Environmental Justice with the KAYSC
Jordan Lee Thompson is the Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Track Manager at the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center (KAYSC) at the Science Museum of Minnesota. What does that mean, and what’s the intersection between protecting the environment and protecting people? We asked him!
Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM): The “track” you manage is known as the Environmental Justice (EJ) crew. How did you get into this field of work?
Jordan Lee Thompson: My background is actually in the arts, but when asked about what KAYSC tracks I'd be interested in managing, I said I’d be interested in environmental justice because I’d been spending a lot of my personal time researching that.
Since starting this position in August 2018, I’ve learned that a lot of folks doing this work have the background that I expected them to, but then a lot of folks come from, “This is the work that needs to be done and someone needs to do it, so I’m stepping up to do it.” I realized that I’m not alone in having this outsider background and that I actually do know a lot more than I thought I did.
SMM: What led to you exploring environmental issues in your personal time?
JLT: Fear [laughs]. Firstly, fear. The problem is grave, and I think in some ways I felt it was my obligation to educate myself. I was also searching for room for hope, because it’s super easy to be cynical. I was thinking that there’s got to be more than that cynicism, because if we’re going to build a better future, we have to be able to believe in a better future, and we have to be able to imagine what it looks like.
SMM: So for those that are newer to this topic, what does the concept of environmental justice mean?
JLT: Environmental justice comes from the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. This conference was the basis of the phrase “environmental justice” and what I treat as the foundation of it, so that’s the first thing we cover with our crew and I would encourage people to start there.
In effect, the easiest way for me to explain is through the difference between environmental justice and environmentalism. Environmentalism is about protecting the environment in a very specific way and which tends to be from a very colonized point of view, where we treat the environment as a resource for us to enjoy. Environmental justice is very much a response to environmental racism, and the need to understand that the environment includes us, that we are a part of the environment, and that the health of the environment is deeply interconnected with our health.
SMM: How does the EJ track put those concepts into action?
JLT: The goal is for the crew to be researchers, makers, storytellers, and activists, and to use STEM as a tool to dismantle systems of oppression.
On a day-to-day basis, it’s a lot of research, learning, conversations, and creating an ecosystem of networking opportunities for our young people. We want them to get involved outside of the museum and learn from folks at places like Frogtown Farms, Lily Spring Farms, Pollinate Minnesota, Friends of the Mississippi River, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, The Water Bar & Public Studio, Gandhi Mahal, Climate Gen, the U of M, and a ton of other amazing community partners. Plus, of course, the Science Museum’s Pat Hamilton and the St. Croix Watershed Research Station are great resources, as well as folks working on both Saint Paul’s and Ramsey County’s 2040 climate resiliency plans.
Our crew takes what they’re learning and then creates and leads workshops on the topics. Right now, they’re co-developing kits that they beta test together and then are able to distribute to folks in other youth-serving organizations.
SMM: What are the members of your track like?
JLT: It’s freshman through seniors, with the hope that they’ll be with us until they graduate. Being able to walk them through the application process to get into the program has been important, because not everybody has internet access, and a lot of young people haven’t gone through these kinds of formal applications. Sometimes their parents haven’t, either, or they aren't able to support them in that for one reason or another.
The group currently is predominantly femme, probably 75% BIPOC, and mostly live in Saint Paul. Some of them are already really knowledgeable about the issues we talk about when they start, and some are less so, but in that way we’re all learning and growing together.
SMM: What projects is the crew working on now?
JLT: We’ve always wanted to focus on food, and that has evolved into how that topic intersects with water and energy and consumerism.
We just did a chocolate kit, with ethically sourced cocoa powder, and we talked about chocolate as an example of all the different intersections of food and human rights, because most chocolate is produced with forced labor, often forced child labor. A crew alumna is teaching us about the history of cooperatives, and crew members are interviewing folks about their personal stories around food and their relationships with food.
Some crew members are currently designing kits around building a planter box, researching what to plant in it, and researching and creating meals that make vegetarianism—or at least not always eating meat—more accessible and exciting to folks.
Through all of this we’re always circling around the false narrative of “it’s our fault as consumers and we need to feel guilty about this.” In reality it’s not our fault, it’s the system and the system needs to change. We have individual accountability as consumers, but that’s not where it ends and we cannot let that be the story.
SMM: If someone gave you a blank check for the program what would you do with it? (You can’t say that you would give it to another program.)
JLT: The first thing I would want to do is to pay our youth more. The program is able to pay them a youth training wage, and they could be making more at other places. Being able to pay them more would allow us to go deeper because they would have the capacity to show up more fully. Oftentimes they do have other jobs, because they need to.
We could also use more space. Our Design & Engineering track manager has actually put a ton of work into revamping our space and re-visioning what it can be and how we can make it work, and it’s helped a lot. But if we had more space and could pay them more, we’d have so much more that we would be able to do and get done.
Learn more about sustainability science at the Science Museum of Minnesota here.