Environmental Studies

SF State initiative builds justice leaders who advocate for most vulnerable to climate change

Climate Justice Leaders Initiative takes interdisciplinary approach to tackle multifaceted climate crisis

San Francisco State University launches its Climate Justice Leaders Initiative (CJLI) to better equip the University’s powerfully diverse student body to become climate justice leaders who center their work around equity. The overarching goal of the initiative is to build leaders who understand the inequities of climate change and who can advocate for and create strategies that include the communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

“Our campus is diverse, meaning many of our students have lived experiences of dealing with climate change inequities,” said Kai Burrus, co-director of the Climate HQ campus hub that promotes and supports climate-related activities across the University, including CJLI. “This initiative helps students draw from their experience and combine that with academic training to fight climate change on behalf of their communities across California and the world.”

CJLI is also interdisciplinary, bringing students and faculty together across different majors and academic colleges to address the climate crisis. The initiative is designed that way because climate change is a multifaceted, complex issue that requires people with different skills working together. Yet, people tend to work in siloes and those that have the skills critical to fighting climate change are often overlooked.

“We can’t depend exclusively on people in natural sciences and technology professions to address climate change. It’s an ‘everyone’ problem,” Burrus said. “We need to break those disciplinary barriers so that people across backgrounds can come together for one cause. Universities play a unique role in breaking down those siloes.”

Key CJLI programs that will roll out over the next five years include:

  • Climate Justice Education Certificate for pre-K-12 teaching: The 12-unit program will train aspiring teachers to understand and teach climate justice issues relevant to the communities they work with. It will also develop, test and share new approaches to climate justice education.

  • Expand the recently launched Interdisciplinary Certificate in Climate Change Causes, Impacts and Solutions: In Fall 2021, the University launched a certificate to give students a foundational understanding of the causes and effects of climate change along with mitigation and adaption solutions, with an emphasis on social justice. The University is now expanding the certificate to include a capstone experience so that students can get out of the classroom and apply what they learn toward real-life issues. One of those ways will be a newly developed service-learning class in which students become ambassadors who promote, communicate and take action on climate change within the campus and beyond.

  • Create a new Metro College Success Program advising pathway for climate change: Metro was developed to support students from historically marginalized backgrounds within their first two years of college. The program has proven to be a success as 64 percent of Metro students make it to their third year (compared to 55 percent of students who are not part of the Metro program and are also from historically marginalized backgrounds). To inspire more students from historically marginalized backgrounds to explore careers that address climate change, there will be a new advising pathway that steers Metro students to the Certificate in Climate Change Causes, Impacts and Solutions. 

  • Expansion of course offerings: CJLI also creates a framework for expanding the number of interdisciplinary courses across the University that have climate justice as a common theme, setting up a campus-wide approach to climate justice.

CJLI’s launch will be supported by a generous grant from SF State Foundation Board Chair and alumna Neda Nobari.

“These initiatives will catalyze change throughout the Bay Area and beyond, resulting in more effective climate change solutions that are truly comprehensive and inclusive. By focusing on transformative changes that center equity, CJLI aligns with what Neda sees as SF State’s vital contribution to the defining challenge of our time,” Burrus explained.

Faculty consulted a panel in developing CJLI that included students like senior Sophia Benzoni, an Environmental Studies and English double major. Benzoni contributed input for the first climate certificate as well by collaborating with faculty to weigh the climate focus of different courses and decide which ones would be good candidates for the certificate requirements.

“Going to the student panel and hearing that professors from all kind of walks of life and different areas of the campus were also on board with the ideas that students have was really encouraging,” she said. “Because I also think that working with different people from the campus community is way more effective than trying to do something alone.”

Learn more about the Climate Justice Leaders Initiative on the Climate HQ website.

Story republished from SF State News

Samanta publishes feminist appraisal of federal bureaucracy

Aritree Samanta

Aritree Samanta, assistant professor of Environmental Studies in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, recently published a co-authored article in the journal Perspectives on Public Management and Governance on “Gender Ramifications of a Weberian Bureaucracy: A Feminist Appraisal of the United States Department of Agriculture.”

In this article, Samanta and Shilpa Viswanath, assistant professor of public management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, take a critical feminist perspective to evaluate federal bureaucracies, in particular the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Viswanath and Samanta challenge the notion of a gender-neutral bureaucracy and argue that federal institutions, especially the USDA, are designed to serve “men” that lead to serious ramifications for policy design and provision of public services. This is the first critical feminist appraisal of the USDA, one of the largest federal bureaucracies. Viswanath and Samanta also include a description of decades of systemic discrimination and civil rights violations undertaken by the various USDA agencies based on gender, race, ethnicity and immigration.

Faculty-student research team publishes report on travelers and climate action

cover of report on travelers and climate

Aritree Samanta, assistant professor of Environmental Studies in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, was part of a team that recently published a report titled, “Frequent Travelers, Climate and What to Do: Travelers Share Their Thoughts.” The team was led by Paige Viren, executive director of Sustainable Hospitality Management at CSU Monterey Bay and former associate professor in SF State’s Department of Recreation, Parks & Tourism.

