Written by Selena Easley
Growing up in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and attending school in Washington County, Pennsylvania, I have always been surrounded by the Ohio River-Valley extraction industry. As a young child, I remember driving through certain parts of towns and my mom always telling me, “Hold your breath!”. I was so used to seeing industrial plants emitting smoke from their gas stacks and cooling towers that I thought that was how clouds were made. At a very young age, these environmental issues were normalized for me.
As a young-adult, I became more aware of the environmental justice issues plaguing the Appalachian region where I lived and grew up. My very first environmental course at W&J was my FYS class called With or Without US, taught by Dr. Malinak (Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at W&J). This course shaped my life in more ways than one. Prior to coming to college, I had never heard or discussed words like “climate change”, “the anthropocene era”, “petrochemicals”, etc… Now these words are part of my daily vocabulary. This course gave me the chance to explore environmentalism. Four years later, environmental studies not only became my major, but it became a major part of my daily life.
Outside of the classroom, I started noticing the true dangers of the environmental issues that were normalized for me during my adolescent years. One of the main ones being the persistently low and abnormal air quality in my region. While studying at W&J, I noticed that the levels of air quality in Washington County usually range on a scale from “fair” to “poor”, and sometimes they even drop down to levels that are “unhealthy”. When the air quality rating is anything below “fair”, I find myself avoiding the place I love the mostー the outdoors. Additionally, I notice that many of my close friends and relatives have had health issues related to these environmental factors such as asthma or cancer. Now there are plans to make this air quality even worse, by transforming the Ohio River-Valley into a Petrochemical hub. Consequently, that will turn extracted raw materials into single-use plastics. I can’t imagine how much worse things are going to get.
One of the many challenges that I faced in regards to the petrochemical boom, was finding young like-minded individuals who care about environmental justice advocacy in the Appalachian region. Appalachia is big, and many regions have trouble connecting to broadband, or connecting with other small towns. This was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. I recall when Dr. East (Associate Professor and Director of Environmental Studies at W&J) sent me an application for a campus organizer position working with a program called Students Taking on Oil and Petrochemicals (STOP). The position called upon university students to take actions against the Ohio River-Valley Petrochemical boom. The goal was to bring together six students from six different universities throughout the Appalachian region to advocate for environmental justice. Together and independently, we would campaign on our college campuses in order to resist the expansion of this toxic industry. Read more about this program here.
Together, we have formed the Youth for Appalachia Climate Justice (YACJ), a new coalition formed as a space by and for young Appalachians to connect with other intersectional environmental activists in the region. We are here to empower youth and build coordinated climate justice actions and energy. Additionally, we have created our own definition of climate justice that expands beyond the traditional mainstream definitions to include housing justice, decolonization, anti-racism, food sovereignty, disability justice, and other work that centers around the life and liberation of Earth and her inhabitants. In order to launch our coalition, we are planning a conference entitled Energizing Future, Cultivating Change. This will be a one-day event to discuss how climate change and resistance impact the future of our region. The conference will be hosted on AccelEvents and if you are interested in supporting us register at this link.
While I have been working with STOP to form YACJ, I have also been planning an event at Washington & Jefferson College to empower our students to address regional and global climate issues centered around the petrochemical industry. Because W&J is politically diverse, I knew not everyone would be on board with stopping these industries. Additionally, I knew there would be challenges in appealing to the whole school. I realized that many folks don’t understand the connections between plastics and fossil fuel extraction. Thinking back to the beginning of how I found my passion for environmental justice advocacy, I realized that I needed to start this movement by educating my fellow peers about the environmental issues that affect us daily. Consequently, I embarked on developing W&J’s first annual Sustainability Summit.
My goal is that the Sustainability Summit will encourage members of our campus community to explore the intersectionalities between their interests and sustainability. I hope to ignite important conversations about environmental justice, sustainability, and climate change across campus in honor of Earth Day. Additionally and most importantly, I want to bring awareness to environmental justice issues that impact us on campus, in Appalachia, nationally, and globally. In order to accomplish this, I first began by reaching out to members of the W&J Sustainability Committee to rally support. I knew that other students and faculty who understand the importance of environmental issues would be more willing to advocate for hosting the summit. In addition to the Sustainability Committee, I began working with the Environmental Studies Program as well as the Office of Community Engagement (OCE). Together, we reached out to clubs and organizations on campus to see who would be interested in leading conversations about how sustainability intertwines with their clubs’ interests.
To my surprise, we received an overwhelming amount of support from students and faculty. Soon enough, I began working closely with student workers Kali Bunecicky (B.A. Neuroscience/ Concentration in Interfaith Leadership Studies ‘2021) and Kayla Stanczak (B.A. Neuroscience ‘2024) from the OCE to plan the full-day event. Thus far, numerous clubs and organizations have volunteered to present on sustainability and environmental justice issues including the Latin American Cultural Association, Biology Club, Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society, College Democrats, Black Student Union, Society of Physics Students, History Clubs and Jaybirds. Furthermore, we are very excited to announce our keynote speaker: urban revelation strategists and environmental justice advocate Majora Carter and our other guest speakers: Sharon Hodge from the Federal Republic of Germany, Léanne Bukuru from Refugee Voices, Environmental Program Alumni Grant Ervin ‘1999, Jake Meyers ‘2015, Lauren Horning ‘2015, and Jamie Mastropietro ‘2020, and last but not least Young Grugas from the Post-Landfill Action Network and the student co-founders of the Youth for Appalachian Climate Justice Coalition: Rachael Hood West Virginia University ‘2022, Baileigh Epperly Marshall University ‘2021, Lia Kahan Wooster College ‘2022, and myself. For more information about the Sustainability Summit please visit your MyW&J Dashboard.
My involvement with STOP and YACJ has empowered me to spark the movement that we need on campus in order to drive change. In addition to participating in the Sustainability Summit, students and faculty can make a difference by signing the Break Free from Plastics Campus Pledge here. Together, we can cultivate a zero-waste campus and stop the usage of single-use plastics that fuel the petrochemical industry. Students like us are essential in perpetuating and creating meaningful change towards environmental justice movements. By integrating this movement onto our campus, we will become leaders and changemakers in the global movement against these toxic industries.
If you are interested in making a difference in our region , please reach out to YACJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.