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Environmental justice panel enlightens Roux

February 23, 2024

Lilli Frank
SOLIDIFYING SOLUTIONS: Environmental Justice panelists Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Jabari Jones and Negina Lowe are pictured speaking to the audience in the Roux Center for the Environment. The panel discussed the importance of environmental justice in communities of color and the communication that is needed to solidify change.

On Wednesday evening, the Roux Lantern was aglow with conversations of hope and visions of tangible action for environmental justice.

Students, faculty and Brunswick residents packed the room for an environmental justice panel featuring Roux Distinguished Scholar Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Assistant Professor of Earth and Oceanographic Science Jabari Jones and Changemakers Program Coordinator for the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA) Negina Lowe. The event was hosted by the Bowdoin Sustainability Office’s Civic and Community Engagement team in partnership with the Black Student Union (BSU).

The discussion, moderated by Noah Goldwasser ’27, spanned from panelists’ personal definitions of environmental justice to necessary improvements in communication of climate change solutions and the role of Bowdoin community members in advancing climate equity.

Aaniyah Simmons ’26, BSU director of culture and education, opened the event by emphasizing the need for climate solutions that address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities of color.

“We hope this panel reminds and inspires you about the importance of intersectional sustainable work that creates a healthy and inclusive world,” Simmons said.

Whether through marine biology, geology or education, Johnson, Jones and Lowe each work in and appreciate environmental justice from different angles in both their personal and professional lives. The panelists spoke about how they first got involved and found their role within the environmental justice movement.

For Lowe, the representation on MEEA’s website sparked their interest in the environmental justice movement and further motivated them to apply to become a Changemakers Program Coordinator.

“I saw people that looked like me, I saw young people, I saw people who didn’t look like me. It just was so exciting and refreshing to see that like black and brown folks can be a part of the environmental conversation in a way that’s not exploitative,” Lowe said.

Echoing the importance of representation, Johnson emphasized to the audience the number of Black Americans who are already invested in finding climate solutions, specifically pointing out that statistically, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be concerned about the climate crisis.

“Most people are surprised to know [this statistic] because of the way the environmental movement has been portrayed, of who makes the decisions, or who runs the big organizations, and so when we think about more effectively communicating about environmental justice, it would be really, really helpful to just assume that if you’re talking to a person of color, they probably care,” Johnson said.

Jones emphasized the importance of finding unity in the field of environmental justice to best find solutions to the current problems plaguing the earth and marginalized racial and ethnic communities.

“I think deep down, people are much more similar than they are different. I think that our world is very full of division right now, and so it feels very difficult to connect with people and to communicate with people and to build relationships. But I think it’s probably more valuable and more needed than ever to overcome the issues that are facing us,” Jones said.

But where to start with building relationships? Jones advised the audience to start with pre-existing connections.

“Get in where you fit in.… Being willing to share your experience and talk from your perspective, and reflect and share the things that you have had the privilege to learn,” Jones said. “I think another part of that is recognizing that you already have connectivity, and you have power, even in your role as a student, to make change in the sphere that’s available to you.”

Audience member David McDonald ’26 reflected on the ways in which principles of environmental justice have always been present in his life and community.

“Climate change is just always something that has been in my awareness, my family’s awareness, my community’s awareness” McDonald said. “A lot of Black households are taught the importance of the earth early on and the importance we have in maintaining a very strong, stable relationship with the planet we’re on.”

During the question and answer section, conversations between panelists and audience members entailed everything from centering community voices in climate-driven relocation efforts to how cultural and sustainable practices can be intertwined rather than in compromise.

The last question, posed by McDonald, asked the panelists to speak on how Black identity informs how they go about environmental justice. In response, Johnson returned to the importance of using her voice for change.

“I speak up a lot more than I otherwise would. Because there aren’t enough people like us doing this work yet and so I feel a responsibility to make sure that these issues are included in the rooms that I get invited into that a lot of other Black folks will never have access to,” Johnson said.

After the event, McDonald spoke on the importance of using the privilege of knowledge and lived experience to facilitate change.

“I think that everybody at an institution like Bowdoin should definitely use their voice however they can just to uplift a message that is going to help the most marginalized live comfortably,” McDonald said.

Caroline Vauclain, the coordinator of Sustainable Bowdoin’s civic and community engagement team, emphasized her office’s goal in uplifting discussions of environmental justice.

“Environmental justice was a theme that my team really wanted to focus on. Part of it was particular interests of the people on my team but also environmental justice being something that is lacking in conversations about sustainability on campus and in Maine more broadly. I wanted to bring that conversation to light,” Vauclain said.

Brunswick community member Jennifer Nuncio noted the value of this panel in sparking dialogue.

“This is probably one of the first talks that I’ve been to where environmental justice is the focus, so I learned a lot, from beginning to end. I love the variety of ways that they’ve talked about what environmental justice is and building relationships to really get to a place where action can take place.”

Following Wednesday’s panel, Sustainable Bowdoin will be continuing this conversation with a list of resources on environmental justice and include opportunities to take action posted on their website later this spring.


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