School of Sustainability’s leadership must reinvest in environmental justice and a fossil-free future

June 22, 2022, 5:52 p.m.

Celina Scott-Buechler is a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program for Environment & Resources, where she focuses on federal climate policy, carbon dioxide removal and just transitions.

Karli Moore is a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program for Environment & Resources and member of the Environmental Justice Working Group coordinating council. 

Akruti Gupta is a master’s student in the Atmosphere and Energy program in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department, where she focuses on just transitions to a decarbonized energy system.

Jayson Toweh is a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. He focuses on the health impacts of climate change and the co-benefits of a sustainable and just energy transition.

For years, Stanford leadership has gestured toward an interest in environmental justice (EJ). This December, university leaders took an important step in launching the EJ Cluster Hire — originally proposed by the Stanford EJ Working Group in 2018 and widely supported by the Stanford community. The goal is to fill a glaring gap: despite environmental justice being necessary to achieving a sustainable society, we have no environmental justice scholars on the Academic Council Stanford faculty.

Yet through candidate interviews during campus visits (the EJ Working Group had no other role in the search), we learned that only one out of eleven interviewees self-identified as an environmental justice scholar. The vast majority of interviewees could not name an EJ scholar.

We assert that this search cannot be constituted as the long-awaited “EJ Cluster Hire.” Further, we are highly concerned that Stanford appears willing to co-opt the words “Environmental Justice” without making a commitment to an established field of scholarship. To make this right, we need an intentional Environmental Justice cluster hire that is dedicated to expanding EJ expertise in the newly-minted Doerr School of Sustainability. 

In the spirit of repair, we have brought these concerns to new school leadership. During a sit-down interview with students a few weeks ago, Dean Arun Majumdar told us (on the record), “You have my commitment that we will be looking at EJ, we will be hiring, and you will have the deep engagement that is necessary and the input from the EJ Working Group. That I can commit to.” 

We have heard similar statements before. We urge Dean Majumdar to reinvest in environmental justice as the foundation for true sustainability. Indeed, the Doerr School launch presents a unique opportunity to learn from Stanford’s mistakes, create meaningful space for EJ and move us towards a just transition beyond fossil fuels. Can the Doerr School of Sustainability commit to visionary investments beyond big oil? Can the new school’s leadership commit to investing in the knowledge and expertise of frontline communities?

This commitment is essential because achieving sustainability requires attending to the deep divisions and disparities that persist within and across societies. If we are not prioritizing environmental justice as a key framework that encourages research-to-action approaches that engage with the root causes of inequities and racialized oppression linked to environmental degradation, we will fail in our sustainability efforts. Yet with scholarly frameworks from EJ, our students gain the intellectual structures, research methodologies, and ethical understandings they need to avoid reproducing injustice when they go out into the world to “solve” sustainability problems that are deeply connected to ongoing histories of racialized discrimination, dispossession and injustice.

EJ scholarship extends beyond engaging with issues of inequality through policy or economic methods. Rather, it is an area of scholarship that centers the experiences, leadership and agency of frontline communities in research. According to this national EJ teaching and education database coordinated by members of Stanford’s Environmental Justice Working Group and additional partners, it “is a framework at the nexus of social movements and research that centers the leadership and expertise of BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Color] voices as it makes intersectional connections between painful histories of environmental racism and processes and practices of rebuilding a more equitable, healthy and safer world.” As with other fields of research, EJ scholarship is rooted in a set of methodologies, literature and research traditions that are mutually recognized among EJ scholars and practitioners. These traditions have been established through the groundbreaking research of Robert Bullard, together with many others, as well as the EJ principles set by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.

While a true EJ cluster hire at Stanford would be a powerful step for our institution, Stanford will not be the first to attempt to fill this gap. We can look to President Biden’s early directives centering environmental justice and through the creation of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. We can even look to Stanford’s peer institutions for guidance. Late last year, Berkeley successfully completed its Climate Equity and Environmental Justice search, bringing on five scholars. Berkeley has also committed to cross-department cluster hires on issues relating to Native American and Indigenous People, Anti-Black Racism and Social Inclusion, Latinx and Democracy, Artificial Intelligence and Inequality and Understanding (Non) Citizenship. The new Yale School of the Environment recently hired Dorceta Taylor, a preeminent EJ scholar; Gerald Torres is also a professor of Environmental Justice on Yale’s faculty. Washington University St. Louis has an ongoing EJ-only cluster hire, and the University of San Diego is also running a cluster hire with an EJ focus, among other institutions. 

Moving forward, leadership should reinvest in a real, EJ-only cluster hire. This requires acknowledging that the recent cluster hire does not include environmental justice scholars. An EJ cluster hire cannot be EJ in name alone, but must reflect EJ values and be tailored specifically to EJ scholarship. Further, the hire would ideally follow best practices for diversity, equity and inclusion hires. Dean Majumdar need only engage directly with the students, staff and faculty who have been working to bring EJ to Stanford for years.

As we bring together diverse thinkers on campus to create the new school and to address complex problems like climate change — known to create disproportionate levels of harm for historically marginalized communities — we need EJ-centered leadership at the table in decision-making and policy-making. Lacking this, our leadership risks reproducing harm in the form of extractive research and policies that reinscribe disproportionate harm to historically marginalized communities of color. Let us move forward together by engaging with the leadership of frontline communities in our sustainability problem solving.

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