“One trend is that people still think about sustainability very narrowly, as environmental sustainability,” said Lauren Beriont, a graduate student in the School of Social Work. “And when I think about sustainability, I don’t. I’m thinking about equity, community connectedness, and economic justice as the core to that.”
After graduating from the U-M Program in the Environment (PitE) in 2013, Beriont is back in Ann Arbor to focus on her passion for the environment and social justice. As a graduate student in the School of Social Work and a project manager at the Graham Institute of Sustainability, she intersects these two disciplines to facilitate meaningful conversations about the way actions and policies concerning the environment affect diverse groups of people.
“I’m trying to take courses that will better prepare me to address problems in the environment. So I’m writing environmental policy for my social work and policy class, and I’m researching environmental foundations for a philanthropy class I’m taking,” Beriont explained. “Right now, I’m really thinking about social justice theories and how they apply to environmental problems. So I’m working on strengthening that social justice lens, and keeping in mind my environmental experience.”
When she first came to U-M as an undergraduate, Beriont tried out multiple majors before settling on PitE. She appreciated the way that PitE classes and initiatives integrated humans into environmental issues, which ultimately lead to the career path she is currently on.
“[I enjoyed the class] the psychology of environmental stewardship, Environment 361. Everything I learned was super important and something I use on a daily basis,” Beriont said. “I’m a really big evaluation nerd, so I thought that Michaela Zint’s class, Environment 382, on environmental education and evaluation was brilliant. I wouldn’t have had a chance to start the campus farm if I didn’t take Environment 391. Having a project based class like that was amazing.”
As an undergraduate, Beriont was part of the founding team of the Campus Farm and Sustainable Food program. She found herself most interested in the way the area brought humans into the conversation of the environment. After graduation, Beriont worked in the sustainability field and gained more hands-on experience.
“When I graduated, I worked as a landscaper in Colorado, to try to get into the ‘what is it like to get your hands dirty’ end of things and liked it,” Beriont said. “But I ending up feeling that wasn’t really a good fit for me.”
After landscaping in Colorado, Beriont moved to Madison, Wisconsin and was the director of sustainable neighborhood initiatives for Sustain Dane, a small non-profit, for three years.
“I was doing a lot of neighborhood organizing work, so working on the ground to help support collective visions for sustainability,” Beriont explained. “We used art and we brought in city staff to make their visions for sustainability come true.”
Beriont also identified some problems with non-profit organizations not properly training people doing community-based work. She values recognizing that members of the community likely know much more about specific needs than people working in environmentalism who don’t live there or haven’t lived there for as long. This experience led Beriont to consider the impact of social equity intertwined in environmentalism.
“How we partner with communities became a really big passion of mine,” Beriont said. “Also, the inequity of the environmental movement. Mainstream environmental movements tend to be super, super white and middle class. So the priorities they’re setting aren’t always the priorities of the rest of the US. So how can we better talk about equity in the scope of environmental work?” Beriont feels grateful for the affirmative attitudes of the people with whom she works and studies.
“The one power in sustainability that’s unique to the field is the positivity around it. There’s a common love for the world that people in the community have. I think that’s an important thing to hold onto.”