Like many environmentalists, I have long bought into the phrase “we all live downstream” as a way of communicating the idea that we are all impacted by pollution. However, after taking classes with some savvy sociology professors, I have come to think differently about the level of impact different communities face. While we may all live downstream, toxic waste dumped into this hypothetical stream will not negatively affect everyone equally. People of low socioeconomic status and people of color are significantly more likely than wealthier (mostly white) folks to live in close proximity to toxic waste sites and other pollution sources. The people living next door are exposed to much greater risk than people further “downstream,” who also have greater access to filtration devices and other means to minimize the impacts of pollution. This more accurate image illustrates the principle of environmental injustice, a systematic process by which underprivileged groups take the brunt of the impact of environmental destruction.
Since I began college in 2014, the country has seen environmental injustice play out on a national level in the Flint water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. My professors used these instances to call their students’ attention to opportunities to remedy environmental injustices in our own backyards. By the time I started job hunting, I could hear my professors’ words ringing in my ears, encouraging me to seek social and environmental justice in my community. As a Louisvillian, one way to do this is to ensure that every member of my community has ample opportunities to connect with safe, quality outdoor spaces (which, as of now, is not the case). This summer, I will begin work with Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation’s Louisville is Engaging Children Outdoors (ECHO) program. Louisville ECHO is a grant-funded project that works toward improving equitable access to the outdoors for Louisville youth and families. Louisville ECHO is accomplishing this by providing environmental education for elementary school children from partnering public schools, engaging kids in out-of-school activities via the ECHO-mobile (a traveling nature play unit), offering outdoor job training and planning annual community events in relatively nature-poor urban areas.
I could not be more excited to count myself among the ranks of people in the Louisville community working toward environmental justice, defined by the EPA as the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, incomes and educational levels with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. It was extremely beneficial to me as a student to have my professors raise the issues of environmental racism and injustice, even in passing without majorly altering the lessons they had already planned. This simple adjustment to the planned curriculum made it possible for me to combine two of my greatest passions in life: environmentalism and social justice. I encourage professors on other campuses to follow their lead and inspire a deeper connection with the material in their own students.
The exciting thing is, environmental and climate justice can be incorporated into any classroom, not just those with an overtly environmental focus. In fact, it is arguably more important to introduce the concept to those who would not ordinarily be exposed to it. The process is simple, and was most beneficial for me when it began with a question that allowed me to draw my own conclusions. For example, if you teach politics or business, raise questions about the policies that allow corporations to pollute inequitably. If you teach art, have your students consider the demographics of who produces nature art and why. If you are a marketing professor, ask your students whether nature is marketed and to whom. When you design your course for the fall, ask yourself: how can I get my students to think critically about the disproportionate impact of climate change on low income communities and communities of color? The answer might be much simpler than you think.