March 19th, 2012

Integrating Culture as a Cornerstone of Success in Sustainability Education: A Case Study, Youth Allies for Sustainability Leadership Program, Earth Care, Santa Fe, NM

By Christina Selby


Environmental sustainability cannot be separated from social justice.  Christina Selby presents a compelling case study of sustainability work grounded in cultural democracy, or processes that involve all groups in community decision-making.  In the Youth Allies for Sustainability Leadership Program, young residents of Santa Fe, New Mexico, address ecological integrity through intercultural healing, relationship-building, and advocacy.  Selby grounds her case in the broader theoretical work of eco-justice and transformative education.  She highlights the urgent need to further integrate the defense of cultural integrity with the protection and restoration of ecological balance and economic vitality.  This case study is a shining model for such integration. 



Cultural anthropologist Richard Kurin (2000) describes globalization as “the worldwide spread of a homogenized, commercial, mass culture at the expense of most local and regional cultures” (pg. 4).  As multinational corporations spread Western consumer cultural, economic, and linguistic systems across the world, local cultures are threatened. These globalizing forces assign more value, status, and influence to Western consumer culture and then to local, place-based and indigenous cultures. Kurin refers to this form of social dominance as “cultural gray-out.” Cultural gray-out effectively decreases the resilience of human communities by eliminating both biological and cultural diversity.

Today we are becoming aware of how important diversity is to our survival, and how cultural diversity is directly linked to our ability to sustain biological diversity. As Rebecca Martusewicz, Jeff Edmundson, and John Lupinacci (2011) highlight in their book EcoJustice Education, there is an important relationship among cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, and biodiversity so that if one of these is threatened the others are as well. Cultures maintain viability by protecting and passing on knowledge via their shared language. “As we lose linguistic diversity, we also lose specific cultural knowledge about how to live in specific bioregions, what species live there, what grows well, what rainfall levels demand, what nutrients naturally occur in the soil and what it needs and on and on. Such a loss threatens the biodiversity of a region that in turn damages the human community’s survivability” (pg.27). Of the more than 6,700 languages spoken in the world today, half are in danger of disappearing before the century ends (Wurm, 2001). Cultural and biological diversity are two sides of the same coin and make up our living, evolving library of how to live sustainably on this planet.  We are burning the books in the library by homogenizing the cultural, economic, and linguistic systems that communities depend upon to maintain complex knowledge about the life in a particular bioregion.

Equally important to achieving sustainability are decision-making processes and relationships between diverse cultures. When cultural diversity exists, cultures have the opportunity to share knowledge and practices, interacting with each other to co-create solutions to problems where none appeared before. Yet, culture[1] is heavily influenced by historical, social, political, and economic conditions that define who holds the power and decision-making authority within society. Social systems have inherent arrangements of dominance and injustice that create privilege for some, at the expense of others, based on cultural differences such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other differentiation (Howard, 1999; Johnson, 2006). Privileges flow to some whether or not they have earned it, and likewise penalties and inequalities flow to other groups through no fault of their own. These systems of privilege create “a yawning divide in levels of income, wealth, dignity, safety, health and quality of life” (Johnson, 2006) and define who is included or excluded from decision-making processes.

In addition, these systems of privilege are being expanded around the world through globalization. Martusewicz, Edmundson, and Lupinacci (2011) state, “If our decision-making practices do not take account of a particular groups’ needs because they are excluded from our believed realm of responsibility, we not only commit injustice, we inevitably undermine the diversity that is the strength of our community. No matter if we’re talking about cultural diversity or biodiversity, putting any of these groups in the margins or defining them as less deserving of care and reciprocity, is harmful to the whole community of life.” Globalization is setting up a hierarchy valuing Western consumer culture over all others.

Recognizing the impact of global economic development on biological and human communities, the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future in 1987. This report that introduced the concept of sustainable development, better known as sustainability, defining sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Sustainability is achieved through a balance between social, economic, and environmental factors.

Building on the Our Common Future, the Earth Summit[2] convened in 1992, birthing the field of Sustainability Education. Simply put, Sustainability Education began as a way to prepare students with the skills and knowledge necessary to live sustainably, and built its pedagogy upon the same three interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development – social equity, environment, and economics. Awareness of sustainability began to spread and is now becoming mainstream in many countries.

