Student instructors (l-r): Whitney Mgbara, Aidee Guzman, Rosalie Z. Fanshel, Kenzo Esquivel, Phoebe Parker-Shames
Student instructors (l-r): Whitney Mgbara, Aidee Guzman, Rosalie Z. Fanshel, Kenzo Esquivel, Phoebe Parker-Shames

When the Graduate Division messaged graduate students in July about a spring 2021 award recognizing institutional change, we did not yet have a process in place for accepting submissions or awarding funds. “We knew we wanted to provide graduate students with needed funds to affect anti-racist change in their departments,” shared Assistant Dean Denzil Streete, “but we hadn’t yet figured out exactly how that process would look.” Shortly after receiving the Division’s email, a group of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) students emailed Dr. Streete with a request for funding to support an innovative new class within their department that would bring faculty, staff and students together. That email led Dr. Streete to create the Dean’s Diversity Innovation Fund to support student-led initiatives just like the one the students proposed.

This graduate-level class, “Critical Engagements in Anti-Racist Environmental Scholarship,” was born out of ongoing exchanges in the Rausser College of Natural Resources to improve teaching, mentoring, research ethics, communications, and college climate for Black students in ESPM, and recruitment and retention efforts of scholars of color. In response to a letter from graduate students in the ESPM Graduate Diversity Council with demands for departmental action, faculty responded by affirming their department’s commitment to anti-racist trainings and improvements in teaching, research, and mentorship efforts within the program.

As part of the ongoing discourse, a graduate student working group was formed to co-create a 200-level course that would engage students, faculty, postdocs, and staff in examining anti-racism in environmental scholarship in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The student instructors, Aidee Guzman, Whitney Mgbara, Kenzo Esquivel, Rosalie Z. Fanshel, and Phoebe Parker-Shames, expressed appreciation for the support they’re received from the department, from Alastair Iles, the instructor of record, and for the active engagement of the 14 faculty, 25 graduate students, two postdocs and staff member who enrolled: “They are showing up and meeting our commitment with their commitment,” shared Fanshel. 

The pacing of the course has allowed participants to slowly unpack their preconceptions and biases: “This type of learning and unlearning requires time and space,” acknowledged Esquivel. “Creating that regular meeting space every week for all of us to come together with assigned readings creates structure to do this learning together,”

According to the group, the shared learning environment has been a positive example of co-learning in the department. “A community is already being developed out of the class,” said Mgbara. “Some of the grad students have shared how empowering it is when faculty have said, ‘Oh, I like your question and I want to know the answer. I also don’t know the answer to that myself.’”

The funds from the Graduate Division’s award have been used to compensate BIPOC guest speakers who have shared their scholarship and experiences with the class, with topics ranging from environmental justice to afrofuturism to creating a new culture in academia through micro affirmations as a counter balance to microaggressions. The financial compensation of guest lecturers reflects the core philosophy of the class. “Part of the process of trying to center BIPOC scholars is also paying them for this work,” explained Parker-Shames. “So often, it’s expected that that labor just falls on scholars of color without paying for that labor.”

The student instructors see ESPM, the third largest department at UC Berkeley, as a force for change at the university. In a mid-semester evaluation, the class received overwhelmingly positive feedback and Guzman, the course’s graduate student instructor, anticipates its return in the 2021 academic year.There’s talk about a first-year seminar that all graduate students have to take, and using part of this course for that. There’s been talk about requiring faculty to take it in the coming year. […] This course is being used — or portions of it — in all different forms in different projects.”

Ryann Madden, one of the department’s Graduate Student Affairs Officers and the only enrolled staff member, echoed this sentiment: “I wish this was a class that every faculty and staff member was required to take.”

To see the course syllabus, please fill out this short form and a member of the teaching team will contact you.

To submit your own proposal for creating and/or facilitating anti-racism initiatives within your programs or in support of fellow graduate students, visit the Dean’s Diversity Innovation Fund webpage.