Meet the new generation of Williams leaders fighting for environmental justice.
By Vicki Glembocki
Mohammed Memfis ’21 was working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Georgia when he arrived in rural Randolph County to fight voter suppression. A Williams freshman at the time, he quickly learned that the residents he was assisting, most of whom were poor and African American, were facing another major threat—construction of a natural gas pipeline that could contaminate their drinking water. Memfis, who from an early age knew he wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, returned to Williams that fall eager to study how environmental issues disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities—and determined to do something about it.
Memfis is one of many Williams students and young alumni actively engaged in the issue of climate justice. Their work often “doesn’t look like environmental activism in the traditional sense of conservation or sustainability,” says Nicolas Howe, director of Williams’ Center for Environmental Studies (CES). It involves things like developing equitable climate adaptation policies in California, building regenerative farms serving Washington, D.C.-area food pantries, assisting with path-breaking research into how the state of Florida failed a community whose groundwater was poisoned, or unpacking what role Atlanta’s highways may play in higher Covid-19 death rates among Black residents.
“Our students and recent grads know you can’t deal with climate justice without dealing with all kinds of injustice,” Howe says. “They’re taking their knowledge and liberal arts education and doing something with them.”
The Political is Personal
Memfis was getting ready to leave for a voter rights meeting in southeast Georgia when his mother asked him, “Where are you going again?”
“Randolph County,” Memfis replied. An election board was planning to close seven of the county’s nine polling places. Memfis had been home in Atlanta all summer, pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer by interning with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Randolph County,” his mother repeated. “That’s where our family was enslaved.”
Until that moment, Memfis hadn’t known his ancestors had been enslaved in the place he was now headed.
On the ride there, he recalls staring out the window and asking himself, “Does everyone randomly get this clarifying purpose in their life?”
He now understood the voting issue through a much more personal lens.
Had his ancestors not made it out of Randolph County, the people he would be assisting could very well have been his family members, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, fighting for the right to vote without traveling 30 miles to a polling place.
Then he learned that the residents were facing another threat: construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline, which would transport 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas across 517 miles daily from Alabama to Florida—cutting right through Randolph County and its water supply.
“I said to myself, ‘Yep, I’m going to do something about that,’” Memfis recalls.
He returned to Williams and signed up for the course Intro to Environmental Studies. Then he took Environmental Law. And then Environmental Justice with Laura Martin, who inspired him to dig into Kentucky’s plan to employ former coal miners by building federal prisons near coal dump sites, causing prisoners to become sick. Beyond environmental negligence, the plan was dangerous and underhanded, Memfis says.
“I know incarceration well,” he says. “I have friends and family incarcerated in state and federal prisons.”
Memfis wrote a report opposing the plan and sent it to the U.S. Senate.
A Class of 1960 Scholar in environmental studies, he says he became “compulsive” about learning anything and everything he could about environmental policy and climate justice. Studying at the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford, he brainstormed with climate leaders from all over the world. Interning at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, Calif., he brought business leaders to elected officials to advocate for clean energy. He joined the Brookings Institution as an American government research intern and then joined Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, as a federal policy intern. In May 2020, he received a prestigious scholarship from the Udall Foundation for his commitment to a career in environmental justice.
Memfis says he strives to find the personal in every cause he takes up.
His senior thesis explores how Atlanta’s highways, built decades ago, have made Black and low-income people more vulnerable to Covid-19. Some of his family members have died from the virus.
Law school is still on the horizon for him, but his focus is more precise, Memfis says: “To defend communities who experience the negative externalities of environmental trespass.”
“There are three questions I will keep asking myself,” Memfis says. “What’s the problem? What can be done? And how do I go about doing it?”
Conversations that Matter
The week before Sofia Barandiaran ’20 started a fellowship at the Alameda County Office of Sustainability in September 2020, Oakland’s skies turned an apocalyptic orange from smoke and ash blowing in from multiple fires burning across California. Air quality reached unhealthy levels. Public utilities were periodically shut off to conserve energy. Some fires wouldn’t be contained for months—the culmination of the state’s worst-ever wildfire year.
“The areas with the most air pollution were the same ones where residents were unlikely to have air conditioning with proper filtration or were unhoused and had nowhere to go to escape the smoke,” recalls the California native. “Yes, climate impacts affect everyone, but not in the same way.”
