Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Sustainability also means the ability for humans to co-exist safely over a long period of time.

When we consider the idea that humans should be able to co-exist safely over a long period of time, I can think of many micro examples of this being possible- you can likely do the same if you are from a privileged identity and consider groups that you or your ancestors have been a part of- communities, neighborhoods, family structures to name a few.

In those tiny examples that come to mind, is that co-existing happening among largely homogeneous populations? Or was there diversity in the image you drew in your mind? In reality, most people imagine safe coexistence amongst a homogeneous population – and likely the one with which they are most familiar.

When people have a shared culture, value system, religious orientation, or skin color, while safety is not a given, it is certainly much more likely than in more heterogeneous communities. (Well until a group of people with power or an agenda try to come into a community and take resources and/or land, but that is for another blog post.)

When we think about cities, diverse communities, or people groups that share similar space but not a shared agenda, are we as likely to come up with examples where sustainability has been achieved? Can we point to long periods of time where humans are not only safe but thriving in shared communities? I cannot.

As someone who has been studying the social construct of race in the United States and how that has led to vastly different outcomes in the experiences of White people vs. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), I am reminded how our insistence on social justice for all is imperative if sustainability is ever to be achieved.

Below are some starter thoughts for how we take on the important work of social justice as humans seeking sustainability; while my examples draw from my experience as a White woman living in the U.S., I trust it will be fairly easy to think about the marginalized and exploited populations in your own context and make your own connections.

There are countless examples of how systems built in previous generations (by White people) benefit generations of White people but disadvantage or often harm BIPOC.

  • When (stolen) land was first made available to purchase in 1785, it was only available to White people to buy.
  • When the Social Security Act was formed in 1935, it did not extend to “domestic workers”- the majority of domestic workers at the time were Black and would receive no benefits from SSA.
  • The GI Bill of 1944 awarded $95 billion in housing, employment and education to returning white soldiers and excluding Black veterans from these benefits. This is considered by many to be the biggest economic advantage given to white people in our country.

Design choices made by White men not only made it impossible for Black people to fully thrive when the systems were created but have left a debilitating legacy on their ability to “catch up” to the same starting line.

Since the creation of the United States of America as an independent country, there has not been equity for all people. And because systems are so inextricably linked, today when we look across not just wealth outcomes, but those related to health, education, poverty, and more, we see things like this:

  • Poverty rates in the US are 9% for Whites, 21% for Blacks and 17% for Latino/Hispanic people
  • 1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 will spend time in prison in their lifetime (1 in 17 for White men)
  • 1 in 3 Black families have zero or negative wealth (the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.)
  • 1 in 3 Black children live in poverty and 1 in 4 Hispanic kids do (1 in 11 White children)
  • 1 in 10 Black adults were not able to pay rent or mortgage in the past three months
  • 1 in 6 Black adults have lost their job or income in the past three months (As I write, there is a 7% gap in unemployment rates between Whites and Blacks.)
  •  1 in 90 Black babies will die before their first birthday (this is double what it is for White babies)
  •  Black mothers die in childbirth three times more often than White mothers
  • 1 in 9 Black Americans aged 0 to 64 are uninsured; Blacks remained 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured than Whites from 2010 to 2018, and the Hispanic uninsured rate remained over 2.5 times higher than the rate for Whites)
  • 1 in 9 Black children will enter foster care at some point before they turn 18
  • 8 in 10 Black adults with at least some college experience report having experienced racial discrimination, at least from time to time, including 1 in 6 who say this happens regularly
  • 1 in 6.5 Black students are suspended
  • Despite cannabis usage rates between Whites and non-Whites being similar, Black Americans are arrested for cannabis offenses at a rate of nearly 4:1, compared to Whites.
  • In 99% of neighborhoods in the United States, Black boys earn less in adulthood than White boys who grow up in families with comparable income.

When we consider these disparate outcomes across people groups, it is clearly ignorant to suggest that these are the result of one’s individual choices. Systemic racism is at play, and until we address these injustices, we cannot be on the path to sustainability.

Why is it important for all of us to take action? In the pursuit of racial justice, doing nothing upholds the status quo, a system in which certain people groups can typically live safely and pass down both generational wealth (money and property) and better health outcomes to name a few.

So where does a White person in the U.S. start to take action? First, learn the history of our country from the perspective of BIPOC. Second, learn about the construct of race and begin your own personal racial identity journey; ask yourself questions about where the messages you believe about BIPOC originated. We all have biases and until we understand both our personal biases and how the systems in our country were created to advantage White people and disadvantage Black people in particular, it is hard to feel motivated to take action.

Race matters. While we want flourishing for ALL of humanity and can come to this conclusion from many perspectives (economic arguments, moral arguments, religious beliefs, etc.), we have to first acknowledge how many people, particularly those with darker skin hues, are suffering today, because of systems of injustice. There are millions of people today who will never have the opportunity to live safely and contribute their full self to society because of the injustices stacked against them on a daily basis.

What can you do today?

Depending on your job and access to system decision making, there are critical choices we must make at the policy and institutional level to affect change. It is important to think about the power privilege brings, and what choices you can make at work and at home to drive positive change. Beyond the very important learning mentioned above, here are some concrete examples to consider in your own life at the individual and interpersonal level:


  • Have tough conversations with children in your life about race
  • Challenge friends or family members when they share something problematic
  • Say thank you when someone tells you something you have said that is problematic
  • Watch your air time to make sure you are not dominating conversations; make room for lots of ways to accomplish the objectives (at work, school, etc.), even if they aren’t your way


  • Give money to organizations that empower people of color or create more access and opportunities to let them shine
  • Support individual activists and creatives so that they can expand their platform
  • Support businesses who are owned by women and people of color
  • Look for opportunities to employ a person of color even if it isn’t the person who is easiest to find (a decorator, website designer, etc)


  • Serve on nonprofit Boards or volunteer for organizations that empower people of color or are committed to equity
  • Join rallies or protests to stand in unity with others fighting for equity
  • Vote for people (and you may need to do more research than you have in the past) who are advocating for all people, not just those who look like them
  • Mentor others and open doors of access and opportunity where you can
  • Choose schools, social activities, workplaces, communities that are diverse
  • Point to voices of color making a difference – share their messages
  • Build diverse teams at work if you are in a position to hire others

Working towards sustainability, including social justice, is not passive but rather must be an active choice. In small daily decisions and with bigger choices about how to invest your time and money, be sure to consider how you can impact the wellbeing, safety, and flourishing of other humans, especially those that may not look like you.

This article was contributed by Katherine B. Martin, author of The Colorful Image of God: a White Christian’s Guide to Doing Better. Find out more at Katherine Learns.
Photo courtesy of Jon Tyson via Unsplash

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