Episode 28, 32 min listen
Eco-Justice and Environmental Justice...What do those terms mean and how they inform our thinking about the question: Justice for Whom? Join us today as we learn more about these terms and talk with conservationist, Rebecca Bolich-Wade, about how communities can use eco-justice, environmental justice, and the community commons to build more inclusive and equitable communities.
We mentioned these books in our discussion. You can purchase them from the State of Inclusion Bookstore at bookshop.org
With experience ranging from wildlife research to environmental education, Rebecca is presently utilizing her knowledge to expand Clean Water conservation at Upstate Forever, a conservation organization representing the Upstate of South Carolina. Rebecca holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Furman University where she studied conservation biology and philosophy. During her undergraduate studies and following her graduation, Rebecca had opportunities to work in research pertaining to mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican grey wolves, Bolson tortoises, and bats in states ranging from New York to New Mexico. Since the summer of 2020, Rebecca has been in pursuit of her Masters of Natural Science and Environmental Education from Hamline University. During this graduate program, Rebecca has had a keen focus on inclusion and diversity within environmental education and ecojustice.
Ame Sanders 00:00
I’m here today at Unity Park, the newest urban greenspace in my hometown of Greenville South Carolina. It is a beautiful summer day and you can hear the sound of happy children playing on the splash pad in the background. Beyond the physical space of the park, there is also a strong stated intention that the park will unify the community and provide affordable housing options adjacent to the park.
Still, some remain skeptical. They wonder, if over time, Greenville will be able to realize the intention of Unity, or will the inexorable pressures of gentrification eventually destroy the promise of Unity? In this episode, we will discuss the concept of eco-justice and explore the question, justice for whom.
This is the State of Inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome.
So, today we’re happy to welcome Rebecca Bolich-Wade. Rebecca is pursuing her Master’s of Natural Science and Environmental Education. She’s currently working with a conservation organization here in the Upstate, and she’s focused in her work on clean water. So, Rebecca has joined us today to have a discussion about eco-justice. I had the great opportunity to participate in a workshop that she hosted and I really felt like this was a great topic for our podcast and that she’d be a great guest. So welcome, Rebecca.
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 02:09
Hi, Ame. Thank you so much for having me on today. It’s wonderful to be able to talk about this with you.
So, this is a really complicated and difficult subject. One step about being able to make change in your community is having shared language for things. I know one of the things we’ll need to do as we go through today is talk a little bit about the terminology we use and maybe relearn some terminology that we may or may not be using correctly. The first thing I want to ask you is, tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you studying, your work, and what really interests you?
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 02:46
Absolutely. So, I am currently studying for a Master’s in Environmental Education. I started this program in the summer of 2020, and a lot has happened culturally since then. I had a very unique opportunity in that with my program, they tailored a lot of the coursework to be representative of what’s happening culturally. So, with that, a huge jumping off point for all the different classes I was in was to consider environmental education in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This made a very clear pathway into really grappling with issues of justice and diversity within environmental sectors as a whole. So, with that, I really got involved with eco-justice and that was what kind of sent me down a downward spiral of research and a lot of interest and has consumed a lot of my thoughts and my time since then.
Aside from what I’m doing for my studies, I actually started working at Upstate Forever in January of this year when I was really getting into the heart of a lot of this research. It was really amazing to have the opportunity to think about these questions pertaining to justice, inclusivity, and conservation, within the context of working with an environmental conservation group that is doing a lot to try to tailor our mission to be representative of diverse communities now. So, I think that this is a wonderful jumping off point in terms of what I’m going on to study and keep doing with my thesis for my Master’s, and also what I hope to kind of grow into more with my role at Upstate Forever.
So, this is probably a good spot for us to talk about terminology. You threw out some phrases there in your description of what you’re doing that not maybe not all of us are familiar with. So, you used words like eco-justice, environmentalism, or environmental justice, and conservation. Maybe you can just take a minute and define those three terms for us and what’s similar or different about them?
-Justice for Who?
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 04:42
Absolutely. So, before I get into the definitions, I want us all to be thinking about these terms in terms of the question of, “Justice for who?” That is a really important thing to keep in mind, because a lot of these topics can and definitions can get a little nitty gritty. Unfortunately, we are going to get a little bit philosophical, so it’s important to keep that in mind as well.
So, eco-justice is defined as the understanding that local and global ecosystems are central to all life. It challenges the deep-rooted cultural assumptions that underline modern thinking and understanding those modern systems. It’s the recognition that we need to restore the cultural and environmental commons. We’ll get into that more in a minute, but the commons essentially are what is referred to as non-monetized relationships, practices, and traditions. So, they can be environmental and cultural.