Bringing an end to this injustice drove Barandiaran’s course of study at Williams. During environmental studies classes, she felt like she was having conversations that actually mattered.
“I didn’t feel satisfied when I wasn’t focusing on climate change and environmental justice,” she says. “They’re the key issues of our time.”
So, when tasked as part of her fellowship with helping Alameda County update its 2010 Climate Action Plan (CAP) for government service and operations, she felt particularly drawn to community resilience, green economy and recovery.
There are two paths to climate resilience, both of which involve preparing effectively for the impacts of climate change. The most obvious is mitigation—reducing future impacts by convincing everyone from individuals to corporations to reduce greenhouse gases or transition
to renewable energy. The second path is adaptation—helping communities cope with the effects they’re experiencing right now, like wildfire smoke.
Barandiaran, who will begin a master’s degree in urban planning at Rutgers University in the fall, spends her days researching climate policies that might work in Alameda. She often digs through California’s Adaptation Clearinghouse, a centralized hub of all the resources a community would need to conduct a climate adaptation plan or project—such as research, tools, projection models, assessments and other example plans—and to meet state mandates that require cities and counties to assess vulnerability and adapt to climate change.
Unknown to Barandiaran, another Eph just 80 miles north in Sacramento has been managing that very clearinghouse. Nikki Caravelli ’16 joined the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) Climate Team in April 2020 as an assistant planner, helping communities do the very project Barandiaran was working on—integrating adaptation into local planning.
Caravelli graduated from Williams with an anthropology major, a concentration in environmental studies and a goal—to quit reading theory and start taking action. She landed back home in Lake Tahoe to work as an AmeriCorps CivicSpark climate fellow with the Sierra Business Council, helping the Sierra Nevada region’s communities manage climate change.
“I could see the effects of climate change right there, where I grew up,” she says. “I could see it—the declining snowpack, the 100 million trees dying from drought.”
In 2018, a year after the business council hired her as a project manager for the Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (CAMP), the state released a new series of reports with the latest climate impact research to help regional decision makers deal effectively with the impacts of climate change. Caravelli and the CAMP team knew that if Sierra Nevada region leaders weren’t plugged in to the findings, nothing would progress. So, they reached out across the region’s daunting geographic, political and economic divides to invite leaders to Tahoe for a workshop. And they came—forest managers, water utility managers, tribal leaders—more stakeholders than the group had ever gathered before.
“To have everyone in the same room, crossing boundaries and asking questions and coordinating—that’s what we need,” Caravelli says. “Adaptation only works if we have buy-in and action at the granular, community level.”
That also means including the people who disproportionately face the worst impacts of climate change but, historically, weren’t invited to the table—low-income residents, people of color and immigrants.
“Equity needs to be baked into everything we do,” Caravelli says.
That commitment followed her to OPR, where, earlier in the spring, she convened virtual workshops to guide community leaders statewide, step by step, to develop their own adaptation plans. In her first workshop in January 2021, more than 300 people registered statewide. Even more stakeholders registered for the second workshop, in February.
Says Caravelli: “Convening people—it’s the only way to get things done.”
Healing Soil and Soul
The cafeteria line at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland sparked the idea that set Chander Payne ’24 on his life’s path.
The 10th grader usually brought in food from home or ate off campus. But one day, he forgot his lunch. As he waited in line, he noticed two things: Many of the students seemed to be receiving free and reduced-price meals; and the only fruits and vegetables available were applesauce cups, canned peaches and french fries.
“A french fry is not a vegetable,” Payne recalls thinking. “I knew about ‘food deserts,’ where people have no access to fresh produce. How could there be one at my own school?”
So in the fall of 2018, he recruited some friends to build a small, raised garden bed in the school’s courtyard. They designed it to be regenerative, keeping the soil organic and healthy in order to trap carbon in the ground. Informally, they dubbed themselves the “Avengers of Urban Farming.” Formally, Payne founded Urban Beet, an organization of eight high school students whose mission is to “connect people and the planet, for the healing of both” by building regenerative farms at schools to provide fresh produce to food pantries.
As a child, Payne often spent summers with his grandmother in Memphis, Tenn., helping to tend her backyard garden, which thrived with bees, birds and butterflies. When “Nama,” as he calls her, emigrated from a farming village in southern India, she brought the holistic, sustainable techniques she’d learned as a child. Over time, Payne came to learn that all over the world, toxic farming practices have made soil less fertile, threatening its ability to grow food.
