Land Acknowledgements and Environmental Access: Recapping the Social Sustainability Coalition’s fall events

The Social Sustainability Coalition (SSC), composed of interns within the Office of Sustainability, saw a successful fall semester, hosting both the “Perspectives on Indigenous Land Acknowledgements” panel discussion and the “Access to the Environment” informational event. Both events delved into social justice and equity through expert discussion and a built learning environment. These events continued the SSC’s mission of leveraging institutional resources and fostering collaboration among student-run groups to advance social sustainability on campus.

In October, the SSC partnered with Wunk Sheek — a student-led group on campus dedicated to educating the community on the identities and histories of Indigenous students — for the “Perspectives on Indigenous Land Acknowledgement” panel discussion in the Multicultural Student Center. Panelists and guests from the university community were invited to discuss UW–Madison’s past, present, and future incorporation of Indigenous land acknowledgements. 

As the Badger Herald reported, the panelists shared that land acknowledgements should discuss both the history of the land and its relationship to colonization. They also urged individuals to use these acknowledgements for any form of event and audience, and to tailor the content to each distinct occasion. Land acknowledgements are a powerful way for all involved to learn about Indigenous presence in the area, and demonstrates initiative in advocating for Indigenous peoples, even if they are not present. The university’s Office of Tribal Relations has a page dedicated to land acknowledgements that provides additional guidance for land acknowledgements.

“I often questioned land acknowledgements and how they were perceived from an Indigenous standpoint,” said Melina Nguyen, an SSC intern who helped facilitate the event. “I wanted to go to the source and ask Indigenous community members their thoughts. [The event was] a public space to learn about their importance.”

Conversation extended beyond ways to strengthen a personal or institutional land acknowledgement. Participants reflected on how to uplift and amplify the voices and histories of Indigenous community members, speaking to the need to strengthen genuine forms of collaboration among the university and the Indigenous peoples who have inhabited this land since time immemorial.

An audience member passionately speaks to the group during open discussion at the “Perspectives on Indigenous Land Acknowledgements” event.
An audience member passionately speaks to the group during open discussion at the “Perspectives on Indigenous Land Acknowledgements” event.

Continuing conversations about inclusion and collaboration

The “Access to the Environment” informational panel, held in December in partnership with the Disability Cultural Center, examined the relationship between disability and sustainability. Notably, it opened with a detailed and personalized land acknowledgment guided by the conversation with Wunk Sheek. 

Panelists included Disability Cultural Center Program Coordinator Helen Rottier, student and Equity and Inclusion Chair for the Associated Students of Madison Emmett Lockwood, Interim Director for the Lakeshore Nature Preserve Laura Wyatt, UW–Madison’s Facilities Access Specialist Top Tantivivat, and UW–Madison’s Transportation Services Director Patrick Kass.

They discussed efforts in their distinct departments to increase the inclusion of community members with disabilities in both general and campus specific contexts.

Rottier started the evening by providing the broad definition of disability, a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and explained that disability culture consists of the shared experiences, history, and traditions of people and communities with disabilities. Rottier asserted the need to dismantle the system of ableism in the world today, which impedes social sustainability and equity.

Lockwood provided moving commentary on the intersectionality between disability, environmental justice, and social sustainability. Their presentation highlighted the importance of guaranteeing access for individuals with disabilities to critical resources during natural disasters or climate-change-related events–such as increased air pollution from fires–as a necessary means to promote equity and social sustainability. In addition, Lockwood urged the need for continued action in student-led disability coalitions and advocacy to improve justice on campus. 

Wyatt, Tantivat, and Kass focused more directly on the institution and their efforts to enhance accessibility to both the natural and built environments for all community members. This takes the form of plans to create an accessible recreation facility within the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, a free and increasingly electric bus and shuttle system for students, and improved accessible architecture conducive to the disabled community.

Audrey Stanton, graduate assistant at the Office of Sustainability, was motivated by the event. She said, “Panelists and audience members spent the evening sharing and discussing individual and university initiatives to improve accessibility and support frameworks. The event provided a space for important conversations between a variety of university partners and community members.”

Panelists and audience members listen in as Helen Rottier (right) welcomes the group to "Access to the Environment."
Panelists and audience members listen in as Helen Rottier (right)
welcomes the group to “Access to the Environment.”

Striving for environmental and social sustainability requires diversity in knowledge, experience, and being. For the SSC, the semester affirmed the eagerness of campus groups to contribute to this sustainable future. By connecting with community members and playing an active role in supporting the success of fellow Badgers, the SSC has a unique role in shaping the future of this institution. The SSC intends to build on this knowledge in 2024 and create new opportunities of collaboration that will advance the coalition goals of inclusivity, diversity, equity, and justice. 

In the hopeful words of Annabelle Letizia, another SSC intern, “We need to continue to expand the conversation and incorporate more voices when looking at the closely tied aspects of social justice and sustainability.”

By: Brynne Hill