-Tragedy of the Commons
In other words, they are the things that we can’t really sell and we can’t really buy, but we are just given and we receive and we try to maintain. So, if you’ve ever heard of the theory “tragedy of the commons” have you ever heard of that before? Tragedy of the commons essentially, is things like our water because–I mean, you buy water at your house–because you can’t buy all of water, we can take as much as we want, we can pollute it as much as we want, because it’s really not going to come back and hurt us in any sort of way. So, the tragedy is that we can take and take and take and pollute and pollute and pollute. There’s really no real consequence for one single person, but it’s the tragedy of the entirety of those commons, but I digress.
Ame Sanders 06:26
That’s good. So, when you’re saying “commons,” you’re thinking about things that we share, collectively that none of us own. So, we’re talking about the water, our environment, the land around us, even though we may feel like we own a portion, we are caretakers of the whole of our ecosystem and in our environment. Are those the kinds of things that you’re talking about?
Absolutely. It’s also important to compare those environmental comments and look at that also in terms of commons of culture. So, the cultural commons. The cultural commons actually tend to be a lot of different traditions and heritage and practices and skills that are used to support mutual well-being that we generally see with indigenous cultures. I’ve been reading this really great book lately called Braiding Sweetgrass and actually just finished it. It’s all about looking at how these cultural phenomena and the act of giving and taking and receiving and maintaining heritage is also a form of commons as well.
So, eco-justice is about the need to restore that cultural and environmental commons. To be aware of it, to take care of it, to restore it, and to be caretakers of it.
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 07:40
Exactly. If we think about it, in terms of it is justice for the environment and for culture and for people, it puts those on a level playing field. So, if we’re thinking of “justice for who?” it’s a collective justice. It’s a collective justice in terms of really challenging the ways that modern thinking kind of drives us to devalue those things. That’s what eco-justice is a proponent for–balancing those needs and targeting holistic solutions for people, for our culture, and for the environment.
So, help me put that in perspective of a term like environmental justice or environmentalism because they’re not the same thing, right?
They are not. So environmental justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to their development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policy. So, this field of justice and environmental justice looks at the fair allocation of environmental burdens on all people, regardless of their race, their ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. That’s because generally, what we saw during the segregationist era of this country is that we localize polluting industry in our vulnerable minority communities. There’s a lot of ways that this was done, but essentially, it was to kind of keep a lot of polluting industry out of white neighborhoods and out of affluent areas.
As a result, it really localizes the burdens of those environmental pressures on people that were already vulnerable and it did a lot to continue segregating them in a different way. So, when we think about environmental justice, going back to the question, “Justice for who?” it’s justice for people. It’s looking at justice in terms of fair allocation of those environmental burdens on all people because they shouldn’t be just localized to those minority areas.
Ame Sanders 09:42
Okay, so we’ve got two terms now. So, we’ve got eco-justice, which is about the commons, either cultural or environmental, and are caretaking and sharing and effective use of those. Then we have environmental justice, which assumes that there is some cost to our existence on the environment, and that we need to more equally share that burden across different groups of people. Is that fair so far?
Yeah, absolutely. I think another way to think about environmental justice is that it is a solution or essentially a reaction to unjust segregationist policy, which essentially, was what governmental authority used to really continue to segregate people. It’s so important and so deeply entrenched and a lot of work yet to be done. Environmental Justice is super important, but if you think about it, it’s just justice for people in terms of the environment being used as the weapon.
There’s one other term that I want to get out here, at the risk of defining too much stuff upfront and scaring people off, I wanted to get another term out, which is conservation. So, you work in an organization you described as a conservation organization. So how is that similar to or different from eco-justice and environmental justice?
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 11:00
In a lot of ways when I was weighing the differences between environmental justice and eco-justice, I was like, we’re really stuck in a loop of philosophy and education and conversation, but where’s the action? Where’s the application of these theories? That’s kind of where conservation came in, because conservation science is a field of study that seeks to understand the impacts of humans on other species, habitats, and ecosystems. So, it really just seeks to prepare people to protect and restore those parts of nature that humanity values.