“She showed me how to be gentle with the soil,” Payne says. “Being in the garden helps me when times are stressful. It’s meditation. Soil connects everything.”
He brought these practices to Urban Beet. By the summer of 2020, his school garden had grown to 200 square feet, sparked participation from a diverse group of students and regularly supplied the school’s food bank with produce. The group built farms at four more high schools and partnered with nonprofits like the Homeless Children Playtime Project, passing on gardening techniques and their meditative benefits to youngsters. When the pandemic hit, Urban Beet switched gears, making 200 windowsill planters called “Free Little Farms” for food-insecure families and personally delivering them to shelters in Washington, D.C.
Then Payne came to Williams, and Urban Beet came with him. With a team of Williams students and $20,000 in donations, including from the National Geographic Foundation, he refocused the nonprofit to build and maintain regenerative farms at homeless shelters in D.C., with plans to expand all over the country.
For now, though, Payne, who plans to major in economics and environmental science, is taking it one farm at a time. During winter break, Urban Beet built farms—fruit trees, berry bushes and even a grape trellis inspired by the one at Williams’ Class of 1966 Environmental Center—at three shelters in D.C., where the homeless rate is 95 times the national average. Five more farms are in the works, all being planned and organized from Massachusetts.
Payne’s organization to date has provided 3,400 pounds of fresh produce to underserved families and homeless youth. It’s also an environmental win. Washington, D.C., is an urban heat island, with much higher temperatures than surrounding areas because of car exhaust, concrete and asphalt. Urban Beet’s farms help turn the temperature down through transpiration—water evaporating from plants.
“Four years ago, I had no idea these issues even existed,” Payne says. “Now I’m trying to come up with a food system to heal the soil. That’s what I think my life will be.”
Ruby Bagwyn ’23 was working as a Williams research fellow in the summer of 2020, poring over documents in an effort to piece together a timeline of what had gone wrong in tiny Tallevast, Fla.
In 1996, Lockheed Martin purchased a defunct plant there that, throughout the Cold War, used beryllium to produce weapons-grade military parts. Toxic beryllium dust seeped into the lungs of workers, particularly custodial staff, some of whom were from Tallevast.
And, as an environmental assessment commissioned in 2000 by Lockheed found, organic solvents and metals stored onsite at the plant poisoned the groundwater of the predominantly Black community of 80-odd homes spread over two square miles.
But the results of the assessment were never shared with residents. As Bagwyn slogged through more than 1,800 records in Florida’s public environmental database, she was able to document negligence at every level.
She came across one interoffice email from a specialist with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection who visited Tallevast in 2002 to determine whether private wells were contaminated. The specialist wrote that she had seen some evidence but couldn’t say exactly how many wells were affected; she never left her car, because she found Tallevast “very unkempt (to put it mildly),” she wrote in the email message.
Says Bagwyn: “Her disdain for the community was clear. Having those words in front of me confirmed what we thought was happening behind the scenes.”
As a result of the environmental negligence, many residents showed high rates of miscarriage, sterility and neurological issues. A 2010 health investigation found 78 cases of cancer in current and former residents—85% higher than the cancer rate in Florida’s Black population.
Bagwyn worked on the project with two Williams faculty members whose research on Tallevast she encountered her freshman year, while serving as as research assistant in the college’s Environmental Analysis Lab. She says she was inspired by geoscientist José Constantine, in particular, and how he wove environmental racism and injustice into his research on how rivers reshape the landscape.
This past December, Bagwyn and the professors published their findings in a 19-page article in the Boston Review. Writing how Tallevast once “possessed a vitality of southern Blackness,” the authors dove deeply into a story of environmental racism that’s all too common, especially in the U.S. South. “Owning land was meant to lead community members inexorably toward future prosperity,” they concluded. “Now most of the land—poisoned by hostile forces that the founding families could not have imagined a century ago—remains in the hands of their descendants, who must determine what is to come.”
A Houston native, Bagwyn says she’s always been interested in environmental justice. She even spent a semester in high school at the sustainability focused Island School in the Bahamas. But until Williams, she hadn’t found an opportunity to take action.
“If we didn’t get this story out to the public, we didn’t know if anyone else would,” says Bagwyn, who intends to major in environmental studies and economics. “This project really brought environmental justice more into my sights. I realized that, even at 19 or 20, you can help to make a real impact.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the printed version to correct some inaccuracies.