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Environmental Justice in Ecological Research and Education

ESA Water Cooler Chat ~ December 11th, 2020

In recent decades the ecological sciences have documented numerous examples of disparities in access to natural resources and cases of marginalized communities facing disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards. However, the broader problem of environmental racism has been viewed by many scholarly communities as a societal issue that is “somebody else’s problem,” rather than as a problem that environmental researchers must address. How can we address the ecological factors associated with social inequities and environmental injustices? How might this information offer insights into gaps in environmental justice research? How can environmental justice be substantively incorporated into ecology education curricula?

Guest Hosts:
Carmen Cid, Eastern Connecticut State University
Gillian Bowser, Colorado State University
Amber Finley, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College and Secretary of ESA’s Environmental Justice Section

Below is a recording of this session:


From EJ Section Chair Jorge Ramos: “I would love to hear what the membership would like to ask from ESA and the EJ  section to address in the coming years.”

Things to consider when teaching students about EJ and Ecology related issues:

  • Simply put, you can’t be what you can’t see – students need to see people that represent them.
  • Personal experiences which can differ vastly between students with regards to being in nature or the field. BlPOC students and colleagues are less likely to feel safe while working in the field.
  • For students who do not have experience in nature, field courses are very intimidating. Try to offer more info about how to prepare (what to wear, where we will be) and what it will be like.
  • Many people don’t consider studying nature as part of a profession or career because they aren’t aware of environmental career options outside of park rangers.
  • First year college students there are equal #s of minorities and White students enrolled in STEM, but not graduating equally. So, something is happening in academia.
  • Several students lack good advising from their college advisors since they often do not speak to viable career options in the field. You may be their only chance to widen their view.
  • Students may feel uncomfortable, less safe, etc. when spaces and groups lack diversity.
  • As first generation college students, many may not know what to look for, what questions to ask, or how to become more involved even if there is an interest.
  • Consider how we as educators produce knowledge and how we are situating the human/nature relationship.
  • Try to engage younger students in local issues rather than the doom and gloom or ecophobia.
  • Understand that place-based learning can also be an educational equity issue.
  • Impostor syndrome is different for students of color since they are more likely to question their abilities and their right to be in STEM simultaneously.
  • Consider writing learning objectives to include ethical issues and include that language in course descriptions that get published in course catalogs. There is a place for ethical issues in ecology/climate justice.
  • Starting inquiry-based education at k12 level helps form how students view the world no matter which field they enter.

Try to include EJ in all aspects of Environmental/Biology courses

Pipelines to teaching students about the importance of EJ and Ecology should begin at the K-12 level. Multi-level mentoring should occur early and often, its consider too late if we wait for them to reach college level to introduce them to ecology. However, for many college level educators, this is their reality and so they are tasked to fold EJ into their courses, but they are getting pushback from institutions about bringing EJ into “science” courses, Ecology and Environmental Science. So, how can we address this issue? One suggestion is for educators to look at the ecology / science concepts that are tied to environmental justice issues.  

However, when integrating EJ into teaching ecology, what is the most effective way to do so? What are tools to help students understand why talking about EJ is so important in the context of ecology? The idea is that more EJ related issues that can be interwoven within the curriculum, the better. Attendees of the chat suggest integrating by using Scientist Spotlights, Data Nuggets, and interviews with scientists of typically underrepresented groups into your classroom. Full integration of these concepts rather than treating them as “side notes” will ultimately help to convey the importance of subject.

