The Environmental Justice Collective: Changing How We Learn Environmental Science at UT

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” At many universities and within the larger sustainability movement, an awareness of Environmental Justice (EJ) is not present. At UT Austin, we have a team of dedicated and educated individuals striving to bring EJ into the sustainability discussion. 

I recently interviewed Fern C., one of the leaders of the EJ Collective, to find out more about the team and EJ itself. The Environmental Justice Collective is fighting to establish spaces for productive discussion about the intersection of race, class, and environmental studies. The UT curriculum isn’t entirely lacking in this type of discourse— the class SOC 307Q (Environmental Inequality and Health) examines the link between socio-economic factors and environmental health inequalities. However, the organizers of the EJ Collective felt that the lack of inclusion and an absence of representation of minorities pervaded the sustainability movement on campus. Following a series of conversations with people of color, they decided to organize around this issue. 

The goal of the EJ Collective is to facilitate conversations amongst people of color and allies about how to increase the prominence of EJ on the UT campus. They want to advocate for and address changes in the curriculum for Environmental Science (ES) majors. EJ is presented as an outlier in the environmental science curriculum, when really it deserves to be addressed in all ES courses. 

In case the concept of Environmental Justice is unclear to anyone still, I will provide some examples given to me during my interview with Fern. He discussed projects to improve lower socio-economic neighborhoods through sustainability measures (such as LEED-certified green buildings, increase in green spaces, bike lanes, etc.) and the issues with these efforts to create greener spaces.  He said these measures do not change sustainability policy-thus having little long-term impact- and can often harm the very communities they were intended to help (via increased property taxes, influx of wealthier renters, displacing via new development without right to return policies/rent caps/inaccessibility). These environmental measures are just gentrification by another name. Also, we are currently in the Anthropocene era, which is characterized by the effect humans have had on the environment. However, many communities have been victims of these changes themselves and have not been able to play a part in the sustainability movement. 

The UT EJ Collective is heavily inspired by the efforts of Huston-Tillotson University, which is self-proclaimed and nationally revered to be one of the nation’s most environmentally friendly campuses.  Their ES program is essentially an EJ program. The EJ Collective is actively pursuing lines of communication with Southwestern and other environmental science organizations to learn from their efforts. EJ is a collaborative effort; communication across institutional lines is essential. 

Fern, one of the founders of the EJ Collective, said, “It’s hard for me to understand environmentalism without social justice.” I know talking to Fern and learning more about the  EJ Collective opened my eyes to the issue of EJ. Hopefully, we all come to find Fern’s statement true. 




-Interview with Fern C.


Graphic by Mac Davenport!!!

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