Along with some friends, I helped initiate Environmentalists of Color—Organize! (ECO!) this year. To my knowledge, this is the first student-led environmental group on campus that creates a space specifically for environmentalists of color. Since the creation of our organization, I have reflected on my own ambivalence surrounding both my identity and the environmental movement.
Before coming to college, I did not identify with any race or ethnicity. I socially dissociated myself from my neighborhood of people with similar ethnic origins, finding convenience in the classroom and summer programs such as Teenagers Exploring and Explaining Nature and Science (TEENS) at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
TEENS sparked my interest in nature and the environment, and I began to take environmental analysis courses at Pomona College. However, I quickly felt isolated because there are few, if any, other students like me in those spaces. I have had rare instances in which my class was taught by a professor of color, but even then most of my classmates have been white. I started to become aware of my own difference and identity in these spaces. I started to recognize that the Claremont Colleges are truly private, elite colleges, and that the environmental classes and organizations on our campuses—as well as the sustainability discourse advanced by college administrations—reflect the white privilege and class privilege of many members of the student body. These groups often apolitically frame environmentalism as a responsibility, without recognizing the very political forces of racism, colonialism, and capitalism that facilitate environmental destruction.
For me, that mainstream environmental discourse was a denial of my lived experience as a student from a low-income community of color where issues such as pollution and inadequate food access represent significant and immediate challenges. For my other friends of color, some of whom come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, campus environmentalism ignored the way globalization has disproportionately damaged land, air, and water in countries occupied by people of color and suggested a singular, uncritical, and universalistic definition of environmentalism, despite the fact that different communities of color hold very different ideas about the environment and environmentalism.
My friends Jamie Garcia PO ’14 and Tara Krishna PO ’14 and I established ECO! this year in order to increase the visibility of people of color involved in environmental activism and to firmly acknowledge the centrality of geography, race, ethnicity, nationality, colonialism, and history to both environmental issues and environmental movements. We aspire to foster informed environmental activism through discussion, workshops, and community engagement.
The students in ECO! cannot speak and do not want to speak for all people of color, of course, but we can speak for ourselves as individuals of color in a primarily white setting while still recognizing that our feelings are not novel. In ECO!, we can carefully consider what terms such as environmental justice mean, and we can envision the participation and agency of people of color as being critical to the meaning of justice. We can address the environmental issues that are most salient to our communities of color—not just the Claremont Colleges. We can create a very political space where identity exploration and environmental activism work dynamically together and where culture and environmentalism are allowed to coexist.
So far, our discussions around the above points have been personally enriching, but we still have many questions to answer: What is environmentalism? How can we conceive of critical solidarity amongst ourselves, a diverse group of people of color with sometimes-conflicting backgrounds and ideas? How can we most effectively and thoughtfully act on our interests in environmental protection?
We’ve started a blog to help us archive—in the form of artwork, essays, photography, poetry, and more—our thoughts on these questions. We hope that the blog will provide infrastructure for us students of color to continue to shape and situate ourselves within the environmental movement.
Wesley Quevedo PO ’14 and Jamie Garcia PO ’14 are environmental analysis majors. Tara Krishna PO ’14 is a PPA-biology/sociology double-major. They are the founders and leaders of Environmentalists of Color—Organize!