ve been analyzing and learning from, the visual presentation told us a lot about how impactful music can really be, whether it be the composition in which it was written, the rhythm, the contagious energy of uniting those beside you, and allowing you to be heard in an area of silence and isolation.  This is displayed through history itself in protests, church, and other events that unites a culture and bands together which is a beautiful sight and a solid representation of it’s impact, especially when referring to its transition into literature.

When we refer to the Title ”Call and Response”, one could acknowledge the nod to the world of music, as call and response in music terms refers to a solo demonstration of a certain phrase, while the response is the ensemble following up with that next phrase.  Similar to that representation, call and response is enabling unity, and telling a story about heritage and culture to the audience, giving the audience the response.  I found that Call and Response and the texts we’ve read thus far truly garner an aesthetic approach versus belletristic.  The content being explained and taught relies heavily on the anthology and the response of the reader.  With a greater focus on the presentation of the culture and experience more than the literature aspect of all of it.

For a reference, if we look at Barkley Brown’s African American Women’s Quilting, we get visual, and foreign linguistic demonstration on how quilting is a good portion of African American culture and its definition to its respected heritage.  We can identify this in the text where it states, “Wahlman and Scully argue that African-American quilters prefer the sporadic use of the same material in several squares when this material could have been used uniformly because they prefer

variation to regularity” (Brown, 923).  The key word that speaks for itself is variation over regularity, that each color, knit, and patch has its own individual identity and makes its unique to any other culture existing.  It’s supported later in the text where it describes the off-beat patterning that reflects the multiple rhythms and patterns within a controlled design.  I found this information  fascinating as rhythm seems to be a prominent factor in this culture’s congruence.  We can see in the visuals how scattered the creativity is within each square in the quilt, with different shapes almost defining each person’s story behind its creation.

This outside text supports the idea of identity being a big factor into the governing aesthetic in the Call and Responses anthology.  Each distinct individual detail reflects the identity of African American culture and what it means to be a part of it, and spreading awareness and unity along with it.  When reading through Call and Responses early subtopics, oral traditions were a dominant aspect of African American cultures and explained above, whether it be voiced through dance, song and basic oral discourse.  This can be explained in Call in response where it explains, “There, and in otherwise secret and forbidden gatherings, they could exchange stories about African life, create new lore about their American experience, and express these reflections in dance and song.  Usually, they sang two types of songs—religious and secular—although one kind of music was not necessarily exclusive of the other” (11).  We learned about the anguish and brutal torture slavery brought to innocent African American lives; with that being said, this type of musical discourse was so pivotal to this culture and helped each person involved tell their story and unify each other together, which is powerful in it of itself.  

Chiming into the spiritual significance that influenced and built on African American culture, biblical narratives shed light on instances of hardship that are shared and amongst many.  In an excerpt from Banna Kanutes Sunjata, we get an instance of a similar story between Sunjata and a heroic biblical figure like Moses.  While this excerpt talks about the conflicts experienced by Sunjata, this is immediately followed up by Go Down, Moses which is displayed to tell a similar story with a biblical approach, to empathize the multiple instances of religion being parallel with the situations and lives of those going through pain, struggle, and injustice.  From my perspective, these excerpts were very emotional, yet hard for me to understand and comprehend by its language and presentation.  Ultimately this is something I’ve never particularly read before.  I don’t find myself as invested with religion currently, but that doesn’t mean understanding one’s religion or beliefs is not possible.  However, I strongly value the way of telling a story and the influence religion can bring to storytelling and the culture itself, which I love.

The Call and Response approach to our studies of African American Culture is very insightful, as there are multiple instances of music and rhythm that are huge compositions to the body of African American culture.  I found that rhythm itself is not just tempo, harmonies and an ensemble but rather the flow and spreading of unity identity to a culture enriched in emotional and vivid stories and experiences that are individually special that gain more significance when told and passed to those engrossing in learning or being apart of the history of the culture itself.  There is and still a lot that I honestly don’t quite understand but that’s ok.  Being open minded and hearing and reading the stories and history, is what is expanding and growing my knowledge about the culture itself.  I found the spiritual, musical, oral, and artistic foundations of this culture so distinct that separates its importance from any culture I’ve learned about so far.  The rhythms we’ve heard and learned is only destined to change over time and the more I engross myself in the history of the culture, the more I will find the rhythm to change and shine.

Slowing Your Thinking Down

My semester in this course started a lot rockier than I imagined.  I recently switched my major from Business Administration to English, after enrolling into a handful of introductory courses and found my interest.  The one thing that I take pride in as a student is my attendance, and being here to listen, watch, and participate in the course.  One of my biggest setbacks was when I grew very ill and missed multiple class periods in a row, causing me to lag behind with the rest of the class.  I was stressed, tired, and concerned about whether or not I will be able to move forward and progress my learning in the course.  I seeked out my professor and needed to talk, to see what I could do to get out of this situation and steer myself back on the main road.  

