Environmentalism While Brown: SCOPES, “EJ”, and Life as a Student of Color in the Environmental Justice Movement

For black and brown college students, feeling excluded in academia is not new. While there is increasing awareness of the ways that students of color have historically been made invisible in academic curriculum and spaces and greater efforts to make their perspectives the center of attention in many fields, this kind of change has been harder to implement in some fields over others. Often times, professors and administrators believe that inclusion happens by creating diverse reading lists for their students or by simply glazing over systematic racism in their fields of study; however we know how deeply this fails to address the issue at hand. The field of Environmental Science and the Environmental movement at large is no exception, and in many ways the epitome of this problem.

During my last two years at Smith, Blythe Coleman-Mumford, a good friend of mine, started an organization called the 5-College SCOPES for Students of Color in the Sciences. Founded during our sophomore year, she created this organization as an intentional space for students of color in the sciences to connect in ways that they had found to be lacking in their departments and classrooms. As two of the few students of color in the Environmental Science and Policy department at Smith, we often faced challenges both from the professors and peers that we worked with, largely due to the lack of diversity in the ES&P community and other student’s perceptions of the kind of people that cared about and were involved in the environmental movement. This group was considered a step forward in beginning to address this at a communal and institutional level. Reflecting on my four years at Smith, and all that students like Blythe and I experienced, the enormous void that a group like SCOPES filled for the community at Smith became clear. Moreover, the fact that more organizations like it are being started in other college campuses as part of the greater environmental justice movement shows that we were never alone in the struggles that we faced these past four years.

I will never forget how the fall of our sophomore year included having multiple conversations with friends about why I shouldn’t major in Environmental Science and Policy. Many of them told me that as a Latinx, I should major in something that would actually address the issues that would pertain to my people. A friend told me that environmental science was for white people, and that the whole field in of itself was only interested in addressing the views and perspectives of “white people from Vermont”, so I didn’t have any business getting involved in a field like that. I wasn’t good at hiking, I didn’t care about eating local and organic all that much. I was from the Miami suburbs and my parents were Honduran, so what was I thinking? It was alienating to receive so much backlash from the POC community about caring about environmental issues.

On one particular evening that semester, while Blythe and I sat by a the community garden of our campus, a group of fellow friends of color walked by us and started teasing us, calling us “granola warriors” and “kale squad” because we were sitting by the community garden on some picnic tables. While they were joking, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit self conscious by their comments. Clearly there had been a degree of mockery, and certainly subconscious effort to create a barrier between us and them. While we were all students of color trying to find our calling at Smith, we were somehow different from them, because we cared about a series of issues that they had no interest in being identified with. For my friend and I, it was a small but important moment in shaping the way that we, together, grew to identify ourselves even within the small Smith community.

Of course, in spite of all of this, we knew the facts: that it was entirely false to say that environmental issues had nothing to do with the Latinx community and people of color. Even four years ago, discourse about the disproportionate effects of climate change on people of color, and particularly women of color was a central topic of discussion and a pillar of the environmental justice movement. If anything, this fact alone made it essential for students of color to become involved in the field as means to bring more representation to the demographic of people that so much discourse and research was being done on. Yet, it did make sense to view the field as entirely inaccessible to students of color, particularly if they did not feel that they were already connected to the culture of the movement, that is, of being outdoorsy, interested in local farming. If they did enjoy these things, they ran the risk of being completely discredited by the POC community, for being interested in issues that were considered “more white” than not. It begged the ultimate questions: What was it about the environmental science field that made people of color so uncomfortable, despite the fact that it actively shed light on social issues that affect people of color? Even so, why did it continue to be dominated by white upper-middle class culture and values?

We spent the rest of our time in college carving a space for ourselves within all of the things that propelled this question. I focused on sustainable development in Honduras, and learned a lot about how vulnerable my country is to the effects of climate change (according to the Global Climate Index, it is among one of the most vulnerable next to Bangladesh). I conducted research in Honduras to study the effects of drought on small scale farmers and the ways in which foreign aid assisted or failed to assist them.

Among many things, Blythe put together a panel of environmental activists of color for SCOPES that was unprecedented at Smith. She spent her last summer of college working at Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, a black-owned farm in Atlanta that seeks to provide accessible green spaces and fresh food in the city for communities of color. The Environmental Science and Policy department has become more diverse as much as it has received criticism from the rising number of students of color that are a part of it. Many are frustrated by the ways in which the interdisciplinary nature of the field is taught, saying that it is too rigid for only considering research that has both a “policy” and “hard science” component as the only kind of research that is valid in the department. What is being wrongly delegitimized here is the fact that we, as students of color, are being impacted by climate change and experiencing environmental injustice in ways that cannot be fitted into boxes and are worthy of being given a platform in academia. We have asked to include these issues that we have experienced first-hand into our studies and with the kind of critical thinking that we are encouraged to do at a liberal arts college, but these demands have been met with discouragement and even more commonly, a complete unacknowledgment of them. The fact of the matter is that these demands can no longer be ignored without institutions risking losing their credibility as places that foster social justice- thinking and equitable learning.