Today, nearly twenty years later, is sustainability a victim of its own success? Sustainability has come to mean many things to many people – everything from solar panels, biodiesel fuel, and seed saving to increasing park land, shopping at local stores, and as a way of thinking about community development. Sustainability Education has certainly been successful in developing a mainstream awareness about “going green”, but nearly two decades later we need to ask ourselves if Sustainability Education is reinforcing a dominant western view of how to live sustainably on this planet. Are we missing an understanding of the importance of cultural diversity and democratic processes in our mission to achieve global sustainability?


In 2003, UNESCO proposed that educational approaches to sustainability take into account the experiences of indigenous cultures and minorities and both acknowledge and facilitate their important contributions to the process of sustainable development. “Cultural diversity presupposes the existence of a process of exchanges, open to renewal and innovation but also committed to tradition, and does not aim at the preservation of a static set of behaviors, values and expressions” (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization – UNESCO, 2003). As globalization’s diminishing effects on cultural diversity become more apparent, the acknowledgement and recognition of how various cultures and living systems contribute to, are excluded from, resist, or are affected by development, sustainable or otherwise, must become an increasingly central concept in Sustainability Education.

Cultural democracy is a system whereby citizens encourage and create a process for all cultures to participate equally in decision-making. The practice of cultural democracy allows societies to address issues of power, the reality of uneven and inequitable inclusion of cultures in the democratic process, the effect of power dynamics on how cultures relate to each other, and how communities are able to participate in the shaping of their own futures (Akinyela, 1997).

The newly emerging field of EcoJustice Education links cultural diversity, democracy and sustainability. In the introduction to EcoJustice Education, the authors (2011) argue that “the purpose of public education must be to develop citizens who can actively work toward a democratic and sustainable society, one that values cultural diversity for what it offers to community problem-solving and for the essential role that biodiversity plays in the very possibility of living systems. Such a citizenry requires a developed eco-ethical consciousness, people who recognize the importance of protecting their local communities’ health and welfare, while understanding the ways larger social, political, and economic systems function historically to degrade the social and ecological relationships necessary for life.” He continues, saying that EcoJustice Education “helps teachers understand how to interpret unsustainable and unjust ways of living, too often reproduced in schools. We look closely at how social inequalities like racism or sexism are connected to the harm being done to local and global ecosystems by the same underlying logic of domination. And emphasizing our commitment to the local, to the power of diverse and democratic communities.” Stephen Sterling, a thought leader in the field of Sustainability Education, [3] acknowledges the limitations of conventional Sustainability Education with his assertion that the field, in its current state, is marginalized by the dominant mainstream culture.

To move past this cultural “green-out” of Sustainability Education, a fourth pillar of culture must be added to the standard narrative of Sustainability Education as we know it today. In doing so, culture more fully supports the foundation of social equity, economic and environment by linking democracy, sustainability and cultural and biological diversity. By expanding the definition of Sustainability Education to include cultural diversity as the fourth pillar, we automatically include biological diversity in democratic practices that are key to sustainability in human systems. This fourth pillar of culture encompasses the study of globalization, colonization, oppression and systems of privilege and their impact on cultural and biological diversity, providing insight into cross-cultural relations and decision-making processes.

Without this fourth pillar, we are at risk of perpetuating the same cultural gray-out that Kurin describes as a consequence of globalization. A dynamic that threatens to promote and reify only the dominant culture’s perspective on practices on sustainable living and development while excluding the majority and diversity of perspectives. Sustainability Education must ask students to grapple with all manner of diversity questions, on both individual and collective levels, including query into cultural identity, how to preserve or transform sustainable/unsustainable cultural practices, where cultures meet and collide in the political, economic, and social realms, how living systems can be represented in our decision-making processes, and how to collectively decide what should be preserved, for whom and for how long.

This is especially important in New Mexico, a “minority majority” state where Native, Hispanic, and Anglo communities continue to struggle with the legacy and impact of colonization and systems of privilege on our collective ability to achieve equity, build relationships and work together across cultures to solve some of our community’s most pressing problems. Santa Fe, New Mexico is an excellent laboratory to realize the fourth pillar of culture in Sustainability Education, since despite having a minority majority, the Western consumer white culture still dominates.

This is the work that Earth Care was created to tackle — to show how a fourth pillar of culture counters cultural gray-out and the unsustainable green-out of sustainability education. Through our work we have engaged diverse groups of young people in preserving and revitalizing our community and environment in a way that honors the sustainable views and practices of individual cultures.

