With Mason students to the rescue, Virginia Environmental Justice Summit is a go

It was March 16, just 12 days before the Virginia Environmental Justice Summit was scheduled to take place at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.

Given that George Mason University had cancelled all campus events, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was about to order a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed the event that several student groups at Mason had worked so hard to plan was in jeopardy. But at a meeting that day of the event’s planning committee, the decision was made to go forward—online.

“We decided to still have it because we had put in all the work and had the speakers confirmed and everything,” said Emma Gregory, a senior environmental science major and the event’s project leader. “We ultimately decided it will be worthwhile, especially now because people are looking for things to do.”

“It’s not like before, when people might have plans on a Saturday,” she added. “Now there are pretty much no plans.”

In a way, the change to an online presentation worked to the organizers’ advantage. Originally, the summit—9:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, with 13 speakers on the program—was capped at 70 people. Now with unlimited virtual space, more than 100 people have registered, Gregory said, with registrants from universities throughout Virginia, and including high school students and non-students as well. Get the details here.

The summit, which as far as anyone can determine is the first of its kind in Virginia, is a collaboration of several Mason groups: the Mason Environmental Justice Alliance, GMU Alpha Kappa Kai, Mason Green Patriots, and the Communications Graduate Students Association.

Planning committee members include freshman Hannah Adamson, a member of the Mason’s Honors College and a conflict analysis and resolution major; sophomore environmental science major Charlotte Joannidis; and senior environmental and sustainability studies major Sara Babcock.

“It demonstrates the value of a Mason education, and it affirms the commitment students have to take that knowledge and leverage it for the benefit of people and the planet,” said Ben Auger, the sustainability program manager of education and outreach for Mason’s Office of Sustainability, and an advisor to the summit planning committee along with Dann Sklarew, coordinator of sustainability initiatives. “It is incredibly inspiring that despite everything that’s happening with COVID-19, and how easy it would have been to say, ‘We can’t do it as planned, so we’re all done,’ the students came together and said, ‘This is so important, we refuse to give up.’ ”

Never giving up meant purchasing, with raised money, and figuring out how to use the Zoom video conferencing platform (a two-hour lesson) and twice testing the platform with each speaker to avoid glitches.

“We overcame a lot of barriers,” Gregory said.

The summit has several goals, she said.

First, she wants it to be the catalyst for a state network of student activists who will collaborate on projects. But she also hopes the summit will simply increase awareness of environmental justice issues.

“The reason we started this event is because we saw that the efforts for environmental justice in the state have been kind of fragmented,” Gregory said. “You might hear about pipelines being constructed through the middle of historically African American communities or mega landfills constructed right outside elementary schools or water-quality issues.”

“That’s why we want to host this event,” she said. “To bring students together throughout the state to create a network in which we can work together to bring about positive change for achieving environmental justice.”