Women and the Climate Justice Movement at USF

Last semester’s nature immersion class at Point Reyes National Seashore. PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH WHITWAM

Women, especially women of color, have historically played an instrumental role in environmental activism. For Women’s History Month, the Foghorn is reflecting on how women at USF are forging a better future through intersectional environmental activism on campus and beyond.  

Since the 1970s, environmental researchers have recognized a coinciding relationship between society’s exploitation of women and its exploitation of the environment. In the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a 17 item plan that outlines necessary steps for a more sustainable future, gender equality is named as a “necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.” 

Media studies professor Dorothy Kidd has been involved in this movement for most of her life, first participating in youth activism and research in the 1970s. “There was this idea in the 1970s that not only did we need to be feminist to change the world, but we needed to have an understanding of changing the environment,” said Kidd. 

Kidd continues to advocate for environmental justice through her research on extractivism, the removal of large quantities of natural materials for export. In addition to her research, Kidd centers environmental issues and communications in her teaching.

Adrienne Johnson, an environmental studies professor, also works to incorporate climate justice in her classes. “I’ve designed and taught a class on gender and the environment and I really hope students take away that environmental issues are highly political ones,” she said. “I employ an intersectional lens, meaning I hope students walk away understanding how your personal identity can shape to what extent you have access to a healthy environment or not.” 

Though climate change affects everyone, women are exceedingly vulnerable to the effects of environmental destruction. Damage to the environment puts women at an increased susceptibility to health ailments, such as malaria and the Zika virus, which are linked to miscarriages and anemia in women. 

Women are also spatially and socially affected by climate change. The UN estimates that 80% of people displaced as a result of environmental destruction are women. Additionally, a 2020 study published by the British Medical Journal found that natural disasters increase the rate of gender-based violence for women and girls. Johnson’s current research centers around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the oil extraction industry. 

On campus, female students are also actively working to promote climate justice. Hiveminders is a woman-led and BIPOC run environmental student group that practices beekeeping on campus. Hiveminders President and fourth-year environmental studies major Miya Stephanoff described the club as a “safe space for queer BIPOC students.” 

Stephanoff said that mindfulness plays a central role in the club’s operations. “It is simply a joyous and wholesome time, which is something necessary but not often found,” she said. “Our club focuses on making those joyous moments happen which is its own form of climate activism.” 

Current research suggests that the practice of mindfulness can serve as a form of environmental activism. According to the American Psychological Association, the practice can help facilitate a stronger connection to the environment and subsequently promote more sustainable behaviors.

Another woman and non-binary led student organization on campus is BIPOC for the Environment. The club was started at USF in 2018 after its founder, USF class of 2020 alumna Darla Mariduena, identified a lack of diversity in USF’s environmental departments. The club works to expand the presence of people of color in the environmental programs on campus, as well as in the movement as a whole. 

“It’s important to be educated and involved in order to salvage our communities and our homes,” said Beatrice Johnson-Drysdale, third-year engineering major and the club’s director of operations. “Women have a nurturing and empathetic gift that we need more of in environmental activism if we want to make our earth a more sustainable place.” 

Other environmental clubs at USF, like the Environmental Engineering and Science Club, and Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS), are also led by women. 

Outside of campus clubs, students like Rachel Struer, a fourth-year environmental studies major, are highly involved in environmental activism. Struer works in the Office of Sustainability and previously worked as a teaching assistant for nature immersion, a class that promotes deepening people’s connection to nature through class trips in Northern California. 

The class is taught by environmental studies professor Kim Carfore, who specializes in the relationship between women and the environment. “[Carfore] focuses a lot of her work and in our class on slowing down and pulling ourselves out of all the little distractions and different tugs that our modern, technological, capitalist world teases us with,” Struer said. “[We] just back into ourselves and then out into the real, tangible, beautiful world.” 

Stephanoff also expressed admiration for Carfore and the female faculty in the environmental studies department. “Novella Carpenter and Kim Carfore are two professors who have inspired me to live with climate justice close to my heart,” she said. “They encouraged me to find and listen to my intuition which has already led me to connect with so many powerful women on campus who all care so deeply for the environment.” 

The empathetic influence of women in environmental activism is something Struer said she admires. “[Women] focus on the fact that this place is our home and we are all connected together,” she said. “It’s empathy that will move us forward.” 


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