February 2020 - Sustainability Champion of the Month: Flora Lu

February 10, 2020

By Alessandra Álvares 


Professor Flora Lu is being recognized for the great work she does to further sustainability on this campus and beyond. Recently, she facilitated a panel discussion during the opening night of the annual Inter-Organizational retreat, giving it a lot more depth and flow. Learn more about her journey and her work.

Tell us about yourself, your background. 
I was born in Tainan, Taiwan, to parents who both fled China during the Communist Revolution in 1949. In 1974, when I was three years old, mom, my sister and I immigrated to the U.S.; my dad had come a few years earlier to get his master’s degree. We first lived in a small apartment in the San Gabriel Valley. I am the younger daughter—my sister and I are almost exactly a year apart. My father was a mechanical engineer, my mom a biochemist. We were free-range parented by necessity when my sister and I were growing up; mom was in grad school and dad was working. My fondest memories as a kid entailed skateboarding and playing with the other kids in the cul-de-sac in Rosemead where my childhood home was located, and spending endless hours with my furry and feathered friends in the backyard: a rabbit, lovebirds, and chickens.

When did you know you wanted to be a professor, and how was your journey becoming one?
My journey to become an ecological anthropologist focusing on Amazonia in some ways makes sense and in other ways seems completely random. Dinner time in my family when I was a kid did not entail much conversation around the table, but instead watching educational television, invariably nature shows like National Geographic or Animal Kingdom. I remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, one day I might be able to venture into a rainforest and see it firsthand.

When, in fifth grade, I left the Rosemead school district to attend better schools in San Juan Capistrano, it was a rough transition—more racially homogeneous and economically privileged. I stood out and encountered racist comments and had a hard time making friends. I really became interested in academics in sixth grade—my teacher at the time saw some potential in me, and encouraged me to excel. It was a far cry from the child I was prior, a tomboy who blew off school and got into trouble.

I believe that some anthropologists choose that profession because we have some ambivalence about our own backgrounds and identities, seeking to reconcile these tensions by immersing ourselves into other, very different cultures. At least that was the case for me. I entered undergrad at Stanford in 1989 as a pre-med to placate my parents but was pretty terrible at it. As a compromise, I changed my intended Biology major to Human Biology, an interdisciplinary major that connected the natural and social sciences, from human physiology to environmental conservation. As a sophomore, I took a course co-taught by Drs. William (Bill) Durham and Dominique (Nickie) Irvine called “Human Ecology in the Amazon.” I was sold. I wrote my term paper about the Waorani of Ecuador, who had been in the news because their lands were about to be opened up for oil extraction by Conoco, a U.S. company.

I’ve heard it said that one of the most powerful things we can do as teachers is to expand our students’ conceptions of what is possible for them to accomplish. And that is precisely what Bill and Nickie did for me—they empowered an undergrad with almost no international travel experience, no outdoor chops, and a serious case of imposter syndrome to undertake months of independent research in a foreign country, with only a list of Ecuadorian contacts and addresses to go on. I was petrified and will never forget the feeling of walking out of the then-tiny Quito airport dragging an obscene amount of luggage (filled with Costco-sized bags of bars and trail mix, as if there was no food in Ecuador) and confronting a sea of faces peering from behind a chain link fence.

Over the past 25 years, I have had the immense privilege of living in Waorani communities.

In the first few years, I undertook field research by myself, traveling throughout the Amazon region and Waorani territory. This is by no means to laud my own intrepidness—it was hard, and sometimes I got really lucky and other times not so much. I contracted malaria and shigellosis, and had multiple bouts of MRSA. I had a close encounter with a fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), one of the most dangerous snakes of the Western Hemisphere.

As a young woman traveling by herself in remote areas with a frontier feel, there were some close calls with sketchy men. The loneliness and culture shock in the beginning were at times almost debilitating—during dissertation fieldwork I was basically incommunicado, without a satellite phone and easily an entire day (or two) of travel to get to the nearest oil town. The Waorani communities then only had a short-wave radio to communicate to Alas de Socorro, a missionary outfit based out of Shell-Mera that would send small planes to evacuate people with medical emergencies.

