Find Your Sustain Ability: What does Social Justice have to do with Sustainability?

A Conversation with Dr. Lee Ball and Chief Diversity Officer Bindu Kolli Jayne

Without social justice and equity, can Appalachian State University, and the world, be sustainable? Hear what Bindu Kolli Jayne, chief diversity officer and associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity and compliance, shares with the university's director of sustainability. Jayne is fierce about making Appalachian's campus" look different,” and has made it her business to encourage and promote “a diverse array of voices everywhere on campus. We need to make diversity the normal;" she said, "not nice to have, need to have.”


  • Intro: Define sustainability.

    Odds are your definition is completely different from the next person’s.

    Appalachian State University’s Director of Sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball sits down with his guests to explore the many ways in which sustainability affects our lives. This is Find Your Sustain Ability.

    Lee Ball: Hi, Bindu thanks for coming to talk to me today.

    Bindu Kolli Jayne: Sure, my pleasure.

    LB: You have a really long title. Could you tell me what that is again?

    BKJ: It is really long, my name tag is like a license plate that I wear. I am the Associate Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Compliance and the University’s Chief Diversity Officer as well as the University’s Title Nine Coordinator.

    LB: Nice, you need a drop down menu on your nameplate.

    BKJ: I really do. I know. On my business card it just says, “I do stuff.”

    LB: So does mine. Today’s conversation is centered around one topic, the intersection between sustainability and social justice.

    BKJ: I was jotting down notes last night about sustainability and social justice, just generally and separately, and one of the themes that came up was this idea that sustainability is very future looking and social justice is very now. When you look at it in that way, you almost think that they don’t connect because one is that we are hoping the future is better than the present and social justice is all about making someone’s current state better than it is now. Frankly, no one is going to focus on sustainability if they’re not in a situation that is fair and just now. Advocates for sustainability, I would argue, have to focus on social justice; otherwise, no one is going to be worried about the future if they don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake now.

    LB: Right, they’re so many people all over the world that are just struggling to make it to their next meal or figure out where they’re going to sleep. I think a lot of people think that is in faraway places, but it’s right here in our back yard in Watauga County and the High Country. People are really struggling and it’s sad that that reality exists and our students and staff face it and probably some of our faculty as well.

    BKJ: Sustainability and social justice are also sort of answers to the same question: What do we want our future to look like? What do we need in order to have a future that we are proud of? I think people could answer that question with both sustainability ideals, and also with social justice ideals. I think if we start framing the conversation in that way the connections are really easy to make between social justice and sustainability.

    LB: Can you talk about some of the social justice initiatives on campus?

    BKJ: Sure, You mentioned before and it is very true, Boone is a very unique area. We are not only reflective of national conversations about race, economic disparities, gender disparities, but we are also this unique community that is very homogenous. I feel like every national conversation is heightened here; because there is such a small pool of people that are affected, the affect is almost exacerbated. Right now the conversations on campus have a lot to do with race, have a lot to do with gender and also have a lot to do with LGBT issues. Those three are not unique to Boone, but I think the conversations have increased in volume in the last… well I’ve only been here a year, so in the last year at least.

    LB: I have definitely noticed an increase. It seems like people are aware that the, “people side” of sustainability, the equity part of sustainability is a priority. We have to celebrate our differences and we have to work together because we all have something to share, and we have a lot to contribute to making the world a thriving and more sustainable place. I’ve noticed over the past fourteen years working here at the university that recently in the past two or three years we have really put an emphasis… and it seems like people are really craving this discussion. Are you seeing that with students especially?

    BKJ: Absolutely. Are you having a hard time making the connection with students between equity and sustainability or is it natural?

    LB: It seems like they just get it. I mean it depends, but for the most part it seems like they can get there pretty fast if they don’t understand it to begin with then it doesn’t take long to lead them there and they will have that “a-ha” moment. It seems like they are right there with you and they are ready to do it. They people want to talk about these issues. I think that the millennials… is that where we are now? (laughing) What do we call the current group? I think that the millennials see each other as being one people. As I said before, they celebrate their differences. Of course, that is not always the case but it seems like a critical mass of people that are wanting to get along.

    BKJ: In talking to students in particular, students who are really passionate about a particular social justice issue… I try to make the connection to other issues so they can see that their issue isn’t in a vacuum. It is connected very seamlessly to other issues in our community, but globally as well. Sometimes the response I get, and validly so, from students is, “Yeah but lets fix this first and then I’ll focus on the other stuff, on the global stuff, on the other stuff in our community the environmental effects. I want this micro issue resolved.” How would you respond? How do you respond to students making those [demands?]