This still didn’t change the fact that we were constantly unheard by our professors, who often seemed to only want to include environmental justice as a marginal concept in our coursework. For instance, during our capstone class for the Environmental Science and Policy major, Blythe and I worked in a project together to find ways to combat an invasive species that was taking over an urban farming plot in Springfield, MA. The region where the plot was located had been declared a food desert, so we found it crucial to include a history of structural racism, redlining, and land acquisition of the area of Springfield and cities like it as part of the background section of our final paper. In spite of the fact that we used diverse sources pertaining to environmental justice in the Springfield area, our professor told us that it was essential for us to use the EPA’s “EJ Tool” to get the most legitimate analysis of the degree to which environmental injustice existed in the area. It was interesting to see how even the EPA had found a way to bureaucratize environmental justice and reduce it to an acronym, as if it were any other issue or any other branch of its department. In emails, our professor only ever referred to environmental justice as “EJ” and did not seem to notice the degree of work that we put into providing a well cited context to the creation of Springfield’s food desert. If a government website did not validate the existence of structural racism in the region, it did not exist. “EJ” became an inside joke between us whenever the subject in the class came up.

On March of this year, the Students of Color Environmental Collective of UC Berkeley published a piece titled A Letter for the Environmental Community, from Students of Color. With an image that had the phrase “#EnvironmentalismSoWhite”, it begins: “Dear Campus Environmental Community, You’ve disappointed us. Students of color on this campus do not feel welcome in the environmental community, and we never have.” The letter goes on to summarize issues identical to the ones that Blythe and I experienced during our time at Smith. It explains why the environmental movement was so inherently white, stating that “Many idols of the American environmental movement — John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold — were all explicitly racist and founded America’s national parks for elite white folk like themselves, whilst forcibly removing folks of color and colonizing indigenous people.” They go on to affirm that as a community, they did not feel represented by the icons and leaders of the environmental movement. “Most of us must learn about the displacement and oppression of our communities from painful personal experiences, not from professors who do not understand our struggle and do not understand our stories.” they state. “When the few existing professors of color are denied tenure, we are fed the message that we do not matter and will not ever be the leaders in conservation, environmental policy, or resource management.” Moreover, organizations made it impossible for them to conform to the “image of the typical environmentalist” that so many of them had created “We did not grow up with Priuses or weekly camping trips in the mountains. We did not have the luxury of eating local, organic food from farmer’s markets or sporting Patagonia and North Face jackets,” the letter states. “Studying and learning about nature and living the stereotypical life of the “eco warrior” was a distant, inaccessible dream.” The list goes on, and it is a compelling one that anybody who is even mildly interested in the future of the environmental movement should read.

Soon after that, SCOPES began making plans to write a letter of their own, dedicated to Smith’s campus, the Environmental Science and Policy department, and the greater environmental movement. I sat in on a few sessions and shared my thoughts on what kinds of demands should be made to the Smith community. Blythe, and others who were involved considered the demands important, given that as seniors who were about to graduate, these demands would be their first step towards making greater demands for the kinds of changes that should be made in the Environmental Science and Policy program as alumnae and would also serve as a blueprint for the organizations in the coming years. After speaking to her recently, Blythe told me that SCOPES decided to release the letter until the fall as a way to kick off the semester and also attract incoming students of color who may have been too worn out by the end of the semester this spring to get involved. A few days ago, I interviewed her and asked her about SCOPES and to reflect on her time at Smith as a student of color in the Environmental Science and Policy department (interview below).

While graduation was less than two weeks ago, I already have some clarity about the nature of the struggles we faced during our four years at Smith. It’s clear that the debates that had been happening on campus this whole time were not insular or unique to the Smith community, but part of a global movement that is demanding that environmentalism as we have known it must change in order to address the reality that climate change is creating for communities of color around the world. While it seemed like we were only students preparing to be part of this movement, I realize that we have always been a part of it, in spite of how isolating it can feel to live in a small college campus like Smith for four years. Reading the Students of Color Environmental Collective’s Letter to the Environment made me realize how connected the POC community has been on this issue all along, and how much of a guiding force we already have been in the movement. Even if we don’t have a series of John Muirs or even Bill McKibbens to look up to, I don’t believe it is necessary. As my friend Sarina said when I interviewed her a few weeks ago on this topic, “we have to get used to this movement as being a faceless one, with no distinct leaders”, because that is what the essence of the movement is about; working to create a world that belongs to everybody, not just a few.

