EJ @ stanford
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EJ @ stanford

Celebrating student leadership & vision for environmental justice — possibilities for repair?

By Sibyl Diver

EarthTones is a student-led festival typically held (in non-COVID times) at the Stanford Educational Farm — celebrating the connections between people of color and the environment. Thank you Darel Scott & Stephanie Fisher & Maya Burke & Ayoade Balogun & Rachel Hu & Nancy Chang & many others who have brought this vision to Stanford.

Earth Week: this is an important moment to learn more about the vision of student colleagues who are asking how can we create new academic institutions that do not repeat mistakes made in the past — where our behaviors as academic elites and institutional structures that underpin our university are contributing to social hierarchies that create, maintain, and advance racialized dispossession (and larger societal structures that do the same). If we are going to move forward with creating a more inclusive academic environment and advances beyond our roots of extractive research we need to think differently, and act differently.

What I am learning from students who are deeply engaged in social change initiatives, from EJ collaborators, and from Indigenous scholars that are my research collaborators (as it turns out, these categories overlap) is that this is a time for repair (thank you, Keoni, Mehana, Corrinne, Ron, and others for this language). It is a time for rethinking our responsibilities and relationships. This is especially the case as we now build a new institution for sustainability that desires to position itself as a catalyst and leader for “just societies”.

In this context, one of the questions that has come up in our environmental justice conversations about new school on sustainability being developed at Stanford is the following: how do we respectfully engage with communities, our neighbors, and groups made marginalized to repair these relationships, as we more forward? How do we move forward together, as opposed to moving forward as a singular, elite institution — that continues to hold “Stanford” separate from our neighbors?

These are communities who make the research, education, and social impact that we desire in our work possible. Yet, how do we do a better job of seeing and engaging with neighboring communities as part of our constituency — the groups that we answer to and think with as part of our research agendas and social impact initiatives — when making key decisions with the new school and otherwise? How do we build positive relationships to align behind neighboring communities — their priorities and vision? How do we share benefits and resources in a more equitable manner to rebalance past harms and build mutual trust for visioning a way forward?

This includes communities such as East Palo Alto, that have been deeply affected by structural racism shaping our respective communities through complex sociopolitical processes that include redlining, highway siting, disproportionate exposure to toxic industries, inequitable access to educational resources, etc. As well as Native communities such as the Muwekma Ohlone, whose traditional territory we live on, work on, and benefit from, and whose communities, culture, and tribal government continue to persist through ongoing resilience and restoration.

Students of environmental justice are rightly raising the point that the idea of “just societies” is not where we have been — so how do we pivot in a better direction at this moment in time? How do we do this at a time when we are reconstituting our institutional frameworks in building a new school? How do we create new spaces for engaging with sustainability and equity as interconnected ideals and initiatives — even as we continue to function and reflect on our position as a highly elite institution? What is at stake is our future success: if we do not achieve sustainability and equity together, if we create sacrifice zones in disadvantages communities or particular parts of the world, while those of us residing in developed countries receive the majority of environmental and social benefits, we will fail in our sustainability efforts.

In the last two weeks, I have been hearing students in our EJ community articulate central questions about how we can do things differently — these are authentic questions about how to operationalize change for a “just society” as we create a new academic institution for sustainability with the new school. I am writing this blog as an opportunity to reflect on and respond to these conversations.

I am hearing these questions from students at our School of Medicine that are working to build environmental and climate concerns into health research and education. From Students for a Sustainable Stanford who are asking deep questions about funding for the new school and how to advance greater distributive justice as we begin building a new institution for sustainability and equity. From Students for Environmental and Racial Justice who are directly with frontline communities to advance their needs and help fundraise to support Indigenous environmental justice initiatives in our neighborhood and region, and advocating for efforts to share resources with Indigenous-led initiatives that are restoring community connections to traditional territories and cultures. From students who are organizing through our student union (ASSU) and through the Native community at Stanford to build solidarity among students for repair and mutual aid at a time when our nation is being forced to reckon with racial violence and oppression on a daily basis.

This work is also happening through institutional entities at Stanford that champion environmental justice and include students in their work. From the Haas Center for Public Service, who is playing an important convening and support role for educators who are working on building racial justice into their curriculum — so that faculty, staff, and students can see, recognize, and support each other as we engage in this uphill effort — and to build community-academic partnerships that advance community-driven initiatives around climate change & watershed protection in our region. From the Stanford Educational Farm — which has supported a safe and welcoming gathering space for BIPOC students (including for for group events like Earth in Color/EarthTones, for individual students to access healing time through working in gardens during COVID) and for Indigenous communities through building gardens oriented towards Indigenous foodways and food sovereignty. And Stanford Environmental Justice Working Group members who have been working with students, faculty, and students to create a new EJ minor that will launch next fall, who are connecting/supporting researchers to include EJ and health equity into their work, and who are leading and supporting a wide range of EJ initiatives on campus and beyond (nice work, EJWG team!!!).

We do not yet have the answer as to how we can best achieve our goal of creating a “just society” for the new school. Yet, when I look at where progress is being made on campus, part of the solution is about who we include in the problem-solving process. There is a vital need to include students and the growing EJ community at Stanford as an integral part of the institution building. Students and our EJ community are highly attuned to what is happening in society — and they are asking the hard questions about how to also include communities in our institution-building process. Together with students, our administration, staff, and faculty are well positioned to pinpoint opportunities for rethinking institutional frameworks and empowered to strategically redirect resources and policies to authentically advance a more “just society”.

“Just societies” is not a small goal. This is not where we have been, and certainly not where we are now. Our thinking and structures from the past are not the thinking and structures we need to transcend current societal divides underpinning our own academic institution and daily functions. Yet we have the opportunity to change this, and to do so from the bottom-up through an intergenerational effort. We can do this through repairing relationships, and thinking deeply about structural problems that we have an opportunity to transcend at this momentous time in history — and by including multiple generations in our efforts to understand and attend to complex sustainability and environmental justice problems together.

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