As a result of ten years of implementing Sustainability Education in various settings – with public, private and charter K-12 schools, in out-of-school youth leadership programs, and teacher trainings, the following case study on Earth Care’s Youth Allies for Sustainability Leadership Program (Youth Allies) serves as an exemplary success of this pillar’s integration into an educational model by embedding cultural diversity into the very fabric of the program rather than viewing it as a discrete goal to accomplish in and of itself.


Youth Allies is an example of a successful Earth Care program that incorporates the fourth pillar. The program works towards ecological wellbeing while healing and bridging cross-cultural relationships needed for communities to effectively engage in sustainable community development. At the same time, the program supports young people in successfully engaging these issues with real life, practical programming that they create and run.

Originally Earth Care relied on the three pillars of economic, environment, social equity in all of its programming and later attempted to add culture to the mix. Over the past decade, programmatic successes and failures clearly showed us that simply adding on a study of culture and cultural diversity did not work because it frequently fell off the list of priorities. Earth Care, under the visionary leadership of Youth Allies Program Director Bianca Sopoci-Belknap and in collaboration with the Santa Fe Mountain Center, started the out-of-school Youth Allies Program in 2006 as a way to engage local youth in the process of leadership and change-making. Culture was embedded into the program from its inception. Guided by the question: “How can we empower youth to rebuild the cultural and ecological fabric of the community?” we recruited diverse groups of youth and explored their cultural identities and communities as the foundation of the program.

Through the first year of the program we began to align ourselves with the then emerging field of EcoJustice Education that took this concept we already had in place and transformed it to new levels. For example, the EcoJustice educational approach places equal importance on working with students to preserve cultural commons (such as languages and methods for growing and preparing food) as well as ecological commons. As a result our fourth pillar methodology evolved to include the EcoJustice educational approach, and we now refer to the fourth pillar of culture as EcoJustice.

Structure of the Program

Youth Allies serves youth ages 13 to 19 from Santa Fe and surrounding Pueblos. We specifically target for diversity so that the leaders of tomorrow will be able to work across cultural lines and engage in cross-cultural conflict resolution and relationship building. The majority of the young people we serve are from underserved backgrounds – minority ethnic communities and low-income families – because these youth are disproportionately impacted by community issues and underrepresented in decision-making processes. The demographic breakdown of the approximately 450 youth served through the training program since 2006 to date is as follows:

Native Hispano Latino Immigrant Anglo Multi-Racial Low-Income Male Female LGBT MiddleSchool
21% 25% 28% 17% 9% 79% 39% 61% 8% 1%

The Youth Allies has a multi-level structure for training, organizing, and civic engagement. Thirty-five youth are accepted each year to participate in a nine-month intensive training called the Leadership Training Institute, gaining skills in cross-cultural relationship building, leadership, organizing, and social, economic, environmental and cultural sustainability. The next level of the Youth Allies Program is the Organizing Program that delves deeper into the theory and practice of social change. This program is open to 10 youth per year who have already received training and experience through the Leadership Training Institute. Participants explore their personal areas of passion and develop community improvement projects that utilize their strengths and interests, apply what they have learned, and address key areas of sustainable community development and global justice. Organizers, as the youth are titled, receive intensive mentorship and a stipend for college upon successful completion of this program that typically lasts a year. The community projects they design and lead fall under five areas: Food and Health, Climate Action, Art and Social Change, Footprint Reduction, and Global Justice. All projects include service-learning days and peer education activities that are open to the greater youth community.

Along with the youth participants that are trained in the Leadership Institute and Organizing Program, Youth Allies engages an additional 500 youth and community members through the youth-led community projects every year. This additional group is comprised of parents, students, activists, and peers of the youth in the program. The goal of the program is to counteract the cultural gray-out in the dominant narrative that leads to unsustainable decision-making in ecological, societal, cultural, and economic realms. The Youth Allies Program has shown that diversity is the antidote to cultural gray-out as hundreds of youth from many different backgrounds are now engaging in local decision-making processes, charting a course away from the numbing globalizing forces that impact their lives. Instead, these students are fully participating in preserving and transforming their environment and their communities while owning an authentic sense of self and cultural preservation/adaptation that will reverberate in untold directions.

Examples of Programmatic Success in Incorporating EcoJustice as a Pillar

We have realized that incorporating EcoJustice as a pillar requires building culturally diverse coalitions and collaborations throughout the systems we seek to influence in order to best support the positive development of youth and the sustainable development of communities. The program collaborates with over 20 local entities, each representing unique and diverse populations, issues, and cultures in our community.

