After spending a summer living in the city of Richmond, two University of Richmond juniors saw firsthand the effects of environmental injustice on communities just miles away from campus.
Juniors Suraya Souidi and Olivia Podber were inspired to form the Richmond Impact Collaborative, a student-led organization that stresses environmental advocacy and environmental education on campus to help the greater Richmond community.
Souidi and Podber joined forces with senior Amanda Brosnan to form the organization in the fall semester in hopes of serving as the bridge between University of Richmond students and low-income, off-campus areas.
“We know that the University of Richmond is a great place, but it felt like there was something missing in our experience,” Souidi said. “It wasn’t until we stayed here over the summer that we realized that what was missing was community engagement.”
The organization is choosing to focus its community engagement on environmental injustice, a problem that has a wide and disastrous range of impact on low-income people in Richmond.
Brosnan explained some of these injustices.
“Environmental degradation is happening at disproportionate rates for low-income and minority communities,” Brosnan said. “There's the Urban Heat Island Effect, and air pollution is disproportionately affecting those communities. There are pipelines that are being put in that go directly through low income and minority communities, and they just don’t deserve these things to happen to them.”
Souidi clarified how those in these impoverished communities are not always aware of the injustices that are plaguing them, making it difficult to fight back.
“It's an issue of both a social and political lack of power, and a lack of knowledge as well,” Souidi said.
Their comprehensive focus comes with many challenges, Podbear said, but she’s confident the organization’s broad point of interest allows for many opportunities to make a difference.
“I think people have this really limited scope of what environmental justice can appear as,” Podber said. “Environmental justice is so much bigger than we think it is.”
Podber described the organization as a two-part education and advocacy system.
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“Part of what we are doing is really trying to educate our members and educate the campus community,” Podber said. “And then the other part is going out into the community. But, right now that’s been difficult because of COVID.”
However, the Richmond Impact Collaborative did not allow the COVID-19 pandemic to deter its efforts to create change, Podber said. This semester, the organization was able to help out with programs off-campus for virtual events celebrating Black History Month and to help bring awareness to energy inequities in the city of Richmond. The organization is also trying to sponsor a discussion with Interpoint, a dialogue-facilitation student organization on campus, about environmental racism abroad, which would take place either this semester or in the fall of 2021.
The founders have high ambitions for the Richmond Impact Collaborative, they said, but Souidi hopes one day the organization will not be needed.
“I just hope that one day, that we have so much civic engagement that there doesn’t need to be a specific platform for it,” Souidi said. “I just wish that it were so ingrained in the student population to care about the outside community and go and do this kind of work that the organization won’t be necessary.”
Podber hopes the organization will continue to grow so that Richmond will reap the benefits.
“This is our city,” Podber said. “For the four years that you go here, the people who live in this city are so closely intertwined with the education we are receiving.
“And I just want everyone to feel a pull to helping those people.”
Contact contributor Kayla Somers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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