Hall of Diversity

A crusader for sustainable communities

Over the past two decades, Julian Agyeman, assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, has done a bit of everything.

julian agyeman

Julian Agyeman © Kathleen Dooher

Born in Britain, Agyeman has taught, run his own consulting firm, written books on sustainability and conducted research on race issues in rural Britain. An avid film fan, Agyeman even had a chance to sit in the director’s chair last year when he filmed a video chronicling the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning’s commitment to diversity.

Whether he’s teaching, writing or researching, Agyeman’s work is about people. Consider the cover photograph on his most recent book, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (MIT Press, 2003), co-edited with Robert D. Bullard and Bob Evans. The photo depicts a South African woman sitting amid discarded trash in an environment devoid of grass and trees. While the image conveys many meanings, a clear one is that around the world, people and the environment are suffering. This link has been a focus of Agyeman’s teaching and scholarship for the past several years and is explored in depth in Just Sustainabilities.

For Agyeman, the photo served another purpose. It provided his students with a learning experience that allowed them to be scholars and sleuths. “This woman is probably about my age, mid-forties. She’s had a tough life, so she looks a bit different from me,” Agyeman says. “I challenged the students in my sustainability class to find her. I said, ‘Find that woman, and I will donate the royalties of my book to her because I’m going to make some money off it, and she isn’t.’ ”

The students deduced the year the photo was taken and its location, just outside of Johannesburg. Although the trail has gone a bit cold, Agyeman believes the assignment was worthwhile. It provided his students with a chance to help someone and showed them that issues of diversity, justice and equity are never far away when it comes to policy decisions. “We enjoy what we enjoy because the woman on the cover of my book doesn’t,” Agyeman says. “We have accrued a huge ecological debt when it comes to countries like South Africa, Argentina, Brazil. We say these countries owe us a financial debt, and they say, ‘You owe us an ecological debt. You came in and robbed our countries to make you who you are today.’

“Many of my students will become environmental educators, and what I hope I am doing with assignments like this is giving them the tools to look at the environment in a much broader context than just habitat or wilderness. I want my students to leave my class with an appreciation of the inextricable links between who we are, what we do and the environments we have.”

Agyeman’s book says that to have sustainable communities—those able to prosper over time—countries must address the social and environmental impacts of their decisions. This perspective, if ignored, can lead to poverty and environmental chaos. “We will never achieve more sustainable communities unless there are also more equitable and just communities,” he says.

While Agyeman can see the results of misguided policy decisions, he is, by his own admission, an optimist. He recognizes that the idea of “just sustainability” is beginning to strike a chord with those interested in issues of sustainability, justice and equity for all people.

“The millennial challenge is the sustainable city,” he says. “How do we make cities sustainable? If you’re asking that question, you’ve got to think of diversity and equity. We’ve got to look at why some neighborhoods have more toxic waste dumps or why certain communities are underserved by the MBTA. My concept of ‘just sustainability’ is about giving equal weight to the human and environmental aspects of sustainability, whereas I think at the moment, the pendulum is too far toward the environment. We need to balance it out.”

His latest book project, From the Bible Belt to the Beltway: Environmental Justice and the Rise of the ‘Just Sustainability’ Paradigm, due out next year from New York University Press, will promote the benefits of “just sustainability” to a wider audience.

For his work on diversity issues, Agyeman has been inducted into the Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity’s Hall of Diversity. “I think we need the Hall of Diversity because Tufts needs to show—and I think it does this fairly well—how it values each member of the community,” he says.

If you would like to nominate a Tufts faculty member, student, staff member, department or committee for the Office of Equal Opportunity’s Hall of Diversity, go to http://www.tufts.edu/oeo/halldiverse.htm and complete the online form.