New student committee addresses intersection of race, environment

Laura Morales

The Campus Environmental Center created a new committee to address the intersection of social issues and the environmental protection movement.

The committee, called the Environmental Justice Committee, was created this semester and is working on filling its 15 to 20 positions, committee co-chair Fernando Casal said. Geography senior Casal said he and other environmental studies students recognized the lack of discussions around race, class and gender in their class curriculum. Casal said he decided to form the committee to facilitate discussions around these issues.

“These students, like students of color and allies, have been left out of the conversation,” Casal said. “In the committee, they will have a space to talk about these issues in the full range of environmental studies. We are helping address the gaps in our curriculum.”

Casal said he would like to work with professors to introduce a more critical perspective in environmental studies and host workshops about social issues and environmentalism.

“People say  ‘The environment can’t be racist, the science can’t be racist,’” Casal said. “People interact with the environment, and people can be racist. For example, groups are forced to live in places that are polluted.”


Committee co-chair Cerena Ermitanio said in her home country of the Philippines, the intersection of environmentalism and social issues is very prominent. Ermitanio, international relations and global studies junior,  works with a human rights group in the Philippines and said the government of the Philippines has directly targeted environmental activists.

“It is one of the most resource-rich countries in all of Asia,” Ermitanio said. “The current regime is suppressing all these activists to maintain big agriculture plantations. We don’t talk about these things as often because they affect the most marginalized populations.”

Ermitanio said Native American and indigenous communities also face marginalization in the environmental movement. The committee hosted a discussion in the Multicultural Engagement Center called “Sustainability and Me” with the student organization Native American and Indigenous Collective on Wednesday to discuss sustainable indigenous food practices.

History associate professor Erika Bsumek, who specializes in land politics, said indigenous communities face far more environmental issues than food sovereignty. She said throughout history, the lands of Native American tribes have been used for natural resource extractions.

Bsumek said this is a particular issue with uranium mining and disposal on Native American lands, which expose communities to radiation. However, she said Native Americans are at the forefront of the environmental movement, especially in the case of the Water Protectors, Native American environmental activist group.

“The Water Protectors ushered in a new moment of connecting the rights of indigenous people and the protection of the environment,” Bsumek said. “There were historical moments where their voices were excluded and now, hopefully, they are being listened to.”

The Environmental Justice Committee’s next general meeting is Thursday at the William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center in room 2.112 for students who are interested in joining, Ermitanio said. Casal said the committee will be focusing on introducing environmental issues in the first meetings so they can move forward with possible solutions throughout the year.

“Everything in the world intersects,” Casal said. “Race, class and gender have implication for everything in society. Of course, there is an intersection with environmentalism as well, and we need to have a discussion about this before we solve the issues.”