"Cancer Alley" is an 85-mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River, lined with nearly 150 oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and chemical facilities. People living in this area, which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, are more than 50 times as likely to get cancer than the average American. One affected parish, St. John the Baptist Parish, has the highest death rate per capita of any county in the United States and its population is nearly half Black residents. (Photo credit: TLF Images / Shutterstock.com)
Q&A: Why environmental justice motivates geoscientists
Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss diverse experience, six Stanford Earth community members talk about how they center and uplift environmental justice in their work and life.
Geoscientists have long sought to understand and preserve Earth’s natural resources, but as a result of community-led activism, environmental justice has emerged as an important topic in academia.
Environmental justice is social justice
As a form of social justice, environmental justice is a response to environmental racism. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities have actively organized against instances of structural inequality. Those acts of protest as well as principles developed by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991 have formed the basis of the environmental justice movement.
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The environmental justice movement gained further momentum in 2021 when the Biden-Harris administration announced that its climate plan would place a focus on environmental justice.
That focus would not have crystalized without the contributions of BIPOC communities and scholars. In the 1980s, sociologist Robert Bullard set the stage for the field of environmental justice by publishing the first comprehensive account of ecoracism in the United States. Shortly after, instances of environmental racism in Warren County, North Carolina, and elsewhere added to the recognition that in most places, the best predictor of whether someone would live near a toxic waste site was race.
Access to food, water, air
Inspired by the environmental justice movement, geoscientists are increasingly motivated to map, measure, and help rectify instances of environmental racism found across mainstays of survival – from food to water to the air entering people’s lungs. Nearly 800 million people in the world do not have sufficient access to nutrition. Key characteristics associated with food insecure households are low income, single woman-headed households, ethnic or racial minority, low education levels, and large households.
Clean water, for example, is a battleground for environmental justice movements from Flint, Michigan, to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North and South Dakota. In fact, race, ethnicity, and language spoken have the strongest relationships to longstanding violations and ineffective enforcement of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. And, Black Americans are exposed to 38% more air pollution than white people, placing their communities at increased risk of death by COVID-19. Long-standing racism in housing practices and city planning, or redlining, has placed BIPOC communities at disproportionately higher risk of environmental harm from industrial pollution.
According to a 2020 study authored by David Gonzalez, PhD ’21, living near oil and gas development in California is a risk factor for preterm birth, the leading cause of infant death in the U.S. Typically, such neighborhoods are low-income communities of color. “For me, the higher risk for Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black women is an important signal and it makes me want to ask more questions,” Gonzalez said.
The role of climate change
Many, if not all, of these inequalities will worsen with climate change. Formerly redlined neighborhoods face heat stresses that leave some areas 10 degrees hotter than others in the same city. Still primarily filled with Black and brown families, these neighborhoods have less access to green spaces that help to cool neighborhoods and provide essential health benefits. With expectations that global temperatures will continue to rise 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, socially and economically disadvantaged communities face disproportionate risks, including the health consequences of increased heat and associated co-pollutants, being more economically vulnerable to extreme weather events, being more at risk for energy and food insecurity, and being at greater risk of displacement.
Environmental justice at Stanford
There is a longstanding environmental justice community at Stanford, made up of students, staff, and faculty. As a result of student- and staff-led initiatives, courses like Introduction to Environmental Justice, Shades of Green: Redesigning and Rethinking the Environmental Justice Movements, and Liberation Through Land: Organic Gardening and Racial Justice have become mainstays of the environmental justice landscape at Stanford. Through the efforts of collaborators in the Environmental Justice Working Group, a new Earth Systems Program minor in environmental justice is another indicator of growing interest in this area.
At the heart of environmental justice is the idea that BIPOC and other marginalized communities have faced the brunt of environmental crises, and therefore it is imperative that the voices of these communities be centered inside and outside of academia in an effort to understand and seek effective solutions to these problems.
Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss diverse experience, six Stanford Earth community members talk about how they center and uplift environmental justice in their work and life. Lecturers Emily Polk, Sibyl Diver, and Derek Ouyang; masters students Keoni Rodriguez and Ayoade Balogun; and social science research coordinator Stephanie Fischer discuss their hopes for the future of environmental justice in the geosciences.
How would you describe your identity?
RODRIGUEZ: I am the eldest child of four of John Rodriguez and Laryna Palama Herolaga. I was born and raised on Kumeyaay territory (San Diego, California) and belong to the Filipino, Hawaiian, and Chinese communities. I also identify as māhū, or non-binary in English, and I use the pronouns they/them. My ethnic identity and gender identity are intertwined. I couldn’t be māhū without first identifying as Hawaiian, and claiming the identity of māhū comes with the responsibility of inhabiting masculine and feminine spaces in a responsible way.
POLK: I occupy so many identities – identities of incredible privilege and identities of significant marginalization. I grew up outside of New York City and descend from a long line of people who came to this country fleeing persecution and genocide. The older I get and the longer I stay in California, my identity as a New Yorker feels like a bigger and bigger part of me. My identities as a mother, teacher, and writer are also a big part of me.
OUYANG: I am the first in my family to be born outside of China, so I grew up caught between two cultures, American and Chinese. That experience informs my understanding of the challenges foreign-born populations face navigating urban and social services in the U.S. and keeps me grounded in the importance of community.
BALOGUN: My parents immigrated from Nigeria, so my siblings and I were born here in the Unites States and consider ourselves first-generation American in an immigrant family. We are Yoruba and I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia – so I’ve always felt between these cultures.
DIVER: I approach environmental justice from an allied perspective. I am originally from a small coastal town in Delaware with Irish, English, German heritage. Acknowledging white privilege is a part of my work, but this also intersects with other parts of my identity. This includes growing up in a rural, working-class town, where people were very informal, and also being a mother. This complexity guides me in thinking about when I step up and when I step back in my collaborations.
FISCHER: I was born to an Afro-Costa Rican mother and German-Italian father in Queens, New York. Simply put, I am a Black woman who loves her “cawfee.” My family and community are at the heart of my identity, and some of the skills they’ve taught me are the art of active listening, compassion, and to always show respect. I keep these skills with me in my research, especially since I often do interviews in my work. Being a musician, a composer and soprano, is also an important aspect of my identity.
Share a formative experience related to your experiences with environmental justice.
FISCHER: On the day I turned 16, my family and I were trapped when the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy rushed into our home. We were not able to afford a place to be displaced, so for seven months we lived in our gutted home. We dealt with health and safety concerns, but were thankful for the food and clothing donations from family and friends. Curiosity intact, I was able to start contextualizing our experience with cursory research, and that’s when I first started learning about environmental injustices. Ever since then, I’ve been committed to learning more about the complex reasons why frontline communities experience the brunt of climate change, and how we can support community-led solutions toward environmental justice. My personal experience also makes me committed to conducting research that is culturally competent and trauma-informed.
OUYANG: When I was an undergrad at Stanford, I worked on a solar house for an international competition. Hundreds of students demonstrated excellence in the technical design and engineering of an environmentally sustainable building, but we failed to think deeply enough about the justice implications of our work. Even though our house won the Affordability challenge, it still was out of the price range of low-income families, and more fundamentally, it was a single-family home, which meant we were not thinking holistically enough about the urban scale of environmental and social sustainability. Since then, many of us who led that team have recommitted our careers to a greater focus on environmental justice, while still leveraging all our same intellectual and creative talent. In my case, that means applying some of the same ideas of construction to a specialized form of affordable and equitable housing, accessory dwelling units.
POLK: I study grassroots mobilizations to climate change – what are the processes and practices of community-led responses to climate impacts. I first became interested in environmental justice while working on my dissertation, an ethnography of the global Transition Town movement, designed to support local communities to transition away from their dependency on fossil fuels through a model that can be adapted and applied globally. I wanted to know, among other things, how the movement prioritizes diversity and inclusion and environmental justice. This was the longest community-engaged work I’ve done in an academic context, but it built on my previous life as a human rights and environmental journalist and media trainer, and was really the foundation for my environmental justice work in the academy.One of the biggest honors of my teaching is supporting students as they create research that can be used by community groups and translated for different audiences.
