Viewpoint - Fall 2017

Page 10


Q&A J essica H ernande z , ’ 1 7

Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse


the other classes in the school. But we were taking courses from Dr. Gino Aisenberg on oppression, transgression and microagression. We brought this idea to him. He helped get the graduate school to fund half of this course and talked to the College of the Environment about the other half.

essica Hernandez, ’17, a doctoral student in environmental and forest sciences, broke tradition in her department by creating a new course to teach her classmates about environmental injustice from the points of view of people of color. She titled

it “Decolonizing the Environmental Discourse.” Her experience with environmental injustice started in her childhood in her low-income Los Angeles neighborhood, where the air pollution was so bad, it exacerbated her asthma.

How do you decolonize the discourse of a subject like the environment?

Of the Ch’orti’ Nation of El Salvador and the Zapotec Nation and Yucateco Tribe in Mexico, her Indigenous background led to her master’s project researching how Indigenous peo-

The way I view decolonization is to give the voice to the voiceless, to the people who are doing the grassroots work out in their communities. My main goal was to bring those people to campus to speak on behalf of an issue. One week we focused on the rights of African Americans in Hurricane Katrina and Flint, Mich. I brought in a panel of black scholars. Every week, different people were invited to come in and tell their stories.

ple are addressing recent regional environmental-justice cases. She recently spoke with Hannelore Sudermann.

Why did you decide to study environmental science? I come from water nations, and I’ve learned a lot about the ocean from my family. I’ve always been interested in seeing how oceanography was taught in the Western academic sense. But I was also like any other undergraduate. I wanted to try out different things. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. My immersion in the STEM programs at Berkeley was pushing me towards it.

How was the class received? In the first quarter, I taught the class in the School of the Environment and Forest Sciences, and there were a lot of graduate students. At first I was intimidated, but they wanted to hear the voices of the community members themselves. I think through the class we were able to explore how environmental justice is a term that means different things to different people. They gave me great reviews afterward.

What prompted you to create this class? In graduate school I listen to a lot of research projects involving Indigenous people but in most of the projects the voices of indigenous people are missing. One example is a talk I attended by someone who had done work in the Yucatán. They were talking about Indigenous people, and that was my tribe. But their information wasn’t correct. At the time I didn’t know how to call them out or call them in.

Since arriving at the UW in 2015, Hernandez has completed two master’s degrees. This year, as a doctoral student, she has a research fellowship for environmental justice from the National Science Foundation. Learn more at

It was hard to get the class approved. Another student and I were told that there wasn’t funding for it and that it didn’t fit in with


V I E W P O I N T : : U Wa l u m . c o m / v i e w p o i n t


What was the process of creating the class like?