Facing a world of climate change, systemic racism, and resource inequity, ten Honors College students worked with peers from Mason and VCU to organize the second annual Virginia Environmental Justice Summit, held on Saturday March 27th, 2021.
“Seeing this conference continue into the second year, creating something sustaining that educates and empowers students throughout the state, has been a great metric of success," said Dasha Maslyukova, Honors College junior and president of the Mason Environmental Justice Alliance.
The idea for this initiative first came from Honors College alumna, Emma Gregory (2020), who envisioned a conference that would allow students interested in environmental justice to connect with other activists. She understood the injustices within her community and throughout Virginia, and she was looking to inspire change by organizing the first annual conference during her senior year at Mason.
“Environmental justice is social justice,” explained Gregory. “It is the pursuit of equitable protections for all communities. It’s really a response to the history of our country [...] Since the inception of our country, communities of color, and communities that are experiencing poverty, have really borne the brunt of pollution – [they] have not received environmental protections that keep them and their communities safe and healthy. Environmental justice to me means empowering all people to protect their communities and their health, and to take part in environmental decision-making from here on out.”
This year’s summit hosted a full day of talks from established activists and organizers, along with skill-building workshops to empower attendees to respond to key environmental justice issues.
“It was an honor being part of the amazing student team that helped plan this wonderful summit and I’m grateful to everyone that came, our speakers, advisors, and the donors that helped support us,” shared Julia Hakeem, a member of the planning committee and junior in the Honors College.
Over 120 attendees heard from the Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program and Coordinator and Co-founder of Women of Color United, Jacqueline Patterson, and an impressive list of other experts and practitioners, including Carlos Izurieta, Community Organizer at DC Fair Food; Josephus Allmond, an associate at the Southern Environmental Law Center; and BeKura W. Shabazz, Founder and President of First Alliance Consulting Group and Criminal Injustice Reform Network.
Education is the first step towards empowering others to make change, so students at the summit learned how to apply environmental justice principles to issues involving food, water, and energy issues. “I now understand the complexity and inclusivity needed in environmental justice,” shared Hakeem, who plans to use the lessons of the conference as she pursues a career in public health.
Attending this year’s event, Gregory felt a sense of pride in seeing how the summit has grown. “I’m really inspired by all the young people and everyone who is coming together to […] demand better from our governments, from our organizations, from everyone in our society,” said Gregory.
The students who organized the Virginia Environmental Justice Summit this year hope to continue the development of the event in 2022. For the organizers, change is necessary, and it is up to everyone to build a just future -- as a community. “The end of the summit is only the beginning to sustaining the relationships built during the conference and taking action to support environmental justice in our communities,” said Hakeem.
For more information, including a recording of the summit, visit the Virginia Environmental Justice Summit website.