In addition to that, it also is representative of interdisciplinary application of principles and tools to really help in this matter. So, it applies political science, psychology, biology, economics, and all these things and creates a holistic solution to these problems. So, when I was thinking about eco-justice, and where research is at that point with eco-justice, there’s not a lot of application of this theory. There’s a lot of conjecture and a lot of conversation, which was a great start, but I’m always about the action. In addition to that, conservation is over here kind of balancing these two factors out because this is the playing field where a lot of these issues come together. So, as we’re trying to protect and restore the environment, are we doing that for the environment for itself? Are we doing that for people in general, are we focusing on helping the environment for itself and also to help vulnerable communities? So, that’s why I kind of chose to put conservation in on this conversation because it grounds it in something that’s actionable.
One of the things I really like about what you’ve just told us is your work centers around and asks the question of benefit and priority for who? That’s a little bit of the work that I do as well, so I find that very interesting. Can you ground some of these concepts and examples? Can you give us something in our own community or some other community that you’ve studied or been part of that you think we could better see these three different concepts?
Absolutely. I think the most ideal playing field for these concepts to come together is looking at the influx and prioritization of urban green space. So urban green space is generally what we see with public parks and things like that. It’s a place to prioritize different environmental variables like riparian buffers, storm water management, replanting native species, and taking out invasive species. Especially a lot in the upstate of South Carolina, we see a lot of this going along on streams. So, they also in addition to that, repair a lot of streams and replant those and help essentially restore the streams and those rivers in tandem with creating urban green space where people come and enjoy those. That this is a really ideal playing field for this because if we think about who is urban green space for, it’s ideally for everyone.
A lot of research, especially in modern environmental justice looks at how urban green space actually has the highest and most impactful increases on quality of life for our vulnerable communities. It’s a free and equitable space for people who might not have the transportation or the funds to go to a privately-owned green space to go out and enjoy all the beautiful things that the environment provides us, which is fresh air, community, place to be with your family, and also a place to exercise for free. All of these things have the most impact on people that are the most vulnerable, which are our minority communities and our low-income communities. However, when we think about long term, who is this benefiting, what we generally see is that this benefits the people that can actually afford to live there, going forward. Because, with this, we see surrounding urban green space a really big potential area for new business and new enterprises because there’s going to be more people congregating and a sense of community. As a result, it ends up driving up the cost of living around those urban green spaces, and even if they’re put there for the purpose of helping our vulnerable communities, long term that increases gentrification pressures, and inevitably displacement.
So, when we think about who we value, especially when we put in urban green space and we’re thinking about eco-justice and environmental justice, what tends to happen is, we aren’t valuing the long term or thinking about the inevitable impact of putting the spaces for those people, which is that they can be there long term to enjoy it. This is such an ideal playing field for conservation as a whole, because one of the most holistic ways to do conservation and promote environmental services is the promotion of urban green space and utilizing green space in high density areas that makes people value those things. But, it comes down to an eco-justice issue, because we aren’t thinking about the long term in terms of the consequences that it’s going to have for our vulnerable communities.
Ame Sanders 16:13
So, what you’re telling us is when we think about actions that we believe are conservation oriented, maybe even oriented at dealing with environmental justice issues and challenges, that we should be thinking for the long term and how this is going to play out over time, not just the immediate objectives that we might state on the surface, but who is going to benefit from this over time and how can we sustain the benefit for either everyone or for the targeted groups that we might be trying to reach or improve their life with these urban green spaces, or whatever it is that we’re working on? Is that the kind of the takeaway?
Absolutely. The most impactful and genuine the easiest way to do that and to have that solution is to really just involve stakeholders in those communities that are going to be most impacted and possibly displaced. A lot of times what we see in terms of city planners is that they aren’t necessarily representative of the vulnerable communities that they do have the intention of helping. There often times isn’t an intentional effort to bring them into the conversation and the development of those urban green spaces or things similar to that. That’s why there’s sometimes is a lot of pushback from members of diverse communities in that they don’t want urban green spaces or community parks and things like that, because they do understand that eventually will generate displacement. That’s the hard balance that we have to deal with and the easiest way is just to incorporate them and let them be representative of themselves and their own communities and needs.
-Tree Canopy Case Study
There are no easy answers for this, are there? One case study that you and I talked about when we were in a workshop together was this idea of tree canopy. We talked about the fact that right now in many cities, the distribution of the tree canopy is not equally distributed meaning that if you live in more affluent or high-income areas, you tend to have more trees, more shade, it’s cooler, it’s not as hot now that we’re experiencing climate change effects and those kinds of things.
In lower income areas, we have denser housing and less tree canopy. As a result, it’s a more difficult place to live–less pleasant, hotter, less good air quality, those kinds of things. In our community, they’ve implemented something where there’s a charge for getting rid of trees, so it encourages developers to keep trees. But, we heard one group talk about how much more expensive it makes the development of low-income housing. We desperately need more low income and affordable housing and workforce housing. But, there’s a cost if they have to remove trees, and keeping the trees has a cost as well. So, there’s no easy answer for that. It’s pretty complicated.
