Vaibhav Sharma, Photo Editor

A “Climate Conversations: Centering Justice and Local Voices” panel last week sought to bring environmental justice — the concept of equitable and inclusive sustainability — to the forefront of discussion.

The panel, held on Feb. 25, was a joint effort from the Yale College Council, GREEN, the Office of Sustainability and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Panelists included Mayor Justin Elicker, local high school student and New Haven Climate Movement activist Kiana Flores, Gather New Haven executive director Brent Peterkin, president of Sustainable Systems & Design Onaje Jackson ’77, Senior Manager of the Yale Office of Sustainability Amber Garrard and co-president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale Hema Patel ’23. According to event organizers, panelists were deliberately selected from diverse backgrounds to illustrate and discuss the inherent diversity of climate justice and advocacy.

“Taking on an intersectional approach to environmentalism and focusing on equity and environmental justice is not just about what people traditionally associate with environmentalism, such as recycling or veganism,” said Alexa Jeanne Loste ’24, one of the event organizers and facilitators, who is also a staffer for the News. “There are so many other issues that disproportionately affect minorities, and so many other approaches to it that more holistically address [these issues], that take into consideration not just the planet, but also the people who are living in it … so we really wanted to focus on interconnectedness.”

The panel’s format was a deliberate choice, according to Loste, intending to spotlight all panelists at once while maintaining audience participation through Zoom’s chat function. The event was free and open to the public.

YCC Events Director Chloe Adda ’22 attributed the success of the online format to the work of the YCC Events Committee, who managed the technical side of the Zoom webinar.

Adda considered the panel a success in most regards. Even so, she acknowledged that there is always a potential for improvement in conversations about environmental justice.

“As someone really experienced being in that ‘other’ box, because I’m Black and I’m also Korean and my parents are immigrants … all of that has been so intersectional, and it’s really shown me that sadly, you can’t always represent every single voice,” Adda said, emphasizing that although there are always ways to improve and get better, she was happy with the organizing team’s efforts. “I will say I am incredibly proud of the fact that we consciously chose speakers who we thought would be giving different perspectives … because with these types of events, that’s sometimes all you can hope for.”

Patel, one of the panelists, noted several benefits of the online format. She mentioned her awe at being asked to speak alongside prominent individuals such as Elicker and doubted that she would have had the same opportunity with an in-person event.

Patel saw this as an essential part of the panel, remarking that it “changed the boundaries between experiences and accomplishment” and provided an equal platform for politicians and local community-based activists. Both, she said, play a vital role in climate justice.

“There’s so much more I could do, and I think about that really every day, but especially because I’ve never really engaged on the political level other than with small organizing and things like that,” Patel said. “But I’ve never really examined policy or things like that or stuff on the international scale.” Patel added, “The panelists were like a wake-up call. … Local efforts and personal efforts are so important, but we also have to make these large-scale efforts.”

To close the event, panelists weighed in on what gives them hope for the future, expressing a general sense of optimism. Jackson expressed excitement about New Haven’s recent efforts in community development, contrasting it with the conditions of the city during his undergraduate years.

In an interview with the News, Jackson reiterated this enthusiasm, adding that the partnership between YCC and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition was a promising sign of change for the University.

“Whether the president’s office or powers that be decide to engage in this [effort for sustainable policy] or not … you have that sector of the undergraduate community that are activists, that are clear about what is right and what is wrong and what needs to be addressed, and that’s important in itself,” Jackson told the News. “When I was there in the 70s, you didn’t have a coalition of undergraduate groups that worked together like this.”

Jackson’s hope for this partnership is not lost on current undergraduates. YCC Sustainability Co-Chair Katie Schlick ’22 also expressed excitement about furthering the partnership between YCC and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Although Schlick maintained that it was necessary to limit the event to just over an hour to avoid Zoom fatigue, she said that a common complaint was that the event was too short for each speaker to fully share their story. Jackson, Adda and Schlick hope to host similar events soon.

A recording of the Climate Conversations panel can be found on the Yale College Council Facebook page.

Sean Pergola |

Correction, Mar. 2: An earlier version of this story left out Garrard from the list of panelists. Her name has now been added to the list.