    LB: I would encourage them to explore their connection to sustainability and practice articulating your own definition of sustainability. I would tell them it’s okay if that is the area they want to work in. If you’re passionate about working in the area of sustainability, then find your spot and try to push the envelope and make a difference. It’s okay that you’re focusing on one issue just as long as you understand the connection to the environment, to sustainable economics, to culture and the many different facets related to sustainability. I would just encourage them to not worry that they’re not making that connection. Just say, “Go out there. Go for it and celebrate. This is great.” I would say harness their power. A lot of us that do this work tend to be a little idealistic by nature potentially. Those students often are too and they have a strong voice. It is something that if they have an interest then people will pay attention. So I was wondering if you could talk a little about cultural diversity and how it plays a role in innovation, creativity and exchange of ideas. It is something that when you have a college campus many cultures are colliding, so instead of marginalizing or encouraging people to be like everybody else… how can we, on this campus and this community, celebrate differences in culture?

    BKJ: One of the main things that I like to talk about to frame any conversation about diversity that I have is that often times we talk about diversity as the benefit to those marginalized groups when they are given the opportunity to be included. It is so much more than that. It’s the majority groups that are not getting a full experience because they’re not being presented with ideas, cultures and experiences that are different from their own. By diversifying our campus or any community that we are talking about we are not just benefiting those groups that are now having the opportunity to be included. We are benefiting everyone because the more you have an opportunity for your ideas to be challenged and the more opportunity we have for new ideas to be part of the conversation, frankly the outcome will be for whatever the project is. Cultural diversity has benefits that far expand beyond just the people we are trying to include in the community. The ideas, the products, the research are all going to be better if the community is diverse.

    LB: That is such a great point. In a community like this where we have a dominant culture it seems like we have these smaller groups that are different and they come in and have so much to contribute. How can we influence “the majority?” How do we get them to pay attention and get them to see that there are other ideas and other ways of knowing and thinking and relating to the world. They have been in their box maybe since elementary school, and they come to Appalachian and they probably don’t think they are expected to change, they’re just going to class and doing their thing.

    BKJ: It’s going to seem like a trite answer but we need to make it normal. It shouldn’t be a nice to have, it’s a need to have. If we want to be competitive, frankly you’re not going to be if you’re just hearing the same ideas you’ve been hearing for the last twenty years of your life. The world is moving way too fast for that to be sustainable, so we need to… I think by making it normal and instead of just talking about it and instead of just saying, “Hey everyone, having a diverse community is going to benefit you in these ways,” we need to show people the boon of having a diverse community. Highlight schools that are doing it better than we are. Highlight areas that are doing it better than we are. Show the innovation and the collaboration that those communities have. It is not hard to find examples of it. They are everywhere. Any community, frankly, that’s being touted for success in any endeavor — the fact that their underlying diversity had changed I would bet money is a major factor in that.

    LB: Right, it seems like we need to help people to be comfortable being uncomfortable because a lot of people are just in their daily life and are associating with a lot of the same people. How do we stretch them out of that mindset? We could look at other campuses that are doing great things as a model, but how do we bring that here? Are we doing exchanges or are we doing roundtable discussions? Are we doing big events in Sanford Mall? I’m just trying to think outside the box here.

    BKJ: Yeah, recruiting more people from diverse backgrounds is important, but we can’t forget the community that we already have here. By fostering the community of diverse scholars that we have here…like attracts like. If we foster them and make them successful and show that Boone is a place that you can thrive more people will want to come here. I think making sure their voices are heard in every area in the classrooms, in policy making, in decision making, in programs, in speakers series. Making sure that a diverse array of voices is everywhere will make Boone and Appalachian seem like a place where more people who don’t look like the majority of the members of our community would feel welcome.

    LB: Yeah, it seems like about every decision we make here on campus we have to be wearing different lenses we have different goals and priorities and interests. I put on my sustainability glasses when I think about a purchase or when I think about any kind of decision within our office or around campus that includes social justice and includes sustainability. As long as we are remembering that priority in every decision then I think what you just said will continue to filter into the fabric of the university on a deeper and deeper level. We just need to demand it, I guess.

