The Time to Act was Yesterday: Private Institutions & Environmental Justice

April 12, 2019, 1:21 a.m.

Why Private Institutions?

Stanford, Harvard and Yale exist as examples of private educational institutions that are highly complicit in global processes of wealth and knowledge extraction, along with anti-indigenous and anti-black violence. The institution we currently attend sits on land violently stolen from Ohlone peoples who were forced into involuntary labor and suffered enormous abuse and death during the Mission Era. After the civil war, U.S. Army soldiers were conscripted to “bounty-hunt” Native Peoples for the purposes of land theft. The primary architect of this California Genocide was Leland Stanford, who was the governor of California at the time. Leland Stanford not only supported legislation that made the California Genocide state-sanctioned, but he also personally recruited soldiers to join the army that would hunt Native Peoples. The land Stanford now sits upon was bought with wealth and power amassed by Leland Stanford’s exploitation of Native People. He built his fortune through the Central Pacific Railroad, the completion of which led to the increased flow of the U.S. army into Plains Tribes’ territory and the near-decimation of the buffalo, both of which had specifically disastrous effects for the Indigenous people of the Great Plains.

Fast forward to today, Stanford is more or less a hedge-fund with a university attached. Especially when single departments have upwards of $14 billion in endowment money with $900,000 payouts, it makes you wonder — where actually is all of Stanford’s money?

Investigating where Stanford’s funding comes from and goes to can leave you with a headache and a number of scoldings from gate-keeping administrators. Universities like Stanford are highly complicit in perpetuating wealth inequality and investments in destructive and violent extractive economies and are built unilaterally off stolen land acquired through genocide, slave labor and prison labor. Private institutions like Stanford continually profit financially from their investment portfolio and socially from assuming all of its work is inherently for the benefit of human society. There is a terrifying degree of cognitive dissonance at a place like this, where elite researchers pursue ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’; where children of the ruling class are trained to inherit this ‘knowledge’ of how to profit from management of the social and material death of poor people, where marginalized students who squeeze their way through the door are uniquely tasked with prescribing and mending toxic elements of the institution.

Many people move who move through Stanford believe that most work done here is inherently benefiting society as a whole. In Students for Environmental and Racial Justice (S.E.R.J.) we wonder how many people believe this that do not also greatly benefit from Stanford’s resources — via credentials, checks, grants and especially tenure. There is an undeniable and observable degree of material comfort afforded from wealth extraction carried out by entities like Stanford.  Many elite higher education institutions are kept afloat by large teams of venture capitalists, working to ensure institutional existence into perpetuity.

This is an actual goal of the board of trustees: that Stanford exists into perpetuity. Firstly, as if anything can exist into perpetuity and secondly, as if Stanford University and institutions like it aren’t blatantly intended to further the aims of Christological Racial Capitalism. Stanford is a literal Spanish mission which houses the fledgling computer science generation that will rule and protect the financial assets of tomorrow. Meanwhile, life on the planet is well underway in its sixth major extinction, and indigenous, colonized and oppressed people have been feeling the first wave of the effects from the transition to the 11th to the 12th hour.

Why Environmental Justice?

On March 4, 2019, a massive cyclone made contact with southeastern Africa, resulting in municipal breakdowns and immense human suffering in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The tropical storm most affected Mozambique, nearly laying the city of Beira bare and destroying up to 90 percent of the city. In a story for Grist, Eric Holthaus wrote, “Cyclone Idai lays bare the fundamental injustice of climate change.” It has long been known that populations in the global south will and do bear the brunt of colonially and industrially-induced climate change. Holthaus described the event as a “humanitarian catastrophe,” which is true in its own right, but should not be a surprise to anyone who dare pay attention to the colonial, industrial and neo-colonial record.

Holthas details Mozambique’s colonial and (post) colonial history. “During four centuries of colonial rule, Mozambique was used as a source of slaves, mines and plantation agriculture.” In 1975 after a 10-year revolutionary war, the nation gained independence from Portugal. This was followed by a devastating 15-year civil war. The legacies of colonial rule and violence, as well as the subsequent wars, continue on into the challenges the country currently faces. “Mozambique ranks 180th out of 189 countries in the U.N.’s Human Development Index — a measure of life expectancy, education, and economic prosperity — the lowest of any cyclone-prone country in the world.”

The urgent crisis in Mozambique is one countries of the global north should be addressing with full responsibility. The global north must recognize how current infrastructural and material realities are wrapped up with layered histories of colonial injustices. However, it is common for stories like these — and in general narratives and discourses of the colonized, oppressed and suppressed — to be buried under a maelstrom of performative ping-ponging propaganda. Despite our own general sense of apathy about the morality of gatekeepers and key-holders in the global power machine, it is ultimately up to them to succumb to the pressure of the people demanding environmental justice.

