Mason students plan environmental justice summit to engage students in Virginia and beyond


George Mason University students are finalizing their plans for the Virginia Environmental Justice Summit, a conference intended to engage students from Virginia and beyond on issues pertaining to the intersection of sustainability, the environment, race and social justice.

The conference will be held virtually on March 27, with a slate of speakers and discussions addressing environmental justice issues, such as racial inequities, food systems, pollution and local activism. Students interested in attending can register for free here. While the focus of the summit is engaging college students, other interested individuals are encouraged to attend.

“It’s free. It’s virtual. We’re trying to make it as accessible to as many people as possible,” said Sophia Chapin, an Honors College student and senior majoring in environmental science who helped plan the event. “We want to reach a wide audience because we believe the conference is a learning experience for everyone.”

The slate of speakers includes BeKura W. Shabazz, a well-known Newport News, Virginia, advocate on issues relating to environmental justice and social justice; Matt Coyle, local food systems coordinator for the Piedmont Environmental Council; Maction Komwa, an assistant professor at Mason’s College of Science; and Michael Gilmore, an associate professor in Mason’s School of Integrative Studies.

Anna Clark, a journalist for ProPublica, will also talk about the Flint water crisis, which she wrote about in her book, “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.” The keynote speaker is Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. There will be opportunities for discussions in breakout rooms.

One goal of the conference is for attendees to come away with specific ways to help, said Dasha Maslyukova, an Honors College student, University Scholar and a junior majoring in environmental sustainability studies.

“Students who attend the event will receive an action tool kit so they don’t just get cool information, they also have ways to apply what they’ve learned to their lives,” said Maslyukova, who helped plan the event.

The conference is a student-run initiative started by the Mason Environmental Justice Alliance. The planning committee is made up of undergraduate students, with support from graduate students, faculty and staff. The stated goals are to help others learn about environmental justice issues affecting Virginia communities, build advocacy and activism skills, and to provide opportunities to network with environmental activists from other universities.

“Environmental justice is a phrase a lot of people use, and it can be daunting, almost intimidating,” said Medhini Sosale, an Honors College student, University Scholar and a sophomore majoring in bioengineering who also helped plan the summit. “But this event is a way to get a basic understanding of what environmental justice is if you don’t know but want to know, and also a chance to explore in-depth specific interests related to environmental justice.”