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New Course Shines Light on Environmental (In)Justice

By Glenn Hare

The Flint water crisis, the Dakota Access Pipeline protest and the BP Oil Spill were just a few of the environmental topics studied in a new course in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. “Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse” examined environmental injustice from the point of view of decolonization. Jessica Hernandez and Isabel Carrera, two masters level students in the college, developed the class that explored the perspectives of the people and communities most affected by environmental practices, policies and hazards.

Offered for the first time during the winter quarter, the class featured numerous guest speakers from diverse academic disciplines and cultural backgrounds. They presented case studies and shared their personal experiences with food insecurity, health and education disparities as well as civil and environmental conflicts and other relevant topics. “I wanted the students to experience these situations from authentic firsthand accounts, from people who lived them,” says Hernandez who taught the class.

Jessica Hernandez. Graduate Student, in the College of the Environment

With an emphasis on indigenous frameworks and social science research methods, the class critically linked social justice and the natural sciences. But getting the new course approved wasn’t easy.  “We faced lots of college politics and bureaucratic red tape,” Hernandez says.

However, she received moral and financial backing from Kristiina Vogt, a professor ecosystem management in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and Gino Aisenberg, an associate dean in the Graduate School. With their encouragement at aid, the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences offered, promoted and provided additional support to make the course successful.

“One of the reason, I supported the pursuit of this class was that I saw Jessica’s abilities to be a leader in this area. She will have an impact in changing our approach to environmental injustice,” says Vogt.


Learning about environmental justice in predominantly Black communities was particularly interesting for me. As a student of color, being given a space to talk about how privilege, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, nationality, and identity can impact access to resources was empowering.”

Vanessa Sanchez
Student, College of the Environment

After the spill

Hernandez has experienced environmental injustice in her lifetime as well. A native of Southern California, she grew up in South Central Los Angeles and suffered from asthma for most of her childhood. “Our neighborhood was surrounded by oil and gas refineries. Air pollutions was a constant hazard,” she says.

After completing a degree in Ocean Engineering and Oceanography from the University of California at Berkeley, she worked as a research assistant in a federally funded laboratory on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. “This was not long after the BP/Deep Water Horizon oil spill,” she explains. While analyzing the damage caused by the 200 million gallons crude oil spill, Hernandez witnessed the inequities faced by the United Houma Nation, the state’s largest Native American tribe. “They received absolutely no compensation. While large-scale fishing, tourism, and other commercial interests received huge settlements for their damages, the Houma—who rely on local fishing and shrimping as a way of life—received nothing,” says Hernandez, whose own indigenous heritage is Ch’orti’, Zapotec and Yucateco. She decided there that researching the environment was enough.

She wanted to change it. But how?

Hernandez then moved Arkansas and taught remedial science and math. Here again, she saw unequal treatment. This time in the form of underfunded schools and low performing students living in economically depressed areas. “With little education and few job prospects most students were trapped in poverty or wound up in prison,” Hernandez explains.

Still searching, she eventually made her way to the UW, where she’s a dual master’s candidate in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. She will pursue a doctoral degree starting in the fall quarter. While her plans about the future are still a work in progress, Hernandez long-term goal is to establish an organization that works for the people and environmental justice. “I’d like to establish an organization that brings individuals from affected communities to share their stories and find solutions for their communities. It would work from the bottom-up grassroots, rather than top-down,” she says.

Shared experiences

Interest in the “Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse” didn’t take long to spread around college and the campus. Undergraduate and graduate students registered. “I took the class because I felt it was important to study environmental justice from a societal lens. I felt I needed a class like this to balance my coursework,” says Sanchez, an Environmental Science and Resource Management major.

I thought this class would not only be extremely relevant to my studies but also contribute to widening my perspective of what it means to teach about our relationship with the environment,” adds Shelby Cramer, whose goal is to be an environmental educator in underserve communities or urban settings.”

Shelby Cramer, Student in College of the Environment whose goal is to be an environmental educator in underserved communities or urban settings.

At the end of the quarter, a two-day public symposium took place that extended the conversation beyond the classroom. Students presented case studies ranging from plutonium production near Native American reservations to pesticide exposure on Nicaraguan banana farms to industrial pollution in East St. Louis to illegal logging and land acquisition in the Brazilian rainforest to the use of prisoners to clean oil spills.

“Understanding these situations for what they really are—environmental racism—has led me to critically view other environmental disasters in new ways,” says Jessica Bolano, a graduate student in environmental education. “If you think about the history of colonization, it is deep and permeates systems. Undoing it is not an easy task.”

This spring, Hernandez will teach “Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse.” And, again she’ll offer students a new lens to investigate the environmental justice, inspiring a shift in the environmental conversation. “I left this course more aware than I was before. I discovered how important it is to be an accomplice and not just an ally,” adds Cramer.