Students introduce new environmental justice minor

Environmental studies Assistant Professor Kate Darby meeting with a graduate student. Students will be able to declare the minor starting fall 2019. // Photo by Samuel Fletcher

By Samuel Fletcher

At the end of spring quarter, the student-designed curriculum for an environmental justice minor will be submitted to Western faculty.

The new minor will explore issues of diversity and social injustice in environmental education.

The effort to launch this minor began in 2015, led by a group of passionate students, environmental studies assistant professor Kate Darby said. They put together an intensive proposal, drawn from surveys and studies from around campus.

When it came time to submit, the students involved graduated, Darby said. The papers were lost, but their efforts weren’t.

When junior Samara Almonte came to Western, she thought it would be more radically involved in social justice, she said. Huxley, the first environmental college in the nation, was formed in the 1960s during a wave of social movements. In her classes, on the other hand, she found a lot of repetitive information focusing only on the Pacific Northwest, she said.

“According to what Western, what Huxley and what just, in general, U.S. culture labels an environmentalist, I can’t name myself that because I am not those things,” Almonte said. “But according to what people of color in my community have been saying what environmentalism is and what sustainability is, then I can define it myself. I just don’t think Huxley is leaving room for all of those different definitions.”

Noticing this evolving passion among the student body, a group of 30 students, Huxley and otherwise, started meeting weekly, Darby said. Along with a single-credit reading group to discuss environmental justice issues, they delegated tasks to manage what it would take to launch the minor.

One of these tasks was writing a grant proposal to the Sustainable Action Fund, junior Alyssa Webster said. Webster took much of this work on.

The grant writing process was challenging because it required the formulation of a lot of concrete details, Webster said. Much of what they discuss weekly is conceptual.

The group ended up receiving $40,000 to launch an environmental justice community engagement series, Webster said. Starting this fall, guest speakers will be brought in once per quarter for two years to spread awareness of environmental justice issues and engage all students in the curriculum’s ideas.

Webster, an environmental science major, just recently discovered how important the social ramifications of her field were, she said. It helped her see the greater picture of what she was learning.

“I care more about trying to engage in the work in the future that’s still environmental science but more directly helps people and communities — not just collecting data,” Webster said.

Much of her hometown of Orting, Washington is low-income housing, she said. Smoke from residential wood stove fireplaces has reduced the town’s air quality and drastically increased the chances of developing asthma. Many families in Orting don’t have the money to move away from this issue.

Asthma is still something Webster struggles with, she said.

“I think we are at a point in terms of a social justice crisis and a sustainability crisis where we have to start thinking about how these sets of concerns are interconnected,” Darby said.

Darby seeks to revert the notion that the environment is something that is “out there,” she said. People tend to think environmentalists care about plants and animals but not people.

“Decisions around the environment and understandings around the environment, just like everything else, are imbued with power dynamics and that’s what we want to highlight and give students the opportunity to explore and dive into,” she said.

The curriculum will involve Darby’s class, “Power, Privilege, and the Environment,” as well as multiple reading groups, she said. It will involve classes in and out of Huxley on identity and experience as well as tools for engagement.

Students can declare their EJ minor starting in fall 2019.

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