Wednesday at the School of Social Work, several student organizations hosted a conference on environmental justice, discussing topics from environmental racism to the Flint water crisis.

The event was held by the Community Action and Social Change Student Board, Chi Upsilon Sigma Sorority, the Center for Engaged Academic Learning and the Ginsberg Center. Representatives began the conference with an overview of environmental racism, emphasizing the role racism may have played in Flint’s crisis. 

Diana Copeland, lecturer at the School of Social Work and a leader in grassroots environmental justice movements, gave a brief history of environmental justice and racism, saying race has been prevalent in environmental decisions.

“Environmental racism is defined as the placement of low-income or minority communities in proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay,” she said.

Copeland said conversations addressing tough issues such as the Flint water crisis should be consistently happening, especially on a university campus. Speaking about the general public, Copeland added that many people don’t associate institutional racism with environmental issues.

“When we talk about the environment, a lot of time you’re thinking about trees or the air that we breathe,” Copeland said. “And whether or not this is an actual injustice related to the environment is really why we’re here today and what we’re seeing in Detroit and what we see a lot in Flint.”

Copeland noted that environmental racism and injustice often require a community-based approach to combat.

As a way to get students thinking about activism, the audience also broke into groups to discuss the water crisis, after Copeland’s remarks. 

In the remarks, students emphasized their belief that a crisis like Flint’s would never happen in a place like Ann Arbor in the same way it did in Flint, with many saying they believed in policy solutions should be made by the community, not by the state.

Business sophomore Emily Friedman, member of the CASC program and an organizer of the event, said the Flint situation has consequences for all students.

“It impacts all of us,” Friedman said. “Although it might not be happening in front of us, it is happening to our neighbors. I don’t think it has enough awareness. I’m worried that once time passes, people will go back and not really consider it.”

Copeland also stressed awareness in her remarks, outlining several basic necessities she thought every human deserves.

“We should all have the right to land free of toxins,” she said. “We should all have the right to breathe. We should all have the right to drink safe fresh water. This should not be difficult to talk about or explain. Yet here we all are. What is wrong with this picture?”

She also talked about environmental injustices in Detroit, where she said incinerators and oil refineries pollute the air and cause a child asthma rate three times higher than normal.

“It’s one of the worst polluters in Wayne County,” Copeland said. “It emits nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead into the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide both contribute to the formation of ozone, which is harmful to the respiratory system.”

Speaking directly to students, Copeland stressed humility is crucial for students to consider when organizing community action. She said students should be open, reflective and listen to the communities that have experienced injustice. She encouraged students to bring up conversations about race and the environment in their classrooms, and to not be afraid about demanding sustainable solutions that are respectful toward race.  

“Do the work that needs to be done, not that you think you’re most qualified for,” Copeland said. “Be open. It is a place of learning. Demand education that will give you the tools to build the best world that you want to see.”

Friedman said she thought the national attention Flint has received was a good start in approaching these issues, but areas where similar events happen must also be found and fixed. She encouraged students to pay attention to policy in Flint, and not let the topic fade away.

“I think it’s unbelievable that something like this could happen at this time,” Friedman said. “You hear about this happening in developing countries, but this is in our own backyard.”

She added that she was happy with the amount of people that came out to the event because it showed the level of interest on campus that is necessary for fixing the water crisis in the future.

“I think coming out to events, reading up about it and paying attention to what’s going on and having the courage to talk about it and take action is important,” she said.

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