The report presents the results from a worldwide survey launched by the research team in partnership with the United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO) on the occasion of  World Environment Day in 2021. In the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, 2021, tourism businesses, destinations and associations were invited to participate in this Global Survey of Climate Action in Tourism. Preliminary results informed the content of one of the panels organized by UNWTO at COP 26. 

A team of students have played an integral part in the project. One of Viren’s former graduate students (at East Carolina University), Daniel Pilgreen, who is now pursuing his Ph.D. in Recreation, Park & Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M, assisted with supervising three SF State undergraduate students: Mandalyn Kime and Brianna Canizales, both SF State Recreation, Parks & Tourism graduates, and Anya Zabaneh, a Biology major who minored in Recreation, Parks & Tourism.

The objective of this global survey is to better understand the ongoing climate action efforts in the tourism sector and identify front running initiatives and opportunities to accelerate climate action. It is implemented within the framework of the Sustainable Tourism Programme of the One Planet Network. Working as part of an interdisciplinary team of university and industry stakeholder, the project provided students with  the opportunity to contribute to a real-world problem and build relationships with faculty and industry for employment, professional networking, graduate school applications/research experience and professional skills. 

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‘Solar suitcases’ deliver hands-on experience to an environmental justice course

Jin Zhu and Autumn Thoyre with solar suitcase

Environmental Studies student Jin Zhu and Assistant Professor Autumn Thoyre with one of the solar suitcases (Photo by Jim Block)

In a conference room at a Stockton training center last July, Daly City middle school teacher Leland Oshins learned how to connect the wires, ports and circuits in a portable solar-power kit and reviewed materials that would help teach his students about electricity. He and about 20 fellow trainees also learned that the innovative educational program We Share Solar, an arm of the nonprofit We Care Solar, would send the assembled “solar suitcases” to remote schools, orphanages and refugee centers across the developing world, where they’d help meet critical needs like powering medical equipment, lights and water purifiers. Oshins left the training inspired.

“I hadn’t realized that the project was reaching into the classroom but also reaching beyond the classroom,” he says — teaching the kids about energy but also actually bringing power to developing countries.

Unfortunately, back at Thomas R. Pollicita Middle School, the logistics weren’t adding up. Oshins had 11 of the blue teaching suitcases and 180 students — five sixth-grade classes and one seventh grade. He felt deflated. “I’m not going to be able to teach all of my kids all these complicated instructions,” he remembers thinking. Unable to find support, he was ready to give up.

But during a last-ditch call to We Share Solar, his liaison told him that a professor at San Francisco State had just gotten involved in the program — maybe she’d have an idea. He shot her an email, and indeed, Autumn Thoyre, an environmental studies faculty member in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, confirmed that she’d be training her students to lead the classroom project. Could she send them over to help him out?

“I was like, ‘Yes, please!’” recounts Oshins, who is currently earning his regular teaching credential at SF State while teaching full-time as an intern at Pollicita. After that, he says, all the pieces came together. “It just felt like kismet.”

The partnership crystalized the solar suitcase project’s expansion to SF State. Launched in 2015 as a pilot at Cal State East Bay, the service-learning program gives CSU students training in solar suitcase assembly, then dispatches them to local middle and high schools to provide hands-on classroom guidance. The outcomes are richly layered: undergraduates get both service-learning and science-teaching experience; community schools get a meaningful, hands-on science project; and University faculty get an exciting, well-supported project around which they can develop their own curricula.

“I wanted a course that would think about energy systems in the context of environmental justice.”

New course, new direction

“It’s the kind of project that as an environmental studies professor, it’s really hard to pass up,” says Thoyre, who joined the College of Health & Social Sciences’ faculty in Fall 2016. After completing her first year, she was prepping a new Fall ’17 course when Karina Garbesi, the director of Cal State East Bay’s successful solar suitcase pilot, contacted her about including SF State in an expansion of the project. Thoyre had already organized her newly approved Energy Justice and Sustainability (ENVS 460) course around a different project, but she started rejiggering almost immediately. “Within a week I’d said, ‘I’m on board,’” she remembers.

“I wanted a course that would think about energy systems in the context of environmental justice,” says Thoyre, whose research is on energy policy and climate-change activist groups. She adjusted her curriculum to unify the suitcase initiative with her project “People’s Guide to Energy,” in which her students’ research on energy injustice sites is organized geographically on an interactive map. The connection was natural — one activity analyzes a problem and one develops a solution, she says.

Each training suitcase contains a booklet with step-by step instructions designed for middle school-level and up. There are interactive “Check for understanding” interludes to teach students about electricity while they assemble the apparatus and connect it to a solar cell that lives outside the case. The kit even comes with an LED bulb for testing the assembled power source.

The program, which partners with PG&E, added four additional CSUs this academic year. But the others are all based in physics classes. One of the benefits of the social science lens, Thoyre says, is that she can push her students to analyze renewable energy from a societal perspective — what problems does it solve, and what does it perpetuate? They explore gray areas like who has control over resources and what that means.

“Sometimes so-called ‘clean’ energy has problems,” she says. “If a project isn’t perfect, how do they make it better?”

