UC-Davis students demand 'environmental justice' degree

Students are demanding that the University of California-Davis create an “Environmental Justice” degree program because existing environmental studies courses are not focused on “social justice.”

A student group calling itself “Environmental Justice for Underrepresented Communities” has created an open letter and accompanying petition arguing that the “strong lack of intersectionality” in the school’s current agricultural and environmental science programs “is a major factor contributing to the continuation of systematic environmental injustices.”

The “impacts” of such injustices, the letter contends, “are reaped most heavily by marginalized and oppressed groups making this an issue of social justice and a violation of human rights.”

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Complaining that administrators have “ignored” its lobbying in the past, the group presents a list of demands designed to ensure that the new field of study places environmental studies firmly within the context of social justice.

Among its “short term” demands, for instance, are “collaboration with existing environmental justice faculty” to develop courses for the new program, as well as “the attendance and engagement of faculty and staff within the department at existing conversations on campus surrounding environmental justice and social justice.”

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While the university develops the environmental justice Major and Minor, the students also want “bi-monthly meetings between the department and students” to discuss progress, and to develop “a mentorship program for underrepresented and underserved students in the department.”

In addition, the ultimatum calls for “routine workshop spaces for the faculty and staff of the department to continuously expand their knowledge of environmental justice,” as well as the hiring of “diverse faculty of color and of other underrepresented groups whose research and professional background takes an intersectional environmental justice based approach to matters of environmental science and policy.”

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Claiming that “communities of color and those of lower socioeconomic privilege experience environmental injustice at disproportionate levels when compared to privileged communities,” the letter goes on to differentiate between “environmental equity”—which it takes to mean, “poison people equally”—and “environmental justice”—which it defines as “stop poisoning people, period.”

According to the student group, UC-Davis was founded on “a violent act of environmental injustice” because it sits on land that was “stolen” from indigenous peoples, and continues to contribute to environmental injustice by accepting grants from agricultural businesses, which the students claim are “huge contributors” to environmental injustice.

“The UC Davis Environmental Science & Policy Department lacks any environmental justice[-]based research that recognizes the experience of groups outside of privileged populations,” the letter laments. “In addition, the faculty is white[-]dominated and consists of little to no diversity.”

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The EJUC concludes by asserting that the Trump administration has pursued policies that “deny not only the significance of environmental science but also exhibit an intentional erasure of the experiences of historically marginalized peoples and their communities,” arguing that failing to stridently oppose Trump’s environmental policies is akin to condoning racism.

“For the department to choose silence or even neutrality on the inclusion of intersectional environmental justice education, is to uphold the erasure of these issues and their importance,” the group declares.

The accompanying petition contains several hundred signatures, mostly from individuals representing themselves as either students or faculty/staff members, though many of the entries only list first names, and several come from individuals identifying themselves as community members and alumni.

Marcel Holyoak, chair of the UC-Davis Environmental Science and Policy Department, indicated that faculty might be receptive to the petition’s demands, telling Campus Reform that the department has already applied for funding to run an environmental justice seminar series and related classes next year, and that faculty have planned a meeting to discuss the requirements for creating a program of study.

“The advocacy of the EJUC students in an outstanding example of a grass roots action that can propel change,” Holyoak said. “Both the department and I intend to do what we can to facilitate and create such change.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @kara_kirsten