Acknowledged Barriers or Limitations in EJ and Ecology related to Education:

  • There are very few Indigenous people in STEM. Often when being asked to do something outside of comfort zone, in a predominantly white institution, schools need to create a space that is welcoming. One way to do this is to facilitate meetings with other Indigenous people.
  • Know the difference in being invited to the event vs being asked to dance. Universities are recruiting diverse applicants but not scaffolding their experience.
  • A lot more students are not choosing institutions where they don’t feel a home away from home
  • Some teachers discourage students in pursuing STEM
  • “The multicultural programs” now popular are not meeting the needs of populations that are a minority on campus
  • There are specialized barriers for different groups. Many programs at the college level are federally funded. Applications require U.S. citizenship; this is exclusionary to DACA students and to students who may be citizens but come from communities with immigrant presence.
  • Institutions need to think about student needs at the scale of the whole student. We need to get away from the reductionist view — economic needs separately from mental health needs, etc.
  • Many ecologists avoid human dimensions in ecology —
  • We don’t lose students; they are pushed out by the system.
  • First generation students (and some others who may have imposter syndrome) will not take advantage of resources and support services as they do not want to appear incapable.
  • Major area overlooked by ecologists is how we support and include our disable colleagues and colleagues with disabilities. 
  • Tribal Colleges and Universities are working to fill that void and be culturally relevant. For Indigenous students some of the struggles with Academia is the cultural differences. Most tribal cultures are storytelling/language based and less about documentation and seeking to be published. This ties to another issue of Indigenous cultures, almost universally we are taught or have teachings about humility and not to draw attention to yourself, this conflicts directly with the culture of Academia.

Climate Justice

How can we broaden our perspective about Environmental and Climate Justice?

When looking at climate justice, a few main things came up during the discussion:

  1. There are multiple perspectives, even among African American and Indigenous communities and therefore, we should think about nature and conservation in different ways. For many minorities there is a context that is not an issue for White populations and that is security. Do you feel safe?
  2. Know that issues related to climate change often fall disproportionately on the people with the fewest resources to deal with them. The current pandemic is making this more clear than ever with minorities having limited access to public outdoor spaces, clean water, and air.
  3. Try including non-White non-Western perspectives. We need to think of ways in which we include other perspectives and how we can confront colonization. 

How can we include EJ in our research?

One remedy to include EJ in our research design and implementation is to co-produce our research with the communities most affected by the ecosystems we study. Yet we don’t typically teach ecology students to design co-produced research so how do we engage with non-scientist audiences (beyond maybe a science writing class) or how to identify the constituencies for our science? How can we encourage ecology programs to teach and require these topics? One answer may be that since the co-production of research is an important part of teaching students to understand the community-based EJ issues, we should actively seek to work alongside community leadership. Also, think about consulting local communities especially if they are collecting specimens and ask how they can make reciprocal gestures for taking knowledge. Often local community members have knowledge and are willing to share.

However, this presents challenges though since building relationships with communities requires time and energy and many institutions don’t prioritize or value this type of place-based work. If institutions want to encourage EJ and allow their students and faculty to do this work, there should be support for time and resources as needed.  So how do we get leadership to value and provide that support? It’s hard to get that kind of work published or to get hired as faculty if EJ related issues are the core focus of scholarly work. As a result, many faculty view these efforts as being side projects, instead of core aspects of their scholarship.

Who can have a key role(s) in EJ Education?

Community colleges can provide a really important space in pushing back against that STEM gatekeeper problem. Community colleges have the ability to be much more inclusive; meeting students where they are, and not to weeding them out. More ecologists should be open to joining the ranks of community college faculty, and it would be beneficial see colleagues at 4-year institutions value the work done at the community college level.

In community colleges, some staff and are already on the ground working with communities and students, but need help from PIs to help write proposals to work with community colleges.

There is strength from HBCUs and predominantly minority institutions in producing ecologists. HBCUs, faculty, and students do significant work in environmental justice.

Finally, remember that Faith-based approaches can be an ally.


Foundational EJ articles and books that are considered must reads?

