By Published: April 11, 2022

The environmental studies class, in partnership with Mission Zero, aims to reflect on the past to create a more equitable and responsible future

How does environmental racism shape contemporary scientific and environmental practices?

That’s a question that a new course from the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder hopes to answer with its new course, launching this fall.

In partnership with Mission Zero, a donor-supported organization that helps university students work on climate solutions, this course, yet unnamed, also examines such questions as: How did we get here? What are the relevant conditions? And How can we work to change them?

Denis Fernandes

Denise Fernandes, a doctoral candidate in environmental studies, is the course’s professor.

“We will be talking about topics that might be uncomfortable for students,” Denise Fernandes, a doctoral candidate in environmental studies and the course’s professor, said. “The more they are aware of the past, the more they (students) will be able to deal with the public aspect of issues.”

Many environmental studies departments in the U.S. are very white-centric with Western Eurocentric views on how the environment operates, Fernandes said, adding: “Students need to learn how race and the environment interact.”

Fernandes’s goal for the class is to have students:

  • Learn strategies to notice, analyze and critically reflect upon the links between the environment, power, policy, technology and socially constructed differences like race, caste, class and ethnicity;
  • Develop skills to identify racist practices in environmental decision-making and policymaking; and
  • Engage in anti-racist action within academic and non-academic contexts.

The course will be experiential, Fernandes says, with possible case studies including:

  • Discussing the history of the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons facility south of Boulder, which is now publicly accessible open space, and discussions of superfund sites, weapons production and unequal human-environment impacts.
  • Discussing how and why the 80216 ZIP code in Denver is the most polluted in the country.
  • Examining associated issues of acid mine drainage in conjunction with unequal impacts on disadvantaged members of the communities in the Animas River watershed.
  • Exploring connections to reliance on natural gas, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and siting of well heads in and around Weld County.

Students will gain this critical understanding of how these interactions and economic and political power dynamics have influenced events and policy by utilizing a variety of approaches.

“I’m excited about the social media engagement I have planned for students,” Fernandes said. “They can work on Instagram or TikTok, create different types of media communication from the stories they find in the library and put it out there for public audiences. By the time they graduate, students will have the skills to be social media communicators, be prepared for academic and other careers, as well as to draw on aspects of this course in a job.”

Additionally, Fernandes plans to utilize the University Libraries. “The library’s Rare and Distinctive Archives has an amazing collection of Colorado environmental stories.”

It’s important to understand the history of how preserving and conserving the environment has had negative impacts on some communities.”

This course is unique among those offered by environmental studies programs. It's not as common to find an entire course explicitly devoted to studying the intersections between environmentalism and racism, said Karen Bailey, assistant professor in environmental studies and Fernandes’ mentor.

Bailey hopes that this course will spur robust conversation about how people have been exploited and marginalized in the name of the environment and environmental management, and to begin outlining a framework for more equitable and humane practices in the future.

“It’s important to understand the history of how preserving and conserving the environment has had negative impacts on some communities,” Bailey said.

“By looking at this history we can move forward in a way that is more just, equitable and responsible. The goal is not to discourage anyone from being an environmentalist or laying blame on anyone in the class. We want them to learn and think about solutions. Learning the history is important for moving forward in better ways.”