Students seeking new environmental justice minor

University students are trying to establish a new minor to connect the environment with the struggles of marginalized communities.

Lew Blank

Though the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences offers a wide range of majors and minors, some students feel the college is lacking when it comes to environmentalism’s connection to the struggles of oppressed people.

To fill this void, Voices for Environmental Justice, a student group focused on viewing the environment through the lens of marginalized populations, is proposing a new interdisciplinary environmental justice minor.

The minor, if approved by the University, will focus on the link between the environment and the experiences of people in low-income communities.

“One of the main tenets of environmental justice is the fact that race and socioeconomics [are] the most accurate [indicators] in polluted areas in the United States and around the world,” said Nick Knighton, a sophomore and member of VEJ. “All of our ecosystems interact with humans, and you can’t separate the two.”

Although the proposed environmental justice minor is not yet approved by the University, VEJ plans on holding a symposium this October to lay the groundwork for the minor.

The symposium will attempt to bring together community organizers, professionals and faculty to discuss the details for the minor and the process for its approval.

VEJ members are hopeful that this will serve as a catalyst for the approval of the minor. They believe the minor has a high likelihood of approval, especially since many of the courses making up the minor are already offered at the University.

In order for a minor to be implemented in CFANS, faculty at the University must demonstrate the academic need for the minor, said Bill Ganzlin, the director of CFANS Student Services. The minor must require between 14 and 20 credits, which can include courses from other majors or minors at the University.

If approved, the minor proposal would be forwarded to the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, as well as the Board of Regents for approval. The total process often takes about a year.

The proposed minor would combine classes from several departments to draw ties between the environment and humans. The minor would also include service-learning components and would be taught by diverse faculty members, including local environmental justice activists.

“The reason for integrating these types of discussions to our college classes is so that students are truly prepared, not just in these technical, scientific aspects, but also in the social, political aspects,” said Dania Marin-Gavilan, a sophomore studying environmental science who is a member of VEJ.

A February 2018 study released by researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that “non-whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to whites” by toxic air pollution.

The problem occurs locally as well. The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that advocates for environmental justice, estimates low-income neighborhoods of color in Minneapolis have less tree cover, lower air quality and significantly more contaminated sites than their wealthier white counterparts.

“People very often think of humanity and nature as completely separate,” said Robert Kotler, a sophomore studying Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. “I would like to see a move away from the greater idea of just pure conservationism.”

Those advocating for the environmental justice minor see it as integral to including a wide range of voices in the environmental movement.

“I believe the complexities of the 21st Century will be solved by the environmental justice framework,” Knighton said. “In order to solve our greatest complexities, we have to represent the future that we wish to live in, which is an integrated and intercultural and intergenerational kind of place.”