Understanding the UN SDGs through the lens of Decolonization, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (DEDI)

May 18, 2023
Rhonda Lenton, President and Vice-Chancellor, York University

When the United Nations published the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calling on all nations and stakeholders to unite in an action plan to strengthen people, planet and prosperity, it recognized that no single country, organization or person has the capacity to address the globally complex challenges facing our world – including climate change, poverty and systemic inequality. York University, bolstered by the support of our community, realized that universities have a role to play in building the interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral capacity through our research, innovation, teaching and global partnerships to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

York has taken this work up in many ways, with a lens of being inclusive and diverse. For example The Go Global SDGs in Action Student Challenge, which empowers students to create local and global impact by leading their own SDG projects; York’s “Living Labs” such as the SARIT projects, which pilot next generation electric vehicles with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing students and researchers with hands-on experience; and, York’s Microlecture Series in Sustainable Living, which provides six free, open-access learning modules from renowned researchers encouraging individuals around the world to become ambassadors for sustainable living, are a few of the many examples of York’s commitment to advancing the SDGs. 

The 17 SDGs serve as the blueprint for “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” but we must remember that this notion of peace and prosperity does not come if we are successful in advancing only one or a few of the SDGs. It is based on the notion that we are all working collectively to advance each of the SDGs. It’s an important and nuanced distinction because the globally complex challenges we face today are intersectional, and that intersectionality impacts diverse populations and regions differently, and often, disproportionately. 

The climate crisis, for example, acts as a threat multiplier, intensifying existing issues such as poverty, conflict and inequality around the world. Extreme weather events – droughts, floods and locust plagues – are increasing food insecurity, dwindling critical water supplies and leading to mass migration in record numbers. Climate migration alone is expected to produce a billion climate migrants from low-latitude to high-latitude countries within the next 30 years, a devastating new reality that will further fuel global inequality, particularly for the already marginalized and disadvantaged – low income, racialized populations, and women. 

Like climate change, the pandemic also magnified existing health inequalities. A Government of Canada report, for example, demonstrated that COVID-19 related deaths were higher for Canadians living in low-income neighborhoods, visible minorities and recent immigrants, and that this social and economic disadvantage played a role in exposing them to the virus and impacting their ability to stay healthy and access health services. While COVID-19 remains one of the top global health concerns, the list is long and growing as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and anti-microbial resistance present imminent dangers to the health and well-being of our societies. 

At the “Understanding the SDGs through the lens of DEDI” session on June 1, I will join a panel of esteemed activists, researchers, government and industry thought leaders who are championing the SDGs in their daily lives, personally and professionally to delve into some of the work needed to unpack these global challenges. The session will consider how we can advance the SDGs with a strong focus on continuing our work in areas such as decolonization equity, diversity and inclusion. We will identify where and how we can work together to best utilize universities – from our renowned scholars to our talented students – to facilitate the type of cross-sector collaboration needed to advance the SDGs and ensure all people and the planet benefit. 

Global problems require us to think about how we can transcend cultures, sectors and borders to bring industries, government and academia together. There isn’t a simple solution for tackling the SDGs, but universities can and should play a role in linking purpose with impact to advance the well-being of the society and the planet.