SEAS Creates Equity and Justice Initiative
Acknowledging that the environmental movement has roots in racist ideologies and practices, as well as the need for reform, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) has announced the creation of an Equity and Justice Initiative.
The goal of this important new initiative is to foster a culture at SEAS, U-M, and within society that advances equal rights for all and recognizes the intersectionality between issues of race, identity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, and background.
“Over the past several decades, research and activism have pointed to how the very foundations of environmental thought have their roots in racist ideologies and practices,” says Dean Jonathan Overpeck. “We recognize that these ideas and actions have had irrevocable repercussions on Black, marginalized, Indigenous, and underrepresented peoples in Michigan, the United States, and around the world. As a school that is committed to advancing just environmental sustainability, we will continue to develop curricula and critical pedagogies, as well as conduct engaged research that seeks to dispel racist ideologies and to work on developing more attentive and reflective critical environmental thoughts and actions.”
As part of the Equity and Justice Initiative, SEAS leadership, in tandem with the SEAS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, have developed an extensive plan in which they’ve identified immediate and long-term actionable goals for creating transformative change within the school, particularly for Black, marginalized, Indigenous, and underrepresented peoples. This plan will be built upon in the months and years to come.
In a recent letter to the SEAS community that specifically addressed the SEAS Black Student Body, who earlier this semester had challenged SEAS administrators to do more to combat injustice, Dean Overpeck highlighted some of the actions that are now underway.
- The hiring of full-time staff and faculty to support and expand Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, including at least two new faculty members focused on equity and justice and their intersection with other environment and sustainability foci at SEAS. The first faculty member, part of an anti-racism and justice cross-campus cluster hire with other disciplines, could join SEAS as early as the next academic year.
- Expanding DEI training and programs, including creating new DEI professional development opportunities focused on equity and trauma-informed care that faculty and staff will be required to complete each semester. Additional DEI programming will be developed for students to prepare them to engage in difficult conversations about social justice issues, and to do their part to fight racism and injustice in society.
- Adopting equity and justice pedagogies throughout the year. One of these already started as a pilot program to decolonize SEAS courses that began in Summer 2020. This pilot engaged teams of seven faculty and 11 paid graduate students in decolonizing efforts with the help of three paid student coordinators and DEI Office support staff. The pilot was granted funding to work on one course per specialization as a start. It will be evaluated this fall, and adjusted and expanded in the hope that soon there will be funding available to ensure that all SEAS faculty are naming and challenging the harms of colonialism while uplifting Indigenous lifeways and knowledges within their field and beyond. “This work is very broad and ongoing across different schools, different universities, and different levels of education, and I think [the decolonizing pilot project] came at a powerful time,” says Samantha Stokes, an MS candidate in Environmental Justice and one of the pilot project’s student facilitators. “The students have been super dedicated, and the faculty have been as well.” Stokes notes one of the challenges is how to take it from a pilot and scale it up, particularly in the courses where this represents a large cultural shift.
“This is a critical turning point for our school, and I am fully committed to ensuring the success of our Equity and Justice Initiative,” says Overpeck, noting that it will be an ongoing process in the months and years to come. “Transforming SEAS will take dedication, time, and resources, and we are committed to meaningful engagement to help design a better, more equitable, and more just future together. SEAS is a community that has the greatest capacity for making a difference when we work together both on and off campus.”
Read Dean Overpeck’s response letter to the SEAS Black Student Body, which includes more information about SEAS Equity and Justice Initiative.