Maya Chandra

The Yale Law School hosted its seventh annual New Directions in Environmental Law Conference, drawing the attention of activists, lawyers and academics to the environmental movement’s long struggle with the concept of justice.

The event, which took place Saturday, featured speakers with perspectives that have been largely absent from narratives about the movement, including people of color, queer and transgender people, and the formerly incarcerated, said Leehi Yona FES ’18, co-organizer of the event. Over 200 people attended the conference despite the cancellation of dozens of flights after a devastating nor’easter hit the East Coast the day before.

“Something really exciting that’s happening across social movements is that people are really trying right now to see how their movements intersect,” said Ama Francis LAW ’18, co-organizer of the conference. “To have people talking about how Black Lives Matter intersects with indigenous rights, which intersects with environmental justice is something that’s really unique about what’s happening right now that we’re happy to tap into.”

The organizers decided to center the conference around environmental justice after students at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies expressed their belief that environmental justice was not an issue focused on in their curriculum.

“It’s tough as a student, especially as a student of color, being in class and wondering, ‘When are we going to start talking about the activists and organizers who have been doing the work we’re reading about? When is the voice of the marginalized going to come up in our readings?’” said Brunilda Pizarro FES ’19. “This was a much-needed conference.”

Over the course of three panel sessions, three keynote discussions and several coffee breaks, attendees heard from organizers and others doing work on the ground to combat climate change and change the legal landscape surrounding environmental issues. Many of the speakers emphasized the need for more awareness of minority voices within the larger environmental movement.

“My blackness is here, it’s in front, but when it comes to my queerness, its denied, it’s invisible, even in activist spaces” said Afia Walking Tree, a panelist discussing issues surrounding queer and transgender people of color in environmental justice. “The environmental movement doesn’t see us because we’re not meant to be seen.”

The student volunteers running the conference made an effort to reach out to organizers and activists doing work on the ground in addition to academics and lawyers. Many of those people can provide valuable perspectives on the ways marginalized people have interacted with the environmental movement and on how issues such as climate change affect their communities, Francis said. While the panel discussions touched on topics ranging from public schools to disaster relief, many returned frequently to the same basic questions: How can a movement that has traditionally been dominated by white, male and middle-class people work to bring more communities into the fold? And how can the contributions of minorities to environmental issues be highlighted and celebrated?

The final keynote speaker of the day, Mustafa Ali, gave an unconventional address, in which he walked among audience members. At one point Ali asked the audience to chant in unison, “I am blessed and highly favored,” a phrase his mother used to have him say as a child, a reminder of privileges that went unacknowledged. Later, he went on to direct the entire audience to hold hands and stand up, as he delivered a sermon-like call to action.

Ali commended the organizers for inviting so many diverse young speakers to the conference to highlight the work they are doing, adding that the event was a “step in the right direction.” Still, he stressed that there is room for improvement and that the audience should be as diverse as the speakers. Conferences such as these would benefit from more attendance and participation from the local New Haven community, he added.

“One thing that I’d like to see is for more voices from communities to be a part of the planning process so that we make sure that what’s coming out of this is something they see value in,” Ali told the News. “I always feel that that is a responsibility of our institutions to make sure that we are meeting the needs of those who really need our assistance — not our help but our assistance.”

Maya Chandra |