Exploring Environmental Justice and Joy at Albion College

Black Environmentalism students jump outside of Olin Hall. Every semester, students participate in educational activities aimed at broadening their understanding of the Black Environmentalism movement (Photo courtesy of Nels Christensen).

Since its introduction to the course catalog two years ago, Albion College’s Black Environmentalism course has grown in a variety of ways. Defined in the catalog as “an interdisciplinary exploration of past and present relationships between Black folks and the land,” the course analyzes differences between forms of environmentalism.

According to Detroit senior DJ Murray, “Environmentalism in itself has been a movement that’s dominated by predominantly white people. People of color’s voices have been minimized and pushed out.”

Associate English Professor Nels Christensen said he was inspired to teach the course after learning about controversies within the environmental movement, acknowledging the juxtaposition of identifying as a white male while teaching a class centered around Black environmentalism.

“It sounds weird because it’s weird for like a white person to be like, ‘I’m gonna teach you about your culture of Black people,’” Christensen said. “That is super problematic in all kinds of ways.”

Christensen said he aspires to provide historical insight to his students rather than teaching them from a lecture hall. 

Albion senior Madison Davis said the course is meant to be interactive and includes activities with bird flash cards, discussions about Black environmentalists and poetry readings such as Drew Lanham’s “Sparrow Envy.” The readings themselves are specifically chosen to include topics about the environment. 

“All of the readings are from people of color – once again, trying to get those voices heard and out there,” Murray said.

In addition to course readings, the class meets every Friday at the Whitehouse Nature Center (WNC). According to Albion College’s website, the nature center is meant “to stimulate awareness and understanding of our natural environments.” 

Echoing that sentiment, sophomore Gray Willig from Winona Lake, Ind., said that the lessons held at the nature center are what make the class feel more hands-on. They added that when they go to the WNC, Christensen will show them “actual live birds” and “different kinds of plants” that they talk about in class.

In addition to readings and discussions, students were taught to identify birds in the surrounding Albion area. Christensen said he chose this kind of engagement over reading a textbook for a specific reason.

“In the end, if you can learn how to identify ten birds, you’re basically learning how to pay attention to the world in a certain kind of way, and that skill can be translated into anything,” Christensen said. 

Alongside interactive activities, the course tackles issues such as racism and class. Murray said that, unlike other environmental-based courses, Black Environmentalism allows students to gain knowledge from different perspectives. 

“As a white person, my goal a lot of the time is just to gain a better understanding and a better perspective,” Davis said. “I feel like this class has helped me do that in a lot of ways.”

Despite teaching the class, Christensen said he finds himself in the position of a student at times.

“I’m inspired to do right by these students in a way that feels different to me than in my other classes. I’m pushing my boundaries and talking about really serious stuff, but in a way that is joyful,” Christensen said.

Christensen and his students stand in the WNC. Christensen said he tailors the curriculum to suit an outdoor environment, frequently pausing along trails to deliver lessons (Photo by Jake Ellsworth).

The deeper meanings found in the Black Environmentalism course are also emphasized by Christensen in ENGL 159, better known as Redneck Environmentalism. 

Christensen, who regards both classes as interconnected, said that he began the course to aid students in challenging the narrative surrounding white environmentalism.

“When we hear redneck, we hear racist, right? In that class, we just address that right on,” Christensen said. “If we could basically say all these folks who are farm kids, ranch kids and hunter types are actually already environmentalists and that they could shift their kind of thinking to think about like conservation and protection of the natural world, how amazing would that be?”

Eaton Rapids junior Riley Kunkel, who took Redneck Environmentalism last year, said he found the

Kunkel watches Christensen run with a tree branch in an effort to swing on it. Redneck Environmentalism, last taught in fall of 2022, takes place outside in the WNC rather than in a classroom (Photo by Katherine Simpkins).

journaling activities in the class interesting.

“At least once a week, we’d go out to the nature center and just sit there and document what we were feeling,” Kunkel said. “Then we’d just read it and by the semester we all had something super beautiful written that we were proud of because there’s that connection with nature that you often overlook.”

In addition to reading books from authors like bell hooks, the class focuses on intersectional environmentalism. Kunkel defined the term as “the intersection between environmentalism and social issues such as race, gender and sexuality.” 

Kunkel added that it helped him tie together the effects of climate change and systematic oppression. 

“Part of moving forward is liberating these groups from their oppressive states that they’ve been systemically put in by white people,” Kunkel said, adding that it’s “a great class and a great learning experience. At the end of the day, I think everybody takes away a lot from one another.”

About Killian Altayeb 25 Articles
Killian Altayeb is from Novi, Michigan and is a second-year student at Albion College. They are a Biochemistry Major with a journalistic interest in all things public health. Contact Killian via email at NA12@albion.edu.

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