A grassroots movement for environmental justice is taking root at Williams. We see it in new courses being taught across the curriculum, in scholarship and research, in discussions and in activism—both local and global—among students, faculty and staff. To get an understanding of the scope and scale of campus involvement, Williams Magazine convened a conversation among a handful of people deeply engaged in the work. Together they discussed the impact of environmental racism, how justice is being pursued and the challenges around making sense of such a complex and seemingly intractable issue.
James Manigault-Bryant: As a graduate student in sociology, I became aware of the challenges of environmental racism in the community I grew up in, in Florida, and began to see the same pattern throughout the Southeast. I designed a class at Williams called Race and the Environment, which I started teaching in 2011. That’s how I came to environmental justice. Can you explain how you came to it?
Laura Martin: I’m an environmental historian and a historian of science, and I teach Environmental Justice. As an undergraduate, I was a first gen, pre-med student and had not considered a career in environmental studies. I took Environmental Justice my senior year, and it blew me away.
Bilal Ansari: I started as a chaplain at Williams in 2011. My first week, Hurricane Irene blew through the Berkshires and wiped out the Williamstown mobile home park, The Spruces. I got involved in trying to find homes for the 236 families who were going to be displaced. We found about 40 replacement housing units, but Williamstown is still fighting to build affordable housing.
José Constantine: I grew up in a small, industrial city in central Virginia, a community that surely has suffered environmental injustice. But the smokestacks also meant jobs, money and security. As an undergraduate, I found myself in a traditional geology department valuing pristine places, without people, above all else. But, blink, and I find myself at a Williams-Mystic field seminar in Louisiana meeting people at the front lines of big changes happening within the Gulf. The people impacted were black, brown, poor. That got me thinking more critically about my work. It’s led to a course I teach called Global Warming and Environmental Change.
Cecilia Del Cid: I was born in Guatemala and left to study environmental studies through a scholarship that brought me to Berkshire Community College. I went back to Guatemala and then came back to continue my education in biology and Latin American studies at Smith College, completed graduate training at Yale and worked in Latin America in forest restoration and conservation. Now part of my role is to lead Root (a student orientation program in environmental justice) in collaboration with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives.
Manigault-Bryant: What is environmental justice, and how is it being pursued here at the college and in the local community?
Del Cid: We want students in Root to be able to express the intersections between identity, sustainability and environmental justice. We looked up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency definition and found it limiting, because it was based on U.S. law. We wrote our own definition, because we know what is legal is not always what is just. The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Root aligns and deviates from this definition, encouraging both fair access to healthy, sustainable environments globally and consideration of how these goals can be achieved legally, or through policy, and also culturally and socially. We see environmental justice as our right to have access to decent and safe environments where we live, learn, work and play.
Ansari: It’s interesting how the legal grips hold of what justice can be. Conservationists here in Williamstown have a legal tool to lock land up so that no affordable housing can be built—and that is the justice piece for the poor and working class who need homes. To preserve the forest, they have a blunt, legal instrument to strike against any efforts of affordable housing. If it wasn’t for Williams College giving us a few acres down on the end of Southworth Street, we would have been able to build zero affordable housing units in town after the storm wiped out The Spruces. That’s what environmental justice means to me: a blunt force that hurts.
Martin: It’s exciting to see my students grappling with the definition and trying to expand beyond a legal definition. We start the semester reading a chapter by Robert Bullard and a chapter by David Pellow, with Bullard emphasizing court action and community mobilization and Pellow arguing for an anarchist, anti-statist position. That sets up the students to think about the promises of the U.S. legal system and its constraints.
Constantine: When many natural scientists hear “environmental justice,” their minds go to pristine landscapes that unjust things are happening to. When confronted with alternative ways of viewing that term, there’s resistance. But we can’t ignore race, and what I find frustrating is that natural scientists sometimes don’t see how racism impacts where people of color live or how those places are targeted as sites for chemical factories.
Martin: One of my intellectual projects is to introduce natural scientists and conservationists to the idea that they need to attend to the injustices of conservation and restoration, the locking up of land locally and internationally. In Envi 101, our introductory course, I talk about two examples of landscapes that were violently dispossessed. One is Central Park, which a lot of students assume has always been undeveloped and that the city grew around it. But African American and Irish communities were displaced in order to build it. Central Park was built to look like it was always there. Another is the Wichita National Forest, where the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation was dismantled under the Dawes Act, and a national forest was created as a result. Places some students might see as innocent have histories of injustices.
Manigault-Bryant: When I think about justice, I think beyond the legal realm. I’m aware of cases where a community gets a settlement that simply is not enough to repair the damage that was done. Environmental justice affects people’s physical health, the structure of families when people die young from diseases. It affects communities when people leave. I’m wondering about what’s happening here at Williams, both inside and outside of the classroom, relationships between the college and the local community. How is the idea of justice being pursued?