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 19:12
It is. Also, part of that is it just makes one extra box that developers for affordable housing have to check to be able to produce that, especially in an era of such widespread development in this area. It’s not going to be something that is easy to do or easier to implement, and you’re not going to get as much money out of it as the developer, it’s disincentivizing to be able to do that.
Yeah, so it presented several trade-offs that you have to look at. That was a very interesting case study to me, because I personally highly value tree canopy. I live in an area of our community that’s sort of like an urban forest. I know personally, it costs a lot to maintain those trees and to keep them healthy, because they still are under a lot of stress being in an urban area. So, I know it costs a lot to maintain them.
I know that if we want to build as you’re saying these affordable housing solutions across our community and make more housing available, the developers have another box to try to check and another cost to their project. We had a very thoughtful group develop our policy around that. We had some people in the room that day that we were talking about it. They didn’t do this willy-nilly; they thought very hard about what would be the best thing. Yet, there were still unintended consequences from what they put in place and what they proposed.
So, it suggests to us that your point earlier about bringing the people who are affected by this into the conversation is really critically important. Then being very deliberate about this and then being willing to change when you find that the solution is not working for what you want to achieve or that it has negative unintended consequences be willing to find a way or be willing to say, I’m going to make a change to this or I’m going to make exceptions to this and these certain cases because it’s very difficult to get it right the first time.
Exactly. Something that I’ve found really profound is that the people who are organizing this, their reaction to this is that they are improving it. There are monthly discussions going on currently with a lot of different stakeholders involved to refine this. The first solution that was proposed for this was to essentially allow affording affordable housing developers to not have to pay the fine if they have to remove trees. So then again, we’re just going to keep saying less tree canopy disproportionately in affordable housing developments, which is not the solution. Currently, they really are trying to work out that if how they can possibly use the money generated from the fines for people that do remove those trees to help replant trees in affordable housing developments and help them meet those needs. I’m really excited to see what they come out with because I like to say this is unintentional eco-justice theory coming out. It’s really cool to watch.
Ame Sanders 22:13
But, it does remind you that when you have people who have the right motivations and the right spirit, and they align around a goal, like better tree canopy for example, and hold in their head at the same time, the need to create affordable housing, the need to maintain tree canopy, the need to respect what we hear from the communities that are affected by this, when they hold all those things in their head, you can reach a better solution. Beside our own little community, what are some of the communities that are doing a really good job at this? What are some of the communities that are doing a great job and that we should be considering or maybe I should even be knocking on their door to talk to them too?
I currently am doing a lot of different webinars and workshops with the Urban Waters Learning Network. This was something that I started doing with my current role in clean water work is looking at how to be more equitable about water. These workshops really are cool because they bring together people from all over the country to kind of give presentations on what they’re doing. They don’t say it, but they’re promoting eco-justice. They are doing eco-justice in person. Probably two of the most profound areas that I have come across with this resource are Athens, Georgia. There’s called the Athens Land Trust. It essentially is a land trust that works in urban areas to help create a housing fund to promote affordable housing.
So, a lot of times what we see here in Greenville and in the upstate as a whole is land trust work to conserve large swaths of untouched land to keep them undeveloped, but land trusts can also be used to help create affordable housing and mitigate the pressures of gentrification and displacement. So, Athens is really cool.
In addition to that, another area is in Portland, Oregon. The organization is called Living in Cully. It is about a neighborhood called the Cully neighborhood, which is majority minority and low-income communities that actually come together and work with conservation organizations to promote storm water management, riparian buffers, and all these different conservation initiatives. But also, it’s prioritizing, giving jobs and conservation to the people that are being impacted by it in those neighborhoods. Both of those are great resources and there’s so much more to learn from the Urban Waters Learning Network, because they talk to people all over the country about this.
Wow, those are great examples. I’m going to tell you, I’m always happy to hear an example that helps us address gentrification, because I think across the country, so many communities (not just Greenville, South Carolina where we are) are experiencing gentrification and struggling with that. So, it’s always nice to hear a community that has approached this in a creative and thoughtful way. Then I like the Portland example in engagement and involvement of the communities that are affected, and then also seeing the jobs going to people who are affected by this is really cool. Both of those are great examples.
