A new study published in Nature Sustainability found that the dramatic underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in environmental sustainability fields leaves BIPOC students feeling isolated and excluded despite their strong interest in solving environmental challenges like climate change. Despite representing 38% of the U.S. population, BIPOC individuals comprised less than 16% of staff in environmental organizations in 2014, according to Dorceta Taylor of the University of Michigan. Green 2.0 reports that this number has since increased somewhat, but environmentalism has a long way to go concerning compositional diversity and transforming its culture. In addition, the new research showed systemic racism persists within the field, resulting in discrimination, lack of relatability, and feelings of isolation and exclusion among BIPOC students.
This study, conducted by an interdisciplinary team of faculty and student researchers at Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, and Dartmouth College, outlined these issues and recommendations to diversify environmental sustainability fields. “Many of the BIPOC students we interviewed were motivated to solve environmental problems because environmental issues intersect with social justice. Yet, they observed their environmental degree programs insufficiently address these connections. BIPOC students’ recommendations for how to increase racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in environmental majors can help colleges and universities build pathways to environmental careers for BIPOC students and improve the learning experience for all students”, said Tania Schusler, co-researcher and assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Environmental Sustainability. Statements from participants in the study such as: “Some people will never know what it’s like to live in a food desert…so there is a disconnect” and, “as far as my racial identity goes, I feel like I have to censor myself,” demonstrate isolation and other factors, such as white environmentalism, are often experienced in higher educational settings for BIPOC students (www.nature.com/natsustain).
The research also suggests avenues for change within environmental degree programs to address these and other inequities identified in this study. To make environmental sustainability fields more racially diverse, equitable, and inclusive, the research recommends colleges consider the following steps:
- Integrate BIPOC voices into the curriculum by incorporating literature by BIPOC, including Indigenous perspectives, inviting BIPOC as guest speakers, addressing social justice within courses, and partnering with local communities in course projects
- Train faculty and staff in diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Hire racially and ethnically diverse faculty and staff
- Actively recruit BIPOC students out of high school
- Create resources to support BIPOC students either through financial scholarships, research opportunities, or student groups
“In our research, the lived experiences for many students of color devoting their passions to study environmental science and studies are seen and heard,” said Charlie Espedido, co-researcher, recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago, and clean energy program manager for the RAY Diversity Fellowship at the Environmental Leadership Program. “Never would I have thought that our initial curiosities would transpire into collaborative research and efforts to uplift the diverse experiences of students of color in environmental degree programs. Our research highlights the personal journeys of inspiring environmentalists of color and the perspectives and experiences that the larger environmental community must reckon with for truly inclusive learning environments.” Bala Chaudhary, co-researcher and assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, further elaborates that “A key finding from our study is that BIPOC students hold specialized knowledge unapparent to non-marginalized groups and real expertise in how universities can best create inclusive learning environments. Our methods can be applied widely across a variety of institutions and scientific disciplines and serve to both strengthen BIPOC student communities and inform solutions for improving racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in environmental programs.”
The study was conducted in 2017-2018 and was initiated by then-Loyola University environmental science students Charles Espedido and Brittany K. Rivera. Espedido and Rivera served as co-researchers, working alongside Tania Schusler and Bala Chaudhary to collect data to understand how BIPOC students experience the environmental sustainability field and the steps that could be taken to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. Additional data collection plus data analyses were provided by then-Loyola students Mia Howerton, Melissa Hernandez, Kailin Sepp, and then-DePaul students Malcolm Engel and Jazlyn Marcos. “When I was growing up, people dismissed my questions and concerns about social issues. In this research, not only do I get to work with people who care about what I care about, but we also are sharing actionable steps towards that social change.” (Kailin Sepp).
For more information on environmental sustainability research and programs at Loyola University Chicago, please visit https://www.luc.edu/sustainability/.
Chante’ Gamby is a writer passionate about social justice and empowering others to live their healthiest lives. You can follow her on Facebook at Fringefam, Instagram@fringegram, or on her website, www.fringefam.com.