The environmental justice movement to support safe and clean ecosystems for all has been growing worldwide as people realize that disadvantaged communities bear a disproportionate burden from environmental damage. Those communities, which are often low-income and communities of color, experience inequities such as increased pollution, flooding, insufficient access to green space and associated health risks, property damage and more.

An aerial view of East Palo Alto, which borders San Francisco Bay. This is one region where environmental justice groups are working with community members to reduce impacts of sea-level rise. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In an effort to dismantle these injustices and foster environmental justice (EJ) scholarship, a team of Stanford researchers is collaborating with partners in the community through work bolstered by a seed grant from the Sustainability Initiative, which also gave rise to the new school focused on climate and sustainability. The team’s approach of engaging with community groups on equal terms is also enabling the future proponents of change – students – to gain experience leading this work.

“We’re not going to take on these huge social justice issues within environmental sciences by doing it the same way we’ve always done,” said Sibyl Diver, a lecturer in the Earth Systems Program at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Through collective, intergenerational, multiracial and allyship effort – that is how our efforts can be transformative.”

Diver co-leads the Stanford EJ Working Group, whose leadership comprises 50 percent students and represents 20 different campus affiliations. This group has been the key entity implementing work funded through the seed grant. Projects funded by those grants represent some of the areas expected to be important within the new school, which will launch in fall 2022.

“The working group’s coordinating council isn’t just a governance model – it models environmental justice at its core by interrupting traditional hierarchies in order to include more diverse voices in sustainability spaces,” said co-principal investigator and working group co-lead Emily Polk, an advanced lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. “We’re creating an inclusive community that acknowledges everybody’s expertise, which is a core part of doing environmental justice.”

The collaborators have built on Stanford’s strengths with community-engaged learning and interdisciplinary programs to develop and expand environmental justice curricula on campus. The efforts build on a history of students advocating for environmental justice education and research at Stanford.

“The EJ community on campus has become better organized in recent years. The ability of students, faculty and staff to speak with one voice is particularly valuable,” said co-principal investigator Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford Earth. “I think it has given environmental justice a more noticeable presence on campus.”

A new minor in environmental justice

Among the outcomes of the grant is a new minor in environmental justice offered by the Earth Systems Program at Stanford Earth. Interdisciplinary programs like Earth Systems are expected to be an important part of the curriculum offered by the new school.

In collaboration with Earth Systems deputy director Richard Nevle, the working group leveraged existing courses on environmental justice and supported two others with the seed grant: Land Justice: Unearthing Histories and Seeding Liberation, which explores contemporary efforts in food and land justice, and Shades of Green: Exploring and Expanding Environmental Justice in Practice, a community-engaged course on topics such as racial and gender equity, the influence of colonialism, food justice and climate change policy. Diver and Polk co-teach the required gateway course, Introduction to Environmental Justice: Race, Class, Gender and Place. The course helps students not only to learn about environmental justice but also to develop the skills for researching and writing about relevant issues in impactful ways, as with the EJ blog project.

Their efforts have been amplified by the growth of the working group’s website and expansion of its quarterly newsletter, both of which are supported by the 12-month grant. The funding also supported five scholarships for Stanford graduate students pursuing environmental justice projects. These are the first steps to creating a long-term, deeply rooted, cross-campus EJ initiative, according to Diver and Polk.

“If environmental justice isn’t central to sustainability, our work will actually fail,” Diver said. “Environmental justice allows us to pay attention to the uneven implementation of sustainability, where we have advanced sustainability for more privileged communities at the expense of less privileged communities.”

A place for EJ on campus and beyond

The curriculum efforts complement environmental justice research and learning opportunities outside the classroom that are also supported by the grant. For example, research led by co-principal investigator Gabrielle Hecht in partnership with Bayview-Hunters Point community leaders aims to create an open-access, online archive of the neighborhood’s long history of toxic and radiological contamination. Weaving environmental justice research and scholarship into the university and its relationship with neighboring communities calls for increased cooperation among natural scientists, engineers, social scientists and humanities scholars, Hecht said.

“If we want to create a sustainable planet, and not just sustainable communities within that planet, we have to be able to reach across borders and understand dynamics that involve scientific and engineering questions, but are not reducible to scientific and engineering questions,” said Hecht, a professor of history. “We all need to be working together on this.”

In collaboration with the Haas Center for Public Service, the EJ Working Group has strengthened connections with Bay Area academic institutions, frontline community organizations and international environmental justice leaders to help make EJ scholarship more accessible. During spring quarter, the group hosted a Joint Research Workshop on Environmental Justice & Human-Planetary Health, followed by Indigenous Leadership in the Emerging Green Economy. They co-hosted a National Environmental Justice Education and Teaching Workshop on Sept. 15 with nearly 300 participants from all over the country.

The workshops fulfill the researchers’ goal of bringing new environmental justice learning opportunities to Stanford – and they hope to take the concept further by formally establishing a cross-campus environmental justice initiative to support efforts in education, research and community engagement. Building on the current EJ and Human Rights Lab, this cross-campus work could include an environmental justice clinic. Much like the Law School’s clinics, the principal investigators envision an EJ clinic as a place where students can engage in real-world situations, linking research and practice.

“EJ scholars are trained to engage earlier and more fully with communities,” Jackson said. “The hope for a clinic is to have a place where students can interact with faculty and community groups, working on community-led solutions.”

Jackson is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. Hecht is also the Stanton Foundation Professor in Nuclear Security and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and professor, by courtesy, of anthropology.

To read all stories about Stanford science, subscribe to the biweekly Stanford Science Digest.