By: Lizzie Avila

On June 30, we held our fifth Virtual Happy Hour in the midst of racial tensions between police and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. We think this is a very important time to use this platform to examine the relationship between environmental issues and racial and social inequities and to encourage honest conversations about this topic.

Our guest speaker was Lilian Chang, a rising senior at Mills High School and the Chair of the Environmental Justice Committee of the San Mateo County Youth Commission (SMCYC). Lilian kicked off the Happy Hour with a thought-provoking and inspiring presentation on the work she has done through SMCYC in high schools around San Mateo County, with the goal of uniting school efforts against climate change.

She emphasized that schools should offer access and equality to all. She noted that when schools stand together against climate change and social inequities, they have the power to set the standard for environmental justice within our communities. Lilian provided examples of leadership that young people have shown to accelerate sustainability on all fronts. These served as the springboard to some very productive discussions on environmental justice and youth.

Environmental justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Climate change and poor environmental conditions disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities in many ways: from health issues stemming from lower air and water quality to education inequality and food injustice.

During break-out discussions, participants reflected upon the following questions: What role do elementary and high schools have in addressing environmental justice? What solutions can be kickstarted through youth and schools?

Several participants highlighted the importance of incorporating environmental literacy and education in schools at very young age through simple lessons and projects that are easy to comprehend and apply.  Examples given included a guide to recycling, a lesson on protecting watershed areas and learning about injustices like the Flint water crisis in Michigan. Participants agreed that curriculum related to the environment and environmental justice should be unified so that every child has access to the same knowledge.

San Mateo County’s Office of Education launched an Environmental and Sustainability Initiative in 2017 that has received state and federal recognition for its comprehensive environmental offerings, which include opportunities for students, teachers and administrators to delve into issues related to environmental justice.

A question that was brought up in one of the breakout rooms involved the disparities in access to environmental experiences like field trips and outdoor recreation based on both school funding and the cost and time barriers to working class families. Participants overwhelmingly stressed the importance of access for all.

Calista Triantis, a current intern with SSMC, brought up a very relevant quote from David Sobel that reads, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” We concluded that a strong sense of place and commitment to the environment is something that stems from meaningful, “hands-on” experiences, not from learned facts and statistics.

Another topic that was brought up during our discussion was the argument of whether or not our next generation should be raised “color-blind,” to just see people rather than race, and to love all equally. The group concluded that, while this is a nice sentiment, it is impossible to do in practice without erasing years of systemic racism and history that still pervade our society today. Instead, we concluded that while children should be taught to love each other equally and to love the planet, it is also crucial to have difficult discussions about the unfairness of the world and the inequities that exist and will unfortunately continue to exist into the foreseeable future.

We ended this month’s Happy Hour feeling inspired by the strength and determination of youth today, and hopeful that with older generations’ listening and support, they will streamline solutions for a more sustainable future for everyone, regardless of race or income. We hope you will be able to join one of our future Happy Hours. Stay tuned for the next one, planned for July and likely focusing on Energy Resiliency. More information coming soon!



Lizzie Avila is a freshman studying Earth Systems at Stanford University. She is very interested in environmental education, outreach, NGO management, environmental justice in low income communities, and research. Lizzie is serving as a summer intern with Sustainable San Mateo County.