Ansari: When the storm hit, there were different theories on why the flood impacted The Spruces the way it did. Half of the park was below the flood plane, and when it was created back in the 1950s, the policies of how you build weren’t up to today’s code. New landlords were never required to retrofit to meet new codes so that it could survive environmental impacts. Also, the deforestation to build the airport in North Adams created runoff, but the Army Corps of Engineers had told them to make a larger system for the runoff. The town never made the owners do that, and water poured off from there. The river rose. It was a nightmare that nobody wanted to take responsibility for, except the people who lived there. After the storm, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Authority) gave $6.8 million to relocate people, and that’s it. They had to sign away their right to come back to Williamstown. They were told, “Go live in Adams, Pittsfield or North Adams, because that’s where your type belong.” That was the feeling. A lot of people died. I buried a lot of friends—older white people, most of them, who died because of breathing problems from the mold that grew until they were able to leave. How do you weigh that loss?
Del Cid: I once heard Heather Hackman (a teacher and trainer on social justice issues) articulate it very well: “We are in the climate crisis because of systems of oppression, and we are not looking at the connections.” Who is brought to the table? Who is included in drafting our policies? How do we do development policies? Building a relationship between the Davis Center and the Zilkha Center allows our students to think about these terms as complementary, to recognize that capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy have allowed corporations, colonialism, imperialism to continue to perpetrate many of these injustices. Working together and nurturing that relationship within Williams is trailblazing.
Martin: It’s been exciting to see the people around this table strengthening ties with local environmental justice movements and organizations. Students in my class have spent time with Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, N.Y., an organization thinking about food justice and empowering farmers of color. Roots Rising in Pittsfield is another food justice organization that’s doing excellent work. This semester, three students in Environmental Justice are collaborating with the residents of Rensselaer, N.Y., to research health and community impacts of an existing landfill site and to help them think about mobilizing against a second proposed waste processing facility. It’s exciting to see increasing collaborations among staff, faculty, students and communities.
Ansari: To work with faculty, staff and students who are interested—and there are some warriors out there fighting—helps you to believe in the greater good that exists. I think if any change is going to happen, it’s going to happen with us around this table and others like us.
Del Cid: Everyone should be concerned with climate justice. We all live in this environment, built or natural. It’s a reflection of our privilege when we can afford not to be concerned about these issues. When I travel to Latin America, I always think, “Will these places be here when my nephews are old enough to make this trip?” Many of them won’t.
Martin: We see environmental justice on campus now through individual collaborations and infused in some classes. But there are rigid barriers, one being the Route 2 divide between Divisions 2 and 3 (social sciences and natural sciences) and Division 1 (arts and humanities), another being the faculty-staff divide. But the divide I hear students trying to navigate is between theory and practice. So many students are eager to apply what they’re learning in the classroom, and environmental justice as a discipline explicitly makes that connection.
Ansari: Williams needs to get out of the forest, have more conversations and allow more people on the log. My great-grandfather used to take Williams students out there to hunt, and they captured the forest. All of the fraternities had their own parts. I think that mindset has stayed. But Williams has diversified, and it needs to be more inclusive and equitable in how it looks at what is environmental. Yes, the forest is valuable, but so are the rivers that run down into the flats from the forest and the water sources and the land the forest feeds from. Williams could get out of the forest and allow more people on the log. I would hope that we would have more diversity and inclusion, more ideas and influx of thought.
Manigault-Bryant: What strikes me is how central the forest is physically, but symbolically as well. What draws people here is an opportunity to have the privilege of being removed, of being in the
wilderness to come to a sense of themselves. What you’re challenging us to think about is: At what cost is Williams able to sustain that forest?
Martin: Would you say that the myth of the forest, or the myth of Williams’ isolation, leads to a lack of sustained connection with surrounding communities? It is mind-blowing to hear the prevalent campus view that North Adams is very far away and has nothing to do with us when it is geographically contiguous with Williamstown.
Del Cid: The isolation, these pristine mountains relate again to privilege. Who has the privilege to come to Williams? Who has the privilege to live in Williamstown? Has the town made any efforts to connect with students, or is it by design that you keep them separate? I live in Pittsfield, and, 20 years ago, it was very similar to what I see in Williamstown now. But now I can find Colombian food, Mexican food, I can have tamales delivered to my door. I choose to live in Pittsfield because I cannot be separated from that community. Berkshire County is actually quite diverse. I think of it as a tropical forest—you have a lot of species but very few individuals of each species per hectare. That might be designed: Williams or Williamstown is specifically separate and divided. Those are strategies of privilege, strategies of systems of oppression.
Constantine: I’m a river person, and I see the Hoosic River as emblematic of what we’re talking about. The Williamstown stretch is being used actively by fishing groups and for recreation. As soon as you cross that Williamstown/North Adams border, things change. The river was industrialized so it would perform functions for big companies that are no longer here. But the impacts they had on the river remain. It’s a legacy we don’t engage with as a community. We can ignore it, because it’s happening upstream. You talk to folks who live in that space, and they’re thankful that it’s been engineered to minimize hazard, but there’s a disconnect. The chutes are crumbling, the infrastructure is falling apart, and there’s no money to deal with it. We’re not involved in that conversation, and yet we have resources—intellectual and financial—that we could use to help address it. The watershed makes us all part of the same space.