I became an academic because I had questions that did not seem to have been already answered, and because I strove to emulate people who I revered, people whose belief in my abilities enabled me to believe in them too.

Is there anything you would do different on your pursuit of a career in academia, knowing what you know now?
Knowing what I know now, I would have been more protective of my sense of self-worth and more attentive about promoting my wellbeing. I would be less willing to tolerate inappropriate, exploitive and careless behavior. These are things I am still working on, and expect always will be.

What about UCSC? How did you end up on this campus?
I came to UCSC in 2008, after five years of being an assistant professor in Anthropology and Ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I enjoyed my years in the Southeast—changing seasons, sweet tea, Tarheel basketball—but was really ready to be back in CA!

I understand you wear many hats at UCSC. Can you give us an overview of all of your roles?
I’ll list my four main hats. I am in my sixth year as Provost of Colleges Nine and Ten: as academic head of these colleges, I oversee academic program development and implementation; adjudicate academic misconduct cases; work with the advising team to promote student success and retention; and support units such as the CoCurricular Programs Office and the Apprenticeship in Community Engaged Research or (H)ACER.

I am a Professor in the Environmental Studies Department--my favorite aspect of wearing that hat is the pleasure of working with a terrific group of graduate students.

With Directors of the Ethnic Resource Centers and the Director of the Sustainability Office, I co-founded the People of Color Sustainability Collective (PoCSC)—which I’ll tell you more about below.

I also am (the only academic) on the Board of Directors of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, the only CA EJ organization that was founded by, is led by, and works in rural, urban, and Indigenous communities impacted by environmental injustice.

Tell us about your work as Provost specifically. What have you been able to do as provost that you couldn’t as a teaching professor.
I did not have much understanding about the incredible work the staff and student leaders do at the colleges until I began to serve as provost in 2014. My co-leader of Colleges Nine and Ten, SDSL Sarah Woodside Bury, talks eloquently about seeing and supporting the whole student as our mission at the colleges. That means facilitating not just intellectual growth, but promoting things like socio-emotional learning (e.g., non-violent communication), positive social change (e.g., the Practical Activism Conference); cultural competency (e.g., Multi- and Inter-Cultural Community Weekends); community engagement (e.g., (H)ACER’s Alternative Spring Break and PRAXIS); and student leadership (e.g., Resident Assistants, College Guides, CUIP interns, Peer Advisors, Terry Freitas Café baristas, Tech Crew).

Here’s an example: I began partnering with Calabasas Elementary School (CES) in Watsonville around 2012 to support its after-school, garden-based education program. At the time, I taught a service learning class on environmental justice that was just one quarter of the academic year. It just wasn’t enough support and time to really serve CES well, and I felt like I was running myself ragged trying to keep multiple student projects running while still managing relations with community partners. The prospect of not being able to meet community expectations really stressed me out. As Provost, I brought the relationship with CES to Colleges Nine and Ten. Now from the thriving and verdant Calabasas community garden run by local Latinx residents, to our annual Hallows Eve event where two busloads of CES families come to UCSC for a night of food, crafts, games and trick or treating at the apartments, the CES partnership has really flourished because the Colleges provide a structure and support network to make it happen.

Being known for your vast reach working with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff, is connecting and empowering people, projects, and community organizations always been your focus/intent?
I think this question makes me sound more accomplished and intentional than I am!

