‘Questions of justice’: UC Berkeley environmental community reflects on inclusivity


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When it comes to environmentalism, many UC Berkeley professors, students and staff members have reached a consensus: The green movement is too white.

A quick glance through the leadership of environmentalism’s stalwart institutions — the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management — reveals mostly white faces.

According to some students and professors on campus, environmentalism tends to serve white, upper-class interests while leaving out members of marginalized communities and their concerns.

Maybe students of color went to schools that were dilapidated. Maybe they had bad working conditions or lived next to factories,” said Michael Mascarenhas, an associate professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, or ESPM. The questions they ask about the environment are questions of justice, distribution and power. That is a very different question from, let’s say, ‘How do we manage forests for biodiversity?’ ”

Often, Mascarenhas said, people in ESPM are not asking these questions about equity and justice.

Recently, however, a suite of campus organizations has been making strides toward reframing what — and who — defines environmentalism.

Since its inception in May 2015, Students of Color Environmental Collective, or SCEC, has been a space where marginalized students have built a community based on their common experiences and confronted the institutional challenges that face them.

With their #environmentalismsowhite photo story project, SCEC launched an online storytelling campaign that “showcases the stories and captures the faces of students of color navigating environmentalism and claiming it for themselves.”

The stories that project participants shared — which included being the only person of color at conferences, or in classes — lay out the common feelings and experiences over which the SCEC community has come together.

“So much of what I am now is because SCEC is a space,” said Amanina Shofry, a campus senior, SCEC member and the environmental justice associate at the Student Environmental Resource Center, or SERC. “It validated who I am.”

When asked to share campus experiences that highlight the issues that SCEC addresses, Shofry and Interim Director at SERC Sharon Daraphonhdeth looked at each other and laughed.

“How many hours do you have?” Daraphonhdeth said.

But what began as a handful of members eking out a foothold for SCEC in an unwelcoming space has blossomed into a powerful voice for change, according to Shofry and Daraphonhdeth.

In March 2017, SCEC released a “Letter to the Environmental Community, from Students of Color.” The letter called out the environmental community on campus, the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources, or CNR, and the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design for marginalizing people of color and for inadequately addressing issues of environmental justice. And it seems that the community and the administration are listening.

“I would say that the letter changed everything,” said Anna Whitney, ASUC senator-elect and SERC Carbon Neutrality Initiative fellow.“I think that CNR heard SCEC. Even though I think now it’s going to be a process to hold them accountable and actually diversify, SCEC absolutely brought that forward and called them out. My hat is off to them.”

SCEC has expanded its influence through workshops and online campaigns, Shofry said. It has also met with CNR administrators on several occasions to promote marginalized voices and address institutional shortcomings, according to Shofry.

Shofry added that SCEC regularly receives requests from organizations at other schools asking for help and advice. She recalls that at a panel about graduate school and people of color, one graduate student said they felt encouraged to come to Berkeley because they had heard about SCEC.

As SCEC members, professors and administrators emphasize, however, it should not be on the shoulders of underrepresented students and professors to advocate for their communities.

“That’s where the connection with SERC comes in,” Daraphonhdeth said.

SERC is a campus-affiliated group that provides advising, funding and support for the campus environmental community. SCEC’s campaigns inspired SERC to restructure and create more positions focused on environmental justice, according to Whitney. As Environmental Justice Associate, Shofry is responsible for guiding students to resources and organizing workshops related to equity in environmental justice.

“When you see a movement where students … reach out, and then you have a department that’s institutionalized into the university, the question becomes, ‘How do you adapt and really speak to the needs of the students?’ ” Daraphonhdeth said.

A new initiative

When Federico Castillo, a specialist in the ESPM department researching environmental economics, initially envisioned an environmentalism conference, his intention was not to carve out a niche for Latinos in environmental science from a social justice perspective.

Castillo’s own research was focused on the economic impacts of environmentalism on the Latino workforce, so he created the conference to bridge university campuses and spark discussion among policymakers, academics and activists.

But as interest in the conference, now called the “Latinxs and the Environment” initiative, grew, Castillo said the scope of the “little beautiful monster” expanded — he formed many partnerships with organizations such as the UC Berkeley Center for Latino Policy Research and the Environmental Defense Fund.

“That was not the objective,” Castillo said. “But I’m glad … I had students say, ‘I’m delighted it took place because I’m so concerned about the environment.’ They found a place where they could hang out with buddies that looked like them.”

This work culminated in a two-day Latinxs and the Environment Summit on April 5-6, where 80 to 100 people gathered to hear from scholars, policymakers and activists, to network and to have discussions.

Looking forward, organizers hope to turn the Latinxs and the Environment initiative into an institute, with funding and a permanent home in Berkeley, according to Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, one of the leaders of the initiative and the director of Chicano Latino student development at the UC Berkeley Center for Latino Policy Research. “It’s about a reframing of how mainstream environmentalism sees us,” said Gallegos-Diaz. “Environmental issues are everybody’s issues.”

Institutional changes

CNR administrators have also taken efforts in response to calls for greater diversity, according to Lynn Huntsinger, ESPM professor and associate dean of instruction and student affairs.

Huntsinger said those efforts have included hiring Mascarenhas, a professor of color, with tenure. Mascarenhas studies issues of environmental racism and environmental justice and regularly meets with SCEC.  The school is also working to recruit faculty with “a demonstrated commitment to serving and supporting our diverse student population,” according to Huntsinger.

In addition, the department is working to create a “one stop website for diversity in CNR” that guides students to programs and to write a diversity plan, according to Huntsinger.

“The Dean and I have met with SCEC several times, and share idea about diversity and how to promote it,” Huntsinger said in an email.They have good ideas and have worked hard to help improve the climate for diverse students. We share the goal of increasing diversity at every level.”

Some department members remain skeptical that these changes are meaningful.

Carolyn Finney came into the ESPM department as one of two African Americans, but left CNR eight years later after the university denied tenure to her. Finney said she appreciates the dialogue between student groups and administrators, but she is wary of whether the administration has addressed broader institutional problems.

“To make a change, you don’t hire one person of color,” Finney said, in regard to CNR hiring Mascarenhas with tenure. “You hire a suite of professors of color.”

Instead of embracing Finney’s interdisciplinary emphases, the department expected her to assimilate to its standards, according to Finney. She said that for seven years, she taught the largest class in ESPM, but she remained the lowest-paid faculty member in the department.

“On this subject, if the institution doesn’t change, it risks being left behind,” Finney said. “You can either resist, or get on the train. And I want everyone to get on the train.”

Sam Levin covers student life. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.