Opinion: HBCUs must keep environmental and climate justice at forefront

A professor who studies the intersection of environmental hazards and social inequalities says university students, including at HBCUs in Atlanta, are demanding environmental justice. KENT D JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
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A professor who studies the intersection of environmental hazards and social inequalities says university students, including at HBCUs in Atlanta, are demanding environmental justice. KENT D JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC

Professor says student protests in Atlanta for quality campus housing represent a good start

Mila S. Turner teaches and researches at the intersection of environmental hazards and social inequalities. In a guest column, Turner applauds the students in the Atlanta University Center Consortium who protested for improvements in campus housing.

While the AUC students seem to have succeeded, Turner says their fight for environmental and climate justice on campus is far from over. Turner was recently a visiting assistant professor at Clark Atlanta University and is now an assistant professor at Florida A&M University as well as a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

By Mila S. Turner

Black women are more likely to live in unhealthy or inadequate housing, according to the Goldman Sachs Black Womenomics report released earlier this year. It’s estimated that a tenth of Black women’s homes are inadequate due to moderate or severe deficiencies in plumbing, heating, electricity and upkeep.

Meanwhile, one-third of Black women’s homes are unhealthy due to problems such as rodents, leaks, peeling paint, or the absence of a working smoke alarm, as estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why I’m encouraged that university students, who are majority women, are demanding environmental justice across campuses — even in the Atlanta University Center Consortium.

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Dr. Mila S. Turner was recently a visiting assistant professor at Clark Atlanta University and is now an assistant professor at Florida A&M University.

Credit: Submitted

Dr. Mila S. Turner was recently a visiting assistant professor at Clark Atlanta University and is now an assistant professor at Florida A&M University.
Caption
Dr. Mila S. Turner was recently a visiting assistant professor at Clark Atlanta University and is now an assistant professor at Florida A&M University.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

“Environmental justice” is a broad term. In summation it is the aspiration to have all people, regardless of personal or community characteristics, treated fairly regarding environmental protection, risks, policies, and decision-making. This month AUC students protested for these very things, although their collective action is rarely linked to the greater environmental justice movement. They demonstrated by sleeping in tents on Clark Atlanta’s promenade for a week until their presidents took steps to meet their demands for better housing quality and increased accommodations, stronger internet connections, more cafeteria meal options and better financial aid support. AUC students advocated for themselves and their institutions while standing (or rather sleeping) in solidarity with Howard University students whose demonstrations over similar concerns are ongoing.

In Atlanta, these courageous students’ actions seem to have been a success. Administrators agreed to further meetings and to conduct a full assessment of student needs. State senators and congressional representatives are also coordinating with student organizers and advocating for HBCU students on Capitol Hill. These are initial wins, and we must see them through, but let’s not stop here.

As millions have been invested in HBCUs nationwide over the last year, we need to keep environmental justice and climate justice at the forefront as we seek to improve our institutions. This includes handling the maintenance concerns that have been deferred for years, but also building and renovating our physical spaces to withstand the demands of a changing weather patterns and extreme temperatures. Aside from these measures, students, faculty, alumni, and other members of HBCU communities need a seat at the table to collectively plan our institutional futures alongside campus administrators.

This week the Princeton Review released its 12th annual “Guide to Green Colleges,” along with rankings based on each institution’s commitments to the environment and sustainability. There were no HBCUs ranked among the Top 50 Green Colleges. It should also come as no surprise that not one of the institutions protesting campus conditions this month even ranked on the list of 420 Green Colleges based on its 2020–2021 survey of administrators at 835 colleges concerning their institutions’ sustainability-related policies, practices, and programs. This is disappointing, but it should also be motivating.

Instead of simply stating that sustainability is a priority, we’ve got to show it through action and shifted priorities. After all, sustainability is just another term for survival. We need our HBCUs to survive. But that’s not all. We want our HBCUs to thrive.

The author of this guest column, Mila S. Turner, is an assistant professor at Florida A&M University.

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