On Saturday, Kenyon hosted the third annual Community for Climate Conference. The event was sponsored by Intersect Environmental Community Organizing (IntersectECO), a student-led, grassroots organization with the mission of inspiring students to “embody intersectional environmental stewardship.” Centered around a theme of environmental justice, the programming ran from the morning to late afternoon in Peirce Dining Hall and the Science Quad.
Emma Garschagen ’19, one of the students who helped organize the conference, said that they picked this theme because of its broad scope. “We decided on environmental justice because I think we felt like it could encapsulate these different sorts of speakers we wanted to bring and I think it also just tackles intersectionality head-on, in a way that I think we had to do here,” she said. “I think our speakers did a really great job of that and showcasing how broad it is and how many people it touches.”
The past two years, the event was held at Denison University. Co-founder of IntersectECO Summer Aldred, who is also a senior at Denison, approached Garschagen in September and asked her if students at Kenyon would be interested in hosting the conference this year. The two had met at previous conferences.
Garschagen replied with a tentative yes, and after sending an all-student email asking students to come to an interest meeting, a group of students from multiple organizations started putting together the conference in October.
Since IntersectECO places an emphasis on approaching environmental issues with an intersectional perspective, Garschagen thought that it would be especially important to include students of different backgrounds and reached out to various clubs, particularly ones oriented in activism.
Several different organizations across campus helped coordinate the event, including Environmental Campus Organization, the Office of Green Initiatives, Students of Caribbean Ancestry and Men of Color. Director of Green Initiatives Dave Heithaus ’99 and R. Todd Ruppert Associate Professor of International Studies Steve Van Holde, who also led a workshop at the conference, were among the faculty members who supported the students.
The conference started with a keynote speech by Melina Abdullah, chair of the department of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. During her speech, “Black Mamas and A Different Environmental Justice Movement,” she talked about the different forms environmental activism can take. She started by asking the audience to close their eyes and picture what they think an environmentalist look like. Several students responded and they all imagined an educated, rich white woman.
“I think that the mainstream environmental movement has done a terrible job at really engaging from an underlying justice perspective,” she said. “This ideas that environmentalists are only white women who drive Subarus and eat granola … is a falsehood, it is an appropriation.”
There were over 100 students in attendance on Saturday. Around 30 of the participants were visiting from several other schools, including Denison University, the College of Wooster, Cleveland State University and Medina High School.
Taajudeen Davis ’19, one of the students who helped organize the conference, hopes the attendees realized that environmental issues affect everyone. “We picked environmental justice to reach out to a broader array of individuals and show that the fight for a better climate is a fight for everyone on this earth,” he said. “I was just really struck by [Abdullah’s] realistic approach to environmental justice and just how candid she was in the way that she speaks, because I think that’s something that oftentimes lacks in conversations or climates based in academia on social justice and things like that.”
Garschagen also noted that she hopes students are more comfortable talking about these issues and that the conference helped them realize how intersectional environmental issues can be. “I hope that it’s something that has more tangibility now and there’s faces and stories to connect to it,” she said. “I think something beautiful about the day is that there was a lot of storytelling, and it happened kind of naturally, but a lot of the speakers really utilized that in their talks. So I hope people have a better understanding of it and have a better ability to talk about it.”
Students on the organizing committee are now putting together a survey to collect feedback about this year’s conference and more ideas for next year’s event, which they hope to host again at Kenyon.