July 10, 2018
This spring, Arizona State University surpassed 500 sustainability scientists and scholars at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. The 500th member was Christine Buzinde, a professor at the School of Community Resources and Development, an academic director for youth leaders and a sustainable tourism researcher and advocate.
Buzinde answered several questions for us below about the significance of sustainability in tourism and the value of youth-centered social change.
Question: How would you describe your work?
Answer: I look at how tourism can bring people from different traditions and cultures together so that we can heal our accumulated social traumas and build healthier human relationships. In particular, we need to improve the ways in which privileged tourists relate to indigenous and vulnerable communities. I work on understanding and designing tourism experiences that turn travel into a force for well-being that empowers and socially heals communities instead of creating or exacerbating conflicts and inequalities.
Q: How did you become interested in this field?
A: Repurposed former slave plantations, which have been converted into heritage tourism sites, opened my heart to socio-cultural issues related to tourism. The narratives featured in some of these heritage sites in the southern United States perpetuate situations of social injustice by romanticizing slavery and solely focusing on discussions related to interior décor and/or the heroism of plantation owners. Such narratives exacerbate social trauma. Yet when heritage sites adopt an inclusive narrative, one that recognizes the enslaved (and not just the plantation owners) as well as the inhumanity that characterized the plantation era, the opportunity for collective understanding through dialogue arises.
Dialogue is a necessary and important step in the collective process of healing social trauma. Dialogue is ground zero for learning about our shared humanity. Whether the source of trauma is colonialism, war or other forms of injustice, dialogue between various communities allows for contemplation of the past and with time the co-creation of a national portrait in which all members are visible. I have come to realize that my passion is to explore the role tourism plays within communities that are rendered invisible: marginalized communities. Within these communities there are many lessons to be gleaned — that is, if we actively listen!
Q: How does your work relate to the average American adult?
A: Many North Americans engage in tourism to satisfy a meaningful need. All too often tourism is undertaken to escape from the challenges that plague our society; to spend time in a utopian resort destination where everyone appears to be endlessly happy. We convince ourselves that this utopia exists just for us and we deserve it. Accordingly, the encounter with the visited indigenous or marginalized communities becomes transactional versus relational; we may temporarily feel good after our vacation but what is the social, environmental or economic footprint of our escapism?
My work on critical tourism studies is premised on the fact that tourism can indeed offer more meaningful experiences, for the guests and hosts, if we view engagement in tourism as a privilege versus a right. Such a state of mind would allow us to be more conscious in our consumption of tourism products and in a fertile mindset in which one can optimistically sow the seed of sustainability.
Q: If you had to pick one, which UN Sustainable Development Goal relates most closely to your work?
A: The SDGs and earlier MDGs are related to tourism primarily because the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) views them as an important framework that can inform sustainable tourism worldwide. UNWTO has instructed nation-states and encouraged private businesses to devise mechanisms that aid in achieving the SDGs, with a particular focus on goals eight, 12 and 14.
Of these three goals the one that most closely relates to my work is goal 12: Ensure sustainable Consumption and Production patterns. If the tourism industry works towards accomplishing this goal, it will inevitably be a strong catalyst in the transition towards sustainability. Targets 12b of goal 12 indicate that is important to “[d]evelop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism which creates jobs, promotes local culture and products." In my opinion, the aforementioned targets are particularly crucial in the context of indigenous or marginalized communities, which often have no say in tourism development within their locales. Although not mentioned by UNWTO, goal 10 — reduce inequalities — is also closely related to my work.
Q: What does sustainability mean to you?
A: Sustainability, like justice, is “synthesizing concepts.” These concepts provide a space of discussion and inquiry about shared concern and intention. Justice brings together people concerned with improving relationships between various groups, and sustainability extends this concern to our relationship, as a species, with the planet.
In my scholarship, I follow the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two psychologists who crafted a theory of motivation premised on three psychological needs that humans strive to satisfy: competence, relatedness and autonomy. Competence entails ensuring that people are efficacious in performing certain tasks. Relatedness speaks to the creation of appropriate networks within one’s social context and autonomy refers to the ability to self-regulate. These concepts apply to each one of us and they can help us to build better ways of inhabiting the planet.
For instance, in the communities I work with, developing autonomy is achieved when people decide how they want to define and approach development and sustainability. I have the honor of working with Western Navajo chapter and Tribal Parks on an asset-based community development planning approach, and through this process I have seen the community co-create their own definition of sustainability informed by local culture. For me, this work, undertaken by the Western Navajo community, is the epitome of autonomy and is vital to any sustainability related endeavors. In my work, I also use mindfulness practices as I contemplate encounters with communities, particularly marginalized communities; this entails approaching communities with compassion, a presence of mind that allows us to listen, and empathy.
Q: What else are you involved with?
A: I have had the pleasure of enacting the role of Academic Director for the Civic Engagement Institute of Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), a State Department program. This three-year grant-funded program has been hosted at ASU since 2015. The participants are young change agents, ages 19 to 25, who are tackling issues like environmental degradation, religious and ethnic intolerance, sexual abuse, lack of access to clean water, voter rights and women’s rights, to name a few. They are ordinary youth who are doing extraordinary things!
As part of their five-week academic programing, the fellows take SOS 322: International Development and Sustainability with ASU students, and this interaction has proven to be mutually beneficial for SOS students and the YSEALI fellows. The fellows also take a variety of classes from ASU faculty focused on leadership, participatory budgeting, tribal relations, community development, youth development, deaf culture and civic engagement, to name a few.
The knowledge exchange that takes place in SOS 322 and other lectures are exemplary of ASU’s global impact and ASU faculty’s willingness to contribute to youth-centered social change programs like YSEALI. I am happy to work at an institution that values service and encourages scholars like myself to work on leadership programs like YSEALI. My experience with YSEALI has highlighted the important role that youth play and will continue to play in sustainability related contexts worldwide. From this vantage point, I think that if we want the world to be a better place, we need to rethink our approach to education to be able to cultivate young leaders who are critical thinkers, expert knowledge analysts and emotionally resilient and compassionate beings.
Top photo: Christine Buzinde, left, visits a Navajo Nation overlook with YSEALI fellows