DIVER: In EJ movements, we align behind community-led initiatives because affected communities are best positioned to see what’s happening with structural inequity and to guide an effective response. In graduate school, the first thing that I did in beginning a long-term collaboration with the Karuk Tribe (Klamath Basin) was to co-develop a visual timeline of Karuk land use history from 1850 to 2010 with community members. Thanks to community knowledge holders, I learned to see important moments of structural racism, alongside community responses to discriminatory policies and practices. It taught me about centering community knowledge, while still engaging with the published literature.
BALOGUN: It’s interesting to be the first generation born in America because I have ties both to Nigeria and to the Unites States. I’m drawn to Nigeria through my parents and want to understand how colonialism has impacted my ancestral country, but it’s not where I grew up. On the other hand, I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, which has a long and beautiful history of African-American residents but also a terrible legacy of slavery, which I don’t have ancestral connections to. Part of my work in incorporating an environmental justice lens in my life and research has been establishing and working to understand my positionality in relationship to both Nigeria and the United States and I’m still working on it.
RODRIGUEZ: It’s important to consider the insidious ways that environmental injustice comes up. One of the things that I think about quite a lot are the frequent rejections of Indigenous epistemologies or knowledge related to environmental practice. As a Hawaiian person that studies history, I view time in a special way. I think of a quote by Jon Osorio in Dismembering Lāhui, a book which investigates the effects of western law on the national identity of Native Hawaiians: “Ka wā mamua and ka wā mahope are the Hawaiian terms for the past and future, respectively. But note that ka wā mamua (past) means the time before, in front, or forward. Ka wā mahope (future) means the time after or behind. These terms do not merely describe time, but the Hawaiians’ orientation to it. We face the past, confidently interpreting the present, cautiously backing into the future, guided by what our ancestors knew and did.” When it comes to storytelling, I’m telling the stories of our past so that we can find ways to envision justice for the future. I envision my responsibility to environmental justice as a descendent and as a future ancestor.
How do you center environmental justice in your work and life?
BALOGUN: We can point to a lot of examples in the United States where Black communities have faced disproportionate environmental harm. The Flint, Michigan, water crisis or the Memphis sanitation workers strike – these are both manifestations of environmental injustice that help me to find clear threads between my studies. I study both African/African American studies and environmental engineering – while that combination makes sense to me, there’s also a lot of space between those two. Environmental justice spaces on campus have helped me to bridge that gap.
POLK: As part of the Environmental Justice Working Group, I work very closely with an intergenerational collective of individuals from across campus working to embed environmental justice into our research, teaching, and community engagement at Stanford. I am most proud of this group not only because of what we do together but because of the way we do it. We really do model justice in the way we work together. It is truly a place where everybody belongs; where our diverse knowledges are valued, where we listen to each other and everybody brings their own strengths to the table. If people want to connect with us they can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter, as well as learn more about our work via our email listserv.
OUYANG: I am a lecturer with the Future Bay Initiative, which is focused on long-term partnerships with communities like East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks which are disproportionately exposed to climate hazards such as flooding and extreme heat. We are committed to providing actionable intelligence to decision-makers at the government and grassroots levels so as to empower local leaders to shape more sustainable, resilient, and equitable futures.
RODRIGUEZ: I do restorative justice work, when applied to the environment. For me, environmental justice is about restoring balance. Before colonization occurred, the communities I come from had a way of existing with the environment in balance, and now we can see that humanity’s relationships with the environment are completely out of balance. For a lot of Indigenous people, the climate crisis has been happening for a long time. My end goal with my environmental justice work, and with my research, is to eventually see a future where it makes sense for Indigenous people to have sovereignty over the land, and for Indigenous people to help other people come into relationship with the land, because we built that balanced relationship first. Maybe that’s a lofty dream, but we don’t have time to dream small.
