What Is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice resides at the intersections of environmentalism and social justice. To advocate for environmental justice means to work towards a fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens regardless of people’s race, income, national origin, or another demographic. Although the EJ movement has gained mainstream recognition in the US in recent years, this movement takes myriad forms and has persisted for many years in communities across the globe. Demands for EJ may emerge as mainly nonviolent, direct action movements. For example, communities who typically experience an environmental injustice, such as rampant deforestation or toxic waste contamination in their neighborhood, come together to defend their families and communities from these injustices.
EJ is both a social movement and an academic approach to environmentalism that seeks to address environmental inequities and their root causes by incorporating a social justice lens. Within an EJ framework, environmental inequities are tied to social and economic disparities, which are understood as products of systemic racism, classism, and sexism. Many EJ activists and academics perceive the inequitable distribution of environmental injustices on marginalized populations (like BIPOC communities, womxn, individuals experiencing poverty, and people with varying mental and physical abilities) as inevitable outcomes of the discriminatory socio-economic and political conditions of the world today.
EJ is multifaceted and dynamic, and while it often responds to issues of distributive justice (as in the case of unequal distribution of environmental goods and harms), EJ also seeks to address issues of unjust community and legal procedures, as well as justice as it relates to being recognized and respected in society (Schlosberg, 2007). An EJ approach to environmentalism looks to create change at both the personal and institutional levels, often through direct action, to ultimately dismantle environmental injustices and create a just, sustainable, and equitable future for everyone.
Environmental justice has a variety of definitions. Here are some examples of what environmental justice can mean.
Dr. Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, defines EJ as ‘ the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations,’ and that the priority of EJ is to ‘reduce environmental, health, economic and racial disparities.’
Greenaction, a non-profit organization geared toward environmental justice, defines EJ as the ‘cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainability, where all people can hold with confidence that their community and natural environment is safe and productive.’ They say that EJ is achieved when ‘all people can realize their highest potential, without interruption by environmental racism or inequity,’ and that an EJ community is ‘one in which both cultural and biological diversity are respected, and where there is equal access to institutions and ample resources to grow and prosper.’
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines EJ as ‘the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.’
The US Department of Energy says that EJ means ‘no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws; regulations; and policies.’ They also add that environmental justice requires ‘effective access to decision makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.’
Linking Campus Sustainability Projects to Environmental Justice
The We Mean Green Fund (WMGF) was formed to empower UNT students, faculty and staff to integrate environmental sustainability into the university’s operations, services and campus culture at large. While past community-driven WMGF projects have engaged the UNT community primarily in environmental aspects of sustainability, we’d like to encourage future project leaders to creatively address direct components of environmental sustainability that relate to social inequalities brought on by systematic oppressions like racism, sexism, and classism.
Although funding for We Mean Green Fund projects comes from the student Environmental Service Fee and must support campus environmental improvements, project leaders still have the unique opportunity to link their campus sustainability projects to environmental justice concepts and pose solutions to environmental inequalities through interdisciplinary strategies. Incorporating an environmental justice (EJ) lens into the work of the WMGF is crucial to fostering campus environmental sustainability efforts that serve all people equitably.
Examples of Environmental Justice in Action
While prioritizing EJ themes in WMGF projects is not a requirement, past student and employee project leaders have incorporated elements of EJ into their WMGF projects.
WMGF project leaders can shape equitable sustainability messaging and outreach in their projects by amplifying diverse voices and including those who may feel discounted from current sustainability measures. This can be done through investigating the underlying structures of oppression that can exist within environmental sustainability, as well as how privilege and oppression can influence sustainability.
The UNT Community Garden project which launched in 2017 not only provides additional green space to the campus, enhancing wildlife habitat and providing pollinator-friendly foraging grounds, it also invites students and employees to grow and eat fresh, nutritious food at no cost to them. Students and employees have access to adopt a garden plot and learn how to garden for themselves and others. This food security initiative attempts to decrease hunger by providing access to knowledge and experiences that secure people with healthy food.
Mean Green Gowns for Grads
The Mean Green Gowns for Grads (MGGG) project extends the life cycle of graduation ceremony regalia like caps and gowns through a reuse initiative that prevents used caps and gowns from prematurely entering the landfill. This inclusive program helps alleviate financial barriers for our students who may not otherwise be able to afford to participate in graduation. MGGG supports first-generation college students, DACA students, historically underrepresented students, and low-income students. In addition to sustainable reuse, the goal is to support marginalized and disadvantaged students to progressively achieve greater equality.
Our Commitment to Environmental Justice
The We Mean Green Fund recognizes the roles that colonialism, white supremacy, legacies of stolen labor, exploitation, patriarchy, and oppression play in the mainstream environmental movement and contemporary environmentalism, as well as society at large. While there is still much work to be done, the We Mean Green Fund is committed to helping address environmental injustice through education, project facilitation, outreach, inclusive leadership, and meaningful partnerships. We recognize that our power as an organization is tied to responsibility for justice and that we must address past and current systems of oppression to help build a just, safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all.
We hope to inspire a new wave of interest in building and highlighting EJ solutions and concepts through UNT community led WMGF projects. The WMGF is actively working to spark cross-university conversations about environmental sustainability within the context of EJ and looking to facilitate WMGF projects that engage students and employees with issues of EJ through equity, representation, and access to sustainability. Utilizing this justice framework, students and employees can affect positive social progress in the UNT community, while at the same time bringing environmental improvements to the campus.
Environmental Justice Resources
Media LibraryThe UNT Media Library has various resources available to UNT students and employees, free of charge, related to environmental justice.
