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As climate change reaches new peaks, Colby holds inaugural Environmental Justice Summit

 On Saturday, Mar. 4, in partnership with the Environmental Studies department, the Office of the Provost, and the Buck Lab for Climate & Environment, Colby College held its first-ever Environmental Justice Summit. From 8:30 am to 2:00 pm, students, professors, activists, and locals braved the snow and gathered in the Alumni Center to learn and discuss how environmental injustices disproportionately affect marginalized communities in Maine and across the globe. 

Keynote speaker Dr. Julian Agyeman, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, was joined by Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at the College and member of the Penobscot Nation, Dr. Natalie Michelle. Michelle was followed by Brian Lucas Parras, Ana Parras, and Juan Parras, Co-founders of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Series (T.E.J.A.S), and Native Policy Expert Naomi Miguel. 

Agyeman began his presentation with “just sustainabilities,” a concept he introduced in his debut book, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, in 2003. He defines it as “the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems.” 

Agyeman referred to Just Sustainabilities as the first sustainability book of its kind, as it addresses equity and social justice not just in a single chapter, but throughout the text. 

Departing from the idea of sustainability as entirely environment-focused, which is how it was portrayed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1980, Agyeman believes that “social justice and environmental justice are inextricably linked.” He argues that there is a causal relationship between high-income inequality, social malaise, advertising, consumption, and climate change. 

Because of his area of expertise, much of Agyeman’s presentation was focused on reimagining urban planning to mitigate social inequality. His plan entails recognizing cities as shared spaces, paying reparations to racial groups, establishing a better balance between visions for the future, fostering a sense of belonging in the present, and humane-scaled planning. 

Drawing on street images from Cambridge, MA, Agyeman highlighted how problematic car-centered planning is. American city streets suggest that people with vehicles are the most valuable by affording them the most space. Decentering the automobile will put an end to this transportation hierarchy, granting people without cars greater respect and encouraging car owners to walk and bike when feasible. 

Agyeman also emphasized the need for more “people streets” in cities, since they help foster community in otherwise isolated and disconnected areas. He turned to Nordic countries for inspiration, explaining how one benefit of the pandemic was the transition to more outdoor dining.

Agyeman acknowledged the importance of green spaces but noted that, too often, beautiful parks are only filled with white people. Since immigrants gravitate towards places that remind them of home, he proposes incorporating native trees and cultural artifacts that speak to an area’s demographic. Otherwise, urban planning serves as yet another method of upholding white supremacy. For this reason, it’s imperative that urban planners start by doing ethnographic research.

Agyeman concluded his presentation by talking about food justice. It’s no secret that access to nourishing food is largely dependent on socio-economic status and race. Agyeman stressed the importance of encouraging immigrants to place-make through food, a process that involves introducing ingredients and recipes from one’s country of origin to their new home. 

Additionally, he cautioned people against assuming that local food is automatically ethically sourced. “Social justice in local food systems is a result of the actors, not the scale,” Agyeman said. 

While Agyeman’s focus on urban planning and food justice might seem like an indirect approach to mitigating the climate crisis, once we recognize the indisputable link between social injustice and the environmental crisis, the need to tackle social inequality becomes apparent. 

With events like this one, the College is making space for students and scholars to come together to discuss and generate tangible solutions to pressing issues. Hopefully, the College’s inaugural Environmental Justice Summit wasn’t its last.


~ Claire Campbell ’26

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