Ice cream, you scream, we all scream for environmental justice
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is “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”—but it’s also a notoriously hard concept to define. It is an aspect of sustainability that isn’t talked about with as much unbridled enthusiasm as the adage “reduce, reuse, recycle,” nor is it glamorized with slick marketing campaigns, like Green Monday and similar initiatives. But environmental justice is a crucial intersection of broader environmental advocacy with social justice axes, including race and socioeconomic status.
On Wednesday evening, Washington University’s Office of Sustainability hosted an “Environmental JustICE Cream Social.” Lured by the promise of my favorite ice cream flavor (Clementine’s Chocolate Coconut Fudge, if you were wondering) and by the opportunity to learn about this important topic from people far more knowledgeable than myself, I crossed an unusually muddy Mudd Field to attend the event.
As I expected, the ice cream was delicious, and the conversation was engaging. A large turnout overflowed the Seigle Hall classroom in which the event was held, with plenty of Wash. U. students (and even a few from Saint Louis University) in attendance. A diversity of academic majors, and of pre-existing involvement levels in environmental justice, were represented.
Senior Annalise Wagner, one of the Office of Sustainability’s student interns, helped organize the ice cream social, which stemmed from an initiative last semester to forge connections between students with common interests in environmentalism and social justice.
“When you talk to each other, and you realize that you have these common goals, then there’s a space for collaboration,” Wagner said. “That’s what we wanted to create the space for, without imposing any preconceived ideas of what we wanted students to be working on.”
A round of “speed networking” allowed participants to connect with new faces, learn about one other’s’ interests and work in environmental justice. As someone who considers myself pretty tuned into the environmental community on campus, I was pleasantly surprised that most of my conversational partners were people who I’d never met, and I interacted with students with a wide range of involvement.
Freshman Alexis Tinoco attended the event to learn more about how to get involved with environmental justice issues.
“If everyone does just a little bit, there can be a lot of positive change that could be done. I just want to get more involved with that and, hopefully, get other people to feel the same way about it,” Tinoco said.
One very tangible example of an environmental justice issue—and one that’s within 10 miles of Wash. U.—is the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. The West Lake Landfill is a Superfund cleanup site that contains radioactive waste and also happens to be located near both residential neighborhoods and a continuously smoldering underground fire.
Sophomore Jacob Plotkin had never heard the term “environmental justice” before coming to Wash. U. but first learned about it in relation to the West Lake Landfill. He attended a community meeting with the grassroots organization Just Moms STL, which advocates for awareness and action about the radioactive situation.
“Hearing the voices of these people who had this unfortunate situation forced upon them was just heartbreaking and really showed me the importance of environmental justice—and how much it meant to other people for others to come in and try to help the situation,” said Plotkin.
Some event attendees had a more personal connection to social justice issues—like Douglas Fritz, a student at nearby Saint Louis University. Fritz’s passion for environmental justice stems from his firsthand experiences growing up in a vulnerable community.
“Our neighborhood definitely experienced some of the forces at play in the environmental justice movement and what they try to combat, and I’d like to work to give back to that as much as possible,” he said.
This ice cream social merely scratched the surface of environmental justice issues, but it catalyzed conversations between students that enabled them to dive deeper into these issues in the future.
For students who want to get involved, this continuing connection and collaboration between groups is a great first step to take—as well as to spread awareness about the concept of environmental justice in general.
“We’re hoping that some of the stuff that comes out of this event we won’t even really be able to measure or see because it will be within students and student groups, and people taking more courses that are related,” Wagner said. She added that the Office of Sustainability’s website, which has a page dedicated to the relatively new WashU Environmental Justice Initiative, is a great place to start.
For students who haven’t been exposed to these concepts, campus environmentalism may seem limited to recycling plastic cups or taking the stairs. But learning about environmental justice opens up a whole new arena of involvement, and it’s an often-overlooked component of social justice with direct relevance to the greater St. Louis community. Combining activism with ice cream was a great way for many Wash. U. students to take that first step.