Why intersectional environmental pedagogy belongs in all fields

Illustration of the Hearst Mining Building being integrated with plants and colourful foliage.
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Mainstream environmentalism has a history of racism, whitewashing and violence that many continually fail to address. This is because even after decades of activism by Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color advocating for environmental justice, sustainability is still often an issue hijacked by corporations to sell more products. 

Environmental practices and knowledge passed down in communities of color for many generations have been colonized by scientists and academics while environmental injustices continue to impact these communities the most. This is why environmental activists at Intersectional Environmentalist, a newly formed environmental organization, have begun to set norms for what the environmental movement should represent. This vision includes an education system that promotes intersectionality in every field, especially in technical subjects.

Intersectionality, a term coined by lawyer and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” The theory of intersectionality has been applied to environmentalism by individuals and organizations, including the Students of Color Environmental Collective at UC Berkeley, since its birth. 

The term “intersectional environmentalism” gained traction after a viral post this summer from Leah Thomas and the team at Intersectional Environmentalist. The organization prioritizes the protection of people and the planet, highlighting untold narratives in the environmental movement, uplifting the work of Black activists, Indigenous activists and other activists of color — while also working to dismantle systems of oppression. Intersectional environmentalism acknowledges the marginalization of many groups within the traditional environmental movement. It welcomes people of different communities, experiences, expertise and identities, recognizing that we are all needed to find solutions to the climate crisis. 

Elite universities across the world, and especially in the United States, have traditionally taught engineering classes in ways that are detached from real-world context and application. Many engineering colleges, including UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, have few humanities breadth requirements for engineering students, and seem to only value interdisciplinary engineering courses if they are taught by “the finest engineering minds.”

The UC Berkeley engineering academics page goes as far as claiming that “engineering is the liberal arts of the 21st century,” with its curriculum oriented around the technical skills of an engineering degree rather than skills such as community-based participatory research. A form of education that only values learning from other technical experts will produce engineers that fail to think critically about the social and environmental consequences of their technical work, often resulting in engineering projects that both create and perpetuate inequalities. 

For engineers to participate in and contribute to the environmental movement, we must first create an education system that prepares us to understand our position in the world and the communities we will impact. 

Engagement and coalition building are what must become the norm in engineering pedagogy because currently, few engineering educators and institutions are pushing for this change. Even at UC Berkeley, it often seems that only after great bureaucratic struggle are such courses allowed to be developed and taught at all.

Engineering 157AC, led by Khalid Kadir, however, is a great example of intersectionality-oriented teaching. As one of the few engineering courses focusing on environmental justice, the class centers nontraditional narratives around the role of “technical experts” in community projects, questioning the power of those at the core of knowledge production in academia.

Restructuring how engineering is taught has become increasingly essential as environmental inequities have deepened over the last few decades. Engineers have the power to create real change in this space. This goes for many other fields left out of the mainstream environmental movement as well.

Because of the exclusive history of environmentalism, many communities often don’t associate themselves with the environmental movement. Dismantling exclusivity can begin with incorporating topics of environmental justice and equity into courses that already exist, such as connecting chemistry with environmental pollution or connecting psychology with climate anxiety. 

Environmental pedagogy can no longer exist as an educational model purely for the students in the Rausser College of Natural Resources. Instead, it must be incorporated into the entire UC system, in a way that is culturally appropriate, equitable and transparent. As the environmental movement becomes more inclusive and equitable, so too must the inextricably linked field of engineering —  and that begins with reimagining how universities educate the next generation of engineers. 

UC Berkeley students have been at the forefront of many important movements throughout history, pushing campus to develop standards for the rest of the academic community. As many student activists have done before us, we must seek new standards in our respective fields and begin to look at our work through the lens of intersectional environmentalism — because now, more than ever, our future depends on it.

Kiana Kazemi is an intersectional environmental activist and engineer studying at UC Berkeley, concentrating on the intersections of environmental justice and data science.