Connecting SLCE with Sustainability in Higher Education:

Cultivating Citizens with an Ecocentric Vision of Justice

Catherine Wright, Melanie Keel, & Tyrone Fleurizard


We write from one core conviction: We cannot have thriving, justice-oriented human communities and robust intellectual mindscapes when the ecological systems upon which all life depends, now and in the future, are ignored and destroyed. Thus, an important future direction for service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) is to collaborate with the sustainability in higher education (SHE) movement.

SHE is a diverse, transdisciplinary area of inquiry and practice that seeks to help lead efforts to create a “thriving, equitable and ecologically healthy world” (AASHE, 2015). When SLCE and SHE collaborate, we can more readily see ourselves as contributing members of a comprehensive Earth community and Earth’s “inarticulate but not silent” ecologies (Hall, 200, p. 124) as stakeholders and partners in transforming human communities. W’Engage, Wingate University’s SLCE program, has intentionally coupled SLCE-SHE in some courses (e.g., EcoJustice, EcoLiteracy); our early experience shows much promise [in] cultivating undergraduates who can appreciate the intertwining of social and ecological justice and grow into democratic, planetary citizens who ask new and better questions about the way the world works (or does not work).

The reflective inner attitudes and values cultivated by SHE highlight specific dimensions of what constitutes engaged planetary citizenship today. SHE recognizes that reflective, inner attributes and values such as compassion, equity, justice, peace, cultural sensitivity, and care for the welfare and rights of future generations of humans and nonhumans alike are culturally, ecologically, and contextually situated. Thus, knowledge and experience of ecological webs of interdependencies is important in the formation of individual and communal identities and ecological values

SHE – as with SLCE – embraces long- and short-term systemic thinking, emphasizes collaboration, and offers a holistic orientation toward engaging with difficult social, cultural, and political contexts. SHE complements the critical, big picture or systemic thinking that SLCE encourages. When in conversation, both domains could invite each other to deeper reflection on networks of interrelationships and could “result in citizens who are more likely to engage in personal behaviors or contribute to public policy decisions in the best interest of the environmental commons and future generations” (Nolet, 2009, p. 418).

When SLCE seriously attends to ecological sustainability – when it becomes ecocentric – the movement can cultivate ecologically-literate, place-engaged, planetary citizens who value and nurture justice for both human and other-than-human inhabitants.

CATHERINE WRIGHT (c.wright@wingate.edu), originally from Toronto, Canada, now lives in Indian Trail, North Carolina, USA. She is an ecotheologian exploring the interface of human and other-than-human suffering and currently serves as an assistant professor in the Religion and Philosophy department at Wingate University. She provides leadership in the incorporation of sustainability within the fabric and culture of Wingate University. Her SLCE work focuses on how ecological justice is a crucial lever for social transformation and the unique role universities and colleges play in socio-ecological transformation in today’s political climate.

MELANIE KEEL (m.keel@wingate.edu), native of North Carolina, is an assistant professor in Education at Wingate University and is working to establish a Food Corp that pursues transformative food practices in local schools. She participated on the task force that established the SLCE program W’Engage at Wingate and is currently teaching a W’Engage course entitled “Foodies Unite,” which investigates the nexus of ecological health, food scarcity, and socio-political power dynamics and has a culminating SLCE immersion trip across three states ending in Mississippi. Her research involves social justice issues and culturally relevant pedagogy, especially as they relate to food, children, and schools.

TYRONE FLEURIZARD (tafleurizard@gmail.com), originally from Connecticut, is an undergraduate student at Wingate University with interests that include identity and purpose development of at-risk youth, mentoring, race inequality, education policy, and eco-privilege. As a member of Wingate’s sustainability group, Bulldogs Into Going Green, he volunteers with Habitat and Wildlife Keepers of Matthews, NC. He also facilitates personal and professional development workshops within the Black Student Union, mentors local youth, and conducts research on the effects of mentoring on African-African American and Latino youth. He served as a mentor for Catherine Wright’s EcoJustice W’Engage course, which included an immersion trip to the North Carolina coast and Rachel Carson Reserve.

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