    BKJ: You bring up a good point where diversity isn’t an add-on. It will make the decision better. If you are thinking about diversity of thought or diversity of experience as you’re making a decision about a speaker to bring on campus or readings to use in your classroom you will have a better outcome. It isn’t a checkbox. You are making a better decision by making that a variable in your decision making process. Getting that out there will be really helpful.

    LB: Yeah, so we have spoken about diversity of groups, races, religious beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, gender identity, but what about biological diversity and how it relates? Is that anything you have ever spent any time thinking about, how that part of the diversity realm intersects with this conversation?

    BKJ: That’s not my wheelhouse, but we can start talking about it now. So what do you mean by biological diversity?

    LB: The variety of living systems in an environment, the variety of species in an environment, biological diversity is just another aspect of diversity. I just thought we could talk about it a little bit.

    BKJ: I’m going to sort of go around the question, but I think it gets to it. A lot of our students here have grown up either in the Boone area or have grown up in areas that are very similar to Boone. I think making sure that they have the opportunity to experience areas that look different, feel different, have different interactions that have different people, different systems, all of that is incredibly important.

    LB: Right, a great answer.

    BKJ: I hope so, thanks. (laughing)

    LB: It basically is the diverse array of ecological and human cultures that the sustaining and resilient world is built upon. That’s another definition of diversity. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the socio-economic piece. I just know a lot of people are struggling in our area. It is a tourist area in addition to being a university town. We rely on tourism and the service industry. We don’t have a lot of other types of industries in the high country, specifically in Watauga County. The ski industry is obviously a big industry that is seasonal. I know a lot of people struggle and you may hear about it some in your day-to- day work, and I was wondering if that was something we could discuss a little.

    BKJ: Socio-economic disparities, I think, is probably one of the areas of diversity that is such a clear link to sustainability. When there is high disparities, so people who have a lot, they’re using more of our resources whatever those resources are that we may be talking about. Then there are people who have very little and are struggling to get by, they don’t have the luxury to think about making the best decisions for the future preservation of resources. They’re in the day-to-day “I just need to get by” [mode.] When we keep making that disparity wider and wider, we are moving further and further from our ideals of sustainability. Socioeconomic disparity and diversity and frankly just underlining economic fairness has such a clear link to sustainability.

    LB: The fairness part is something that I resonate with. I always feel like that if something is going to be sustainable a relationship between you and your food, or you and your work, or you and your energy systems, then it has to be a win-win. You have to benefit and they have to benefit. As long as it’s relatively balanced and equal, then you have something that is sustainable and it can potentially thrive and be resilient in the future. When people are broke, like you said, they’re not making the best choice for the environment and also they’re own health. We see food deserts here in Watauga County and the High Country. People are shopping at convenience stores because it is convenient and it’s cheap. That is really disheartening and I don’t know how we can really educate our students, our staff, and our faculty to think about figuring out ways to do better. It’s really difficult. The behavioral piece of sustainability is a big challenge for us. In our office, it’s something that we deal with every day. How do you get someone to change their mindset and to make a different decision and open their minds or hearts and think about a person, a food choice, or a recycling behavior differently? That is really tough for us and it is probably something that you deal with on a regular basis — trying to get people to be open minded and less judgmental so that they can benefit from our differences on a cultural and social justice level. Can you speak to that, kind of the behavioral?

    BKJ: Unfortunately there is not a one-size fits all in having that conversation with people. For certain groups I will make a plea to their idealism and ask, “Don’t we want to be in a more just, fair place where everyone has the opportunity to succeed?” That works for a subset of people and that resonates for a subset of people, but for another subset and, validly so, that doesn’t… that sort of Pollyanna idealism argument isn’t going to resonate with them. You can make that connection to “your life will be effected, you individually will be effected by this continuing disparity.” So when we were talking about the socio-economic disparity and the effect that has on the choices made by the poorest members of our community, that effects everyone. When the poorest group of our community uses resources in a way, and validly so on their part, that doesn’t think about the sustainability of it, the effect that it has on the community, the effect that it has on the environment. Everyone else is effected by those decisions. By bringing that poorest subset up to just a living standard, a fairer way of living, the decisions that they make are no longer influenced solely by needing to survive, but are able to be influenced by other factors that cause them to make better decisions.

    LB: In your position as the diversity officer of the university, if you had any kind of grand big bold ideas, what would they be?

    BKJ: Our campus would look different. The people on our campus would look different. There would be less focus on selling the importance of diversity and we would just do it. People from different places that look different, that have different experiences would be on this campus.

