Washington University’s Environmental Justice Faculty Network: Executive Summary

In the fall of 2015, the Washington University in St. Louis Office of Sustainability launched the Environmental Justice Initiative.  This initiative seeks to integrate environmental justice into the university’s teaching, research, and service by bringing together students, faculty, staff, and community members around key environmental justice concerns in the St. Louis region.  In spring 2017, in accordance with the initiative’s goals and under the guidance of Scott Krummenacher, undergraduate Annalise Wagner and Gephardt Institute staff member Tim Dugan interviewed 9 faculty and staff members across 3 schools: The Brown School of Social Work, Sam Fox, and the College of Arts and Sciences. From these interviews, a report was created: “Washington University’s Environmental Justice Faculty Network: A Summary.” The report focuses on identifying key commonalities among leaders doing environmental justice work, and potential areas for future discovery, that may influence future approaches by Washington University faculty. The report is intended to be a living document that will receive regular updates as environmental justice work on campus evolves, and different individuals get engaged. It is meant to record the state of environmental justice on campus in a manner that is useful to continue and expand upon ongoing interest and efforts.

In the interviews, individuals were asked to first define environmental justice and to note which portions of their work fall within or outside of the definition in order to provide context for further questions. Next, participants were asked to describe what type of work they have done, are doing, or plan to do in terms of research, curriculum, and service, that relates to environmental justice; they were also asked to identify catalysts and hindrances. Through this line of questioning, interviewers pulled out major themes and takeaways regarding faculty and staff involvement and interest in environmental justice on campus. Finally, individuals were asked to identify environmental justice partners on campus. This information was used to determine other potential interviewees, and to begin to map the environmental justice network on campus.

Interviewee’s definitions suggest that environmental justice work contains the following three ideas: (1) an understanding of the social, cultural, economic, and political context in which you are entering to do environmental justice work, (2) allowing marginalized communities to self-determine the direction of what projects they want to help them achieve environmental justice, and (3) a final product that includes an equal distribution of environmental burdens and equal access to environmental benefits.

Within the context of this definition, three main themes emerged throughout the interviews: (1) faculty felt as though their research, curriculum, and/or service was tangentially related to environmental justice, rather than directly related;  (2) faculty experienced similar hindrances (lack of collaboration, funding, and time) to potential environmental justice work; and (3) faculty emphasized the importance of community engagement.

Overall, interviewers found that faculty and staff were very enthusiastic and supportive of a steering committee to help move the WashU community closer towards the Environmental Justice Initiate’s stated goals. Interviewers concluded that a steering committee would be beneficial to the initiative because, as confirmed by the interviews, most faculty view environmental justice work as tangential to their main academic and professional focus. A steering committee could help faculty discover how their work relates to environmental justice, identify opportunities for collaboration, and ensure that projects do not lose steam after a semester or two. Based on this report, and early work on the Environmental Justice Initiative, a steering committee of faculty, staff, and students is being created. When it is formed, the findings of the report will be presented to the committee. The Environmental Justice Faculty Network Report will help inform continued work on the Environmental Justice Initiative, particularly through the creation of and contributions to an environmental justice steering committee.

Student interested in getting involved may apply to be a part of the steering committee here.

Faculty members interested in working with students, faculty, and/or staff on environmental justice-related work are encouraged to fill out a faculty profile on the Environmental Justice Initiative website.

For more information about the Environmental Justice Initiative and ways to get involved, or to gain support for environmental justice-related projects, please email