Environmental Justice

To consider the climate crisis without focusing on equity would be ignoring both its causes and its impact on the global majority.  Learning from the various tech companies at HULA made it clear that BCL10 students deeply understand that at the root of the problem is injustice. The health of the planet and the wellness of all people are intimately connected. 

Learning in BCL is all about making connections. In the past few weeks, BCL10 students have explored the threads that connect global disasters (e.g., the earthquake in Syria/Turkey, the war in Ukraine, slave labor in Congo, etc.), ongoing tragedies in the U.S. (the chemical spill in Ohio,  waste storage controversies in Texas, ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana), and issues that are closer to home (inequities in Burlington’s housing and transportation systems, our own toxic post-industrial legacy, etc.). At HULA, students used Van Jones’ TED Talk as a core text. His words resonated with students, many of whom hadn’t fully understood the relationship between how we treat the Earth and how we treat the most marginalized and vulnerable. 

Something that Van Jones said that I found really important is when he mentioned that the poor are most likely to be in more danger because being poor means buying cheaper items/products and materials which means that they are more prone to dangerous, and poisonous plastics… “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people”(Jones, 2010). Van Jones then goes on to say 

“We don’t have disposable resources. We don’t have disposable species. And we don’t have disposable people, either. We don’t have a throwaway planet, and we don’t have throwaway children — it’s all precious.” We only have one life and one planet, and we can’t be destroying it like the we’ve been doing so far. As Jones says, “If you create a world where you don’t trash people, you can’t trash the planet…”

– Shayer

BCL10 brought this framework, and this critical eye, to our collaborations with mission-driven companies. These businesses work hard to live their values, while also turning a profit. This is a challenging balance to achieve, but everyone we spoke with shared remarkable self-awareness. These business leaders know that it is a hard path to walk, and they were open to discussing those challenges. 

At HULA Lakeside, Rob Conboy shared a question that his company is actively grappling with: Glavel is a company with a powerful commitment to social justice, however while Rob wants people to be aware of that commitment, he doesn’t want to feel like Glavel is leveraging its ethics for the sake of sales and marketing. Students partnered with Rob in open dialogue, and explored this complex dilemma with fresh eyes.

The next day, BCL10 met in our classroom with Vermont Green FC (VTGFC). VTGFC introduced parallel dilemmas:  

  • “How do we use social media to effectively and positively grow our business, our culture, and most importantly our mission goals–especially in a way that reaches and connects to youth and young adults.”  
  • “What can we do beyond our current operations to continue blurring the lines between sports fandom and addressing climate change and other major issues facing our society and youth?”

As students engaged with VTGFC’s question, they immediately felt the resonance with Rob Conboy’s earlier dilemmas. In both situations, a company is reflecting on how to tell its story in a way that is authentic, and how to align its values with its message. 

Patrick Infurna, Garrett Lillie, and Spenser Powell introduced Vermont Green’s dilemmas…
…and then listened as students offered their unique insight.

To round out our exploration of the role of mission-driven companies’ role in helping make a better world, we spent a day at Beta Technologies. Before we even stepped through Beta’s doors, it was clear that climate justice, environmental justice, and human rights are intimately connected. 

Minutes later, students using the bathroom saw further evidence of the culture Beta is trying to nurture.

BETA isn’t just a good business because they are working towards a clean environment. They built a community within. When touring the establishment people bring their pets and we even saw one person bring their baby. When they work they look like they actually enjoy spending their time there. Everyone seemed to have a place and enjoyed being there. 

– Sasha

Beta’s core mission, of course, is to unlock the potential of electric aviation. It was amazing to be in a building where every employee, every project, and every space was dedicated to this singular goal. Our remarkable hosts, Sarah DeShaw, Brian Jenkins and Aaron Grossman, invited BCL10 students to tour Beta’s campus, to walk on the tarmac at Burlington international Airport, and even to fly around Burlington in the flight simulator. (The “sim” was awesome, but for some students, the highlight was the homemade chili lunch!) Jen Cirillo and Andrea Estey from Shelburne Farms joined us for the day, and they both reflected on our visit:

Visiting BETA was a fascinating inside look at what it means to innovate an industry like aviation—it doesn’t just mean building electric airplanes, but building an entirely new infrastructure to support the system. I was left pondering the incredible amount of resources it takes to get a new technology off the ground. Experimentation, even for the ultimate “good” of people and planet, leaves a footprint. It was a special experience to be there alongside BCL, and I hope it showed students that it’s possible to disrupt even the biggest industries. There’s a world of solutions waiting to be discovered.

– Andrea Estey – Shelburne Farms Communications and Education Marketing Coordinator 

Jen Cirillo (Shelburne Farms) and Signe on the tarmac.  (Photo courtesy of Andre Estey)

From the moment we walked into the door it was clear that the culture at BETA was intentional and nurtured.  In each space people talked about creativity, inspiration from nature and using nature’s principles, and shared vision.  We experience the culture explicitly through the conversation and tour and implicit culture presents itself through small interactions, a shared meal and the design of the spaces.

Jen Cirillo – Shelburne Farms Director of Professional Learning

BCL students also reflected on their experience at Beta and environmental justice. Their quotes, and Andrea’s photos, help tell the story of our experience.

Sarah and Shacar discussing the unique Beta-designed motor.  

Brian reverse engineers Beta’s battery.
Brian teaches Summer and Sasha how to fly the simulator.

I think Beta does a great job with environmental justice because their whole idea is to be environmentally friendly.

Walter gives Jayde a ride up over Burlington.

I think Beta addresses environmental justice in a good way. Just how they use these engines and how they make them on their own and also what it takes to have them run and how everything has to “click”.

– Jayde
Ethan checking out the biomimicry in Alia’s design: The underlying structure of an arctic tern.

They addressed it in a way that has a lot of economic potential. Their goal of having anything and everything they’re involved in to be 100% clean energy really showed their commitment towards their goal.

– Ethan
Djani about to head out over Lake Champlain.

I think that Beta is trying their best to address environmental justice. They are trying to make a new way of flying and trying to make it as sustainable as possible.

– Kiernan
Post-lunch discussion about the experience at Beta.

I like the environment there, and I also like my experience on the simulator. It was cool to feel like flying a plane but not at risk of crashing the plane in real life. 

– Moe
Habiba feeling confident flying over Burlington…before Ngang watches her crash the plane!

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