    LB: That would be great. I could imagine us having a lot of ideas that are merging and I could see us as a thought leader within the university system. I wonder if we could create a smaller version of that somehow in conference. Using the people we have on campus and putting together an event where we could create that on a smaller scale. I know we have the diversity festival and different events. Is there something that we are already doing that I am not aware of or is that something that we could do?

    BKJ: So one of the things about those one-off events is that it is great for the day and then…

    LB: It’s gone

    BKJ: Yeah, the effect can be sort of fleeting. This year we are trying to look at those programs in a different sort of way and make them more sustainable. Some of the things that we are doing and thinking about with that lens… we are doing a sustain dialogue institute. Students will form groups that will meet throughout the year to talk about social justice issues and the groups themselves ideally will be diverse groups so that the conversations and the connections made aren’t a onetime conversation, but will sustain throughout the year. Hopefully relationships will be formed and new ways of thinking will be achieved and new perspectives will be shared. That’s the goal of something like that. We are trying to revamp something as basic as our mentoring program. Right now, we have a lot of programs around campus that have upper classmen mentoring first year students which is great, and it makes a lot of sense, particularly first year students of color being mentored by upperclass students of color. That is a great partnership and relationship we want to be made. The addition that we are doing this year is that those upper class students are then connected to professional mentors. Importantly those professional mentors are going to be connected to those upper class students not just based on whether or not those professionals are people of color. We are going to be very intentional about asking those upper class mentors about “what do you want to do? What do you want to do after college? Where do you want to work? Where do you want to go to graduate school? What are your interests?” So that those connections are made, connections that are made on more variables than just we identify with each other because we are both people of color are going to be sustainable. Those are going to be the relationships that lead to internships, job opportunities, and graduate school recommendations. Those are the connections we want to make.

    LB: Will those mentors be both on campus and off campus?

    BKJ: Yeah, exactly. Those mentors really are going to rely on what the students need. The upperclassmen will be filling out a fulsome survey about what do you want do, where do you want go and where do you want to work? Depending on what those responses are, our job as educators is to go out and hit the pavement and match our students with people who could really help them.

    LB: Could you tell us a little about your kind of day-to-day work in your office and what your responsibilities are here at the university?

    BKJ: No day is the same because I wear a couple of hats, which I think every administrator at this university wears a couple of hats. My whole title is Associate Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Compliance and the University’s Chief Diversity Officer and IX Coordinator so a couple of different categories. I think the overarching thing is all of my days are all about meeting with students, faculty, and staff that often times are not having their best days. They’re having an experience that is making them feel unwelcome or, on the title IX side, they have experienced some form of sexual violence. My job I see as trying to… when you’re having a really bad day and everything seems overwhelming trying to provide a clear path to some sort of resolution. That’s sort of the overarching thing that I do and besides the meetings with students, faculty, and staff who are having really bad days, I’m trying to also put into place policies and practices that mitigate the effects of those really bad days for our community members.

    LB: Your job, from my perspective seems kind of intense. It’s heavy at times emotionally I’m sure. Do you have any stories or any experiences that are really upbeat and positive that you could share with us that you would maybe want to celebrate?

    BKJ: Yeah, every day. I get to work with students who are incredibly passionate about social justice issues and frankly want to change the world. So that’s really exciting to work with a student every day that is going to have an “a-ha” moment. It is exciting to work with a student that is going to do something or make a connection that they are super excited about. If I could take one, one millionth of ownership for setting them on that path that’s a pretty good career.

    LB: That’s great. Where were you before you came to Appalachian State?

    BKJ: I was at the University of Delaware for about five years.

    LB: Okay. What was your role there?

    BKJ: I guess either me or the arena that I’m in it’s always a moving thing. So I started at UD as legal counsel, then I sort of morphed into this equity and diversity work and then morphed into the title IX work and then pushed it all together. Then I was the Director of Policy Compliance and Equity at UD.

    LB: Concerning your legal counsel work, were you always drawn to equity and social issues with students?

    BKJ: I think that’s also why I’m so excited working in higher education. The spark for me for social justice work was ignited in college. That has sustained throughout my career. To see that in students and to know that that spark can often not be fleeting, but change the direction of their lives is really exciting. If I had to pick a moment of why I engaged in this work, is when I was in college I worked at the Civil Rights Project and the civil rights project had two tracks. During my time working there I worked on both sides of the fence: one side was research side everyone working there had their PhD and we are doing research in civil rights issues and social justice issues. The other side of it is people who all had their JDs and were working on the legal advocacy side of it. I decided to go to law school because I thought the JD side of the house seemed really cool, so that set me on the path to doing this work.

