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As an environmental science minor, I chose the Portland DukeEngage program because of its theme of sustainability and environmentalism. I wanted to experience living in one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the U.S. When I read the list of community partners, I was immediately drawn to the ones that were based on the ecology side of environmental science — places like the Nature Conservancy and Friends of Trees. But as I did more research into all of the organizations and thought about it more, I decided I wanted to challenge myself and dive into an topic that I really had no previous knowledge of. Before my internship, “environmental justice” was a topic I had never heard of, even though I have taken environmental classes.


What is environmental justice? Based off the name, I first assumed it was bringing equality to everyone when installing sustainable systems that are more expensive, like dual flush toilets or insulated buildings. I thought that, since those things might be more expensive, lower-class people might be pushed out of their homes due to increases in rent…or something like that. I didn’t really know, but I wanted to find out. So I listed OPAL Environmental Justice as my number one choice. Luckily, I got the opportunity to work with them.


Once I got in touch with my supervisor, I was given a reading to familiarize myself with their definition of environmental justice, and it completely turned around my whole idea of what environmental justice was. I learned that environmental justice examines how people experience their lived environment. “Environment” took on a completely different meaning.


When I applied to DukeEngage Portland, I thought I would be helping to protect trees, rivers, and mountains–the things people first think of when they hear the term “environmental science.” To me, protecting those things is what “environmental science” meant. But now I understand that environmental science can be more than that. I am part of a movement that protects the people, communities, and the environments in which we all live, work, learn, pray and play.