School of Sustainability’s leadership must reinvest in environmental justice and

Celina Scott-Buechler is a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program for Environment & Resources, where she focuses on federal climate policy, carbon dioxide removal and just transitions.

Karli Moore is a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program for Environment & Resources and member of the Environmental Justice Working Group coordinating council. 

Akruti Gupta is a master’s student in the Atmosphere and Energy program in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department, where she focuses on just transitions to a decarbonized energy system.

Jayson Toweh is a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. He focuses on the health impacts of climate change and the co-benefits of a sustainable and just energy transition.

For years, Stanford leadership has gestured toward an interest in environmental justice (EJ). This December, university leaders took an important step in launching the EJ Cluster Hire — originally proposed by the Stanford EJ Working Group in 2018 and widely supported by the Stanford community. The goal is to fill a glaring gap: despite environmental justice being necessary to achieving a sustainable society, we have no environmental justice scholars on the Academic Council Stanford faculty.

Yet through candidate interviews during campus visits (the EJ Working Group had no other role in the search), we learned that only one out of eleven interviewees self-identified as an environmental justice scholar. The vast majority of interviewees could not name an EJ scholar.

We assert that this search cannot be constituted as the long-awaited “EJ Cluster Hire.” Further, we are highly concerned that Stanford appears willing to co-opt the words “Environmental Justice” without making a commitment to an established field of scholarship. To make this right, we need an intentional Environmental Justice cluster hire that is dedicated to expanding EJ expertise in the newly-minted Doerr School of Sustainability. 

In the spirit of repair, we have brought these concerns to new school leadership. During a sit-down interview with students a few weeks ago, Dean Arun Majumdar told us (on the record), “You have my commitment that we will be looking at EJ, we will be hiring, and you will have the deep engagement that is necessary and the input from the EJ Working Group. That I can commit to.” 

We have heard similar statements before. We urge Dean Majumdar to reinvest in environmental justice as the foundation for true sustainability. Indeed, the Doerr School launch presents a unique opportunity to learn from Stanford’s mistakes, create meaningful space for EJ and move us towards a just transition beyond fossil fuels. Can the Doerr School of Sustainability commit to visionary investments beyond big oil? Can the new school’s leadership commit to investing in the knowledge and expertise of frontline communities?

This commitment is essential because achieving sustainability requires attending to the deep divisions and disparities that persist within and across societies. If we are not prioritizing environmental justice as a key framework that encourages research-to-action approaches that engage with the root causes of inequities and racialized oppression linked to environmental degradation, we will fail in our sustainability efforts. Yet with scholarly frameworks from EJ, our students gain the intellectual structures, research methodologies, and ethical understandings they need to avoid reproducing injustice when they go out into the world to “solve” sustainability problems that are deeply connected to ongoing histories of racialized discrimination, dispossession and injustice.

EJ scholarship extends beyond engaging with issues of inequality through policy or economic methods. Rather, it is an area of scholarship that centers the experiences, leadership and agency of frontline communities in research. According to this national EJ teaching and education database coordinated by members of Stanford’s Environmental Justice Working Group and additional partners, it “is a framework at the nexus of social movements and research that centers the leadership and expertise of BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Color] voices as it makes intersectional connections between painful histories of environmental racism and processes and practices of rebuilding a more equitable, healthy and safer world.” As with other fields of research, EJ…

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