On the community note, tell me more about the project at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville.
Colleges Nine and Ten and its (H)ACER Program have a strong relationship with Watsonville’s Calabasas Elementary School, an institution that is under-resourced, serves 97% Latinx children, and has the highest proportion migrant farm-working families in the district due to its proximity to the Buena Vista Migrant Camp. Over the past two years, our programs have partnered with school administration and predominantly Latinx families to revive a small school garden and build a one-acre community garden to address interconnected issues of educational inequity and food insecurity. These two projects have been very successful! For example, the community garden now has more than 40 families growing food for their subsistence and 15 classroom teacher plots for outdoor education. For UCSC students, the partnership with Calabasas Elementary has offered an enriching space for community engaged learning that builds cultural competency, empathy, and a greater sense of belonging. For example, Latinx students are powerful role models and see aspects of themselves in the children. Students share their foodways and promote cross-cultural understanding. First-generation and other under-represented students especially derive more meaning from higher education when they can interconnect their academics to the community.

As an ecologist/environmentalist, I assume sustainability has been an intricate aspect of your work, but how did you intentionally begin to incorporate sustainability practices at your work?
My academic scholarship has to do with Indigenous resource use, conservation politics, household economics, common property regimes, and political economy. When I started working in Ecuador as a graduate student, I was interested in investigating the decision making of Waorani hunters regarding which prey to kill—where they hunting based on a rate maximization model, or did they show restraint perhaps indicative of conservation or wildlife stewardship (e.g., not taking vulnerable prey species, or individuals of high reproductive value within a species). Back then, there was scholarly discussion about using optimal foraging theory from evolutionary ecology as a null hypothesis to conservation…this approach was interesting, but incomplete. It was necessary to understand not just how hunters made decisions, but how communities related to each other in regards to natural resources.

Some of my most influential work discusses how Waorani common property regimes have traditionally (i.e., before sustained contact with Protestant missionaries and Ecuadorian society post-1958) been based on a sense of natural plenty and implicit understandings. The Waorani had enjoyed a large, rich resource base made possible by their vehement defense of their territorial boundaries, and each of the extended kin groups moved semi-nomadically in Waorani young man and owltheir particular territories in a constant state of alert from enemies. This did a couple different things to promote epiphenomenal conservation: dispersed human use of faunal resources and lowered human densities, and created these de facto game reserves due to “no-man’s lands” between hostile groups. Of course, the Waorani were also a subsistence society of just 500 people during first peaceful contact with missionaries in 1958—literally 500 people controlling 20,000 sq. km.

Drawing from common property theory, I wrote about how intentional conservation would not develop in such a situation of plentiful land and resources, traditional hunting tools for subsistence, and limited demographic pressure. Yet such a situation was being extolled by some influential scientists and conservation biologists as the only one in which indigenous peoples were seen as being conservation-friendly. Western scientists concerned about tropical biodiversity were publishing papers and books about how, as indigenous peoples adopted more modern technologies, became more integrated into the market, and experienced population growth, they were no longer good allies for conservation efforts. But the latter context of increasing pressure on resources is the one in which we would expect to see conservation awareness emerge, something that I and my collaborators documented. I coined the term “conservation Catch-22” to describe the counterproductive romanticization of indigenous peoples as being ecologically friendly under conditions in which conservation is not expected to emerge—conservation is a set of social arrangements entailing transaction and other costs which result from an awareness of scarcity and risk, and the willingness and motivation to act to steward resources deemed important. If Westerners have this romanticized view, and indigenous people are no longer perceived as “worthy” or “authentic” because they wear Western clothes and consume Western goods, then they disregard these Native populations precisely at a time when such collaboration would be really fruitful, when conservation is actually something people are beginning to undertake.

So to answer your question, I began to address sustainability more intentionally when I took an expanded, more holistic approach, one that confronted my own cultural/intellectual blind spots and unwarranted/incorrect assumptions.

How did your involvement with the Sustainability Office start?
I vividly recall a meeting with Vice Chancellor Sarah Latham, Sustainability Director Elida Erickson, and ERC Directors Nancy Kim, Shonte Thomas, Judith Estrada and Rebecca Hernandez. We came together to address concerns that arose because efforts toward environmental stewardship were not connected to social justice here on campus. This convergence of leaders across campus was a key stepping stone to forging an unprecedented partnership that was the foundation of the People of Color Sustainability Collective (PoCSC).