One of the biggest things I noticed was the amount of times I would get overwhelmed.  Whether it’s reading, and I’m going too fast, or panicking about course content when I have all the material at my disposal, or not understanding something when I can work harder and find a way to understand things.  I had to slow things down.  An example of this type of thinking can be found in Home by Toni Morrison, where the text states, “how small, how useless was her schooling, she thought, and promised herself she would find time to read about and understand “eugenics” (Morrison, 65).  This quote is perfect for summarizing my understanding of this course, as some of the content was confusing for me at the beginning, but switched my thought process and spent time and care to understand pieces of our course that were tricky for me to understand.

The issue with slowing things down was always a burden of mine, but it wasn’t until this semester that I knew I had to lock in and find those strategies to slow my thought process down and relax.  When I came back to class, I had the thoughts of relaxing and slowing my thinking down, to see how I would fare in the class that day, and I found it rather successful.  I had listened to my peers’ thinking, more than I did discuss and collaborate about my thoughts, as it’s not always about what I have to say; but rather, what can I learn and take away from.  I kept this method of mine consistent and it translated well with my other enrolled courses.  

When reflecting on the course content as a whole, we centered our focus on the corruption in the medical world, as well as racism and injustice.  This can be said for every piece of literature that we’ve read, that a similar trend of corruption could be found in virtually all of the readings that we had encountered this semester.  When working in groups this semester, we found that a theme of legacy was present in most of the passages, notably in Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson where we find small poems and stories that paint out the legacy of Fortune who was a slave, and was able to tell and educate the future about what he went through as a slave, with the hopes to educate the world for slavery to never happen again.  “Fortune was born; he died” (Nelson, 2).  The length and simplicity of this quote, can really speak 1000 words, as this quote summarizes the majority of Nelson’s writing as describes that fortune was born a slave, and his life is tarnished and ruined because of it, almost as if he died.  

The concept of educating the present to change the future from the past can be said from other books we’ve read this year, one that sticks out is Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Aparthaid  where we center our focus on the corrupt medical industry and utilizing black folks for scientific research, while disregarding all repercussions on basic human life.  Dr. W. Montaguene Cobb…vociferously opposed abusive experimentation with blacks, but he defended Sims. ‘To refer to Anarcha and the five vesicovaginal patients whom Sims treated with her, as human guinea pigs would be grossly unfair… one of the great humanitarian as well as scientific landmarks of American surgery” (Washington 68-69).   This highlights what people of different skin color underwent before basic civil rights were even thought about.  This disgusting act has educated our class and those who’ve read Medical Aparthaid, and informed its audience about the brutal history of medical science and racial injustice.  Just scratching the surface on the content we’ve gone over, there was a lot to really think about during this semester and I feel that a large part of my understanding and learning from this semester was formed from the process that I learned during the semester.

Going back to slowing things down, this process ultimately changed my vision of the course as a whole, and relaying back to our course epigraph, of “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” from Dionne Brand I feel that this quote applies with a lot of what we covered in class this semester.  Noticing something through reading, the thoughts of another class member, a theme or comparison from the literature we’ve read, or a strategy like my own, this way of thinking is so vital for a class like this as it helps you learn more about yourself, and helps your peers learn and grow as well.  My peers might know the book from the back of their hand; however, if I notice something through my eyes and my peers perceive something different, this gives us an opportunity to discuss and collaborate with each other to relate and expand on each other’s thoughts.  

A prime example of this can be found throughout our first collaborative essay, as the way we planned our writing was by all of us diving back into our books and pulling out quotes that we found interesting or had a clear cut message that could be significant to the creation of our essay.  Our group united after we all found a plethora of significant quotes and we built off each other’s thoughts to formulate a cohesive and effective essay through the usage of each of our peers’ thoughts and ideas.  

Reflecting off this quote even more, I still think this course epigraph matters despite GLOBE’s insistence of Geneseo students gaining practice through self reflection as I found that putting your thoughts onto paper and talking about how you’ve done in a course, is so vital to one’s self growth and accountability.  It’s so hard to see how you’re performing without what you’ve done to achieve your goals and success.  How you manage your time, how much care and thought you put into class time, and how you were able to benefit your peers’ learning and how they were able to impact yours.  All these thoughts of self reflection intertwine with our epigraph so well, that it makes both subjects equally as important.

The amount of things I’ve learned in this course is an understatement.  I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about racial discrimination, medical science and its negative impacts upon society, and empowering my peers, and consistent thorough reflection  on my growth as a student.  This has molded me into a better student and human being, and the resources I’ve created will translate well into my future moving forward.