Enrolling in Environmental Justice

By Liz Ivkovich GCSC student

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Photo Credit: Published on Dec. 15, 2015 by the Washington Post; Article written by Yanan Wang.

“In Flint, Michigan, there’s so much lead in children’s blood that a state of emergency is declared.” This headline from the Washington Post appeared on my Facebook feed in mid December; it was accompanied by a jarring photo of a woman screaming through her tears. The article was a startling disruption in my usual Facebook fare of Christmas pictures and Younique make up tutorials.

At the word “Flint” my memory shifts back to summers at ballet camp, living in a Holiday Inn Express next to the Flint Cultural Center, swimming, drinking, bathing in water that has now irreparably harmed thousands. Immediately I think, lead poisoning could have happened to me! Yet, halfway through the article there was a link to another article; “How companies make millions off lead-poisoned, poor blacks. This title felt like a punch in the stomach. I realized that actually, no – that lead poisoning would mostly likely not have happened to me because of my positionality as a white, middle class woman, and how this positionality has afforded me geographical advantage.

In sustainability, I often hear an oratory of “we.” “We are all affected by global climate change” or “we are all harmed by the air quality in SLC.” I find myself defaulting to this kind of rhetoric, as evidenced by my first reaction to the Flint article. This “we-ing” of environmental issues is true, but can gloss over the reality that “we” are affected in different ways based on the familiar social stratifications of class, race, and gender.

Staring into the future of a changing globe, it seems ever more urgent to understand how intersections between race, class, gender impact the distribution of environmental ‘goods’ (like water) and ‘bads’ (like lead in that water). How and why did this lead poisoning happen in Flint and who is affected? What are the political and economic factors that allowed it happen? How was it protested and by whom? Most critically (for this blog, at least!), what does this have to do with sustainability?

Liz Ivkovich enjoying on the "wild places"

Liz Ivkovich enjoying on the “wild places”

At one time this story would have been out of place on a sustainability blog—it’s not about the “environment,” after all. Thankfully, there is a growing understanding in sustainability that “environment” doesn’t just mean wild places out there, but it also means places like Flint – where people live, work, play and learn.

Spearheading these changing definitions are environmental justice scholars and activists. I used to view social justice and environmentalism as separate movements, and felt conflicted between the two. Since taking the Environmental Justice course as an undergrad at the University, my view has been radically altered. Through my participation in the course I have gained the ability to connect social injustices – like lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan – to ecological justice, sustainability, and broader social systems, while also locating my own privilege. I feel confident in my critical analysis as well as my ability to ally with environmental justice activists in their work.

I’m excited that in the spring, 2016, Dr. Adrienne Cachelin will be teaching a graduate level environmental justice course. As a TA for the undergraduate section, I get to join students while they examine their assumptions in relation to race, class, gender, and environment. These conversations create a radical space where together, we expand what it means to be an environmentalist. At the graduate level, I expect these conversations will be even deeper and include how our unique disciplines can contribute to the environmental justice discourse. The course, EHUM 6900-005, meets on Mondays from 4:35- 6:05pm.

Liz Ivkovich is an MFA candidate in the Department of Modern Dance. Her research looks at environmental justice with/through dance.

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