Ansari: But there are barriers to entry into the conversations we’re forging here right now. I’m hoping we can lower those so we can have more conversations among the diverse group of students we bring here.
Constantine: Environmental studies has long been geared toward principles of conservation, which one could argue are important in creating spaces for other types of life. But if it’s so wedded to that mission that it can’t be open to other perspectives—and also to the big problems on the environmental front—maybe there’s an opportunity for something new. Maybe instead of more space on the log, we need a new log.
Ansari: We are in a transition period. We have a new president who comes to us from Brown, where social justice is in their DNA. She’s leading the charge in the strategic planning process, and I am hoping that we can forge change. I hope it starts all the way from the top.
Manigault-Bryant: The ways land is apportioned and protected for certain purposes has an effect on who comes and lives here. As the college continues to pursue this aim of diversity, particularly among faculty, this is central. Will people come here and stay? Can they imagine having a life here? It’s dependent upon the uses of land—the way you put it earlier, Bilal, about protecting the forest and how that comes into tension with other perspectives.
Del Cid: But the best protected and most thriving forests are in locations that take into account the communities already there. The wilderness used to be something you needed to tame to make productive. Now we have communities that could have been removed—these are protected areas—but what some in Latin America have done is actually worked with the people. These areas have fewer fires, people can thrive and have a livelihood and make a home. We need to stop thinking from scarcity and begin to think that there is enough for all of us. There’s not enough natural resources to meet all the demands of a U.S.- or European-centric middle class life. But there are enough resources for all of us to have a thriving life in this world.
Manigault-Bryant: I really appreciate you turning us to other models. That’s a very hard thing for us, particularly in the United States, to imagine.
Del Cid: There is a lot of knowledge in the Global South. But, also, we have a charge. We are educating leaders of the future, students going on to positions of power. If we don’t talk to them about what imperialistic ideas do as a part of environmental justice, they are going to replicate them. We need to be asking: What kind of leader are you going to become at a firm financing a dam in Africa or Southeast Asia? What are your principles? Being a citizen of the U.S. or Europe is a privilege, and the Global North has benefited from the extraction of resources from the Global South. It continues to. So, I wonder if you three faculty could speak about what you do in the classroom to educate our future leaders?
Constantine: I’ll start with a case in Illinois I’m working on and how students are involved. I personally have gone from not knowing to knowing, and I think once you know the problem exists and people are being unfairly affected, you have a choice to make. It’s a moral choice, and I confront my students with that. This project is with a community that has suffered from decades of neglect, that’s desperate for help. I feel fortunate to be part of this place with wonderful people who are quite giving of themselves and their talents and resources. We’re sampling surface waters to assess sewage contamination. We’re building an analytical framework to explain why unnatural flooding is happening—which makes use of the environmental analysis lab, a jewel on campus that’s supported by the Center for Environmental Studies—to analyze water samples. This summer we’ll produce maps of where water is going. We have a team of four undergraduates working on it. So, I have a sense that what’s happening on campus—I don’t want to jinx this, but it feels like a groundswell—is that we are going to see a meaningful, impactful movement happening from the ground up. And, hopefully, top down will reach us at some point.
Martin: I see students leading in the types of questions they’re asking. A lot of students are interested in climate justice, and I think the broader field of environmental justice is catching up to the questions of climate justice. I also think about the final projects that students produce in my Environmental Justice course, whether collaborating with local communities to do a service project or the new areas of research students are identifying.
Manigault-Bryant: My Race and the Environment class has students from a number of different backgrounds who come with different levels of investment. Some want to think expansively about what race is. Others are thinking about alternative models of living. Students who have studied abroad and been among people who see the world in a different way look critically upon the U.S. and our lifestyle, and they’re asking different questions. Some are already aware of environmental justice in their own communities. I’ve talked to students a year or two after they’ve taken the class, and they say, “I didn’t really think about this while I was in the class, but I’ve been thinking about it now.” And we’ll have that discussion. From the Davis Center, how do you two interact with students on this issue?
Del Cid: For me it happens through Root. We’re going to Mystic this Saturday to do fieldwork on the ocean. Being a woman of color in science has always been very isolating, so modeling to students that we exist is important. Working through Root has been one of the ways I have interacted with students on campus on this issue, and it speaks directly to intersection of identity and environmental science. It’s built for that type of conversation.
Ansari: When you look at what the minority student groups choose to focus on, environmental justice is one of the top three things. The speakers they choose to bring, the causes they raise funds for—it’s centered around environmental justice, whether it’s connected through their identities, their historical relationship with the U.S. or their relationship with their environment back home. I’m seeing student leadership happening naturally, and we’re responding and working with them. We’re in a moment when we’re all looking intentionally at ourselves.
Martin: That circles us back to James’ opening question of what environmental justice is and to the imperative to think about justice as more than surviving but also as the ability to thrive.
Manigault-Bryant: Yes, and through that comes an alternative, more inclusive definition of “environment,” which is crucial to the conversation.