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Environmental justice roundtable highlights energy and policy, health, and Indigenous Peoples issues

The second event in a new dean’s lecture series through the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability featured environmental justice experts in energy, environmental health, and Native environmental policy.

From left, professor Rodolfo Dirzo, the Honorable Shalanda Baker, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Beth Rose Middleton Manning answer questions from the audience at the environmental justice roundtable. (Photo credit: Heidi Campbell)

Three speakers covered vastly different topics with the common thread of environmental justice during the second installment of the dean’s lecture series in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

Presenting their work in energy, epidemiology, and Native environmental policy, the speakers offered students, faculty, and staff at the ChEM-H / Neuro research complex and on Zoom a glimpse into how these fields can propel careers that often involve both research and activism.

“Although many of the members of the university-at-large – myself included – are deeply committed to and passionate about environmental education, environmental justice, many of us do not have a formal training in environmental justice,” said professor Rodolfo Dirzo, associate dean for integrative initiatives on environmental justice at the Doerr School of Sustainability, who partnered with the Stanford EJ Working Group to put on the event. “We seek guidance and inspiration from scholars like the three experts who have joined us today.”

Arun Majumdar announced the lecture series last summer after being named inaugural dean of the Doerr School of Sustainability that launched in fall 2022. The goal of the series is to bring together scholars and thought leaders for discussion regarding the frontiers of research, education, practice, and impact related to an area or theme in sustainability that would help us better understand the topic and inspire us to do more, Majumdar wrote in an email to the school. The first event featured University of California, Santa Barbara, professor David Pellow.

“I’m aspiring to continue interacting, collaborating with our three stellar speakers. We need your guidance and we need your help,” Dirzo said, referring to efforts to establish environmental justice learning and research at Stanford. “How do we move from planting an environmental justice seed to become an exuberant, vigorous, reproductive environmental justice tree within our university? This is a fantastic opportunity to dream as to how to grow that seed.”

Dirzo introduced the first speaker, the Honorable Shalanda Baker, following a traditional land acknowledgement and silent reflection on the valuable contributions of all Native peoples. Baker, who is the director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S. Department of Energy and Secretarial Advisor on Equity, launched into an overview of different dimensions of energy justice. 

“If we do not change our models and approaches to development, we are doomed to replicate the injustices that we see in our current energy system,” Baker said. “This provokes us to actually introduce new ways and new systems of development.”

She started with an example of energy injustice in Oaxaca, Mexico, ground zero for Mexico’s clean energy transition, where Indigenous groups who don’t speak or read Spanish were often entering into contracts in Spanish and facing the dire consequences of exponential growth in wind energy development nearby. “We can’t talk about environmental justice without talking about race and introducing it very explicitly into our discourse,” she said.

Baker transitioned into the energy landscape on our own shores, suggesting that after the public murder of George Floyd in 2020, many in the audience probably took to the streets to protest for a more just and equitable criminal justice system. “But I would bet no one in this room also took to the streets calling for a more just and equitable energy system,” Baker said.

“API [Asian and Pacific Islander] and Black communities face concentrations of industrial facilities, power plants, etc., and those communities also, as a result, face higher rates of asthma, cancer, and heart disease,” she said. “This is the core of environmental injustice. This is about the siting of facilities and communities and the ways in which that creates adverse health impacts in those communities. This is state sanctioned, as well.” 

Baker delved into the lack of energy access for those in low-income, Latinx, Black, and Brown communities. “Further work is needed to understand those disparities,” she said. “We’ve got a structural problem.”

She concluded with a synopsis of the Justice40 Initiative and three tenets of energy justice from academic research: distributive or distributional justice, which is how the benefits and burdens of the system are distributed; procedural justice, which is making sure communities have a seat at the table; and recognition justice, which acknowledges that every single community comes to the table differently situated, and that we must design policy accordingly. 

“I always like to point out the arrow at the bottom, which is restorative justice,” she said. “And this is really the promise that we can heal each other, heal communities through energy policy, through the forward-looking space that energy policy creates.”

Following Baker’s lecture, professor Rachel Morello-Frosch of the University of California, Berkeley, took the podium to discuss her research on the social determinants of environmental health disparities.

“I want to reiterate the ways in which social justice movements have an impact and reshape research priorities,” Morello-Frosch said. “The questions we ask, how we hypothesize disease, causation, health, and well-being in diverse communities, and in turn those social justice movements, have created change, particularly change in resources that are made available to engage communities in the scientific enterprise.” 

She echoed some of Baker’s points, emphasizing the ways in which residential segregation and slavery still influence our physical and social environments – and impact our health.

“Many of us have started to really look at how we understand legacies of racism and the ways in which it drives inequities,” Morello-Frosch said.

She discussed her work looking at how redlining – racial discrimination in housing – affects health outcomes. When it comes to exposure to PM 2.5, particulate matter that is known to increase preterm births, the effects are most dramatic for Asian and Black pregnant women, she said.

“That suggests that certain shifts in our energy sector and air pollution reductions can also have pretty significant positive equity implications, because we know that women of color are disproportionately impacted by high rates of preterm birth,” Morello-Frosch said.

She discussed how research can be action-oriented to help develop more equitable policy, such as through California’s climate change investments. 

“I would encourage us to really think about anticipatory science, policy evaluation, and engaging communities in the co-development of tools that can advance environmental justice decision making now, as we continue to sort out and continue to produce great scientific work,” she said.

The final speaker, Beth Rose Middleton Manning, a professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis, started with an introduction to rural EJ – the impacts and scope of pollution in less populated areas where people are often hidden in terms of human health and contamination.

The Indigenous environmental justice movement takes a much longer view into “the culturally specific exposures and impacts on subsistence where you get your local food, water, medicine, etc.,” she said.

“Environmental justice also calls us to identify where the contamination is and how it’s affecting rural populations,” Middleton Manning said. 

She brought up the colonial history of seizing lands, the criminalization of Indigenous land stewardship, and the seizure of Native lands so that plant and animal species are not available for Indigenous stewardship. In California, “they are subject to catastrophic fire because they’re not being tended.”

Middleton Manning also discussed how people eating from local waterways – often immigrant minority populations – may or may not be recognized in the designated beneficial use for that waterway.  

“Water bodies have to be designated in a public process and evidence has to be generated that people are, in fact, fishing from that waterway, are doing ceremony at that waterway,” she said. “But it can be difficult if you’re potentially a marginalized population to share that information and thereby get the water quality protections.” 

At the end, the three speakers joined Dirzo on stage to answer questions from the audience. They delved into their personal journeys into environmental justice work, cited additional examples of environmental injustice, and highlighted ways that research and new approaches could make a difference moving forward. 

People chatting informally
Baker speaking with Mitesh Dhruv, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business, and his daughter, Aanya, after the roundtable was over. Aanya is a high school student conducting environmental justice workshops at schools across the San Francisco Bay Area. (Photo credit: Mark Golden)

“This is the work I’m doing while I’m waiting for the world to sort of transform itself,” Baker said. “And the work I’m doing is really to do better than we’ve done in the past, right – disrupt the assumptions about community value and what people are worth, and introduce those questions in our processes at the Department of Energy.”

Dean Majumdar took the podium to thank the speakers for their educational talks and announced the launch of a school-level faculty search focused on environmental justice. The event was followed by a reception for everyone in attendance.

“Let me end with the Indigenous quote that is painted on my office walls: ‘We do not inherit this Earth from our ancestors, but we borrow it from our children,’” Majumdar said. “It changes the reference of what we do and how we look at the future. And when we talk about our children, let’s make sure we talk about all the children in the world.”

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