The Environmental Justice Guide includes documentaries, movies, books, articles, and games that discuss examples of environmental injustices across the world.
UNT Library SystemThe UNT Library System also has books relevant to environmental justice. E-books, audio, and print options are available depending on the resource.
CoursesUNT offers a variety of courses that teach topics of and related to environmental justice. This list may not be comprehensive, as more classes are added to the course list. Search for the classes on the course catalog to read the descriptions and check for semester availability.
ANTH 4400: Environmental Anthropology
GEOG 2170: Culture, Environment and Society
GEOG 4210: Urban Geography
GEOG 4420/5420: Capitalism, Nature, and Climate Change
PHIL 2500: Environment and Society
PHIL 4740: Environmental Justice
PUBH 3010: Social Justice and Behavioral Foundations in Public Health
PUBH 3025: Environmental Health
SOCI 4260: Environmental Sociology
SOCI 5260/6500: Sustainable Community Development
Sunset on Quakertown
What is the issue?
Quakertown was a thriving community of African American residents and businesses from around 1870 until 1920. During this time, The Girls Industrial College, now Texas Woman’s University, was established next to Quakertown. About 15 years after the establishment of the college, the residents were forced to sell their homes and move to a new location. The Chamber of Commerce proposed a park in place of the community as a way to rid the area of the longtime residents. The city provided them with a new space to move their homes, Solomon Hill, where they were also forced to live without electricity or water. Further, because of the forced sale of their homes, the city did not pay market price for the homes in Quakertown. Residents were left with little capital to relocate in town. Thus, the once thriving community was demolished in favor of a park near the girls college.
Want to know more?
What has been done?
While early twentieth-century histories of Denton chronicle the strides made by the College of Industrial Arts, few mention Quakertown’s thriving middle and working-class Black community. The only published reference to Quaker, which residents had named it in honor of northern abolitionist Quakers who had taken in runaway slaves (a name representing freedom), is in C.A. Bridges’ 1979 history of Denton, in which he discusses the black community within the context of the movement for a city park (Glaze, 1991, The Denton Review).
After the chance discovery of an original Quakertown cistern in 1989 in then-Civic Center Park, it has really only been in the last thirty years that actions have been taken to remember the community that was Quakertown, especially through historical research and publications of both non-fiction and fictionalized historical accounts of the residents. An important source is historian Randy Hunt’s work through Historic Denton, Inc., where he offers a virtual tour of Quaker set in 1921, a year before the forced relocation of Quaker and the removal of their neighborhood. Hunt also refers to the Story of Quakertown article referenced above (Glaze, 1991), which was the first documentation of the events that lead to the destruction of the Black enclave of Quaker and the formation of Civic Center Park, which was later renamed Quakertown Park by the City of Denton in the early 2000’s.
In February 2022, Hunt states that Historic Denton has been approved to provide the Texas Historical Commission with a Historic Resource Survey of the original areas of the Southeast Denton area. To gain this, he illustrated why the neighborhood is significant through the Virtual Tour and a narrative explaining how Southeast Denton developed. As Quaker residents were relocated to Solomon Hill, the names of the streets were tied to the residents who were relocated, such as Skinner and Maddox streets.
Hunt’s challenge to the City of Denton during Black History Month 2022 - the 100th anniversary of what occurred at Quakertown - How do we remember our history? Hunt has three suggestions:
The City Council approved the Sign Topper Program, and the Solomon Hill neighborhood created by former residents of Quaker will be the first to participate in this program. See the following for more information on the Sign Topper Program:
The location and families of each home/building of Quaker is known via the Virtual Tour. Since Quakertown Park is City property, an in-ground marker could be placed to name the family at the location of each of their homes as of 1920-21, thus creating recognition.
The 100-year lease created by the City with the Women’s Federation to build the Women’s Building at Quakertown Park expires this year. The Women’s Federation got the vote out for the approval of the City Bond election, the funding which purchased the land from the residents of Quaker. The suggestion is to rename this building to recognize the former neighborhood.
Another important source, especially for a critical historical approach to remembering Quakertown, is Chelsea Stallings’ Master’s thesis, “Removing the Danger in a Business Way: The History and Memory of Quakertown, Denton, Texas” (2015, UNT), especially Chapter Six, “Denton’s Historical Memory and Quakertown Sites of Memory” (88-112).
In the years following the discovery of the cistern, Stallings states, “the story of the former community slowly came to life [...] the local historical society and college students conducted research, professors and librarians wrote various articles and books, a museum was planned by the county, and the historical markers were erected by the city, county, and state [...] as sites of memory”, that were long forgotten by both white and black citizens of Denton (Stallings, 2015, p. 3). In 2022, the 100th anniversary of the displacement and forced relocation of Quaker residents, how can ongoing research and projects make a difference for the memory of these residents and their descendants?
Other Sources and Resources
- The TWU Memorial Garden project
- UNT class projects Urban Anthropology (Dr. Andrew Nelson)
- UT Dallas Doctoral Paper
- “The Ghosts of Quakertown” (Timothy McDonough, 1998)
Books written about Quakertown, both fiction and non-fiction accounts
- Fred Moore: Narration in the First Person(1984) by Mrs. Sadie Moore
- White Lilacs(1993) by Carolyn Meyer
- Quakertown(2002) by Lee Martin
- The Denton Historical Park Quakertown House (houses the Denton County African-American Museum)
- Restoring Woods House at Denton Historical Park
- Contact: Denton County Office of History and Culture 940-349-2852
Volunteer cleanups of the Quakertown Park/Civic Center Area
Information provided by the Spring 2022 Environmental Philosophy class (PHIL 6750).