Blythe and I at the Smith Botanic Gardens, 2015 (Photo By Wandy Pascoal)

Interview with Blythe Coleman-Mumford, founder of 5-College SCOPES:

You have been working on a letter to the Environment with your organization, the 5-College SCOPES, for a big part of your last semester of college. Why did you decide to do this?

Scopes was founded because of a visible lack of representation of diversity among the environmental justice community at Smith and the main stream media. Many books, resources and academic materials in science and environmentalism have been put forth mostly by cis white men who many times speak for communities in the front lines of climate change, profoundly economically disadvantaged people of color. The letter was a response to these trends that we have seen throughout our time at Smith, and doing environmental work outside the institution as well. We believe it is imperative to see greater representation of people of color being implicated in the publications and news we are following as having stake in the current environmental crisis which we are now deeply entrenched in. This letter, curated by both Scopes and member of Divest is our way to express our dissatisfaction with the current political state of environmentalism and express our need for change.

What is SCOPES, and why did you decide to create this organization?

Scopes is an organization for students of color in the 5 colleges who are interested in environmental justice work and are in any way connected to intersectional issues affecting the environment, from any discipline. The following is our mission statement:

“This group is meant to support students of the 5 colleges who are involved in the sciences and related environmental and sustainability initiatives and activism. Being involved in the sciences and activism in this way does not in any way mean it has to be a career choice or major, but rather an interest, lifestyle path or activity one engages with, either inside or outside the immediate academic environment. This is a space to share events, news items, ideas, questions etc in an attempt to create a sense of solidarity among these students of color who may find themselves a minority in their classes, and who may struggle to find a place in which their identity in the sciences is represented and respected”.

In your four years at Smith, what were the biggest challenges that you faced as a student of color in the Environmental Science and Policy department?

Being supported in initiated discussion of race, class and sexuality in environmentalism. Many times in my classes, that seem to want to focus on intersectionality within the movement only seem to be interested discussing the climate change effects to a very privileged audience who many times already know what is going on and are not the population of people who are most at stake. The palpable sense of discomfort I have experienced in classes bringing up issues of race, with a minority of other students of color is also a real issue. Many times seemingly niche biological or ecological issues are not connected to larger discussion of justice, which I think is another major lacking aspect of the department.

ES&P seems to be a department at Smith very focused within itself which is also not helpful for students who hope to connect their environmental thinking strategies to other major, disciplines and interests in other departments. There needs to be greater opportunity for collaboration and project development between departments and a recognized need among faculty to see beyond their immediate area of study. The nature of environmentalism increasingly is intersectionality, which needs to be mimicked at places like Smith to keep up with the times.

How do you think your experience as a POC in the ES&P department at Smith is reflective of what POCs are experiencing in the greater environmental movement? How does this letter aim to make this connection?

Again, a mostly white faculty are leading discussions about what “we” should be focusing on as an institution and academic community, which is inherently limited and flawed because these are not the communities and individuals whose lives are at stake first and foremost when discussing the effects of our current global climate crisis. This letter hopes to shift the focus from faculty lead and initiated environmental conversations, where conversations of race most subsumed to one where students highlight these discussions and analyses.

Do you have any advice for POCs who might still be in college or are involved in any organizing for environmental justice?

Be open to collaboration with other orgs, learn from the organizing tactics of other more well established social justice orgs but also learn to create your own unique healing space not necessarily based on the same kind of mobilizing. Too much of the time we as humans and especially people of color are told their inherent worth comes from their ability to produce, it’s capitalism, it’s flawed-it’s okay to do justice work in yourself and do smaller grassroots projects, before signing on to bigger national campaigns. There is something for everyone to do. Some are privileged enough to be on the front lines of rallies and marches, but some of us cannot and must find other ways to intersect with the movement, and this is great! We also as a generation need to learn how to take the ego out of our work. I have seen too many times people again basing their worth on their visibility in their chosen line of activism. However, most of time it’s the less visible or less flashy work that is the most valuable overall.

As a young person and a person of color, you are part of a demographic of people who are the most aware and most vulnerable to the effects of climate change a in our current reality and future, both in the United States and in the world. How do you think your interests should be represented by youth delegations and other civil society groups in this year’s COP23?

I am hoping in this next delegation that there is plenty of room for students in underprivileged situations to voice their truth and are given space to do so. I am hoping that the next line of decision making these people’s opinion is seriously considered and implemented. I am especially hoping the issue of land acquisition for people of color is discussed in the increasing tense climate of land ownership (due to increasing lack of resources due to climate change).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store