What is the meaning of sustainability to you?
This is such a good question, and a complicated one. Typically the term is defined as ecology, economics, and equity, often referred to as the “three-legs” of sustainability or a version of the definition from the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, commonly called the Brundtland Report, which stated that development is sustainable when “it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of advising ENVS major and PoCSC intern Cristal Gonzalez’s senior thesis entitled, “Bridging Theory & Practice: A Critical Understanding of Sustainability at UCSC.” Her work won the Niebanck Award and Deans’ Award. Cristal talked about how sustainability is an unqualified good, a marker for environmental enlightenment within institutional settings, and a floating signifier. She writes, “As such, sustainability is susceptible to ‘greenwashing’ or being co-opted and applied to a range of things as a means of presenting them as environmentally responsible. It is necessary to remain critical of how notions of sustainability are articulated, particularly within institutional structures where policy and practices are developed…sustainability can work to re(produce) both dominant ideologies as well as transformative understandings…the challenge does not necessarily lie in identifying a “meaning” of sustainability but in understanding the implications of such meanings.” The work I plan on doing next year while I am on sabbatical is to unpack meanings of sustainability both on and beyond campus, embracing its multiplicity and polyvalence. Stay tuned!

You mentioned the foundation of PoCSC. Can you give us more about the history behind the creation of the People of Color Sustainability Collective?
In 2014, Directors of the Ethnic Resource Centers (ERCs) organized a student panel with graduating seniors to hear about their experiences at UCSC and ascertain ways that the Resource Centers can better address their needs. One student shared an experience where she was throwing something away at the library and a white male student abruptly and harshly chastised her for not throwing the waste in the correct receptacle. This interaction, akin to a public shaming, caused the student to feel upset, embarrassed, angry, and even caused her to consider transferring to another school. Events such as these inspired the Resource Center Directors to create a social media campaign, #POCsustainability, to create a platform to recognize the contributions people of diverse cultures make to sustainability efforts and for students to share about their experiences and to connect with others with similar experiences.

In March 2015, the ERCs and student leaders behind #POCSustainability held a discussion for 30 participants, most them students of color, who shared their thoughts about the intersection of race, class and environmentalism. Sustainability Director Elida Erickson and I were both in attendance. The discussion highlighted not just the widespread perception that white students and the relatively wealthy dominate the environmental movement on campus, but also how the environmental efforts of people of color and low-income folks (e.g., reusing, reducing consumption, repurposing, limiting waste, etc.) are discounted, considered strategies of just coping with poverty, and even considered “unhygienic.” Many efforts to be sustainable on campus are consumer-based and are financially out of reach for low-income students—some who reported being shamed by other students for what they eat and where they buy their food and other items. Students commented that in courses, definitions of the ‘environment’ were taken as given and sustainability was portrayed as apolitical, resulting in a lack of critical discussion.

These events catalyzed an unprecedented alliance between the Ethnic Resource Centers, the Sustainability Office, and Colleges Nine and Ten to form the People of Color Sustainability Collective in 2015. PoCSC is an interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to bridging the sustainability, diversity and social justice efforts on campus through a multifaceted approach that utilizes education and outreach, (curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular) programming, cross-campus collaboration, and research. PoCSC seeks to showcase the sustainability accomplishments of communities of color and aims to redefine sustainability to include diverse cultural approaches. By creating spaces where students, staff, and faculty can have critical dialogues regarding race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sustainability, the Collective is working towards re-envisioning UCSC as a leader in both mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice. PoCSC thus seeks to forge a more inclusive sustainability, one based on nuanced and diverse socio-cultural and ecological understandings, and one that creates a space for a multiplicity of approaches to steward our planet. Not only does PoCSC host events and programs on campus that raise awareness and create spaces for underrepresented voices in the environmental movement, the initiative also undertakes research to foster a critical dialogue between faculty, administrators and students; better inform programmatic design; and fill a gap in the scholarship about diversity and sustainability at college campuses.

