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Environmental Studies

Two Students Raise Awareness for Environmental Justice
Interview By Emi Gaal, Photo credit: Alternatives for Community & Envrionment (ACE) webpage: "Residents defeat Ethanol train proposal", and ACE Jobs Rally.

Posted March 04, 2014

This February, Alithea McFarlane '14 and Courtney Payne '15 organized an event designed to explore the meaning of the Environmental Justice movement. The day-long event, held at the Schwartz Outdoor Leadership Center, hosted a panel of 15 experts, including professors, alumni, and outside speakers who collectively addressed three main topics: conservation politics, environmental health, and empowering future generations. Alithea and Courtney are commended for their coordination of the event and for their commitment to educating the Bowdoin community about environmental justice.

Below is a look into Courtney and Alithea’s perspective on environmental justice and their thoughts on the success of the event.

1. Why is Environmental Justice something important that should be shared with students and with the community?

C: Environmental degradation is one of the most challenging and pervasive issues that our generation will have to tackle, and it's deeply interconnected with racism and discrimination against the poor. For me, it was important to bring awareness of this issue to the Brunswick community because it's yet another way to get people actively involved in the environmental movement. Students who might not be too concerned about biodiversity loss or climate change might be able to engage strongly with sea level rise or pollution, issues which affect marginalized people more directly.

A: Making the connection between social justice and the environment is absolutely crucial. It connects actions to the consequences that others have to bear on a local, national, and global scale, and I think it serves as a useful impetus for promoting conscious lifestyle changes on a day-to-day basis. It creates a meaningful bridge between marginalized groups who normally feel isolated from mainstream conceptions of environmentalism. One should not remain ignorant of any blatant instance of inequality, especially when ingrained into the blueprints of the cities in which we live.

2. What goals did you have in mind when organizing the event? Why did you invite the guest speakers you did and what did you want the take-away message for the audience to be?

C: I've been personally interested in environmental injustice for a few years, primarily because I've spent a lot of time in Latin America, where it's perhaps easier to see how the consumerism of those in wealthier countries impacts people and the environment. I hoped that students would get a chance to engage personally with these issues - that panels focusing on a wide range of topics would allow us to address a broad base and would interest people of many different academic backgrounds.

A: The goal was to touch on a variety of seemingly disparate issues that fall within and are connected by the term Environmental Justice (hence Public Healthy, Conservation Politics, and Empowering the Next Generation). We definitely had to convey the breadth of things covered by the term. I wanted a strong emphasis on broad ideas and themes that sparked discussion. We also wanted to touch on matters of diversity and the importance of inclusion and multiplicity of perspectives in the environmentalist movement. To be really honest at this point, I can't really tell you the rationale behind getting the speakers that we did. While there was a constant dialogue between our ideal goals of the symposium and the speakers who we could get, topics changed as speakers opted in or out, and our direction shifted in searching for speakers with the creation of new areas to address within symposium planning. The most concrete thing I can say is that we identified individuals who we thought were doing important work in the field of EJ in the New England area, reached out to them, and hoped for the best. Mostly, I wanted people to be aware, and to carry an understanding of Environmental Justice with them - into their future conversations, interactions, and actions.

3. Do you think that the message of the symposium resonated with the audience? Did you get the sense that attendees now feel more empowered to “speak out” or carry the messages they learned into their own communities?

C: I thought the speakers did a pretty incredible job of conveying the interconnections between environmental harm and discrimination, and ways that the audience could improve these issues in their future careers. I think Angela Park's wrap-up in particular really helped students to understand that they can have an impact on these issues if they want to.

A: I really think it did! People seemed generally very satisfied with the day’s events. There was a great conversation that took place in Thorne after the symposium. In the days that followed, many people approached me with further questions on the topic. I can't say that everyone who attended feels compelled to action or to "speak out," but I do think a few people really took the messages of the symposium to heart. I also think one can't help but carry the message into their own communities. On some level, EJ is a different way of conceptualizing the environment directly around you; this new lens could possibly afford new ways of understanding one's own community.

4. Were there any speakers in particular who stood out or had a really interesting perspective to share?

C: I've always found Casey Meehan's perspective on environmental education very interesting (especially his ideas about how we can use climate change to create a better world), but in terms of people I hadn't heard from before, I particularly liked the presentations of Emily Postman and Dave Jenkins. Emily Postman talked about commonly used chemicals and how few of them have been tested (200 tested chemicals out of the 80,000 chemicals used in the products we handle every day). Dave Jenkins spoke about his work with an organization that encourages environmental activism in youth. It was amazing to see all the ways that he is sparking protest and activism in teenagers, and how high school students in impoverished areas are fighting for better living conditions for themselves.

A: Our keynote speaker, Angela Park, gave an incredibly interesting talk on the importance of breaking down the barriers to collaboration within the environmental movement.

5. Where are we going with environmental justice today? What are the major obstacles? What strategies have worked best in the past and will work best in the future to overcome these challenges?

C: Angela Park spoke well to one of the largest obstacles - that of not involving minorities in environmentalism. Excluding groups from the environmental discussion because they don't drive hybrid cars or buy vegetables exclusively from farmers' markets is not a way to make lasting changes. Because poorer people live in communities that are often the most impacted by air and water pollution, they make the ideal environmentalists. I think this problem - that of not engaging people of all different backgrounds in the environmental movement - extends to academia. At Bowdoin, for example, many people have a vague understanding of environmental issues, but they don't feel passionately about doing something; instead, they leave it to the science or government majors. But for true progress to be made on environmental issues, it will be crucial to involve the Art History and Romance language and History majors as well as the "environmental" kids, and to involve the wealthiest citizens in this country as well as the poorest.

A: As mentioned before, environmental justice can be understood to encompass many issues, including those that occur on the local, national, and international scale. Such a large scale can make it hard to pinpoint one direction in which the movement is headed. I don't want to downplay the importance of any one issue, but I would go ahead and say that the most pressing and far-reaching issue is probably injustice caused by climate change. The deleterious effects of climate change - drought, famine, increased storms, loss of coastal inlands-- will largely affect the world's poorest countries, which have the least means to effectively combat these changes.

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