Green Column: Panel on Environmental Racism


Greenview. Photo courtesy of Sewanee’s flickr.

By Helena Kilburn
Staff Writer

Gailor Auditorium hosted a panel on Environmental Racism, an event put together by Haley Tucker (C’19), a junior Sustainability Fellow, to discuss the intersectionality of philosophy and environmental ethics. She felt strongly that this aspect of sustainability needs to be talked about more, which is why she presented her idea to OESS, was granted that specific fellowship, and ended up organizing this panel. She wanted to focus her fellowship on environmental justice and ethics, which she felt was both specific enough and relevant enough to spark a good conversation.

There are three main definitions of environmental racism: first, “it’s the placement of people into environmentally hazardous areas or, conversely, the placement of environmental hazards into areas with high numbers of minority individuals and/or economically destitute populations.”

Second, “Intentionally selecting communities of color for wastes disposal sites and polluting industrial facilities-essentially condemning them to contamination.”

The final definition was “environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.”

The panel consisted of Dr. JoyAnna Hopper of the Politics Department, Dr. Jim Peters of Philosophy, Dr. Andrew Thompson of the School of Theology, Assistant Director of Admission Curtis Johnson (C’14), and Sam Fulbright of Green Spaces, an organization that has an empowering program focused on environmental issues in poorer areas of Chattanooga.

One of the most important takeaways from the panel was that this topic extends far past basic “environmental” issues. There are people who are excluded from the democratic process, and as a result, are subjected to environmental harms. Because of this, environmental issues start to become about housing, education, race, and much more.

An attendee inquired if people who witnessed environmental racism had a responsibility to work to change the unjust situation. The response from all panelists was “yes, there is a responsibility to change,” but that agreement was accompanied by an acknowledgment of how difficult and complex that type of change is.

A different question was more focused on the specific fields of the panelists and centered around what factors “influence the particular outcomes of environmental justice.” Each panelist had a different answer, however, there were many common threads. Johnson spoke of the need for leaders who promote diversity and ones who are approachable, understanding, and willing to listen.

Fulbright mirrored this sentiment by asking “whose voices are we elevating?” This question led to the need for organizing as a way to bring research into action, but also the way in which to go about that organizing. Peters noted that “a very important evolution has occurred in the thinking of a lot of charitable community service organizations.”

According to him, this change is a shift towards bottom-up change, where those with the resources to enable that change build relationships with those in need. In his words, “we have gas money but you [those in the community where the change is happening] are driving.”

One asked if environmental racism is an issue “on Sewanee’s campus or surrounding communities (due to Sewanee’s actions) today? Is there anything we could do to improve this issue?”

The beginning of discussion around this question was an acknowledgment that we cannot talk about “environmental racism” on Sewanee’s campus without also talking about racism, sexism, and poverty on campus.

As Hopper said, “We cannot think of environmental issues as being separate from any of these other social issues.” Thompson said a first step is making education accessible to more, because access to education is the beginning of access to power.

Along with this line of thinking, Johnson asked the question “where does the conversation begin for a place to be welcoming,” and what spaces we have on campus that could fit this conversation. Peters ended the discussion with the well-known quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Tucker was glad to see the way the panel inspired conversation, but she also acknowledged that “there is a lot to be done everywhere, including here…The goal is to raise awareness of this issue/topic within the student body and eventually improve the environmental racial/injustice issue here at Sewanee.”