The environmental studies course, in partnership with Mission Zero, aims to reflect on the past to create a more just and responsible future
How does environmental racism shape contemporary scientific and environmental practices?
That’s a question a new course from the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder hopes to answer with its new course starting this fall.
In partnership with Mission Zero, a donor-backed organization that helps university students work on climate solutions, this yet-to-be-named course also explores questions like: How did we get here? What are the relevant conditions? And how can we work to change them?
“We’re going to talk about topics that might be uncomfortable for students,” said Denise Fernandes, a PhD student in environmental sciences and a professor on the program. “The more they are aware of the past, the better they (students) will be able to engage with the public aspect of issues.”
Many environmental studies departments in the US are very white-centric with Western Eurocentric views of how the environment works, Fernandes said, adding, “Students need to learn how race and the environment interact.”
Fernande’s goal for the class is to have students:
- Learn strategies to recognize, analyze and critically reflect on the connections between environment, power, politics, technology and socially constructed differences such as race, caste, class and ethnicity;
- developing skills to identify racist practices in environmental decisions and policies; and
- Get involved in anti-racist actions in academic and non-academic contexts.
The course will be experiential, says Fernandes, with possible case studies including:
- Discussing the history of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility south of Boulder, which is now public open space, and discussing Superfund sites, weapons production, and unequal human and environmental impacts.
- Discuss how and why Denver’s 80216 ZIP Code is the most polluted in the country.
- Investigation of the associated problems of acid mine drainage coupled with unequal impacts on disadvantaged members of communities in the Animas River watershed.
- Researching links to natural gas dependence, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and wellhead location in and around Weld County.
Students will gain this critical understanding of how these interactions and economic and political power dynamics have influenced events and politics by applying a variety of approaches.
“I’m excited about the social media engagement I have planned for students,” said Fernandes. “They can work on Instagram or TikTok, create different types of media communications from the stories they find in the library and publish them to a public audience. By the time they graduate, students will have the skills to be social media communicators, prepare for academic and other careers, and draw on aspects of this course in a job.”
In addition, Fernandes plans to use the university libraries. “The library’s Rare and Distinctive Archives contains an amazing collection of environmental stories from Colorado.”
It is important to understand the history of how preservation and conservation of the environment has had a negative impact on some communities.”
This course is unique among those offered by environmental studies programs. It’s not that common to find an entire course explicitly dedicated to examining the intersections between environmentalism and racism, said Karen Bailey, an assistant professor of environmental studies and Fernandes’ mentor.
Bailey hopes this course will stimulate a lively discussion on how people have been exploited and marginalized in the name of the environment and environmental management, and begin to outline a framework for more just and humane practices in the future.
“It’s important to understand the history of how preserving and preserving the environment has had a negative impact on some communities,” Bailey said.
“By looking at this story, we can move forward in a more just, equitable and responsible way. The goal isn’t to discourage someone from being an environmentalist or blaming someone in the class. We want them to learn and think about solutions. Learning the story is important to progress better.”