Green Spaces or White Spaces?

Lack of Racial Diversity in Clark's Climate Action

Image courtesy of Clark University

Image courtesy of Clark University

Gari De Ramos, Scarlet Staff

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The month of September saw an unprecedented amount of climate action sweep the world. On September 20, roughly 4 million people took part in the first youth strike of the Global Climate Strike week. Locally, almost 100 Clarkies and 400 Worcester residents participated in Worcester’s Youth Climate Strike.

The strikes on Sept. 20, however, were just one of many climate actions that took place in Worcester in September. The Climate Emergency Declaration was rallied for and passed by City Council on Sept. 17; Clark’s A New Earth Conversation hosted a Climate Teach-In on Sept. 21; and Clark Climate Justice – formerly Divest Clark – launched their revamped university divestment campaign. Having attended the majority of these events, one question kept coming to mind: where was all the melanin? Where were the students of color?

The Thursday before the Worcester Youth Climate Strike, which Clark students helped organize, the Caribbean African Student Association (CASA) held a vigil and dialogue to discuss the impacts of recent hurricanes on the Bahamas, but those who attended CASA’s event were seldom present in the next day’s strike.

On the Sept. 20 strike, one organizer was a queer woman of color and there were calls for climate and environmental justice. There was a shared understanding that climate change work cannot exist without uplifting and prioritizing marginalized communities. All of this said, however, there were few Clark students of color present.

In the following day’s Climate Teach-In, I saw the same conundrum. I turned to Professor Jude Fernando – a faculty member of color from the International Development and Community Engagement program – and said “this is very white.” He was unsurprised.

Before analyzing why environmental organizing spaces at Clark are predominantly or entirely white, it is important to acknowledge that racial identity is not the only group identity that is overlooked in the climate movement or at Clark. It is just as important for these spaces to made accessible for queer folk, immigrants, indigenous communities, and so on. The focus of this article on racial diversity stems from the fact that, for me, it is the most visible disparity.

A lack of club-to-club outreach

“I personally have not heard of or witnessed efforts of climate organizations reaching out to multicultural leaders, student leaders, or students of color to bring them into the movement,” said Eunice Dollete, ‘21, Vice President of Clark Undergraduate Student Council (CUSC) and a mentor for Connections at Clark – a pre-orientation program designed for incoming first-year students of color.

“The mentees who I spoke to [who attended the Worcester Youth Climate Strike] did notice that there was a lot of white folk,” Dollette said. 

The lack of students of color is a phenomenon acknowledged by Clark’s climate organizations, as well. Maya Egan, ‘22, is the Treasurer of Clark Climate Justice. When asked how many students of color generally attend their weekly meetings, her response was, “usually none.”

The whiteness of climate organizations like Clark Climate Justice was present back in the 2017-2018 calendar year, whenwhat was Divest Clarkinvited an outside speaker to deliver an anti-oppression training in which Divest Clark members learned about and unpacked their power and privilege in the movement. It appears, however, that this is a lesson that will have to be relearned with every incoming class.

According to Egan, Clark Climate Justice had several planning sessions over the summer where they concluded that they wanted to work on intentional coalition building with other clubs on campus.

 “We want to actually build relationships,” said Egan, “so instead of asking other groups to collaborate with us, we want to offer our support in what they’re doing. Even if it’s showing up to their events or co-sponsoring and funding their programs.” 

An example of this can be seen with CASA’s “What’s Happening in the Bahamas?” event. Members of Clark Climate Justice were in attendance and reached out to CASA leaders proposing future collaboration and support. 

“It was a very good and productive conversation,” said  Michaelle Aristide, ‘20, President of CASA, “but where do we go from here?”

Making the connection between climate change and diverse populations

In the past, Aristide stayed away from spaces like Divest Clark because she felt like “it’s a lot of talk, but no action.” 

Additionally, when she entered Clark back in the fall of 2016, Aristide had only a foundational understanding of the effects of climate change. Although she understood that climate change led to the hurricanes she experienced in her home country of Haiti, she had not made the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. Divest Clark was purely a space about divesting from fossil fuels.

“That just scared me,” Aristide said. “It was a white space, it was something I didn’t know much about. It wasn’t inviting to me as a student of color.”

Eunice identified a similar lack of communication and understanding as to why green spaces at Clark might be predominantly white. Climate change disproportionately affects students of color and “we’re going to have to get really creative on what that means to those folks” to draw connections between climate change and their day-to-day lives. 

While this may be the case, environmental spaces may struggle to balance getting the work done and creating an inclusive space. 

“We want to keep having these discussions about race and the demographics in our group,” said Egan, “but we also don’t want to totally stop everything that we’re doing, because then if a person of color did show up to our meeting and we were just talking about our whiteness, that could end up isolating people more.”

The need for representation in leadership

To counter the idea that climate action spaces need to conduct education outreach initiatives to students of color, Aristide points out that many members of CASA major in Global and Environmental Studies. They not only live the effects of climate change, but also study it.

“The fact that [these students] never felt comfortable or wanted to join those groups says something about those groups,” said Aristide.

“I think it also has to do with their leadership,” said Dollette, whose CUSC executive board campaign was centered on having representation in leadership. “There aren’t many students of color on those executive boards.”

“We’re not perfect and I’m expecting mistakes to be made,” said Egan of student leaders of green spaces on campus, “but I think we’re all really committed to making a more inclusive space”

Closing thoughts

In summary, there might be a whole host of reasons as to why there are few students of color in the environmental and climate spaces at Clark. For climate strikes specifically, there is more at stake for students of color in skipping work or classes for a rally. In Clark’s undergraduate student body broadly, it might be a lack of outreach, collaboration, and communication between climate and environmental groups with cultural clubs. It might be a lack of representation in the leadership of climate and environmental groups.

It is important to note that student clubs are not the only climate and environmental spaces on campus. Students may take the initiative to collaborate with A New Earth Conversation and the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, but few knew about its existence or who to talk to (yes, the leadership is predominantly white). CUSC runs the Student Sustainability Fund, which funds student projects aimed at making the campus more sustainable. But does the majority of the student population, particularly the population of students of color concerned with the environment, know about these opportunities?

At Clark, I like to think there is a shared understanding that climate justice is social justice is racial justice is economic justice. But it is challenging to see these intersections come to life in the organizing and cultural spaces at Clark.