As we dive into Black History month, on Monday, Feb. 4, the University of Richmond will host a Justice First! Symposium at noon in the Ukrop Auditorium with the Rev. Leo Woodberry, Mustafa Santiago Ali, Ya-Sin Shabazz and community leaders from across Virginia. 

This is one of the first times UR has publicly engaged in the discussion of environmental justice. This event is a step in the right direction as impacted communities and students are brought together to have a vital discussion about environmental racism. 

Our generation is more aware of the consequences of climate change than we’re given credit for. We tend to believe the facts of climate science. However, there is a key element missing in the mainstream discourse of climate change: the devastation poor communities of color face in the U.S due to fossil fuel infrastructure, extraction and consumption. Today, we are seeing more and more proof that the consequences of climate change are our reality. 

The devastation we see in our ecosystems are connected to the violence of climate change experienced by the most marginalized people across the globe. However, in the broader environmental movement, the testimonies of marginalized groups are not often heard. Moving forward, how can we make sure that marginalized groups are included and are at the center of environmental discourse? 

Mustafa Ali states that the current climate crisis is “the byproduct of not paying attention to the [communities] that are already impacted.” 

Ya-Sin Shabazz emphasized two points: the absolute necessity of connecting economics with environmental and climate justice; and the need for minority entrepreneurs – as well as community economic development professionals in predominantly minority areas – to revisit and rethink structures such as cooperatives and community land trusts within the context of utilities. 

When entrepreneurs and local elected officials engage predominantly minority communities – and are intentional about existing economic disparities, present opportunities and envisioned equity – the local and national transition from a fossil-fuel based energy system to renewable energy sources will not only decrease environmental degradation in minority neighborhoods significantly, it will also provide the needed capital and catalysts to seed entrepreneurs and sustain living-wage incomes for many of our communities’ and nations’ most vulnerable populations.

The tireless work of marginalized communities cannot be ignored any longer. As we begin to see the profound impacts of climate change, the urgency of transitioning to clean energy is clear. We need a collective action, which Ali calls a “shift from a 20th century paradigm to 21st century paradigm that places equity at the center.” 

As we transition to renewables, we cannot apply the corporate structure of fossil fuels. Instead, new structure that involves communities of color and amplify the ideas and innovations of vulnerable and burdened communities. 

"Only when we implement community based solutions will reduce carbon emissions and have energy democracy that is both just and equitable," Woodberry said.

Communities of color are demanding an integral part of the clean energy transition; the issue lies in the ways in which these organizations are not getting support from large environmental organizations and the greater public. Recently, in my environmental studies seminar, my classmates and I looked at different regions, compared vulnerabilities and looked at ideas for climate change litigations. 

In the end, we were asked: What can everyday people and students like us do to take change the realities of climate change? I believe the university is taking one of the steps with this symposium, but we cannot stop there. 

This symposium is the chance to center justice and give attention and listen to the voices of leaders of marginalized groups. We want to highlight the voices of the leaders and elders of communities in Virginia that are fighting against pipeline infrastructure, landfill or dump sites and the prison-industrial complex; systems that target vulnerable neighborhoods and drive environmental racism. 

Not only do these communities resist the violence of climate change, they also lead efforts in bringing demanding clean energy inclusive, equitable, transitioning to renewables. 

This momentum creates an opportunity for our community to reflect on how those who are part of privileged institutions can help amplify the voices, the innovation, and entrepreneurship from marginalized communities. 

More importantly, how can students be a part of the movement for the betterment of the communities that are fighting for the resiliency and safety of our future? There is an opportunity for the UR community to discuss this further and take a collection action at the symposium. Hope to see you there.

Contact contributor Kidest Gebre at kidestgebre@gmail.com.