Educational Materials K-12 and Higher Education 

  • Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) has a teaching toolkit
  • Encourage students to investigate environmental justice in their zipcode with this online tool from the US EPA:
  • Can We Talk? Difficult Conversations with Underrepresented People of Color: Sense of Belonging and Obstacles to STEM Fields by documentary filmmaker Kendall Moore
  • Preaching to the choir or composing new verses? Toward a writerly climate literacy in introductory undergraduate biology by Meghan A. Duffy, J. W. Hammond, and Susan J. Cheng.
  • A non-traditional way to engage people in EJ may be through this Eco-theater group
  • Look up work being done by Chris Schell
  • Two social justice working groups that formed this summer from the BIOME Institute. If you are  interested in learning more visit
  • For resources related to EJ issues in the Chicago area, visit
  • Books Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style and Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story by Randy Olson
  • In the general context of “what is nature” and rethinking that, especially in urban environments, check out this two-part essay
  • Those in the Midwest may find ecology students interested in mercury accumulation in fish and how PEOPLE who fish for subsistence are affected by this. See Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission for an Indigenous treaty rights perspective.
  • For resources related in Philadelphia, consider some of Anne Whitson Sprin’s work on West Philadelphia and the Mill Creek Watershed to get your students thinking about flooding, urban renewal, displacement of the black community. 

Questions and Contributions from Participants 

The recording of the chat addressed questions and comments voiced by participants. Additionally, many also added their perspectives in the Zoom chat. 

This section contains many questions and contributions which enriched the discussion or may not have been addressed by our guests in the time we had 

  • What is the connection between EJ and lack of diversity in the field? If there is a connection, is it part of the nature of how we practice and work in ecology? Or perhaps is it part of the way we ask questions?
  • Consider the difference between what we’re calling “nature” and what we’re calling “access”. There is plenty of “nature” in cities, but space is also racializing, so we must also consider how we’re connecting people to place, who is providing that link, and what pipelines exist.
  • Connecting with the discussion on safety and accessibility it is of importance to ensure that we not only show the range of roles and skills we need in ecology, but also making sure the field is safe across a range of what that looks like, from potential assault and bullying to those in leadership positions taking advantage of their employees’/students’ labor to advance their own careers without advancing their employees’/students’ careers.
  • How can we make our application process to undergraduate and graduate programs so that they are more inclusive and equitable and recruit a diverse pool of applicants?
  • How are we making ecology more appealing to POCs?
  • Perhaps try Course-based Undergrad Research with EJ theme?
  • Are their differences in relevance when teaching EJ to students and if so how do we identify?
  • Sometimes we put students in programs but don’t ask them what they want? Why is grad school always involve moving away? Students want to do EJ work in their own community.
  • I’ve been working environmental justice into the science ethics course that I teach. We use the Flint Water Crisis as our case and I have the students write from the perspective of the researchers involved in this case.
  • Vital to look at what people are actually doing. Not just conclude no one is doing anything. Use readings on research related to pollutants etc. Science embedded in issues on inequality and justice.
  • Recently saw a great talk from a woman in health on how important it was to teach the history of eugenics, and teach students to be able recognize the contemporary threads of this history and to be critical of what they are learning and what they are applying – to not shy away from history that is painful.
  • Here at my school, my SEEDS students are doing workshops with K-12 programs in underserved communities. This way our college students get teaching experience in EJ and they communicate EJ topics to younger peeps. Work with your SEEDS chapter!
  • If you look at all of the “Black @ xxx” social media posts that emerged in the wake this summer’s BLM activities…there is story after story of students in private and magnet schools and in college that are being deterred from STEM by gatekeepers
  • The concept of ecosystem services is based upon “utilitarian” ethical thinking, however, why disproportionate impact of human/urban ecosystem dysfunction (e.g. environmental pollution) is wrong lies in a very different set of ethical constructs based on rights and duties theory (deontological ethics) — often conflicts over proposed solutions to human environmental impacts stem from the conflict between these 2 ethical worldviews — I would love to see key capacities in ethical reasoning become as important in the training of ecologists as are skills in statistical reasoning.  4DEE has put out a charge to start this.
  • Let’s not forget that students in graduate and phd programs are severely overworked and criminally underpaid. Perhaps specific groups on campus targeting those groups to provide them with resources (pamphlets explaining typical unspoken rules of grad school) put together by ppl who have been there?