Fellow students of color who have felt marginalized in environmental spaces at Stanford: I see you.
Students and alumni trickle into the Asian American Activities Center on a Tuesday evening despite the stress and excitement of finals, moving out for the summer, and graduation fast approaching. There, the buzz of conversation and anticipation grows as people gather. Looking around the room and seeing mostly black and brown faces, I feel a sense of hopefulness for the future of the students of color engaged in environmentalism at Stanford.
Last spring quarter, I co-organized a Diversity in Earth Systems Alumni Mixer and Panel. Many students of color who came to the mixer expressed sentiments of how excited they were to have a space for students of color as that had been lacking in their experiences engaging with environmentalism or in Earth Systems.
“It was really affirming to hear from people who look like me and share a similar cultural background about how they navigate often fraught situations of tokenization in the environmental field,” shared Sadie Thompson ’22, “and how they advocate for intersectionality when many people in the environmental field don’t acknowledge how climate change and environmentally damaging forms of extraction play a role in racial and societal injustice.” Almost 20 total students gathered for the two-part event and a majority of those students stayed for the entire time. By Stanford standards, these are signs of a successful event.
However, in organizing this event, I faced many obstacles and backlash. The alumni mixer was “intended to be an intentional space for students of color” while the later panel was “open to all students” — as worded in the original email advertisement. I was upset and disappointed when I was told that there were many faculty and staff within the School of Earth who found the intentional space for students of color to be “exclusionary,” and even suggested it was “reverse racism.” Although it was not explicitly stated, let’s be clear that the “exclusion” that faculty and staff in the School of Earth implied was the “exclusion” of white students.
In light of other precedents in higher education regarding race and creating spaces for people of color, such as the controversial Day of Absence at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington in May 2017, it is understandable that School of Earth faculty and administrators would want to avoid a similar, escalated situation. But in trying to prevent the formation of intentional spaces for students of color, they are simply contributing to the dissatisfaction and further marginalization of students of color.
The culture within the School of Earth perpetuates mainstream environmentalism — a movement that has been and continues to be a predominantly white movement from which communities of color have historically been excluded from. Part of the problem lies in the lack of faculty of color. And all of this contributes to the marginalization of students of color in environmental spaces at Stanford.
To address those who may view the creation of intentional spaces for people of color as a form of “reverse racism,” this is simply not true. While race has been socially constructed in multiple contexts throughout history, it has a very real impact in all of our everyday lives. Throughout history, racism has been used as a tool to uphold social hierarchies, to justify discrimination and displacement, and so much more. The historical (im)balance of power that goes along with racism is why POC-centered spaces are not “reverse racism” since people of color have been historically oppressed by white folks.
Some may also see our intentional spaces as “self-segregation.” This is not the case, though. As I know from experience, students of color already perform emotional, mental and physical labor to varying degrees — from having to brush off the onslaught of microaggressions from professors, administrators or even peers to advocating for change and putting ourselves out there in front of our professors and administrators while pushing past the discomfort or pain this may bring. As a result, students of color need groups we can turn to where we feel understood and supported by others and where we feel safe to express ourselves — something that is difficult to come by in the predominantly white spaces we are subjected to daily at Stanford, where 45 percent of staff, 71 percent of faculty, and almost 40 percent of undergrad and graduate students are white, in an even whiter School of Earth.
As Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum in “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race” puts it, “We need to understand that in racially mixed settings, racial groupings is a developmental process in response to an environmental stressor, racism. Joining with one’s peers for support in the face of stress is a positive coping strategy.”
The pursuit of research or science may not traditionally call for the need for authenticity of self from the researcher due to the “objectivity” that science and research calls for. But this scientific “objectivity” is the same science that has been used to uphold notions of belonging (and not belonging or being lesser than for people of color). Dr. Kathryn Yusoff, professor of Inhuman Geology at Queen Mary University of London, writes how “geology as desire, survey, classification, and extraction established the grounds of Indigenous geographic alienation from land and the extraction of personhood under slavery and its afterlives, such as convict lease labor in mines and steel mills.”
“Given the hidden white liberal subject that frames environmental thought and science policy on climate change that is not interested in the previous genocides that its world was built on,” as Dr. Yusoff puts it, I can only dream about how much more expansive the environmental sciences could be if we made space to approach it from a diverse range of cultural frameworks.
How did this become an issue in the first place if the School of Earth, and Stanford as a whole, is so “committed to diversity?”
The term “diversity” has been plastered all over Stanford and on the School of Earth publicity materials as a core value. Yet, any real commitment to supporting diversity within the School of Earth has been weak at best.
Being an “open-minded person” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Racial disparities permeate the School of Earth — the makeup of the environmental field compared to the communities most impacted by environmental issues, who gets hired/tenured to teach environmental issues and who doesn’t, the makeup of undergrads enrolled in the School of Earth compared to the overall undergraduate population at Stanford.
It’s time we reframed these racial disparities from being ugly thorns lurking in the shadows of Stanford’s picturesque image into ripe opportunities to expand the scope of “environmental” research, hire racially diverse faculty and create better programs.
Where do we start?
I understand that we may have varying degrees of understanding and connectedness to this issue. So to begin, we need to have a lot of conversations about what diversity, equity and inclusion mean and look like in the context of the School of Earth — conversations that include black and indigenous students and faculty. Conversations surrounding diversity, specifically race, are often uncomfortable because they are so personal. But we need to confront our own biases and discomfort for growth.
Another part of the problem is that we don’t have enough faculty of color! Yes, institutional change can be slow, as I’ve been reminded many times by administrators, but people of color are tired of waiting and being last on the agenda. This conversation has been happening at Stanford for over 20 years now and the excuses are getting old. Going beyond the conversation of diversifying faculty, I ask of you, what is the School of Earth doing to retain their faculty of color? Have you ever thought about how the current system, which was formed by white men, may not be comprehensive enough to support the research of some faculty of color?
Further, to help facilitate all of the necessary conversation and changes to create space for students of color, we need a committed Director Of Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion Initiatives similarly to the School of Engineering, or we need to expand the Office of Multicultural Affairs to include the growing needs of the School of Earth and to also serve the undergraduate population as diversity needs to be addressed and engaged more.
I never imagined that I would be writing this letter when I began as a shy, naïve frosh four years ago. But alas, here I am because I find myself dissatisfied with the state of the School of Earth on issues related to diversity as I reflect on my experiences over the past four years. I hope that in voicing my concerns, things will begin to change for future students of color. I am incredibly grateful to those who I have met along the way who have supported me and who are putting in the work to move this issue forward within the School.
Now, I am asking the greater School of Earth population — administrators, faculty, staff and students — to do better and put in the hard work and care that it’s going to take to create real change.
— Whitney Francis, ‘19, B.S. Earth Systems & Asian American Studies Minor, M.S. Candidate Earth Systems