Environmental justice, jobs and ice cream: Office of Sustainability event connects Wash. U. students with St. Louis organization
Environmental issues and social justice are two topics that, at first glance, can seem disconnected. The former is perceived as the realm of privileged white activists, while the latter encompasses crucial fights for equality that are often ignored by those very same activists. But in the interdisciplinary subject of environmental justice, the issues that impact the natural world and those that impact humans are inextricably intertwined.
Washington University’s Office of Sustainability (OOS) has ramped up its efforts over the past year to shine a spotlight on this all-important topic. It recently launched the WashU Environmental Justice Initiative, which includes a steering committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students and has produced a report on faculty networks relevant to environmental justice.
The OOS also put on an event last October, the “Environmental JustICE Cream Social,” to introduce students both to each other and to the general concept of environmental sustainability—with delicious ice cream as an added bonus. This semester, they followed up on the huge turnout of the first event with a new iteration: an internship fair. The event kept the ice cream, the students and the environmental justice focus and added dozens of organizations at the local, state and national levels who were looking for interns in environmental justice-themed positions. It was a perfect recipe for success.
The internship fair was held Thursday, Feb. 15, in the Goldfarb Commons of Goldfarb Hall. The building, a part of the Brown School, was an appropriate setting to enhance the social justice elements of the event, as over 25 groups presented two-minute pitches to a captive audience. The second part of the evening was more free-form, as students mingled and chatted with representatives of each organization in an internship fair format.
Senior Annalise Wagner, a student associate on the OOS’ Environmental Justice team, was excited about the outcome of the event that she planned. The turnout, which Wagner estimated to be at least 50 students, was especially exciting in comparison to the first-ever Environmental JustICE Cream Social in the spring semester of 2017, which drew a much smaller crowd.
“I think the past few events this semester have shown there’s a lot of interest on campus to engage more with these issues,” Wagner enthused. She added that the reaction from attendees has so far been positive, as many students learned about organizations that they’d previously been unfamiliar with—or were unaware that they worked on environmental justice issues.
As for the goal of this semester’s ice cream social, it was a natural progression from the more educational nature of its precursors.
“The past events were a lot about trying to foster a better understanding of what environmental justice is and what environmental issues in St. Louis might look like. This event was hopefully still allowing the space for that but also providing students with opportunities to actually volunteer to help work on those issues, rather than [only] discussing them,” Wagner explained.
This progression from education into action is one that Wagner herself has experienced in her time at Wash. U. A St. Louis native, Wagner feels that the neighborhoods she frequented in her pre-college years, including Clayton and LaDue, existed in their own version of the “Wash. U. bubble.” She offered access to green space as a simple but effective example: Growing up, Wagner had a park in her backyard; she didn’t have to think about the fact that for the majority of St. Louis residents, green space is not very accessible.
This example is directly applicable to student life at our beloved university, too.
“As Wash. U. students on our campus, we have a lot of access to green spaces outdoors; we have Forest Park nearby, and we don’t have to worry about lead poisoning or radioactive waste nearby,” Wagner pointed out. “It’s easy to not be aware of that privilege. So, I think learning that there are people just 20 minutes away [who] don’t enjoy the same privileges and are really impacted by environmental burdens—it’s important to be aware of the space and community you’re living in.”
“It’s been very interesting to see how Wash. U. can be very insulated from these issues but also just St. Louis as a city can have these pockets that are very isolated—that aren’t really facing these environmental justice issues—which is kind of the whole point of environmental justice, that certain communities are disproportionately affected,” Wagner continued. “But, reflecting on my experience, with not being aware that I have those benefits, motivated me to learn more about environmental justice and to see what I could do to make other people make connections, to try to better the situation here.”
Wagner emphasized that simply attending Washington University is an opportunity that gives students invaluable tools, which they can use for causes like promoting environmental justice.
“An education here, and more involvement in student groups and volunteer opportunities, can help people pursue something that they’re really passionate about,” she said.
This is true even—or especially—for students who aren’t from St. Louis, or who plan to leave the city after graduating. Wagner says, “Because St. Louis is more of a smaller city with room to grow, it means that involvement with nonprofits or local government can have a really large impact.”
As students hunker down to prepare for exams and cloister themselves in Olin Library writing papers, it’s important not to forget to look outward—engaging with the St. Louis community, making efforts to learn about it and actively working on issues like environmental justice. For students looking to get involved, the Office of Sustainability’s website is a wonderful first step into education and action.