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A Call To Action From A Former Student: Exploring Environmental Racism

Last updated on July 9, 2020

At the beginning of June 2020, the Environmental Science and Policy (ES&P) faculty received an email from one of our former students, now in a graduate program in Environment and Sustainability.  First, the student thanked PSU faculty for contributing to his success.  He related he felt he had a better understanding of environmental concepts than his peers from other top-tier institutions. He shared that he had tested out of several core courses and was on track to graduate early with his master’s degree.  However, he wanted us to know he felt there was a gap in our PSU ES&P curriculum in relation to the topic of environmental justice.  As he explained, he understands environmental systems well, but, “I did not even begin to understand the complexities of the role of racism in natural areas, planning, policy, and science as a whole… This is one of those subjects that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know.” He continued, “In wake of recent, historical, and ongoing events surrounding racism in America, I call on you to incorporate environmental justice as a required part of the curriculum in the ES&P department.  This …needs to be addressed as an entity on its own.”

This student’s email was one of the best kind of emails to receive for many reasons.  First, it was so nice to hear from a former student on how he was putting his undergraduate degree to good use by continuing his education in a related field.  Second, it was great to hear how prepared he felt in certain areas amongst his cohort group. Third, it was affirming to know the student is paying attention to and cares about current events and issues like environmental injustice. Fourth, it was gratifying to learn the student cared enough about his alma mater to take the time to let faculty know what worked for him and where he felt we had gaps.  Fifth, he was committed enough to share solutions and strategies; he sent related syllabi and recommended resources and we have now exchanged several emails.

As one of the ES&P faculty members who received the student’s email, I felt compelled to respond and let him know I would address his call to action in two of my courses at Plymouth State University – Issues In Sustainability and Foundations in Environmental Policy.  I have a sabbatical for fall ‘2020 and so have time to prepare. I should acknowledge, my learning curve is steep; I have never had a course focused on environmental justice.  As an indication of my lack of previous awareness and commitment, I have never focused on environmental justice.  I mention the topic, but I have never dug in deep with my students.  

As I begin to educate myself and plan to have my PSU students explore environmental justice, I have decided to share my progress with regular blog posts, this is the first.  I will create a module on the topic for my Foundations In Environmental Policy class.  This planning work hopefully will align nicely with a professional development course I will be taking during the summer of 2020 to incorporate the ACE Framework built around the values of Adaptability, Connection, & Equity offered by the CoLab at my University,  Under “Connection,” there is a segment on “curriculum linked to context,” with a description- Consider how to sensitively acknowledge and even include current events in your course, particularly if there are authentic ways for students to investigate and reflect upon those events. So while I will continue to cover historical case studies related to the coining of the term environmental justice, I will also seek out current events for students to explore and analyze.

In the last couple of years, I have introduced students to the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  As a result of receiving the former ES&P student’s email, I decided to take a closer look at the UN SDGs and see which ones most closely address environmental justice.  First, I want to recognize that some folks think the term “sustainable development” is an oxymoron; I understand this perception.  Recently, a team of scientists has warned that the U.N. SDGs designed to bring together environmental protection and sustainable development are failing to protect biodiversity, Yiwen Zeng, 2020.

Goal #10, one I have never given great attention to until now, focuses on “Reduced Inequalities.”  This goal, specifically states, “that by 2030, [we need to] empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.” Sounds good of course, but what do we do?  A target and indicator listed in the description for this goal states that we need to eliminate, “discriminatory laws, policies and practices” and “promote appropriate legislation, policies and action in this regard.”

Rather than start with an international focus at this time, particularly with what is going on with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, it feels most appropriate to look at what the US is doing with regards to environmental justice.  Where have we made strides and where have we fallen short?  What are our case studies that need examining?

First, for a bit of history and context, Michigan, (where our former ESP student is now enrolled in a graduate program,) has a notable place with regards to the environmental justice movement. Two professors, Bryan and Mohai organized, a first of its kind, conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards in 1990 where academics, activists, and government officials came together to discuss environmental racism and injustice- issues, research evidence, and policy gaps. Representatives from the conference subsequently met with U.S. EPA Administrator, William Reilly, which led to the creation of the Office of Environmental Justice at the U.S. EPA.

The impetus for the Michigan conference was based on a statistical study entitled- Toxic Wastes and Race in the United State, which found race was the best predictor, among a range of factors examined, of where hazardous waste facilities were located in the U.S.  The study was undertaken when African Americans protests in the early 1980’s in Warren County, North Carolina, over the State’s decision to place a hazardous waste PCB landfill in its community received national attention. Upon investigation, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found that African Americans were not only disproportionately concentrated around these landfills, but in 75% of the cases, African Americans were the predominant population.

A message from the above historical case study indicates that protests matter.  Now, in 2020, we still need to be courageous, tenacious and vigilant.  A recent positive outcome for Native American tribes after years of protests provides some hope that we can continue to gain ground towards environmental justice.

July 6th, 2020 has already been labeled a “historic day” for indigenous people in the U.S. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes seem to have won their protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline for threatening the tribes hunting and fishing grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it granted an easement for the Keystone XL pipeline, which runs more than 1,000 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, to carry oil under the Missouri River. The tribes argue a leak will contaminate their drinking water and sacred lands. Following the change of administration in January 2017, a presidential memorandum urged acceleration of the project, after it had been shut down, prompting the Corps to move forward, resulting in a permit being granted, construction being completed, and oil flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Now, according to the court ruling the oil company needs to shutdown and remove oil within 30 days, at obviously great cost to the company. The Earthjustice Attorney Jan Hasselman, who represents the tribes, said justice has been served.  Hasselman said, “If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that health and justice must be prioritized early on in any decision-making process if we want to avoid a crisis later on.”

In 2016 a committee, comprised of representatives from:  the US Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Transportation, State, Veteran Affairs, and members from the EPA Office of Environmental Justice and more, developed a report on, “Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies in NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] Reviews.” The document is a compilation of proactive practices that are deemed effective in building robust consideration of environmental justice into the NEPA practice.  Hopefully the recommendations in the document can be honored, which it appears they were not, in  the case of the Keystone XL Pipeline.  The report from the federal interagency working group offers a wealth of useful guidelines, many focused on establishing early, meaningful engagement and communication, and is therefore a valuable toolkit item for ESP majors to take with them to their job sites, they move into their professional careers.

My next environmental justice post will be about other toolkit items like EJSCREEN:  Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool,

Thanks to Desmond Kirwan, a former ESP major, for launching me on this educational path! Also, thanks to my housemate Sarah Jacobi for providing inspiration and feedback on my accompanying watercolor.


KickingWoman, Kolby; July 2020; ‘Historic day’ for Standing Rock as pipeline company told to shut down, remove oil, Indian Country

Zeng et al. Environmental destruction not avoided with the Sustainable Development Goals, Nature Sustainability (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0555-0

Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies in NEPA Reviews, Report of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice & NEPA Committee, March 2016,

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