Indigenizing the Environmental Discourse: Inspiring our Future Environmental and Social Activists

Nov 17, 2017 · 7 min read

By Jessica Hernandez (Zapotec & Ch’orti’), MS, MMA

Jessica with her father Victor Sr. (left) and mother Juana (right) during her graduation

As scientists and engineers, we can utilize our technical academic background to be the loudest advocates for our communities and this is what I emphasize inside and outside of my classroom. STEM should move towards bridging the division between the social and technical sciences if we really want to implement change — especially in the current geopolitical climate of our country. Our communities of color are the most affected and with the new direction of supporting coal, oil, and other extractive resources, our communities will face more environmental injustices. Even though environmental injustices have been experienced for years by our communities, there will be an immense increase. This is why it is important now, more than ever, to indigenize the environmental discourse and environmental justice.

Zapotec and Ch’orti’ Indigenous Scientist

My connection to the ocean and fisheries goes back many generations; on my mother’s side we are indigenous Yucateco Maya and Zapotec and on my father’s side we are indigenous Ch’orti’. I belong to the turtle clan and most of my relatives — including my parents — are fishermen. My cultural upbringing plays a huge role as to why I want to create platforms for communities of color who are never given an opportunity to share their stories. When I ask myself — “where did I learn the most about the oceans?” — the person who comes to mind is my father. My father’s knowledge is not grounded on western knowledge or academia. He became a fisherman at the age of 10 and utilized knowledge passed down through the seven generations.

He ensured that I grew up understanding that our stories are grounded on Mother Earth, and as a result it is “herstory” that we focus on and not history.

I always carried these cultural roots deep in my heart and consequently, when it came to studies, I decided to major in marine science (emphasis in ocean engineering and fisheries biomechanics). Majoring in marine science allowed me to expand my western knowledge of the ocean with courses, internships, and research. It also allowed me to comprehend the importance of integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge to promote a healthier environment. Since I want to continue bridging the gap between environmental sciences and collaborative work with indigenous communities, I am currently seeking a PhD from the University of Washington (UW), College of the Environment, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

Creating a Platform for Indigenous & POC Perspectives in the Environmental Sciences

Pursuing a graduate degree at UW has taught me that despite the advancements in environmental science research and teaching, there is still a gap pertaining to Native Americans and Indigenous communities.

There are a few native and indigenous professors and graduate students in the environmental sciences — worldwide — and as a result, academia tends to speak on behalf of native and indigenous peoples rather than them speaking for themselves.

My yearning to learn from other indigenous peoples and listen to their stories was my biggest motivation to create a platform for indigenous perspectives in the environmental sciences at UW.

With the mentorship from the Associate Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Gino Aisenberg, I learned how to navigate the politics of academia and secure funding to teach and implement the course. My goal was to create a syllabus that would be grounded on other perspectives — not only indigenous communities but other communities of color who are silenced in the environmental discourse.

Traditional academia tends to focus on a professor — who possesses the knowledge and skill sets to lecture on the subject. However, this becomes conflictive if the subject being lectured on are other communities to which the professor does not belong to. In academia, we tend to immerse ourselves in the “ivory tower” and as a result, we separate science from culture. The separation of science from culture can cause more harm or continue to oppress our communities.

My main goal in creating this class was to provide students with the opportunity to enhance their learning from stories — from people whose communities are directly impacted by environmental (in)justices. This class is formulated as a discussion, in which students take leadership in their own learning — something different and not common in the environmental science curriculum.

Decolonizing STEM

In STEM we are taught that the pioneers and founders of fields are European white men, and this is not always true.

I always knew that my ancestors were the great mathematicians and engineers who built canoes and had a rigorous number system.

This is where I encountered the biggest conflict with academia as an oceanographer. I was taught to praise men and pioneers like Captain James Cook — who is credited for his “great” navigation skills and voyages. STEM and its history tends to ignore our ancestors and this is the history I am trying to dismantle as a graduate student and future professor. If our ancestors navigated the seven seas before European men, why aren’t they the ones credited? Why aren’t they considered the pioneers of our fields?

Defund from Wells Fargo rally in Seattle, WA

New Course: Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse

“Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse” examines the concept of environmental justice through a decolonization lens — giving a voice to those who have been silenced in the official environmental discourse. Through guest presentations, group work, facilitated discussions, readings, and inclusive teaching strategies, students examine and explore current and past environmental (in)justice cases. Some of the cases include; the Dakota Access Pipeline, Flint, Michigan, uranium mining in Navajo Nation, etc. This course is dismantling the traditional environmental science research and curriculum that emphasizes on the technical fields of environmental science. Environmental justice should not be a theory, concept, or field grounded only in the social sciences, but also in STEM.

Defund from Wells Fargo rally in Seattle, WA

From Classroom to Community: Symposium & Rallies

Most of my students were in public health, environmental sciences, and other STEM related fields. I emphasized the importance of sharing their knowledge and skill sets with the local communities.

We can discuss or listen to personal stories about environmental injustices, but the actions we are taking is what is the most important.

As a result, my class decided to take their work from the classroom to the community.

One of the class meetings was at the Defund DAPL Seattle City Council Meeting. They took pictures at the event and were part of the history made — Seattle became the first major city to divest from Wells Fargo — one of the major banks funding the DAPL project.

Aside from participating in rallies, students will present at the Environmental (IN)Justice Showcase Symposium I am organizing for the class. This will serve as their final project and this event is open to the public. They will present on an environmental (in)justice and their goal is give a presentation tailored to the community. This means they will not utilize a lot of jargon or vocabulary that is only utilized in academia. We have had a huge interest in this symposium and are expecting 100 or more attendees at our two-day event.

Seek wisdom, not knowledge. Knowledge is of the past, Wisdom is of the future. — Lumbee

My goal is to continue seeking wisdom and not knowledge. In STEM we base most of our understanding of our natural world from knowledge and sometimes neglect the wisdom from our ancestors that we carry within. Our ancestors managed their environment with few negative environmental impacts, and as an environmental scientist I want to teach and mentor our future environmental scientists and engineers. Not only for them to become great in research, but also to become strong environmental and social advocates for our communities. We have been silenced for years and in order to allow our communities to speak, we must utilize our academic platforms to give them a voice.

About the Author: Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez (Zapotec & Ch’orti’) is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington (UW), where she is a PhD candidate in the Levin Lab. She’ll continue to offer her course “Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse” in the Department of American Indian Studies at UW.

More publications on the course:

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