Has the recent recognition of PoCSC excellent work right here at UCSC by AASHE - The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and others, given PoCSC more support from campus and/or other sources?
PoCSC has won multiple awards: Outstanding Student Program Award, NASPA Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community, December 2018; Best Practices Award Winner, Sustainability Innovations, California Higher Education Sustainability Conference, June 27, 2017; UCSC Chancellor’s Achievement Award for Diversity, 2016.

We are grateful for the financial support—internal and external—that we have received thus far. We of course would like to support PoCSC’s work moving forward with permanent funding, which we do not have as of yet.

What would your dream for PoCSC be?
I think that PoCSC could become a national model for what a higher education sustainability initiative looks like when units that don’t normally partner together forge strong collaborations. I am really excited about the research that we have done (e.g., undergraduate surveys and focus groups, key informant interviews), and want to incorporate insights from that work into course curricula and professional trainings. I have really enjoyed the teaching that PoCSC has done for the Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program and Sustainability Certificate Program.

We are currently re-envisioning what student leadership and engagement looks like in PoCSC—the initiative has to continually evolve and reflect the needs, concerns and aspirations of our campus community, especially our under-represented students. In all honesty, my dream for PoCSC is for it to become redundant, that eventually we confront the troubling histories of mainstream environmentalism in its whiteness, privilege and colonialism, so that all people can see themselves reflected, valued and included in the necessity of being in good relations with each other and the planet.

What are the changes you have seen in students (graduate and undergraduate) in the last 10 years as far as interest and engagement in sustainability?
It’s really grown exponentially and become much more nuanced. This point is exemplified by the UCSC Blueprint for a Sustainable Campus (BSC), a visioning document written by undergraduates (Student Environmental Center) that highlights their environmental perspectives, experiences and priorities. The first edition of the BSC was in 2003-2004: discussion of race, class, and equity is largely absent; the term “social justice” appears once in the 33-page document; and the word “culture” only appears when preceded by “agri”, “perma” or “consumer.” The most recent edition (2019-2021) of the BSC centers environmental justice to an unprecedented degree: “Today we recognize that true sustainability cannot be attained without equity, sovereignty, and justice.” Although the BSC has included a section on social and environmental justice since 2006, this version includes such considerations as fundamental, a lens through which to view other topics rather than just another topic itself. And students know that there’s a lot more work to do. The authors note that “We will not suddenly go from a “white” organization to an organization that better reflects our community. We are nevertheless working to change the way that we think and act in order to include people from different backgrounds and experiences” (BSC 2019-2021: 4).

Lastly, what would you tell students, especially those who are not ENVS or are new to the concept of sustainability, who are interested in getting involved, but don’t know where to start?
There is a multiplicity of places and ways to engage! Of course the Sustainability Office is an incredible place to start—I think that students who are exploring these issues would gain so much from attending the Inter-Organizational Retreat in January, the quarterly Lunch and Learn events, etc. Another great place to start is to make it a consistent practice of attending office hours with faculty whose work resonates with your interests—check out the Sustainability Office website for a sustainability faculty and research list.

And if I could put in a plug for the work we are doing at Colleges Nine and Ten, check out our new Apprenticeship in Community Engaged Research or (H)ACER program—most of our projects pertain to issues of environmental justice, water sustainability, and food security/sovereignty. We have internship and volunteer opportunities, courses like CLTE 135, and our wonderful Alternative Spring Break program. I encourage students to attend the day-long Practical Activism Conference every October at Colleges Nine and Ten—our keynote speakers, workshops and educational tabling and displays cover a wide range of social, political and environmental issues.


Professor of Environmental Studies Department Flora Lu received her B.A. in Human Biology with honors from Stanford University in 1993 and Ph.D. in Ecology from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1999. A National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, UNC Royster Society Fellow, Lang Post-doctoral Fellow at Stanford University, and Stanford Distinguished Alumni Scholar, she studies the interrelationships between human societies and the natural environment with a geographic emphasis in the Neotropics.