Regenerating Justice with the Students of Color Environmental Collective
Last April, I found myself at an environmental conference (the CSSC Convergence) which was being held in LA for the first time in years.
A fellow UC Berkeley student named Dennis who I had just met that trip approached me at the conference as we all sat and ate a vegan lunch with compostable utensils. He was warm, friendly, and very direct. He told me that he had been noticing some serious disproportion in terms of racial representation in environmental spaces.
Take this conference, for example. Or any ESPM class. You look around, and almost everyone that you see is white.
As an Environmental Science major who is deeply involved in a multitude of environmental student orgs, I find myself immersed in a community of mostly upper middle class white females. I have found myself in so many spaces where the topics of race and inaccessibility to the environmental movement are not discussed and often pushed under the rug when brought up, because nobody really knows how to address them.
Dennis spoke to me passionately, with a clear vision in his head.
“What if we created a space—or just brought people together—for students of color to seek refuge from white-dominated environmental spaces and to confront the marginalization of people of color in our environmental community?”
And so that’s what we did. We started with a few small group conversations with self-identifying people of color and solidified our goals in response to the needs that we heard. We talked about what we saw lacking in our environmental community, and what we could do about it. We organized community events, film screenings, workshops at conferences, panels and guest speakers. We built a solid, tight-knit foundation of support and healing and learning, and we built a close community of friends, eventually to be known as the Students of Color Environmental Collective (SCEC).
Speaking to attendees of our meetings and events, I soon learned what a massive and detrimental phenomenon that this racial disparity is. We have heard multiple stories of students of color feeling pushed out of the College of Natural Resources (CNR) and into departments like Ethnic Studies because they previously felt so uncomfortable and unsupported, or of students leaving environmental clubs because they felt like they did not belong.
“I’ve spoken a lot to other POC in CNR, (the few that I do know,) and we share many of the same ideas that it wasn’t built for us and that our experiences are not at the forefront,” explained Claudia Morales Barrera, a second year Society and Environment major and a member of SCEC. “We are excluded because CNR is so white dominated.”
“Students of color don’t feel like they belong in environmental spaces and have experiences with professors or GSI’s invalidating their experiences with sustainability,” asserted Celine Chen, a second year Conservation and Resource Studies major.
“Being a Pilipinx womxn of color, I have constantly struggled with my identity and self-worth within the environmental movement,” stated Kristy Drutman, a third year Urban Studies and Society and Environment double major. “Finding a space on campus where I am building lasting friendships and connections with like-minded leaders is inspirational.”
In our meetings we have created a healing conversation space for POC to bravely and safely share personal experiences with environmental racism and the pressures that have pushed them out of environmentalism. From those conversations have sparked ideas on how to redefine our own movement.
“I identify as a student of color and I’m from Southeast LA, and that’s a very big Latinx community impacted by heavy industry,” Dennis told me one day. “When I came to Berkeley I noticed that I wasn’t used to the number of white people that I was seeing and the significantly lower amount of Latinx people that I was seeing. I thought we should have more conversations about this, that’s why I approached you.”
Claudia’s story moved me as well. “I’ve had some not so great experiences with other environmental clubs, because they really avoid talking about race although it’s something that needs to be talked about,” they explained to me. “It made me take a step back from those organizations, and join other social justice groups. It wasn’t until I heard about this group that I felt that I found a space that I could focus on what I really wanted to focus on and not feel so excluded.”
Now I want to clarify that when we talk about race in environmentalism, we are not blaming or accusing folks for being white. Many of us students of color have immersed ourselves in the movement regardless, formed deep friendships with non-poc allies, and we do not point out race just to be divisive. However, when communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and yet those very people are incapable of accessing the environmental spaces that are working to combat that degradation, a basic need is not being met. The only way to realize true environmental progress is by dismantling the systems of oppression that keep people of color in the backyards of landfills and industrial pollution, and by regenerating a movement where those most detrimentally impacted by the problem are the ones leading the solutions. This way, environmental solutions are formed based on the needs of the community and not what a distant, privileged institution might think a community needs.
“My vision is to empower students of color who might not have had opportunities to participate in environmental activities and to provide a refuge for students of color already in the environmental community,” expressed Dennis last Saturday as we embarked on a SCEC field trip to Phat Beets’ farmers market. “With the conversations we’ve had in our meetings, there’s so many ideas being shared about environmental justice. We’re having a discussion that I feel isn’t really being had by anyone else on this campus and doing so with the folks who are the most impacted.”
“This has been the only space that deals with environmental issues that hasn’t made me feel marginalized,” elaborated Katherine Lazalde, a second year Legal Studies student. “It’s the only space where our voices are heard and validated.”
The marginalization of people of color in environmental spaces is a result of many systemic forces that none of us can afford to be complacent about. Communities of color typically do not have the resources or access to knowledge about environmental issues, and we need to create a means to support this dialogue. The communities most largely impacted by environmental degradation need to feel empowered to combat the issues that they experience, and this empowerment needs to come from within the community. The Students of Color Environmental Collective actively works against oppressive systemic forces to center environmental justice work around the communities who need it most.
As Celine boldly frames it, “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.”
If you identify as a student of color, come check out our first kickoff event of the semester, this Thursday at 8 pm in the Multicultural Center!