Thank you for sharing that, because it also brings home what this really looks like in communities, because the people who are listening to this podcast are people who want to make their communities better. So, this gives them some practical examples of how that’s happening in other communities and how they’re being successful. What advice would you give to people who are wanting to make their community stronger in terms of eco-justice and conservation?
-Where to Go From Here
I would recommend first and foremost anybody listening to this–I’m sure you have a very introspective and thoughtful group of people listening to you–I recommend that everybody take a moment and really sit with these concepts and really sit with the fact that we are all living in a world that has created and maintained these issues. It’s hard to put it in perspective of how it has impacted your life and your standing. But, sitting here as a middle-class white woman, I know I’ve had an easier hand given to me, not for anything that I truly deserved, you know. It’s hard reckoning and recognizing that in your own life, but taking a moment, and really internalizing how the game has been rigged from the beginning for some of us. When we recognize that it creates an environment where we are all a little bit more introspective and perpetuates a lot more humility. That’s the jumping off point for me in being able to teach this and talk about this with people, because I’ve experienced it and I’ve had to go through a change in how I feel and perceive these things.
Secondly, I always tell people don’t fall into the pattern and the allure of using buzzwords. I have been in a lot of conversations and a lot of groups where people use a lot of this terminology–diversity, equity, inclusion, environmental justice, and eco-justice–entirely interchangeably. It’s really important that everybody take a moment and be very careful. Even if you say it wrong, take a moment and say, “I misspoke. I actually meant this.” Give yourself that space to be able to correct.
Lastly, just support and emphasize the value of organizations that are working with interdisciplinary approaches to developing solutions for problems. So, one of my favorite organizations in the Upstate is called Sustaining Way. They are cream of the crop as far as looking at issues of gentrification, displacement, social justice, and conservation on an equal playing field. When we help advance those organizations, it advances a lot of these initiatives farther. So that’s what I recommend.
-No Broken Systems
Ame Sanders 28:28
While those are three good tips for us, I want to visit the first one you talked about in terms of taking a moment to sit with this and to understand that the game has been rigged, as you said, because I was just reading a book on adaptive leadership. One of the things that that book emphasized is you need to give up the notion that you have broken systems. We don’t really have broken systems. We have systems that are working exactly as they were either designed or have evolved to work. They are benefiting exactly who they were designed or have evolved to benefit. So, we need to think about that when we want to make change, because we need to be willing to say that is how the system is working now. It’s not a mistake. It’s not an accident. It is how it is set up, and if we want to make changes, then we need to make changes to that system. That’s a complicated process and takes a long time on something as complicated as what we’re talking about.
I also think this notion of buzzwords is something I struggle with every day and we used some time in this episode to try to define the terms that we’re talking about and give real concrete examples of what we mean. Because sometimes even when we define them, the definitions still sound like jargon to people who don’t really know what we’re talking about. So, you need to bring it home with real concrete examples.
Of course, I loved your plug for supporting organizations that are working in this space. That’s something that when we have the means to do that, we can make those choices in our giving of money but also of our time. We can volunteer with them and promote them and talk about them as well. So, those are three good tips for the listeners to take away. So, Rebecca, what’s next for you? We started out by talking about what you’re studying what you’re doing. Where do you want to go with this and what do you see yourself doing?
I’ve been thinking about that question. It’s obviously something that’s been in the background in my mind now for a little while, because I am set to finish this program in a month, which is wild and rapidly approaching my deadline for this research and this capstone thesis. The main thing is, I really want to take this work and this motivation and what I’ve learned to really try to advance conversations amongst and between different organizations, especially in the conservation sector.
At least from what I’ve experienced working in a lot of different places, a lot of different roles is people in in conservation and environmental work as a whole, sometimes don’t feel like they know how to talk about these things. It leads to a lot of quiet, where there needs to be a lot more conversation. So, I really hope–and I’m still trying to brainstorm the best way to do this–to continue to advocate for this way of thinking about things and really introduce people to ways of thinking and discussing these topics that encourage them to be a voice and an advocate for this stuff as well.
That sounds exciting. I’m really, really happy for you. I’m happy that you’re about to finish your program. You know, Rebecca, I love finding emerging thought leaders on subjects that are related to equity and inclusion. It was really good to be able to meet you and understand the work that you’re doing and then have you join us on the podcast. I just want to thank you for the work you’re doing and thank you for taking time to talk with me today.
Rebecca Bolich-Wade 32:08
Thank you, Ame. The work you’re doing is super important as well, and I’m just really grateful to be here.
This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time, and if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening
Guest: Rebecca Bolich-Wade
Host: Ame Sanders
Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson
Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski
Sound: FAROUT Media