By Malavika Sahai
I was in my freshman year of college in the spring of 2013 when I took my introductory Environmental Policy and Planning class. Although my professor covered a wide range of topics that fit under the umbrella of U.S. environmental policy, one lesson really stood out for me: her overview of environmental justice considerations in policy enforcement. She told the powerful story of Bayview Hunters Point, a low-income community of color in southeast San Francisco that had been home to a former naval shipyard and other industries that had polluted the area, severely impacting the residents. Despite decades of cleanup and redevelopment efforts, their struggle continues. I became inspired and emotionally involved in wanting to help other communities like Bayview.
Growing up in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, I had witnessed instances of low-income and minority communities being plagued by pollution problems. I saw that for residents living in urban areas with aging infrastructure and minimal green space, the impacts seemed worse. I had considered myself a budding social justice advocate, but it was not until that day, that lesson, that I realized there was a vibrant, working movement to achieve justice in such communities.
After that lesson, I had an epiphany about what I wanted to do with my career. Suddenly, all my papers for my other environmental classes incorporated discussions about environmental justice. I spent my free time searching the internet to learn more about environmental justice and how and where people were impacted. I wanted to talk about these issues with anybody who would engage in the conversation. I didn’t want to stop learning more.
In my sophomore year, my interest in environmental justice led me to declare a Geography minor, so I could better understand the connection between social issues, place, and the environment. I want to learn more about the way that social geography impacts environmental decision-making in different places, to preserve local culture and adapt to be more equitable and sustainable. As I continue to learn, I keep challenging myself to learn more about the intersection of environmental justice and other related social issues, such as using ecofeminism as a framework toward global justice and planetary health.
Learning about environmental justice issues as a critical component in policymaking decisions has inspired me to pursue it professionally. I want to ensure that a clean environment and good public health are not mutually exclusive. Being an intern in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and collaborating with other environmental organizations as a part of my internship has broadened my understanding of the amount of work that’s already being done to address environmental justice issues across the nation, as well as what remains to be done. Learning about environmental justice has helped me realize that people have the power to make a change in the world and help one another. Learning about environmental justice in a classroom setting has helped me realize that environmental justice and environmental policy should be intertwined.
I am eternally grateful to my freshman environmental policy and planning professor for introducing environmental justice in the classroom, and my hope is that as time progresses, all environmental policy and planning programs in universities, and even high schools, teach their students about environmental policy and justice side by side.
About the Author: Malavika Sahai recently was a Summer intern at EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. She is studying Environmental Policy and Planning and Geography at Virginia Tech, and plans to graduate in Spring 2016.