    LB: I love hearing about people’ s stories and how they got to where they are now. Are you teaching a class?

    BKJ: Nope.

    LB: No? I’d love to get you in a classroom.

    BKJ: Awesome, I’d love to. I mean I have taught, I’m just not teaching right at this minute.

    LB: I’m sure you have a lot of free time to dedicate to a class.

    BKJ: I love that part. That’s so fun. Anytime I get to engage with students, I eat it up.

    LB: We are going to have to look for multiple different ways to get you into the classroom. I think that hopefully people listening to this podcast will invite you to come talk to their class. There are so many opportunities on campus to speak to classes and we will have to explore that a little more.

    BKJ: Yeah, you mentioned that my job can be pretty intense and it can be and that can be sort of draining, but the more opportunities I have to engage with students about what they want to do just refills that inspiration tank pretty quickly.

    LB: Do you have students that just pop in or wander in your office that have great ideas? It happens to us all the time. Students will be like, “Hey, have you ever thought about composting on campus?” and we are like “Yeah, we’ve thought about that once or twice.” Do you have similar encounters?

    BKJ: Yes! One of the negatives of having such a jammed-packed schedule of meeting after meeting after meeting is that I’m not just in my office and available as often as I’d like to be. When I am, then yes. I have students come in. I mean I have a couple of students later on in my schedule today to talk about different ideas they have about how we can do things better. How we can make the LGBT center more inclusive or how we can support students that are homeless or how we can support students that are first generation [college students]. All of those ideas are awesome.

    LB: Let’s talk about the students being homeless a little bit. I have encountered them in the past. I’ve known graduate students living in the woods. What are some of your experiences related to that beyond the classic notion of couch surfing?

    BKJ: I think we need to look at homelessness as so much more than just not having a permanent address. At the threshold we want all of our students to be successful. We want all of our students to find an endeavor during their four or five years here that they feel passionate about. That’s a lot to expect of someone who is worried about where they are going to stay. Are they going to be safe at night? Forget expecting of a student, that’s a lot to expect from anybody. If we as educators want our students to be successful we have to support the whole student. If a student is homeless, the bulk of their psychic energy is spent worrying about that. If we can just support them and help them to find resources to connect them to housing options. If we can offer them something on campus, if we can make sure that they know there are people that can help them figure things out so they’re not just flapping in the wind on their own. I think that goes really far.

    LB: They’re a lot of people that we are not seeing out there. We are not seeing the homeless, we are not seeing the sexually abused. How do we see them? How do we encourage people to take a deep breath and have the opportunity, and maybe listen or put themselves out there as someone who could be a person that someone may approach and talk about struggles they are having?

    BKJ: That’s a great question. I think the first step is to be self-reflective and make sure you are a safe place for a people to feel comfortable sharing with. Rather than you or me or other offices on this campus traipsing out students who are from whatever marginalized group we are talking about to share their experiences, we need to make sure that the community that they are sharing those experiences with are empathetic and are ready to hear their full stories. I think that requires a level of self-reflection on everyone’s part. The other thing that I would say is, those students are here. I would encourage our students to… I did this exercise — it might have even been in high school — that sort of stayed with me. This exercise of if something really awesome happened to you, list the seven people you would tell first. Then, on the flip side, if something really awful happened to you, list the seven people you would tell first. Often times there will be a lot of overlap in those two list, but take those list of fourteen people and really look at them. Look at that list and see if there is, on a very first level, people of different races, different ethnicities, different experiences, and different ages. If they’re not that’s a really good sign that you’re world view may not be as broad as it could be. The best way to do that is for you to go out and to engage with other experiences rather than waiting for people who are different from you to enter your world. You enter theirs. College campus is a great way to do that. We have hundreds of clubs and organizations and events. You mentioned it earlier: be comfortable being uncomfortable. Go to events where you don’t know a single person, go there meet someone, tell them your story. Then they will be more comfortable to tell you theirs.

    Outro: Find Your Sustain Ability is a production of the University Communications department at Appalachian State. It’s hosted by our Director of Sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball.

    The show is produced by Troy Tuttle and Megan Hayes. Dave Blanks records, edits and mixes. Pete Montaldi and Alex Waterworth are our web team. Find more episodes of this and other interesting podcasts at or check us out on iTunes. Just search for Appalachian State University under podcasts.

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