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A look at environmental privilege with social worker Christina Erickson

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Portrait of Christina EricksonWhether it’s popping up in social media news feeds or emerging in conversations held around the dinner table, the concept of “privilege” is rising in the public consciousness. “Privilege has become a serious area of inquiry in recent years,” said Augsburg Professor of Social Work Christina Erickson. “White privilege and male privilege have hit the spotlight, as have racial disparities in policing and the #MeToo movement highlighting harassment and sexual assault. Environmental privilege is a related phenomenon, and, while it seems to be an understudied area of privilege (and not the only one), it is still important, probably more than we realize.”

Erickson teaches courses in environmental justice and social change, and she’s taking on the challenge of exploring environmental privilege in greater depth. She is the author of “Environmental Justice as Social Work Practice,” a textbook designed to bring an understanding of environmental privilege into social work curricula.

Q: How do you describe environmental privilege?
A: Environmental privilege is having access to a resource simply because of your social identity categories—race, age, gender, income, and geography. Studies have shown that if you have a higher income, you likely have more green space near your home, work, or school. Not to mention owning a cabin, attending summer camp, or even seeing people who look like you at our most beautiful natural spaces. If you use all the water you want for your daily self care and other activities without thinking about it, you have environmental privilege.

Q: Is environmental justice similar to social justice and, if so, how?
A: Environmental justice and social justice are intricately linked in ways that we have only begun to discover and name. For example, kids living in neighborhoods with poor air quality are missing school due to asthma more than kids breathing clean air. If you can’t go to school, your chances for school success, which leads to adult success, are inhibited.

Q: Can you describe environmental injustices and the disparities some groups face?
A: In 1987, research found that waste facilities were most often near neighborhoods of people of color, many of them containing toxic waste. Even our own Minnesota nuclear power facility, located near Prairie Island Indian Community, is an example of how some people are forced to live closer to environmental burdens than others.

Q: Why is it important to reflect on our own privilege, and how can we dismantle it?
A: Dismantling privileges is one of the ways we create social change. When we think about creating shifts in society, we generally need to stop certain behaviors—such as racist hiring practices or sexual harassment—to integrate new behaviors to take the place of the old. Augsburg already has taken a stand on water—we encourage our entire campus community to refi ll water bottles from our own taps, which environmental studies students tested for safety.

Q: How does your social work background align with your work in environmental justice?
A: For most of my life I viewed myself as a social worker who was an environmentalist. It wasn’t until coming to Augsburg, collaborating on our interdisciplinary environmental studies major, working with my social work colleagues on privilege and oppression, and participating in our Environmental Stewardship Committee that I began to recognize myself, in an integrated way, as an environmental justice social worker.

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