What has affected Mozambique is certainly a product of a ‘natural storm.’ But, it would be naïve and supremacist to leave the discourse at that. The suffering is a result of a natural storm exacerbated by hyper-industrialization in the global north. Acting in pursuit of environmental justice has always been imperative and is increasingly urgent. It is undeniable that the legacy of colonial violence and market structures result in dramatically degraded ecological systems. It is undeniable that the planet is on the verge of ecological collapse, and oppressed peoples have been living and dying in degraded material conditions as proof to the unsustainability and inhumanity of the current world order. Indigenous people comprise less than five percent of the world’s population and protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Colonizing nations have yet to atone for the social, cultural and environmental crimes committed through the colonial, neo-colonial current global hegemony.

Institutions of power, state governments, exorbitantly wealthy private entities, institutions of “higher” education— specifically private institutions—need to intentionally implement justice and reparations frameworks to shift agency, sovereignty and power back to indigenous peoples globally. They need to enter into an accountability process that recognizes all of the systematized deaths and violence that have made the material existence of places like these possible.

Environmental Justice Efforts at Stanford

An Environmental Justice Working group has put together a proposal to go to the president and provost for an environmental justice cluster hire. We were inspired by the efforts of the working group, and separately formed the Students for Environmental and Racial Justice committee in support of the petition and to further environmental justice awareness and advocacy work on campus. We were particularly enthused by the petition’s illumination of how there is a severe void and need in Stanford’s academic landscape. In a recent interview with an environmental justice researcher at Stanford, we discussed the importance of digging deeper into the history of the environmental movement.

“Mainstream organizations and institutions have often failed to work effectively with impacted communities of color due to underlying racism,” the researcher responded. “So, I started studying that history, and that’s what got me into this environmental justice work. It [environmental justice] was not an easy thing to understand at first, but it was very meaningful. I’d never been exposed to it, nobody teaches it, and you don’t really have the tools to understand it.”

What this researcher said — about how nobody teaches environmental justice and how students aren’t really given the tools to understand the importance of justice, reparations, cultural, environmental and land issues — isn’t always the case. However, it is often the case at predominantly white and non-native attended elite institutions. Oppressed peoples live these histories and realities on the margins of dominant social positionalities and institutions. It’s not that there is nobody teaching about the honest histories of colonialism or environmental justice. It’s just that Stanford and places like it are definitely not encouraging or supporting that type of work in their overall missions of the institution. If students want to explore environmental justice, indigenous land rights, histories of colonization, justice and reparations frameworks and enslavement and state violence, students often have to go against the grain of ‘progress’ and ‘success’ — namely, coding and venture capital — here.  

That brings up a number of ethical questions at a place like Stanford University, which is mostly attended by non-natives and wealthy people. Many individuals with indigenous, black, low-income or otherwise marginalized and politicized identities operate with the embodied knowledge of colonial violence that Stanford University cannot and does not have the language to formally address. Many people and groups are also moving against these compartmentalizing and placating logics of diversity and inclusion to actually pursue black and indigenous centered frameworks of justice and reparations — whether that be campaigns from the group Students for the Liberation of All Peoples, the myriad endeavors of the Native American Cultural Center, the African & African American Studies Department, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, professors and scholars teaching and centering colonized peoples and environmental justice, the Environmental Justice Working group or any other entity on campus working towards a just and liberated future in the midst of ecological collapse.

Entities that operate without intention regarding environmental justice, racial justice and reparation frameworks will only ever produce more colonial fodder — regardless of public image or self-defined mission statements. The researcher we spoke with is an example of someone who pursued this type of intentional education on her own volition, and upon returning as a researcher in Earth Systems, noticed the void of this type of educational space at Stanford. This past fall, Sibyl Diver and Emily Polk co-taught an Introduction to Environmental Justice course. The work of the environmental justice cluster hire proposal is an effort to increase, formalize and validate the presence of academic spaces on Stanford’s campus and start to shift the central priorities of Stanford’s overall outputs towards environmental justice.

You can find the petition linked here. S.E.R.J. will be holding a rally on Monday, April 15th to show formal student and campus support for the cluster hire petition. The rally is also intended to be a campus community space for engaging students in conversations about environmental justice issues, including those relating to Stanford’s history and current complicity in these issues. You can find S.E.R.J.’s action statement and a more extended list of demands linked here. The walkout is at 11:30 a.m., the rally is at noon, and the march and demonstration is at 12:20 p.m. Fill out this form for day-of text updates. See you there.


Students for Environmental and Racial Justice members

Maya Burke ’18, ’19 ([email protected])

Gabriel Saiz ’20 ([email protected])

Nathaniel Ramos ’21 ([email protected])

Nancy Chang ’20 ([email protected])

Ayoade Balogun ’21 ([email protected])

Whitney Francis ’19 ([email protected])  

Anna greene ’21 ([email protected])

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