We facilitate cultural healing and relationship building by recruiting for racial equity and diversity within the program in order to be able to cultivate cross-cultural alliances and a local movement for social justice. At a recent opening youth camp we brought together the Youth Allies with the Santa Fe Mountain Center’s Gay Straight Alliance program. After a day of training in anti-oppression, (de)colonization, and cultural competency, one youth participant stated, “we are family now, we will support each other’s causes and issues.”

As an example of a youth project under the Climate Action category on a recent cold December night in Santa Fe, 250 youth under thirty years of age dressed in black and marched across town carrying coffins and wearing gas masks to a State building to support the Carbon Cap (legislation) that the New Mexico governor currently seeks to reverse. To protest sweatshops in a proactive way, two Organizers are leading twenty of their peers in weekly “Do-It-Yourself” workshops in jewelry making, sewing, and other similar skills as part of the Footprint Reduction category. These are just two of the myriad of student created and led community projects that have resulted from the Youth Allies Program.

In addition to the individual community projects, students and staff of the Youth Allies Sustainability Program developed two avenues to bring EcoJustice to local government and educational decision-making forums. Both the community projects and these decision-making vehicles serve as on-going evidence for the success of incorporating the EcoJustice educational model in Sustainability Education.

For instance, there is now a nine-person Youth Advisory Board that works alongside the Mayor-appointed City of Santa Fe Sustainability Commission. Graduates from the program help inspire and implement the Sustainable Santa Fe Plan to reduce our community’s carbon footprint. Also, the Youth Board engages additional youth in civic engagement trainings and campaigns that address critical community needs focused on sustainable community development.

The Eco-Schools Student Coalition was created and is led by one of the Youth Allies Organizers, and is comprised of one student representative from each of the middle and high schools in Santa Fe. The Coalition’s mission is to green the Santa Fe school district and integrate sustainability education into the curriculum. The group conducts peer education on sustainability, ongoing eco-school assessments, and leads one campaign per year across the district in collaboration with the Sustainability Education Task Force and School Board.

In summary, the Youth Allies for Sustainability for Leadership Program takes Sustainability Education to a whole new level of inclusion, ability to affect community building and counter globalizing forces. Building upon the core principle foundations of social equity, economics, and environment, this program demonstrates the evolution of Sustainability Education to its next higher form through embedding culture and diversity within the very fabric of the program. For those seeking to increase the participation of diverse groups in building healthy, just and sustainable communities and counter the loss of our living library on how to live sustainably on this planet, this vital and influential model of Sustainability Education may provide an excellent guide.

Youth Allies Principles
Youth must be part of the decision-making processes that affect their lives. Youth must be part of the decision-making and development processes that are shaping our society and their lives because they are disproportionately affected by the social and environmental issues of our time. When we look at issues such as global climate change, economic recession, and war, it is the youth’s future that is at stake. Furthermore, youth have important role to play in the creation of solutions to these issues as they bring new energy and new ways of seeing and being into the world. For this reason Youth Allies puts youth at the center of sustainable community development efforts by having members design projects, organize and educate the community through peer and public education campaigns and by creating opportunities for youth to sit at decision-making tables.
In order to effectively participate in decision-making and sustainable community development, youth need training and support as well as transformative education that equips them with the knowledge, skills, and experience they need to tackle complex, interrelated issues and create holistic, sustainable solutions. Fundamentally rebuilding our social, economic, cultural, and ecological systems is no small task – for young people to meaningfully participate in this process, we believe they need training in effective communication, community-based research, critical and systems thinking, cultural competency and social justice, conflict resolution, ecological literacy, and sustainable living practices and technologies. Youth leadership development must be fundamentally tied with social and economic justice, cultural diversity, and sustainability. The next generation of leaders must understand how to design systems that are equitable and just, that promote diversity, and that work within ecological limits. We believe it is essential that the next generation of leaders is ecologically literate, knows how to work effectively across cultures to resolve conflicts and create solutions. Leadership needs to accurately reflect the diversity of the community. Therefore, Youth Allies trains youth from diverse backgrounds, particularly minority and low-income communities.
Space for youth voices, leadership, and decision-making cannot be assumed but needs to be actively created. It is not enough to train youth in leadership and decision-making because at this point there are few spaces for young people’s voices to be heard. Space at decision-making tables needs to be actively created for youth and youth need to be supported and mentored as they take leadership and initiative in the community. Therefore, Youth Allies works to develop youth seats on decision-making bodies and provides individualized support and mentorship to young leaders, activists, and decision-makers.

