Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Baking In Inclusion

It was my privilege to be part of the planning committee for the Environmental Law Collective 2023 meeting organized around the theme Consumption and The Good Life in the Anthropocene. Planning this meeting prompted some deep thought about what the “good life” means. For me, the answer involves being part of a community; being welcomed, valued, and included. So, I decided to focus my attention on the specific people gathering in Oregon, and what it would mean for us to share “the good life” during our time together.

So many organizations, including law schools, have been criticized for being white spaces, settings in which diversity is absent, not expected, or marginalized. This criticism is not an assertion that law schools, law organizations, and law societies are off limits to people of color, or to religious and gender minorities. Instead, the critique is that these spaces are structured with cis-hetero-whiteness as the default, as what is normal, unremarkable, and given. Deviations from this presumed “regular” person are always noteworthy—and often suspect. Such spaces only accommodate the “other” willing to alter themself to conform with pre-existing practices. Sandy Levinson characterized this phenomenon as a form of inclusion that is predicated on newcomers “bleaching out” their self-identity.

In the wake of the racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd, critiques of bleached-out inclusion gained increased traction. Even as the U.S. Supreme Court actively undermines voting rights, reproductive rights, and affirmative action, critics nevertheless demand radical transformation of white spaces. Rather than expecting historically-excluded groups to adapt themselves to the social architecture of white spaces as they have already been made (to paraphrase Lawrence Lessig), they instead demand that white spaces change in order to reflect the full diversity of those who use them.

This transformative vision of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has triggered a virulent, sometimes violent, backlash. We see this backlash when trans children want to use bathrooms or compete in sports, or when a “Wise Latina” brings empathy to the Supreme Court. This backlash emerges whenever, instead of gratefully conforming themselves to existing practices, the newly-admitted instead try to alter the pre-existing social architecture.

Many scholarly descriptions of “white spaces” emerge from a specific racialized context in the United States, but subaltern critiques and decolonization studies make similar points. As part of a summer writing collaboration, Professor Carmen Gonzalez and I applied these insights to what she termed “the unbearable whiteness” of environmental law. [link coming]

I am convinced that these ideas have wide salience for how to make any group a welcoming community. So, as part of organizing this conference on “the good life,” I decided to apply them to my portion of the planning process—the food. That meant thinking about how (and whether) our catering practices could make every person joining us feel fully part of the community we were created.

Maybe, having gotten this far, you dear reader, conclude that I was overthinking. Maybe I was. An extremely poor cook myself, I am remarkably unqualified to assess what commitment to authentic diversity, equity, and inclusion should look like in the context of feeding conference participants. Fortunately, I found an excellent caterer willing to think this through with me. More importantly, she had the expertise to make it happen.

Together we constructed a menu that took on the task of feeding the conference locally-grown, culturally-appropriate food. Our attendees had a lot in common (we are environmental law profs after all) but this seeming homogeneity cloaked wide divergences. Our relatively small group adhered to a remarkable range of eating practices—some vegans, some vegetarians, and some omnivores. There were also an array of food allergies to accommodate, some of which were life-threatening.

Our commitment from the beginning was to create meals that would work equally well for everyone. The goal was to make sure every participant had the Lockean “enough and as good” that undergirds the social commons. Enough was easy; in a country awash with food waste, it was not even a question. Indeed, overconsumption emerged repeatedly as an important sub-theme in our conference conversations about “the good life.”

“As good” seemed much more challenging. As a vegetarian, I am quite familiar with scrounging for food at meetings when the  convenors fail to  plan for dietary diversity. I am equally used to eating uninteresting, veggie platters—the vegetarian afterthought thrown together from side-dishes. Such food makes it clear that vegetarians rate far less attention than “regular” eaters. The food comes with the (often unspoken) message that all too often undergirds such inclusion—keep quiet and be grateful we gave you something.

It was this division into “regular” and “other” that we hoped to avoid. That is where the real work of diversity, equity, and inclusion happens—making sure that everyone feels equally welcomed, equally valued, equally part of the community. Surprisingly, it turned out that providing “as good” to our participants was not that hard, at least when the issue was food. It just took prioritizing inclusion, and remembering that eating is also about culture, not just about nutrition and taste.  We skipped ingredients that posed either danger or cultural issues for any of our group members. Our incredible caterer then constructed delicious meals that shared a common core of ingredients but allowed customization for the finishes. Everyone could personalize their own portion. Those who wanted meat could add it, those that did not could add other proteins.  We all had both the same and different—at the same time. There is surely a metaphor for the good life in there somewhere.

Did we solve the world’s problems through inclusive catering? No, of course not. The food merely fueled frustrating, painful, and often frightening conversations about our rapidly warming world. But did everyone enjoy the food? Did the food help every participant know that their unique presence was valued?  I hope so.

My take-away: If we want to solve big problems, perhaps we should start by solving the small ones.  Centering difference and respecting diversity on the micro scale may offer a model for doing it on the macro scale. After all, if we want things to be different, we have to do things differently.

--Rebecca Bratspies

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