On Feb. 23, Macalester’s environmental studies (ES) department announced that Rachel Percy ’22 would be the department’s new Anti-Racism Initiatives Fellow.
The student position is one facet of the department’s effort to formalize avenues to elevate student voices. It also represents a broader commitment to anti-racism and decolonizing academia.
“We want to provide a conduit for student feedback and opinions about how environmental justice should be centered in the environmental studies department,” said assistant professor of environmental studies Christine O’Connell, who oversaw hiring.
After the death of George Floyd last year, the department outlined specific anti-racism goals like conducting an audit of coursework to include more anti-racism and environmental justice oriented curriculum. Most of the department’s objectives emerged from faculty discussion, and with the new anti-racism fellow position, O’Connell hopes to incorporate more student voices into future conversations.
“All those ideas were coming from faculty and going out,” O’Connell said. “What we really want this position to do is ensure that that dynamic isn’t a permanent one. We want some of these ideas, perhaps all of them, to be coming from the student community.”
The department collaborated with the Institute for Global Citizenship to write the position description. They also stressed the importance of the position being a paid one — putting money where their mouth is, according to O’Connell.
Applicants were asked to pitch ways the department could be more responsive to student feedback while working toward their equity goals. Ultimately, the department offered Percy the position.
“I was really interested in helping the ES department take action on some of the things they listed as their next steps after the George Floyd murder, and just the climate surrounding racism and equity and inclusion both in the US but also generallly in the world,” Percy said. “I wanted to be a part of a push to make the ES more proactive about the choices it’s making and the voices it’s uplifting.”
Percy, a junior ES major and Chinese minor, is looking forward to helping the department take action on these goals.
“I think environmentalism, historically, has been about prioritizing the ability for white, usually males, to get out and enjoy a so-called untouched environment,” Percy said.
She noted Macalester’s enduring commitment to sustainability and believes her position is part of a broader college effort toward environmentalism.
“We’ve come a long way in realizing that the environment is more than just a pristine wilderness,” Percy said. “It’s very intimately the places that we live and work. At Macalester — especially Macalester, which has such a commitment to sustainability — expanding what it means to be sustainable [is important].”
“Not just reducing our trash load, not just reducing our carbon footprint, but also making sure that we are equitable when we talk about pushing policies,” she continued.
Just a week into the position, Percy already has several goals she wants to accomplish. She hopes to coordinate discussions with community organizers from the Twin Cities and foster a greater sense of community among ES students.
Nonetheless, Percy is holding expectations to a realistic standard. Many of her ideas will require time and resources that may not be available right now.
“I will have to admit that most of what I will be able to accomplish in this semester is just setting a foundation for the person who will fill this position next,” Percy said.
Percy and O’Connell are both optimistic about the work that will be done with the new position and the ways that it will grow from here.
“I can’t emphasize enough that we really see this as a way to live out our departmental values, and I’m really hoping that that is indeed what happens,” O’Connell said.
*Hannah Goldfarb contributed to the writing of the story.