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Beloit College’s Environmental Justice and Citizenship major has yet to reach its full potential

I declared a major in the Justice and Citizenship track of Beloit College’s Environmental Studies program a few weeks before the end of my freshman year, and then I packed up my trail mix and left campus for the summer.

Sometime between then and when I arrived home, I adopted the major’s common shorthand “Environmental Justice” in the hopes that it would make it easier to explain, and that it would make such a noble-sounding cause easier to flaunt whenever folks back in Idaho asked what I’d been up to.

It didn’t work: I learned that adults of all backgrounds had never heard of the phrase “Environmental Justice” before. I was often asked if I was on a pre-law track; someone once asked me whether I was planning to become a “cop.” I would explain that the Environmental Studies: Justice and Citizenship major was more like an environmental humanities or social justice program, and then I’d throw in a little something about environmental racism.

The following March, I realized that I couldn’t define Environmental Justice, either, at least not outside of the context of Beloit. I was being interviewed for a summer internship with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a San Francisco-based grassroots nonprofit which was founded in 1997 by urban, rural and Indigenous community leaders, and which I’d found by Googling “Environmental Justice” plus “summer internships.”

During my interview, I found myself faltering in my confidence about what I was studying when I was asked for the first time ever what day-to-day Environmental Justice work might look like. I got the internship anyway (“she’ll learn,” one Greenaction employee later told me she said after we hung up that day and she looked up the Environmental Justice curriculum on Beloit’s website), and I was fortunate enough to spend 10 weeks of my summer on the ground there with the support of a Liberal Arts in Practice grant.

I was chiefly involved with Greenaction’s work in Bayview Hunters Point, a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood in San Francisco situated adjacent to the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a Superfund site heavily contaminated with toxic and radioactive waste. Through BVHP community members and my mentors at Greenaction, I learned more about the intricacies of advocacy and was introduced to the 1991 Principles of Environmental Justice (available on EJnet’s website), which are held sacred by organizations like Greenaction.

When my time was up, I was quite sure that the definition and depth of understanding of Environmental Justice that I’d gained at Greenaction wasn’t available to me at Beloit – not in an “experiential learning is crucial” kind of way, which this school has certainly taught me; but instead in an “I believe I could have graduated without understanding that ‘Environmental Justice’ describes a decades-old movement and isn’t just a buzzword” kind of way.

It’s not because of some kind of malice. Dr. Pablo Toral, the chair of Beloit’s Environmental Studies Program, told me recently that the program developed gradually: it was created in the mid-aughts by a student who was completing an honors term, after a number of other students began to feel that something was missing. Later, the major was narrowed down into two tracks: “Justice and Citizenship” and “Communication and Arts,” again based on student interest at the time.

Professor Toral continues to tailor his classes based on what his students want to learn; he recently began covering environmental racism in an environmental politics course that he teaches. And there’s a summer course on applied field research methods in Environmental Justice, also taught by Professor Toral, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.

I’d love to see research methods courses like that one and internships like the one I found with Greenaction become increasingly available and accessible to students in my major, and to eventually see some iteration of them become requirements. I want to encourage the program to continue its admirable practice of prioritizing student interest, and now to express my own interest in classes or units on the history and principles of the Environmental Justice movement.

Bradley Angel, the co-founder and executive director of Greenaction, told me this summer that he hopes universities trying to incorporate Environmental Justice into their curriculum “don’t just read academic treatises,” but also consult with local organizations; and that they make the content of their courses relevant to their geographic region as well as to broader issues. I have confidence in the Environmental Studies faculty and my peers in the program, and Bradley’s hopes are well within reach.

I don’t want anyone who shares my major to graduate without understanding, for example, that no Environmental Justice organization can properly operate without some employees who are part of and live in communities directly harmed by environmental racism. I’m looking forward to working within my program to help it reach its extraordinary potential.

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