Lighting up the classroom

In implementation mode at Pollicita, Oshins splits up his classes into small groups, posting one of Thoyre’s students at each one. By the end of two weeks, all 180 kids had built the suitcases from start to finish. Some kids even got an extra turn.

“They got really good with it. They could put this thing together in under an hour,” Oshins says.

He was especially gratified to see that hands-on building was a way for students who were not as strong at more traditional classroom activities to excel. One of his seventh-graders, Rafat, had trouble focusing and often acted out in class. “He gets yelled at a lot,” Oshins confesses. But Rafat quickly connected with his SF State mentor, Nathan Wong, and with the project itself.

“Rafat just nailed it. He worked his way through the build in no time at all, and was just so excited,” Oshins says. “I wish I could have taken a picture of his face — you could see how ecstatic he was to build something with his own hands, to really figure it out. He wanted to build it again — he was upset when the period ended.”

Thoyre’s students created a lot of moments like that, Oshins says. “In a relatively short amount of time, maybe 40 minutes, they were able to accomplish something really big for these kids.”

The project’s social dimensions go deeper than just different learning styles. We Share Solar originally designed the project to engage students from underrepresented groups — students of color, from low-income or immigrant families, and females — in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Students who get involved in science projects with a social justice component are more likely to get interested and stay interested, Thoyre says, citing a growing body of research.

And the culturally diverse middle-schoolers, many of them from working class, low-income or immigrant homes, saw role models in the SF State students. “There’s power in having college students from the same socioeconomic background as the classroom kids share their passion and show what it’s possible to achieve,” she says.

Katya Amezcua and LisaMarie Betancourt test the circuit

SF State students Katya Amezcua (left) and LisaMarie Betancourt use a digital multimeter to test the circuit on the solar suitcase they have just built. (Photo by Ernita Joaquin)

Reaching further into the community

Jin Zhu worked late the night before his scheduled visit to Oshins’ classroom, slept through his alarm, and missed the session. He was crushed. The environmental studies major, a newly transferred junior from Skyline Community College, has a passion for the suitcase project, including working with kids.

As a San Francisco native whose parents emigrated from Hunan Province to work in his grandfather’s Chinese restaurant chain, Zhu understands the value of his presence for some of the school kids. He was the first in his family to go to college, and hadn’t had a lot of role models or parental coaching to suggest careers outside the restaurant arena.

“Basically my parents just said, ‘Anything but restaurant work. Find a good civil service job so you can make a living,’” Zhu says. But college and the enthusiasm of his professors, including Thoyre, were opening his eyes more rewarding possibilities.

Determined to make up the fieldwork, Zhu used his own connections, did his own outreach, and brought the project to third graders at Boys and Girls Clubs in both Millbrae and San Bruno. His ingenuity also rescued a few of his classmates who’d missed their teaching day, and together with this SF State posse, he delivered a customized training, devising age-appropriate examples to teach electricity basics. His piece de resistance was a fart-based explanation on how electrons flow. He also included the social justice component.

“I wanted them to see their own privilege compared to kids in developing countries,” he says. He gave them examples of what energy is used for that they could easily understand — like seeing in the dark to remove a painful splinter or finish homework — “And then I emphasized: People don’t all have the same stuff you guys do.”

The kids loved it. “When they plugged in the light bulb, they were like, ‘Oh my god, we did it! That’s so cool!’” Zhu recounts. He especially loved how they took basic concepts and ran with them, asking questions like “Can moonlight charge it?” They wanted to show their families, and one girl asked to bring the suitcase overseas herself, “so that she could ‘see the people over there using it,” Zhu says. “It was really heartwarming.”

Like Oshins, Zhu observed that some of the kids who’d been labeled troublemakers were exceling in the hands-on activity. “So I told them, ‘If you want to do this in the future, there are jobs like this, where you put things together, and it’s an awesome job.’”

Switching on new ideas

Zhu is hooked. He plans to do more solar suitcase visits with the Boys and Girls Club. Encouraged by Thoyre’s support, he’s considering customizing an internship around his efforts, and is even eying a teaching career.

The project has also altered Thoyre’s academic trajectory, accelerating her timeline for incorporating service learning into her classes. She’s considering turning ENVS 460 into a service-learning class, and that idea is percolating up other possibilities, like training students to do simple energy audits, then sending them into the field to help low-income households find savings. “They’d learn some practical skills but also make a difference,” she says.

For now, Thoyre looks forward to hearing from We Share Solar about where last semester’s suitcases landed, to cement the value of the class.

“It’s not just that the students learn hard skills and soft skills,” she says, referring to assembling electronics and mentoring children. “They are also literally creating renewable energy. They’re actually helping people in the world have access to energy who really need it.”

Going even broader, Thoyre points to the powerful symbolism that even a middle-schooler can build a solar suitcase. A lot of her students arrive with a preconception that renewable energy isn’t used more because the technology isn’t far enough along, she says. “Once you demystify the engineering aspect of solar energy, it puts the focus back on policies and economics and social norms and those larger question of what kind of energy systems we’re using.”