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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Environmental Justice comes into focus


UC Davis on path to create environmental justice minor

The Civil Rights Movement was undoubtedly one of the most important movements of the 20th century. It was, however, more than a reclamation of ethnic identity and social power for minority groups, but also the catalyst of environmental rights awareness. Thus was born a movement to fight environmental racism that today has developed into a concept widely known as environmental justice.

“Environmental justice is a set of social movements [and] policies, and it’s an academic field,” said Julie Sze, an American studies professor at UC Davis. “It’s a pretty broad umbrella term that means lots of different things; it has lots of different examples. I think the most classic one is that there’s racial disproportionality in environmental exposure, pollution exposure, but also unequal protection from the state from that pollution.”

When Sze was an undergraduate student at Berkeley in the 1990s, she was enrolled in a class called “Race, Poverty, and the Environment.” She learned how interconnected all of these topics could be, and today her research is largely centered around environmental justice. She has published multiple books on the subject.

In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order stating that federal agencies had the responsibility to address environmental justice. With today’s media culture, environmental justice has become a relatively intuitive concept for much of the general public. With the prominence of events like the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, many people seem to understand the presence of the environmental and social implications.

“It’s really easy to get these things on the radar, but it was also frustrating that while at the same time Flint was happening, we had [similar] water contaminant issues in California,” said Amanda Fencl, a fifth-year PhD candidate in geography. “[We’ve had] lead issues and arsenic and uranium and all these other water quality issues in our own backyard and we had celebrities sending bottles of water to Detroit but then nothing [to] Coachella Valley and the Central Valley, [which] have had these similar issues with similar people drinking bad water for years.”

Fencl’s current research strongly focuses on water quality issues in California, and she notes that there are whole branches of environmental justice scholars from all kinds of disciplines. Despite differences in field of study, Fencl recognized the importance of connecting people and the issues, which is why she established a graduate working group specifically for environmental justice.

“[My friends and I] are working in different fields but we all have this common interest and passion for environmental justice work, so three of us made an email list […] sent a Google form out to all the different graduate groups to ask questions like ‘do you think about environmental justice?’ and ‘are you interested?’ and ‘does it relate to your work?’” Fencl said. “We got maybe 60 plus graduate students to join this email list, so if there’s funding opportunities or research or meetings, we will use that as a resource. We’re trying to figure out that now that we have this coalition of graduate students that care and work on these issues, what’s next?”

UC Davis graduate students aren’t the only ones with environmental justice on their minds. In 2015, a group of undergraduate students approached the faculty connected with the Environmental Science and Policy Department in order to get more course content in environmental justice for the majors.

“[As] we started to talk to people as well as the students who were concerned, it became very clear that the issue is much greater than us as the department,” said Marcel Holyoak, the department chair of Environmental Science and Policy as well as an environmental science and policy professor. “I think we came to realize that there’s something that’s much broader on campus where’s there’s quite a lot of students that feel like they’re not getting the coverage of environmental and social justice […] in a way that they want.”

There are opportunities at UC Davis to gain snippets of environmental content in various courses like human and community development, history, English, sociology, environmental studies, American studies and Native American studies. However, there is no succinct pathway to a comprehensive education in environmental justice. This is what led to the idea of creating an environmental justice minor.

“Julie Sze teaches one of the most relevant [EJ] classes, but it has a small enrollment, and similarly Jonathan London at the Center for Regional Change teaches a human and community development class and has that content as well, [which is] probably the biggest class on campus that’s most directly relevant,” Holyoak said. “As a department we weren’t doing much, and it’s clear that something more coordinated was needed across campus.”  

A lot of work has gone into the preliminary steps of creating this minor so far. With a scoping meeting last spring and a significant amount of homework over the summer of what other college campuses are doing in the way of teaching environmental justice, a list of relevant courses at UC Davis and enough other information has been gathered to get the ball officially rolling. But Holyoak points out that the process of creating this minor is still in its early stages.

“We need to get some resources from the Deans in different colleges for things like some more undergraduate advising, some peer advisors [and] a faculty coordinator,” Holyoak said. “If we can get that kind of buy in and would seek letters of support from the relevant departments, and then we would submit it as a formal proposal to the academic senate as a minor […] we’re hoping we can get it done in a year.”

Consolidating the veins of science with community-led research into a comprehensive minor would create a platform for students to develop the proper interdisciplinary education needed to inform policy. Sze sees a number of other benefits to the creation of a minor, including catering to the desires of changing student demographics at UC Davis.

“Students are becoming more and more reflective of the demographics of California, and more and more are students who are first generation or Latino who are interested in these issues,” Sze said. “I’ve met a lot of people [in] the environmental sciences and environmental policy [fields] who are Latino and/or community college transfer students, [who] come in and want to do a certain type of engaged scholarship that’s connected to their communities, but they’re not getting that here.”

Another benefit Sze recognizes is how an environmental justice minor can give students the tools and knowledge they need to realize that they have a responsibility to face the issues exposed by environmental justice.

“I think a white, middle class environmental person also has a moral responsibility to understand environmental justice,” Sze said. “If you go and work in environmental fields, in environmental policy, say at the California Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is a real thing you have to engage with. So I think that’s really important to train that population.”


Written by: Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org



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