This past year, the Northwest Earth Institute was fortunate enough to have Melanie Horton, a recent graduate of Naropa University’s Environmental Leadership program in Boulder, Colorado, do an applied leadership internship project looking at how NWEI’s work intersects with environmental justice issues. Her tenure with NWEI helped to bring the complexity of environmental justice issues to the fore. We are grateful to Melanie for helping NWEI craft a plan to address environmental justice in future operations and programming.  Look for more articles in our new course books that address these issues – and read below for Melanie’s reflections on her work with us.  

Over the past couple of years, my definition of sustainability has become much broader. I now think sustainability is as much about the relationships between humans as it is about our relationship to the earth. Unfortunately some communities suffer more harm from things like industrial pollution and the health issues that come along with it. The neighborhoods where industry is located are usually lower-income areas or places where the majority of residents are people of color. Environmental racism describes this unfortunate situation and refers to “the enactment of any policy or regulation that negatively affects the living conditions of low-income or minority communities at a rate disproportionate from affluent communities” (Environmental Justice Group. National Conference of State Legislatures, 1995).  These communities suffer from pollution and environmental degradation first and worst, but ultimately we all suffer from the areas we sacrifice to polluting industries. Traditionally activists and social change agents have dealt with environmental and social issues separately, but the environmental justice (EJ) movement is working to connect social inequity and environmental degradation while mobilizing to address needs in both areas.  EJ activists recognize that the injustice of diminished health of people and planet in our most vulnerable and underrepresented communities affects us all.

The United States EPA ( defines environmental justice as: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Furthermore, the agency says that EJ “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” I first encountered the term environmental justice in the Political Ecology course I took last year during my graduate studies. My exposure to this movement—through case studies and the work of activists like Van Jones and Majora Carter—made me passionate about wanting to spread the word about the connections between environmental and social justice issues.

I chose to do my Master’s thesis project with NWEI because I was inspired by the course guides and how the courses encourage participants to explore their own values, attitudes, habits, and actions through discussion with others.  I spent the fall semester learning as much as I could about NWEI and participating in a Sustainable Systems at Work course. My assessment was that there are some ways in which justice and equity issues can be addressed more directly in NWEI’s courses and programming. This is not to single out one organization, however—considerations of justice and equity are either overlooked or not very prominent for lots of environmental organizations. Thus, for my project, I chose to advocate for more of a focus on environmental justice issues in the organization’s programmatic materials and to provide them with a list of resources and action steps by which they can begin to more overtly give voice to the EJ perspective.

In studying NWEI’s course guides, I learned that the organization already addresses environmental justice somewhat in its courses. For example, Choices for Sustainable Living has a great interview with Van Jones called ‘Bridging the Green Divide. Global Warming: Changing Co2urse has several articles in Sessions 2 & 3 that deal with issues like equity, socio-economic disparities, and green-collar jobs. Session 5 in Menu for the Future, ‘Towards a Just Food System,’ highlights issues of justice & equity. And Globalization and its Critics has many articles that deal with EJ issues, especially session 6 entitled ‘Social Equity.’  This was all very exciting for me to see and indicated that the organization shared my values of justice and equity. It also provided a platform on which I could advocate for a more overt focus on these issues in course content.

By conducting a written survey of  NWEI stakeholders including former course participants, course organizers, members of partner organizations, and staff members, I learned from the more than 40 responses I received that:

  • 90% of respondents agree or strongly agree that environmental issues and social justice issues are inextricably linked.
  • 59% of respondents want to learn more about EJ
  • 83% of respondents think that educational discussion courses can lead to the empowerment of low-income and communities of color to form local sustainability initiatives.
  • 68% of respondents want to learn more about how to work with low-income communities and communities of color to increase civic participation, civic engagement, and to redress long-time neglect.
  • 88% of respondents want to learn more about how to create more inclusive organizations through relationship building and collaboration
  • A majority of respondents said they would be likely or very likely to participate in and/or organize a course on EJ

I am excited to see so much awareness and interest in environmental justice amongst NWEI members and look forward to seeing the results of the organization’s bolstered commitment to focus more on EJ. Taking responsibility for Earth also means taking responsibility for the health and well-being of each other. The discussion courses are a great tool in which we can all learn more about the environmental degradation in underprivileged communities and what we can do as individuals and within our organizations to take action. – Melanie Horton