HomeNewsEnvironmental justice organizer and educator Michelle Garvey supports changemaking in higher education

Environmental justice organizer and educator Michelle Garvey supports changemaking in higher education

The Environmental Justice Storytelling Project is a series of stories that aims to spotlight the work of leaders in the environmental justice movement. From educators to owners of nationally recognized social justice organizations, these stories provide insight from innovators in the field of environmental equity. The stories are based on interviews with Eden Lim, the former Environmental Justice Storytelling Lead at the Institute on the Environment, which can be read in full on the University of Minnesota’s Digital Conservancy

Michelle Garvey is an environmental justice organizer and educator who has worked at the University of Minnesota teaching Environmental Justice (SUST 3017) for Sustainability Studies in addition to her work for the major higher education grant, Minnesota Transform.

Can you introduce yourself by telling us what you do and how you have integrated environmental justice in your work?

My work at Minnesota Transform supports racial justice and decolonial public humanities projects both on and off campus. I coordinate internships and conduct environmental justice programming. Before this, I directed the Environmental Justice Program for a nonprofit called HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs). And before that, I was a full-time lecturer at the University of Minnesota, teaching in Sustainability Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Because Environmental Justice is a burgeoning discipline, I had to chart my own path to learn the field, which brought me to Feminist Studies.

I first learned about environmental justice through ecofeminism, which encapsulated my passion for people and the planet. This led me to study with Professor Emeritus Jacquelyn Zita at the University of Minnesota when I interned with her at the Women’s Environmental Institute. After earning my MA in Women’s Studies in San Diego, I returned to the University of Minnesota and completed my PhD, deepening my knowledge of EJ from a radically intersectional perspective with the guidance of Jacque, Naomi Scheman, Dan Phillipon, and renowned EJ scholar David Pellow. Since around 2005, I have been involved in food, environmental, and climate justice organizing, which has shaped my academic work.

I have always been focused on environmental justice (EJ), even when it wasn’t at the core of my fields. There was a lack of ecological consideration in feminist and queer studies, and a lack of social consideration in sustainability studies. Which often made me feel isolated and out of place. I sought to merge these fields, which forced me to become skilled at applying and interpreting one field through the others’ lens.

The EJ movement in the United States, after all, is led by women of color. So when we discuss situated knowledge, consciousness-raising, or intersectionality, we’re delving into women of color theory, which is also central to the EJ movement. And if we’re discussing the necessity of dissolving the nature-culture binary–a tenet that distinguishes EJ from the mainstream U.S. environmental movement–we’re also pushing intersectional theory to its radical ends. Not many people are aware of the historical roots of the U.S. environmental justice movement, which embodies a radically transformative and intersectional worldview.

What are some key moments that elicited change in your career?

Three key moments come to mind that significantly shifted my career trajectory. First, I realized I needed to connect my teaching to on-the-ground environmental justice movements. This happened in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President. Until then, I had been teaching using traditional pedagogical methods, like lecturing and exams. I felt I needed to do more. I started wondering how to redirect resources from the University, a powerful institution, toward environmental justice movements on the ground. My solution was to engage students in project-based work, connecting them with community partners and trying to support these partners through student labor or funding. Before, I had been a typical adjunct professor, believing I needed to follow the traditional academic path of teaching from a lectern and publishing in prestigious but paywalled journals. I let go of that perception and started crafting a different kind of career path, one that threatens my integrity as a traditional academic, but fulfills a deeper calling to enact social change.

The second turning point was getting hired by HECUA. HECUA provided me the freedom and power to design an entire semester of experiential, engaged, and experimental environmental justice programming and allowed me to resource my students and partners. Directing the EJ Program was the highlight of my career and the most meaningful period of my life.

The third and most recent moment has been HECUA closing down, resulting in our entire international team getting laid off. After over 50 years of educating social justice changemakers, ceasing operations was a massive loss. Some former HECUA colleagues and I are now trying to resurrect similar programming at the University of Minnesota, which–if we succeed–would bring an environmental and climate justice program, among others, to UMN. It’s challenging as we don’t know what the future holds and we lack the power to make it happen, but we’re persevering and advocating for it. The future remains unwritten.

What do you think the role of higher education is in the EJ movement?

Higher education is an enormous repository of power, privilege, and money, often unjustly obtained. With this, there must also be a firm investment in resource redistribution to meaningfully influence a shift in power. As a major landholder and the repository of archives, libraries, and cutting-edge digital technology, a university can have an enormous impact if these resources were truly operationalized to achieve reparations and justice. It’s also important to recognize the injustices that have been baked into the history of these institutions and to acknowledge that spaces of great privilege–like our campuses–do not exist unless without spaces of environmental injustice elsewhere.

Throughout my career in higher education and as an organizer, I have understood several critical components of teaching environmental justice.

The first key element is engagement, because environmental justice is a social movement that can’t be confined to the classroom, textbooks, or lectures. There needs to be an experiential component where students engage directly with individuals who are actively involved in the movement. For instance, they shouldn’t be learning environmental justice only from me, a white middle class woman who is mostly insulated against environmental injustice. Students should read works by people of color, Black and Indigenous authors, who demonstrate the intersectionality of environmental justice through first-hand, lived experiences with climate, food, and water injustices. They should also directly connect with individuals who are effecting change.

The second essential component is providing students with a changemaking toolkit. Understanding the history of injustice and case studies of injustice is vital, but it’s equally important to know how justice has been achieved and what the wins have been. When we confront crises, it’s useful to have a roadmap of how leaders have previously dealt with challenges. My students often express a sense of powerlessness and desperation because they learn about these serious issues but are not taught how to address them.

Therefore, a significant part of my teaching approach is to show students a variety of creative ways they can get involved and effect change by engaging with people doing the work. It is disheartening to face the daily news headlines and then be shown in your college classes repeatedly the challenges and patterns of injustice without also mapping the wins.

How can you not feel powerless when you’re not given a way out? Primarily when, most of the time, in U.S. culture, we’re directed toward individualistic solutions, making it seem as though we, as individuals, consumers, or voters, are to blame for most of these issues. One of the normative tenets of American culture is rugged individualism, which hinders movements that require systemic change. We’re coerced into major systems and structures that advantage some of us and disadvantage others. Knowing how to leverage your power within those systems to effect change is easier if you are presented with real examples of collective power building, solutions, and wins.

What do you think the role of hope is in the EJ movement and what advice do you have for rising leaders?

The challenge of environmental injustice defines our entire reality. I see many young people who understand our crises as linked and are motivated to take action and work toward change through this intersectional lens. The mindset among older generations is also shifting. Everyone alive today must do everything we can for the next generations.

I act without knowing whether something is going to work or be successful. I serve without expecting the planet will stop burning. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I am inspired by Sam Grant’s words that he doesn’t act out of hope but out of love. Acting out of love for one’s communities, especially those affected first and worst by environmental injustice, resonates with me. For me, it is a duty or obligation, not in a savior kind of way, but as returning the gift of life given to me. Love of life, in all its diverse and beautiful forms, is why this work is so important to me.

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