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Sustainability and student equality are interlinked; one cannot succeed without the other. Sustainability in education is not only about being green, but lives at the intersection of ecological, economic and social sustainability; it’s that combination that has the potential to foster student equity. Remember that equity means that everyone gets what they need, not that everyone gets the same. And it’s students getting what they need from education that will make the difference in them becoming the future change agents who will work towards a sustainable world. If we care about people and the planet, it is essential we focus on both sustainability and student equity and how one feeds the other, because if we don’t, what we are in fact doing is just running the cogs in an unsustainable system, and eventually all the components will simply run out.

In order to create a fully sustainable world, we need:

Environmental Sustainability: Ecological integrity is maintained, where all of earth’s environmental systems are kept in balance while natural resources within them are consumed by humans at a rate where they are able to replenish themselves.

Economic Sustainability: Human communities across the globe are able to maintain their independence and have access to the resources that they require, financial and other, to meet their needs. Economic systems are intact and activities are available to everyone, such as secure sources of livelihood.

Social Sustainability: Universal human rights and basic necessities are attainable by all people, who have access to enough resources in order to keep their families and communities healthy and secure. Healthy communities have just leaders who ensure personal, labour and cultural rights are respected and all people are protected from discrimination. – Thanks to McGill University for that explanation.

All of the above require that we not only consider the kind of future we are leaving for the next generation but how we prepare them for it. As well as an education based in sustainable principles and environmental stewardship, students need an ‘inclusive education’ and one that ideally starts with the youngest among us.

“An inclusive education is based on the principles of acceptance and inclusion for all students. Students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, their physical surroundings, and the broader environment, in which diversity is honoured and all individuals are respected. It is also the process of actively working to acknowledge and shift power towards inclusiveness, accessibility, equity and social justice.” – Durham District School Board

A unique organization that is supporting early learners and student equity throughout the midwest of America is IFF. As a mission-driven lender, real estate consultant, and developer, IFF helps communities thrive by creating opportunities for low-income communities and people with disabilities. Their ‘Learning Spaces’ grant program is designed to increase capacity and improve access to quality early childhood education across the city of Detroit and in the Midwest. Here is a beautiful video showcasing three early learning centers the IFF has supported and the difference it has made to providing those students with equitable and safe spaces to learn and grow”.

In the classroom, promoting inclusiveness and equity is about educators choosing to embrace rather than shy away from the unique backgrounds, identities, and experiences that their individual students bring to the table.

“Classrooms are works in progress in which we inevitably bring…our different social identities and social locations into the learning process. [To achieve] equity, we must [address] the ways in which those identities and locations are part of how we learn and who we are as we learn, and build on those perspectives as a way to understand each other and make learning relevant.” – Polly Attwood, an associate teaching professor in the education program at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.

But for students to be open to the process of listening, discussing, learning about and embracing diversity, they really need to feel safe, comfortable and welcomed. Their immediate physical environment has to offer that sense of safety and inclusiveness, without the alienating barriers or hierarchy of rows of desks where students always sit in the same place, next to the same person, either close to or far away from the stationary teacher. By giving students choice and autonomy about where they sit (or even stand) along with different seating options they can feel ownership over the space, putting them at the center of their own inquiry and learning. If the physical environment can also reflect the ecological environment, even better. Creating an uncluttered, beautiful space, with natural green elements really does create a sense of calm and safety. This is also where the physical learning environment can provide the cognitive connection between sustainability, environment stewardship, inclusivity and diversity. The built environment ideally should reflect all of these aspects, offering a sustainable environment with sustainable furniture and sustainable energy, that offers a sustainable, inclusive future for every child, where they can thrive in their own unique way, resulting in the best learning outcomes for themselves and therefore their community and generation.

A sustainable learning environment can ultimately help illustrate how we are all connected, to each other and the earth, while giving us the opportunity to embrace our wonderful diversity and a vision of the future where humanity is working together for a better, equitable future for everyone.

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