Activism and environmental justice. Climate health. Equitable land use. Global environmental disasters.
For high school students, topics like these likely won’t be explored extensively in their classes or extracurricular activities. The ways in which environmental issues such as pollution, toxic waste, and deforestation disproportionately impact people of color—and ways activists and Indigenous communities fight back—tend to be overlooked. But thanks in part to NYU Green Grants, recent graduates Alexia Leclercq and Kiersten Blake are changing environmental justice education. Through their nonprofit, Start: Empowerment, they created the Environmental and Climate Justice Curriculum. Their goal: to introduce students at the High School for Teaching and the Professions (HSTP) to environmental justice issues and the impact of those issues that they face at home in the Bronx.
Green Grants for Green Ideas
At NYU, Green Grants support ideas that improve the University’s environmental footprint, foster environmental literacy and community engagement, and advance green research, design, and technologies. Up to $20,000 is available for feasible, impactful, and innovative projects.
A variety of environmental projects are eligible for Green Grant funding. Some focus on operations—improving the material, physical, or infrastructural elements at NYU. Meanwhile, others deal with engagement—fostering a campus culture of sustainability—or research and design. What’s more, any current NYU student, faculty member, or staff can apply for funding for their project. Additionally, Green Grants projects can be carried out both by individuals and teams, creating opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, and community development. Currently, there are 17 active projects using Green Grant funding, including Alexia and Kiersten’s Environmental and Climate Justice Curriculum.
A Lifelong Commitment to Environmental Justice
The Start: Empowerment founders’ understanding of environmental and climate justice began long before they applied for Green Grant funding. For Alexia, climate change was a vivid part of her childhood. “I’ve always known about environmental issues, from my mom yelling at me for playing under acid rain to being consciously aware of the breadths of polluted air, increasing hurricanes, and heat waves every summer,” she recalls.
And yet, her awareness of environmental justice education fell short. That’s because her school curriculum glossed over the causes and impact of the crisis. It wasn’t until college that she began to explore the ways capitalism and structural inequality contribute. “It became clear to me that the climate crisis is primarily a problem of our political economy. And I have been working in this field ever since,” she says. Now, she has a degree in politics and economics of inequality from Gallatin. Additionally, she completed a minor in Spanish.
Through not only biology classes but also food gardens, camps, and projects that focused on ecological conservation, Kiersten had some exposure to environmentalism in her childhood as well. But similar to Alexia, she began advocating for human rights by designing educational projects and creative initiatives across five countries on three separate continents once she arrived at college. “It was through this process that I discovered the various facets of justice—like environmental justice—that are linked to sustainability,” she says. A Global Liberal Studies major, she concentrated in politics, rights, and development as well as earned a second major in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. She also has a minor in Public Policy and Management.
Enacting Real Change
At HSTP, Kiersten and Alexia effected measurable change in just one short semester. At first, their initial survey found that only 25 percent of students could provide a definition for environmental justice. Now, 85 percent of students are able to do so. Furthermore, the initial survey showed that only 44.4 percent of students considered themselves knowledgeable in this area. After working through the four modules of their Environmental and Climate Justice Curriculum, that number jumped to 71.4 percent. Students of the program also proved able to identify the environmental issues in their communities. Not only that, they could also brainstorm ways to address those issues through community organizing.
In the fall Start: Empowerment hopes to partner with more schools. They believe projects like the Environmental and Climate Justice Curriculum can bring positive change across the globe. “Major issues affecting international development include increasing climate disasters and the subsequent plights of climate refugees,” Kiersten says. “By increasing awareness of the importance of seeking justice for these individuals, we can move toward a more equitable world.”
For those looking to do their part, Alexia and Kiersten have created an introductory guide to activism with their partner Edify. It is available to download on their website. And Start: Empowerment is designed to be a jumping-off point. At NYU, students can enroll in many courses that draw connections between environmental and racial justice, including Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Colin Jerolmack’s Environmental Justice and Inequality course and Professor Genia Naro-Maciel’s Sustainable Human Rights.
Beyond the classroom, there are many local environmental justice organizations—often led by Black and Indigenous people of color—both in New York City and around the country. Through these organizations, people can continue to educate themselves and volunteer. “Environmental justice impacts the environment we live in and therefore every aspect of life, from mental and physical health to the ability to live on one’s traditional lands,” Alexia says. “For my Indigenous ancestors and elders, the environment is one with us. We must all continue to take care of this earth.”