(Youth Allies Program Manual: 2010)

Youth Allies Curriculum
Connection to Self and Personal Leadership Youth Allies is designed to help young people explore and discover who they are and what gifts they have to offer the world. Throughout the program youth use storytelling, visual art, spoken word, and reflective writing to explore their identity, history, and personal calling. Youth learn about self-care and personal sustainability as a precursor to being an effective activist. For us this means helping young people face their fears, reach into and heal from personal pain and trauma, and practice self-maintenance and healthy living habits. It also means helping young people tap their natural talents and passions in service of the greater good.
Connection to Others: Cross-Cultural Healing & Social, Economic, & Environmental Justice Youth participants explore their own cultural identity and bridge and heal cultural divides. In order to do so, participants explore how they have been shaped by their own cultural heritage and reflect on their values, beliefs, and cultural mythology. Our emphasis is on building self-awareness of our impact on others and the world and to encourage young people to build positive cultural identities. From there, we provide training in decolonization and anti-oppression so that participants understand the ways in which they are shaped by and participate in systems of oppression, cycles of violence, and exploitation. Participants learn about how these systems in part perpetuated throughout history from colonization to imperialism to globalization. Through self-reflection, shared visioning, the arts, and dialogue, we work with our participants to create cross-cultural understanding, healing, and forgiveness. This process helps youth to build powerful cross-cultural alliances as they develop and implement strategies, campaigns, and projects to address social, environmental, and economic injustice in the community and around the world.Anti-oppression:Training in anti-oppression equips participants with an understanding of structural inequalities and how each of us, individually and collectively are affected by interlocking systems of oppression such as sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, etc. Anti-oppression work calls attention to power and privilege in personal, institutional, and structural relationships and develops the mindfulness to challenge oppressive behavior in ourselves and others as well as practices and policies in institutions.De-colonization: Decolonization training explores the historical process of colonization and its impact on the distribution of the world’s resources, dominant cultural worldviews, and indigenous peoples in order to provide an historical context for contemporary inequalities and the struggles of indigenous communities today. Through training in de-colonization participants develop the ability to recognize and break cycles of violence, domination, and internalized oppression. Participants learn how to build positive cultural identities and work toward the healing, reconciliation and justice necessary to develop communities sustainably.Cultural Competency: Cultural competency training teaches participants how to build cross-cultural relationships based on mutual respect & understanding, the valuing of and sensitivity to diversity, and justice. Participants develop the understanding, knowledge, and skills needed to work across cultural lines and within diverse cultural contexts including an awareness of paradigms & worldviews, cultural norms & values, and the dynamics of privilege and power between cultural groups.

(Youth Allies Program Manual: 2010)


Akinyela, M.M. (1997). Culture and power in practice: Cultural democracy and the family support movement, Best practice: Project commissioned paper III. Family Resource Coalition of America. ED 423055.

EcoJustice Education. (n.d.). EcoJustice Education. November, 8 2011,

Howard, G.R. (1999). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools.

New York: Teachers College Press.

Johnson, A.G. (2006). Privilege, power and difference (Second Edition). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Kurin, R. (2000). Pursuing cultural democracy. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian

Folklife Festival Program.

Martusewicz, R., Edmundson, J., Lupinacci, J. (2011). EcoJustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities. New York: Rutledge.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development.

UNESCO. (n.d.). Sustainable development: An evolving concept. April 20, 2005,

UNESCO. (2003). Ensuring sustainable development through cultural diversity. April 20, 2005,

Sopoci-Belknap, B. (2010). Earth Care Youth Allies Program Manual. Earth Care. Santa Fe, NM. or

Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Schumacher briefings. Bristol, U.K.: Schumacher CREATE Environment Center.

Wurm, Stephen. (2001). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing. UNESCO.

[1] Culture here is defined as the practices, beliefs, traditions, moral norms that give the people a common sense of identity and way of understanding their relationship to the environment and to each other.

[2] In 1992, more than 100 heads of state met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the first international Earth Summit convened to address urgent problems of environmental protection and socio-economic development. The assembled leaders endorsed the Rio Declaration, and adopted Agenda 21, a 300 page plan for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century.

[3] Stephen Sterling is a professor at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. He is the author of, among many other works, Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change and Good Earthkeeping: Education, Training and Awareness for a Sustainable Future.

| | PRINT: print

Comments are closed.