Opinion: Environmental justice must be foundational to the new School of Sustainability

Jan. 27, 2021, 8:31 p.m.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

We are writing as a diverse group of Stanford staff, students, and faculty committed to Environmental Justice for Sustainability at Stanford. This weekend, faculty will gather for a deliberative democracy process guiding plans for the new School of Sustainability and Climate (SoSaC). We strongly encourage serious discussion on this vital question: how will Stanford build a truly innovative institution that addresses the most important, interconnected racial justice and sustainability problems of our times?

Solving the sustainability challenges of the 21st century requires actions grounded in equity, collaboration, and positive change for all people and societies—including Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities and other groups made marginalized. We will achieve this goal only by aligning sustainability research and programs at SoSaC with established principles of environmental justice, universal human rights, and UN sustainable development goals; and also by committing to environmental justice (EJ) scholarship in support of university-wide efforts to diversify Stanford’s faculty and students.

To advance environmental justice leadership, Stanford requires institutional structures and resources to support EJ research, teaching, communication, and community building in the new school. We have had many years of discussions and meetings where we have heard EJ referenced as an aspiration. But to our knowledge, no structures have yet emerged in draft plans to support the institutionalization of EJ at Stanford or in the new school.

The current lack of institutionalized support and resources for EJ at Stanford suggests a strong need for deliberations this weekend and beyond to include EJ principles and ask (1) why do EJ principles matter for the new school? (2) how can we create the necessary institutional spaces for EJ to grow and flourish, improving scholarship, teaching, and diversity at Stanford? (3) How can Stanford catch up with peer institutions (e.g., Yale, UC Berkeley, Brown, Duke, University of Michigan, etc.) who have already implemented rigorous EJ departments, institutes, programs, majors and minors?

Here, we share concrete ways by which EJ will be transformative at Stanford. Applying an EJ lens expands sustainability research by applying a wide range of disciplinary areas to address structural inequities embedded within environmental and sustainability problems. This includes augmenting our ability to do cutting-edge sustainability research that examines the deep links between histories of racialized violence and oppression and environmental degradation.

Further, EJ frameworks enable sustainability research questions, methodologies, and collaborations that engage directly and respectfully with BIPOC communities and other groups that have been marginalized. This approach includes centering the knowledge and experiences of BIPOC communities through self-representation in the academy.

In this way, EJ research and teaching at Stanford can lead to pioneering forms of interdisciplinary and applied environmental research that draws on both the biophysical and social sciences to effect meaningful change, e.g., by connecting environmental monitoring that is conducted through deep partnerships with communities to critical analysis of structural inequities, and also by effectively communicating our research results.

We therefore write to the broader Stanford community with urgency: current deliberations will determine the future of EJ at Stanford. 

We recommend the following:

First, explicitly name “environmental justice” and “sustainable and just societies” as cross-cutting themes for the new school. Translation: EJ will be included as a priority in hiring, new courses, interdisciplinary educational programs, new departments, the creation of new institutes, etc. through the distribution of resources that are mobilized in the new school.

Second, create a new department that can attract leading environmental social scientists and diverse EJ scholars to the new school, such as a Department of Global Environmental Justice, Department of Climate Justice, or Department of Environmental Ethics and Social Justice. This new department will work in partnership with institutions such as the proposed Department of African and African American Studies, and will enable Stanford to take a rigorous approach to studying issues of uneven power dynamics and racial justice that are inherent to environmental politics and sustainability. Translation: EJ leadership will have a strong role in creating and guiding the new school, so that Stanford can continue to attract the most talented and diverse faculty and students and build its EJ teaching and research capabilities into the future.

We make these recommendations as members of the Environmental Justice Working Group (EJWG) at Stanford, serving a broad community of 400+ members. Our EJWG Coordinating Council comprises a leadership team with faculty, staff, and student coleads and representatives from 20 different organizational affiliations on campus.

This year, the EJ Working Group has joined with faculty across departments and schools and received funding support for our Initiative for Environmental Equity and Sustainability at Stanford. In addition, the EJWG has received over 800 signatures of support for our EJ cluster hire proposal, advanced through Stanford’s Long Range Planning process. The EJWG further supports the departmentalization of African American and African Studies (AAAS) at Stanford, as a critical opportunity to center Black-focused and Black-led research, Black community voices, and Black leadership in the academy.

Stanford and Silicon Valley will be fundamentally changed if we incorporate EJ principles and leadership. We see this school as a crucial opportunity to advance racial and environmental justice through sustainability science. By supporting EJ at Stanford, we can learn and teach how to think about environmental sustainability and social equity in transformative ways and develop the capacity to train future generations with the tools, strategies and experiences they need to meet the most urgent sustainability challenges of our time.

Dr. Sibyl Diver, Earth Systems Program

Dr. Emily Polk, Program in Writing and Rhetoric

Professor Rodolfo Dirzo, Department of Biology and Woods Institute

Professor Rob Jackson, Department of Earth System Science and Woods and Precourt Institutes

Professor Gabrielle Hecht, Department of History and Freeman Spogli Institute

Ayoade Balogun, Associated Students of Stanford University, Co-Director of Environmental Justice and Sustainability

Tanvi Dutta Gupta, Students for a Sustainable Stanford

Chris Tan, Students for Environmental and Racial Justice

Penelope Van Tuyl, Center for Human Rights and International Justice

Jessie Brunner, Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

Writing together with the EJ Working Group Coordinating Council.

To get involved in EJ at Stanford, please see the Stanford Environmental Justice Working Group at https://www.ejstanford.com/ and on social media, or sign up for our listserv at https://mailman.stanford.edu/mailman/listinfo/ejworkgroup.

Contact the EJ Working Group Coordinating Council at ejwgstanford ‘at’ gmail.com.

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