On Jan. 29, students, faculty, and members of the Middletown community came together to hear “Different Shades of Green, or Beyond the Farm,” a keynote address by University of Michigan Professor Dorceta Taylor. As part of the final segment of a four-part event series, Professor Taylor discussed the history of discrimination many people experience based on the interplay of race with location and residential environment. An issue that was raised during the discussion after Taylor’s address was the severe lack of diversity within the environmentally-oriented community at the University even though many environmental issues disproportionately affect people of color. One solution proposed to reduce the lack of diversity is by offering an Environmental Justice course cross-listed with Environmental Studies and African American Studies.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people regardless of race, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental justice essentially means every person has an equal opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.
One example of the intersection between race and environmental issues is the case of Flint, Mich., which has been the subject of a recent environmental injustice scandal.
Joshua Nodiff ’19, Chair of the Environmental Sustainability on the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), says it is communities like Flint that are most susceptible to environmental injustice.
“People of color and folks living in low income communities are most vulnerable to environmental injustice,” Nodiff said. “When corporations and governments plan where to designate landfills and waste treatment plants, they tend to select the least affluent neighborhoods with higher populations of Black and Latino people.”
In order to cut cost during a financial emergency, Michigan state officials decide to switch the water supply from Lake Huron to Flint River until a new water pipeline could be constructed from Lake Huron. The Flint River has a reputation for being repulsive, and soon Flint residents began to complain about the color, smell, and taste of their water. Virginia researches later found that the state failed to treat the water for corrosion. Since a majority of pipes are made of lead in Michigan, the highly corrosive water caused lead to leak into the water supply, creating hazardous health conditions in the predominantly African-American working class city.
”The government’s actions demonstrated that saving money is worth more than Black lives,” Nodiff said.
Taylor’s address also sparked a conversation that hit much closer to home, asking why the University does not offer a course on environmental justice.
“The address really made us notice the fact that we don’t even have a class on this topic, which would indicate that the institution endorcing environmental justice is something that we care about,” Cassia Patel ’17 said.
Other NESCAC schools have taken the initiative to “endorse” environment justice with the classes they offer in their Environmental Studies programs. Amherst University, Trinity College, Middlebury College, Tufts University, and Swarthmore College all offer Environmental Justice as a course. Williams College offers three courses on environmental justice: Race and Environmentalism, Cultures of Climate Change, and Environmental Justice. Pomona College offers Environmental Justice in addition to five other courses related to the topic. Bates College, Connecticut College, and Hamilton College do not directly offer an environmental justice course, but the institutions do offer courses that focus various aspects of environmental politics.
The University did offer Environmental Justice & Sustainability in 2009, taught by Professor Suzanne O’Connell, but the course has not been offered ever since. Currently, the University does not offer an environmental justice course, but some students are working to have such a course be offered by Spring 2017 or at least to have a student forum on Environmental Justice by Fall 2016.
Nodiff says the course is not only fundamental to the understanding instances of environmental justice, but it is the built on the principles of a liberal education promised by the University.
“Liberal arts education is one of the cornerstones of Wesleyan, and learning about environmental justice is grounded in that philosophy,” Nodiff said. “With such an awareness on intersectional issues, students would be able to become better agents of social change in their communities beyond Wesleyan. Oftentimes we may forget that various injustices go hand in hand with one another, and being educated in their intersections will enable us to empower each other to take action and dismantle environmental racism. As people who will inherit this planet, it is our responsibility to tackle these systemic issues and transform our neighborhoods into equitable microcosms of the world we wish to live in.”
This article was updated to correct a minor transcription error.