Dr. Karen B. McLean Dade

Woodring College of Education Professor and Community Member

We were delighted to ask Dr. Karen B. McLean Dade questions about sustainability. Dr. Dade earned a doctorate in education in Cultural Diversity & Curriculum Reform at the University of Massachusetts. Her dissertation & subsequent related book publications focused on combating racism in United States schools through the eyes of students. She is a member of the Woodring College of Education faculty.

What does sustainability mean to you?

“In short, sustainability for me means doing the right thing by Mother Earth and all of its inhabitants.

I recently had the honor of creating and teaching a course titled Cultural Sustainability and Leadership for the WWU Morse Institute for Leadership. Our working definition for cultural sustainability came straight from Wikipedia, because it gave a clear and concise definition that addressed my views for creating the course. It is as follows: ”

Cultural Sustainability

Cultural sustainability as it relates to sustainable development (to sustainability), has to do with the maintaining of cultural beliefs, cultural practices, heritage conservation, culture as its own entity, and attempts to answer the question of whether or not any given cultures will exist in the context of the future. Culture is defined as a set of beliefs, morals, methods, and a collection of human knowledge that is dependent on the transmission of these characteristics to younger generations. Sustainability is defined as the ability to sustain or continue. The two concepts have been intertwined within social and political domains, and as such, have become one of the more important concepts of sustainability. Read more from Wikipedia.

What and/or who first drove you to engage in sustainability?

“In answer to this question, I would say first my parents. At the age of 7, I became a young civil rights activist alongside of my father’s community activism for equal rights and justice for Black people. He believed in sustaining our culture and human dignity on our mutual planet called earth. My mother, daughter of Cabo Verdean Island immigrants also believed in cultural sustainability. So much so, she searched and found her parents and siblings after years of being placed in foster homes. She re-connected her children to our Cabo Verdean relatives and culture. Both aspects of my culture were workers in agriculture; my Cabo Verdean grandfather as an immigrant hired into the U.S. system of cheap labor, and my African American great grandparents as field laborers in the U.S. system of slavery.

Growing up I was very conscious and grateful of the food sustenance that the earth provided for us as human beings. I worked in the summers as a child in the cranberry bog fields with my Cabo Verdean relatives, and I helped my eldest brother in the urban intergenerational gardens that he created with 4H in our inner-city neighborhoods of Roxbury. This fresh produce fed many in our communities, and it was a way of connecting to our southern roots. The elders who had migrated from southern sharecropping taught us young people to respect the earth and its many gifts of human sustenance. I smile when I remember the delicious jar peaches, etc., that my grandparents would send through my father each visit he would make home to North Carolina.”

Karen Dade poses in traditional garb

How do you incorporate sustainability into your daily life?

“I incorporate sustainability into my life through my cultural experiences and beliefs. I do not forget the shoulders that I stand upon, and I practice honoring my family members and ancestors for the sacrifices they made for their descendants. I keep in memory my great grandparents, Sandy and Sarah McLean who were enslaved on the McLean plantation. Our history is a part of the Library of Congress Slave Narratives of North Carolina, as told through my relative James Turner McLean (former slave on the McLean plantation).

I am a scholar and professor of cross-cultural studies, which blends the acknowledgement of social and environmental sustainability. I have been engaged in this subject through numerous projects that have enabled me to travel to more than 40 countries, co-create learning models and school programs. I have consciously passed my knowledge and teachings to my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I am from a large family on both sides of my heritages, all of which know and appreciate my love for cultural and environmental sustainability.

As a visual and performing artist, I mainly practice sustainability through the use of cultural/social justice arts education. One example can be seen in the WWU Black History Month event of 2018, in which I raised the funds, produced, directed and performed with Black Student Union and the African Caribbean Club members for the university at large.” A video of that performance is available here.

What will a more sustainable world look like to you?

“A more cultural, equitable and environmentally sustainable world for me would be to incorporate and embrace multicultural concepts and ways of being within all that we do. I believe through the practice of acceptance and social action we can help to transform our world into a more peaceful and loving environment, taking better care of the earth and all of its inhabitants.

For example, from my own cultural heritage sustainability view, I practiced and integrated for decades the Nguzo Saba Principles into my daily life and professional commitments. Those principles are as follows:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

Is there one sustainable habit you’d like to see others incorporate?

“Get out into your communities and learn what it will take to culturally, economically and environmentally practice real-life sustainability.

I am reminded of a beautiful day in Bellingham, WA, when I decided to have a meal outside of the Whole Foods Market. “Recently a noted African American educator in our community was threatened and verbally assaulted while eating her lunch at a local marketplace. The reason for the assault was predicated upon the fact that she is visibly an African American. Fortunately for her, concerned citizens formed a protective shield around her, until police arrived to apprehend this person before he could act upon of his impulses.” (see related references). I point this out, because people that were present made a difference in helping to insure an equitable and safer community.

One of my recent cultural sustainability efforts has been focused on the power of social and environmental justice arts. One example is that I am concerned about the gentrification that is happening in BIPOC communities throughout the nation and around the world. In Oakland, where I have been with family members since the pandemic, the challenges for equity and justice; affordable housing, wellness, preservation of life and cultural traditions are being ignored, forced out and justified through racist views, actions and greed. This to me, is a social sustainability pandemic. For instance, as I look at unaffordable high rises going up, I know that the social sustainability messages through the incredible art murals will come down disappear into oblivion. Many of these murals which aspire to remind the world that Black Lives Matter will no longer help to serve as a reminder and conscience or all people.”


Dr. Karen B. McLean Dade’s Related Publications

Dade, Karen B. McLean. (August 28, 2013). Western students aspire to be change agents for justice. Guest editorial: The Bellingham Herald

Dade, Karen B. McLean. (January 15, 2014). Linking human rights and environmental justice. Guest editorial: The Bellingham Herald

Dade, Karen B. M., Hargrave, C., Leigh, P., and Tartakov, C. (summer 2015). Assessing the impact of racism on black faculty in white academe: A collective study of African American female faculty. In Rhonda Baynes Jeffries (guest Ed.) Special Issue: Assessing the multidimensional work of black women in education. Western Journal of Black Studies.

Dade, McLean K.B. (2015), “We didn’t know you meant THAT by diversity”: Contested diversity and strategic (administrative) responses in colleges of education. (Chapter Contribution: Racial battle fatigue in higher education: Exposing the myth of post-racial America). Maryland, WA.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dade, Karen B. McLean. (September 24, 2015). Closing the opportunity gap with unique partnership. https://www.bellinghamherald.com/opinion/article36417360.html

Dade, McLean K. B., Rios, F., and Roxas, K. (2016). Multicultural education in glocal perspectives: Policy and institutionalization. (Chapter Contribution: Institutionalizing internationalization within a college of education: Toward a more critical multicultural and glocal education perspective). Springer Publishers.

Dade, McLean K. B. (2017). Creating antiracist education international partnerships. (Chapter Contribution: Culture, democracy and development in Africa. Part III: Education and indigenous knowledge). Austin, TX.: Pan-African University Press.

‘No community is safe from atrocities born of hatred, racism … and divisive politics’ BY LARRY ESTRADA, VERNON D. JOHNSON, KAREN DADE AND VICTOR NOLET FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD AUGUST 09, 2019 06:59 PM

Dade, Karen B. M. (May 2020). A Dream of Dual Citizenship. In Genealogy 2020, 4, 56 Special Issue: Genealogy and Critical Family History.