Letter to the Environmental Community, from Students of Color
Dear Campus Environmental Community,
You’ve disappointed us. Students of color on this campus do not feel welcome in the environmental community, and we never have.
We are The Students of Color Environmental Collective, a group of students tired of having our experiences of oppression on this campus silenced and forgotten by this community. The only group on campus who is actively working at the intersections of race, identity, class and the environment. The only group where white, middle class people aren’t the only ones with a seat at the table in the environmental movement.
You may have wondered, or may have even asked us personally, why? Why does such a group exist, and why do white people need to take a step back for students of color in environmental spaces?
The whiteness of environmentalism today is deeply rooted in the racist, sexist, colonial history of the movement. Many idols of the American environmental movement—John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold— were all explicitly racist and founded America’s national parks for elite white folk like themselves, whilst forcibly removing folks of color and colonizing indigenous people. We, as a community, do not feel represented by the icons and leaders of the environmental movement.
This is no accident; it is a direct result of the racist organization of society by institutionalized activity, where low-income, non-english speaking people of color are at a structural disadvantage. There is limited knowledge of and formal attention given to the political and economic structures in place that put our communities most at risk for environmental degradation. Our communities often lack the education, resources, or political power to address the environmental conditions that hurt us. We are often denied access to natural landscapes by economic and structural barriers, and this affects our personal physical, mental, and emotional health. This is called environmental racism.
When we try to engage in environmental organizing, many times our own families and communities will reject us. To them, being an environmentalist is siding with the oppressor, because environmentalism was built for white people. The modern environmental movement has been written by middle class, college-educated white folks since the 1970s. As a result, these structural issues perpetuate a cycle that continuously excludes people of color at all levels, from campus to higher positions of power.
We are writing this letter to you today to highlight some of the concerns that students of color on campus have brought to our space regarding the environmental community.
Firstly, we are not taught by professors of color. Most of us must learn about the displacement and oppression of our communities from painful personal experiences, not from professors who do not understand our struggle and do not understand our stories. When the few existing professors of color are denied tenure, we are fed the message that we do not matter and will not ever be the leaders in conservation, environmental policy, or resource management. This academic institution does not validate our existence, our power nor our unique knowledge in environmental dialogue. This is evident when we are asked to separate our lived experiences with environmental degradation from academic perspectives of environmental issues, which uphold the notion that access to a clean and sustainable environment is reserved for the white and/or affluent.
Second, we cannot conform to the image of the typical environmentalist that is perpetuated by so many environmental student organizations on campus. Many of us grew up in cities and towns full of toxic pollutants in our air, water, and waste. We woke up to the smell of gas from nearby oil fields and landfills; we were shaken by the sounds of industrial plants and highway traffic. We come from families who have fought to overcome the struggles of debt, immigration status, discrimination, sexism and so forth, simply to give us the opportunity to attend this university. We did not grow up with Priuses or weekly camping trips in the mountains. We did not have the luxury of eating local, organic food from farmer’s markets or sporting Patagonia and North Face jackets. Studying and learning about nature and living the stereotypical life of the “eco warrior” was a distant, inaccessible dream.
Whether it be our ESPM classes, CNR or CED major programs, environmental events, projects, campaigns, or student organizations, we have been repeatedly marginalized and invalidated in spaces where we should have felt welcomed and respected. We have had students come to us with stories that they have experienced microaggressions, cultural appropriation, tokenization, and racism from some ECO-affiliated organizations. Students of color are continuously leaving the environmental community due to their feelings of alienation and frustration. We are disturbed by the lack of support and inclusion for students of color in the environmental community despite the fact that our participation is critical to the survival of your movement.
When we could no longer rely on you all for support, we knew we needed to start building a community for ourselves: a safe space where we could finally engage in meaningful environmental justice organizing and be able to escape from the continuous threat of racist, exclusive rhetoric.
In response to all of these concerns, these are our current demands:
- Be aware of the culture within the environmental community, and how it centers around an affluent (white) lifestyle. This makes many feel forced to fit into a preset social standard of what makes an environmentalist. Being pressured or forced into this standard is very damaging, especially when this social standard is heavily dependent on access and income.
- Put racial justice at the forefront of your agenda— there is no skirting around the issue of environmental racism. There is no environmental justice without racial justice. Fighting one injustice means fighting them all, because they are all created by the same systems of oppression.
- Do your research on how to be a better ally. Understand what microaggressions are, what cultural appropriation is, and how remaining silent places you on the side of the oppressor. Do not expect people of color to emotionally, mentally, and physically labor to educate you because you lack sensitivity to our cultures.
- Make your events and activities accessible. When you expect students to spend money to participate in an event or organization, or expect full, dazzling resumes to become a member of your organization, you are already creating a barrier for most marginalized students.
- Recognize that most “sustainability” practices such as resourcefulness, growing your own food, etc. originate from communities of color. You do not need to “teach” us to be sustainable, rather, you learned it from us. You need to be mindful of this.
- Stop the tokenization of Native American land stewardship without doing anything to help today’s Indigenous people themselves.
- Honor and acknowledge the environmental activists murdered in developing countries whose deaths were funded by US dollars the same way y’all mourn for the loss of rainforests and land that they died trying to protect.
- Acknowledge the lack of institutional support for students of color in environmental spaces. Acknowledge the faults that presently exist and work with us to address these phenomena that have alienated a large portion of the community.
-Students of Color Environmental Collective
The Students of Color Environmental Collective (SCEC) is a student organization on campus. Follow their activities by liking their facebook page!
SCEC is calling for submissions from all fellow students of color to contribute to their #EnvironmentalismSoWhite story campaign! Please submit your entries here.