Though it might seem least unlikely, and despite what we protest about individuality and celebrating our authentic self, people, especially urban women tend to change more quickly and thoroughly in groups than they do on their own. Especially if they are marginalized women. Much to the chagrin of mainstream green, particularly health and wellness programs and organizations, the basic assumption that behavior will change individual by individual falls flat on its back. Yet, those gaps are often bridged by an unshakeable urge to compete and stand out, not to belong (community and sisterhood), unless you are poor, a woman of color, or otherwise disenfranchised. Within the environmental justice movement and their impact, vulnerable communities are only stronger, healthier, happier, safer, and more prosperous together
© Chris Murray
To make marginalized women care for their personal and collective environment, wellness, and space-safety, the power of social networks need to be utilized. As an advocate for positive social impact that is a ripple effect of individual and communal transformation, I was delighted when I first discovered this truth. That was until I realized that the “groupings” the movement were forming were thematic and exclusive ones (millennial creative urban dweller looking to eat clean), compartmentalizing rather than personalizing and intersecting narratives (urban low-income working women recently displaced and living in food desserts). This kind of sisterhood inevitably leaves vulnerable women further on the periphery of both their own cities and social change.
© Garin Chadwick
As with comparable social impact movements, urban sustainability initiatives originally targeted the individual. Understanding their niche positioning, these efforts were strategic and based on knowing that within our larger, still homogenous-defined social nature, progress and change is encouraged by feeding into the student’s ultimate desire to become the teacher, the expert, and leader of the pack. Outreach, advertisements, and opt-ins were aimed at the woman who is knowledgeable, informed, has access to resources and services and were designed to promote following, not community; or dare I say cooperation. Lured by the premise that they are not influenced by peers or society; in fact in many instances, they are doing the revolutionary and evolutionary and moving in a direction away from the mainstream, most women leapt at the chance to be head of the club. When participating in urban sustainability initiatives was as simple as drinking kale smoothies, owning zero waste jars and solar panels this would have served a purpose. The purpose being lifestyle for a few, instead of change for all.
© Patrick Tomasso
Going “green” is a complex issue and there are few spaces that address that complexity with depth and breadth and with the inclusivity that a social impact movement would demand. “But it’s a personal choice”, one would exclaim. And yet it’s the accumulation of many individual personal, even less prioritized choices that makes a movement. A real movement. Back to neighbors and sisterhood.
As women, we will proudly claim that we aren’t bothered or influenced by what our neighbors do. However, research and Instagram proves otherwise. Specifically when it comes to sustainability, attitudes about what, how and where “green” living shows up in our lives is deeply affected by peer and community/family behavior.
© Trung Thanh
Women will be more proactive in going green if they are convinced that others are doing it too. The impact is higher when we tell them what their friends and peer circle is doing especially when combined with clear articulation of how “green” addresses significant pain points previously considered par de cour. For instance, government and state regulations place higher prices on carbon in an effort to discourage people from buying it. But it doesn’t work within disenfranchized communites where a car is a vital means and symbol of social and economic mobility. Instead, if industries want more women to consider cycling or carpooling to work, their bike access ports and carpooling zones have to expand into their neighborhoods. This makes the shift smart, accessible, viable and appealing. It’s an easier sell to the whole community who would need to buy in if the initiative is to work.
While the income consumerism ratio among women of color is disproportionate and external motivations (a.k.a. celebrity influence and targeted marketing) are huge lifestyle influencers, this style of capacity building within sustainability has limited impact. What does influence the buying behavior of a marginalized individual is what the others around them are doing. People mold their behavior to fit in their neighborhood.
© Thought Catalog
So how can the planners, organizers and business owners connect with this untapped community? It rarely works to exhort women morally to get them to change. This could explain why initiatives that highlight green living as mandatory come to quick standstills. Instead tell them how many of their neighbors, peers and colleagues are already doing it and watch the change. We are all imitators at heart. We like to fit in, and we respond favorably to invitations to participate and inspire additional opt-ins. Shaming messages don’t work either. These women may need a positive change, but they also need the movement to use positive messages to reinforce it. Women will not go green for the sake of the future, earth or even their children. However, they will change their attitude and behavior if they have real life mentors to walk with them through the journey. The motivation from knowing what your friends, family, and community share your mission, ranks higher than one’s isolated concern for the environment.
Companies like Opower have established a dialogue with their customers online by enabling them to access their power consumption measurements online and compare it to their friends. This has prompted people to save more power. The underlying principle also works for various fitness apps and gadgets where you can track your numbers and compare it to your friends. It inspires you to do better, challenge others and win. Remember how electric cars were viewed as boxy and inconvenient. Once Tesla was in the playing field, the perception changed. Suddenly owning a Tesla was the coolest thing. People loved to boast and compare their fuel costs with the others. The social norm around a Tesla or electric cars suddenly became very accepting.
To implement policies that impact disenfranchised communities more effectively, they need to be combined with collective interests that support individual goals and values .
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