Environmental Justice Initiative takes root at WashU

The recently launched initiative works with community leaders to address local injustices, spread awareness both on campus and in the community, and further involve students in these efforts.

On a Thursday afternoon last spring, while most other students sat in class, Cassidy Sykes and her classmates were setting up a camera and nervously looking over interview notes. That day they would interview the current Food Justice Organizer for Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Tosha Phonix, and talk about the challenges that communities in north St. Louis county have faced trying to access healthy foods like fresh produce. 

Last spring, as part of the Sustainability Exchange course led by Bill Lowry, professor of political science, and co-taught by Scott Krummenacher, lecturer in environmental studies, Sykes and her classmates worked with the local non-profit A Red Circle to create a video documentary detailing the struggles of and potential solutions for people living in food deserts. Food deserts are characterized by an overabundance of poor food sources — such as fast food chains and corner-store marts — and limited availability of fruits, vegetables, and meats cooked without frying oil.

Krummenacher regularly leads student trips to the downtown St. Louis Food Roof, where experts discuss food quality and availability challenges in the region.

Sykes, now a senior majoring in environmental policy and a graduate student in the Brown School (as part of a simultaneous degree track), continues to channel the insights and frustrations she encountered into her current environmental justice work. Sykes serves as the student liaison for the Environmental Justice Initiative, which was founded primarily through efforts by the Office of Sustainability, as well as Krummenacher, Angela Hobson of the Brown School, and others. Their mission, according to Krummenacher, is to work with local organizations on the ground to improve environmental justice in St. Louis, increase awareness broadly within the WashU and St. Louis communities, and strengthen student involvement. The Office of Sustainability was the motivating spark for the creation of the initiative, said Krummenacher. "They wanted to drive a plan forward focused on equity and the environment," he said. "That combined with interested faculty and students who wanted to see it move forward, and this galvanizing effort helped kick off the initiative.”

As just one part of these efforts, for the last several years the Sustainability Exchange has been tackling a variety of environmental justice problems affecting the St. Louis community. Last spring, the major focus was documenting many of the struggles people face on a daily basis trying to access nutritious food. Sykes and her peers were shocked and moved by many of the documentary interviews. “We talked to people who have lived all their life in north St. Louis, who have no choice but to eat cheap, processed food because it's the only food available in their area,” said Sykes. “The interviews were powerful.” They also visited the nearest grocery stores, noting the poor food quality relative to that seen in wealthier neighborhoods. Within gas stations and mini-marts, which is often the only available food within miles, they found only “fried things, sodas, processed things, candy, stuff like that," she said. "If there were fruits or vegetables, it was visibly not fresh, like rotting bell peppers.” 

In February, noted author Michael Pollan (third from left) discussed agricultural and food issues with the Sustainability Exchange's food justice team (from left): Cassidy Sykes, Erica Williams, Scott Krummenacher, Anirudh Gandhi, Jiumei Yang, and Sophia Dossin. 

A recent report prepared by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at WashU also highlights many of the environmental injustices predominantly faced by people of color and the poor in St. Louis, such as disproportionately higher exposure rates of lead and mold, the sparsity of quality food, and the resulting health problems. With these issues in mind – and in light of Chancellor Martin’s inaugural address challenging us “to be Washington University for St. Louis” – the Environmental Justice Initiative has been, and is, working toward bridging the gap between research and practice. 

The initiative has collaborated with numerous programs that are engaged with the St. Louis community, including the Sustainability Exchange, the Student Green Council, and the Sustainable Land Lab. A number of departments have contributed to an expanded course selection, including many that directly link global and national challenges to those faced locally by St. Louis communities. The primary emphasis, said Krummenacher, is to promote “different ways in which environmental justice can be part of students’ experience, regardless of what school they are in or what their major is.” The initiative also aims to create opportunities where students can engage with and understand St. Louis in a way that they didn’t before, said Krummenacher.

The initiative is in the process of organizing a summit on environmental justice that will bring leading researchers and activists to WashU to foster collaboration, tackle pressing issues, and raise awareness. “The purpose of the summit is to bring together those who are working on the ground in environmental justice with faculty doing research in those fields, and with broader networks nationally – and potentially globally – that have resources that can be shared,” said Krummenacher.

Situating these efforts within our national climate, in which funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has been repeatedly cut such that it now accounts for only 0.2 percent of the national budget, WashU should not wait for an overburdened governmental agency to swoop in and make changes, Krummenacher emphasized. “WashU is an anchor institution, and so they have a role to play.” Instead, groups like the Environmental Justice Initiative are taking steps, here and now, to make tangible progress toward more egalitarian environmental conditions in St. Louis. And the initiative has made it clear that they are heavily involved with community leaders and organizations, collaborating with local partners to ensure the initiative’s efforts are guided to truly benefit the community.

Organizations such as Urban Harvest, Known & Grown STL, and A Red Circle provide ongoing opportunities for members of the WashU and St. Louis communities to learn more about combatting food injustice, Krummenacher noted. WashU also offers courses in sustainability, environmental policy, and public health that explore related issues. 

The university as a whole is moving in the right direction with its environmental justice and community-centered work, Krummenacher said. “The Chancellor was spot-on when he said ‘in St. Louis for St. Louis.’ That’s what we want to see as part of this initiative; to really engage in the work that is being done — and there is a lot of work to be done.”