DIVER: In my research on land management and environmental policy, I find that a lot of people are not aware of the histories of Indigenous peoples. Many of the research questions I ask consider what happens if we evaluate environmental policy from the standpoint of Indigenous sovereignty. How does knowing histories of racialized dispossession change our understanding of land management, environmental governance, and equity issues? My use of community-based research and decolonizing methodologies contributes to a broader conversation around approach. When we attempt to “solve” environmental problems, who do we ask to contribute, how do we define the problem in the first place, and why?
Why do we need to make space to discuss environmental justice in academia?
OUYANG: It is a myth that environmental justice work means you have to “sacrifice” any technical or intellectual rigor. The work of the Future Bay Initiative illustrates how some of the most quantitatively and scientifically sophisticated work can also be some of the most grounded and community-engaged work at Stanford. I would encourage students to consider the educational curriculum developed by the Future Bay Initiative as one way to develop this more systems-oriented and equity-driven approach to science and engineering.
BALOGUN: The very white history of environmentalism, unspecific to Stanford, definitely serves as a cultural barrier. Stanford serves as a microcosm for the wider issue of white environmentalism and one way to begin solving that is by including the voices of BIPOC in the development of environmental spaces. One way that I’ve worked to address this is to obtain student input and advise on the design of the new school of sustainability. Alongside 10 other students from across the university and with Anjana Richards as our staff liaison, we’ve been able to work directly with Deans Steve Graham and Kam Moler in ensuring student voices are being heard. It’s really a unique body – it stands on the shoulders of student activists who came before and finally provides a regular space for students of BIPOC and other marginalized backgrounds to work directly with administrators.
RODRIGUEZ: We shouldn’t be doing this work, be it DEI or EJ, simply so that we know how to talk to people of different backgrounds. Certainly that’s important, but if we are researchers committed to understanding the world through a rigorous process of investigation, then we need to commit ourselves to understanding how all of these personal and systemic and environmental issues interact in the world. We don’t do this work simply to avoid discrimination lawsuits or to prevent offending people, we do this work as an integral part of the academic or scientific endeavor.
DIVER: When we bring frontline community leaders to speak to our EJ course, it’s really transformational. We meet many students who are looking for opportunities to visualize transformational change. These perspectives don’t necessarily come from within the academy, so we invite community leaders to teach us. In the academy, we often have hierarchies of expertise built into our thinking and our training. But when working on justice issues, it’s helpful to maintain some humility and to recognize that the most privileged folks aren’t necessarily the best people to define the problem framing and solutions.
FISCHER: While there have been recent openings in mainstream conversations surrounding environmental justice, something that’s important to mention is that the concept of “environmental justice” is not new, and has had a legacy for generations. In my view, anything families have done that help heal intergenerational trauma with respect to the environment is progress toward environmental justice. This could be the passing down of agricultural knowledge, taking your first nature hike, or starting a community garden in a food desert.
POLK: We are all suffering the consequences of exclusion and invisibility in some way, and we see it in every intersecting crisis we are facing now. I ask my students: “Whose voice is centered in this text? Who had the power to make the decisions here? To develop and implement the policy? How did they get that power? Who is not at the table here and how might things look different if those people were at the table? How would the world look different?” Our students are going to be engaged in solving the greatest sustainability challenges of our time. They won’t be able to do it if they don’t know how to ask these questions.
This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Continue to read the rest of the collection here.
Introduced in 2020, this fellowship will support two outstanding scholars in the fields of Earth, energy, and environmental sciences. We deeply appreciate the value of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community, and we define diversity broadly to include diversity of genders, races and ethnicities, cultures, physical and learning differences, sexual orientations and identities, veteran status, and work and life experiences.
SURGE provides undergraduates from U.S. institutions the opportunity to gain mentored research experience at Stanford University in the geosciences and engineering during an eight-week period. We especially encourage students who are seeking a formal research experience for the first time to participate. The underlying philosophy of SURGE is to train students by creating a supportive and rigorous work environment.