Whether she was at school or at home, it didn’t matter. If Amira Chowdhury (C ’22) wanted water, there were going to be toxic levels of lead in it, caused by lead infiltration in the public water system.
After immigrating to the United States from Bangladesh seven years ago, Amira moved to a low–income neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The other public schools in her area shared her high school’s lead problem, as did her entire apartment building.
One of the primary effects of climate change is the disruption of the water cycle, resulting in a negative impact on drinking water supplies, sanitation, food, and energy production. “This is an experience not only shared by me but shared by working, low–income students, especially in urban contexts, who are attending public schools,” Amira says. Climate change disproportionately affects low–income communities and communities of color, yet this is not always acknowledged in climate change discussions.
Johanna Inamagua (C ’21), who identifies as a first–generation low–income student, says she didn’t know about this trend until high school. “If you’re the kind of person who lives in a well–off city, you’re educated, and maybe are higher–income, you wouldn’t necessarily think climate change is the biggest deal, because it’s something that seems more far off in the future,” Johanna says. “However, in reality, a lot of people currently experience the effects of it.”
Johanna sees this tendency both in Philadelphia and at Penn, and wishes the media would give more attention to the effects of climate change in lower–income areas.
“Most of us are college students, so we live on a nice campus where everything is pretty regulated,” Johanna says. “We don’t necessarily connect climate change to what we see day to day, but there are people who live near landfills, who actually do see the effects of pollution every day.”
Because of her own personal experiences, Amira prioritizes work that combats these effects in Philadelphia. Through organizing efforts with local groups, such as Our City, Our Schools, Amira says she’s seen more closely the detrimental impacts that climate change has had on Philadelphia's public schools.
Since 2015, there have been more than 9,000 environmental problems reported in the School District of Philadelphia records. The reports include cases of mold, asbestos, and flaking paint containing lead.
Amira says that older buildings and facilities have a hard time adapting to shifting weather conditions, which can have a daily effect on the lives of students attending school there. “Those students have food insecurity at home, their parents are dealing with job and income insecurity, and they are going to schools that are toxic,” she notes. “You think about these kids and they’re not coming to Penn, but they are living right in the city where we are.”
Penn Environmental Group Co–chair Marina Dauer (C ’22) feels that Penn, as an institution, does not do enough to help the surrounding communities. Since Penn isn’t paying Payments in Lieu of Taxes, Marina says the school misses out on a significant opportunity to help the minority and frontline communities around it.
“As of now, I don’t think Penn is being a good neighbor to communities near it, especially considering how much wealth is on campus,” Marina comments. “The benefits on campus aren’t being spread to the neighboring areas when they really could be.”
Marina finds that the mainstream framing of environmental activism isolates low–income people as well. Since individual responsibilities—such as buying the right water bottles, the right clothes, and the right appliances—are highlighted as the best ways to combat climate change, being the socially promoted version of sustainable becomes very costly.
Marina finds this message of pushing individual responsibility misleading, because it limits the discussion of large–scale actions that need to be taken by governments, businesses, and institutions around the globe. “But it also leads to a lot of inequality and people feeling like they can’t be a part of it because they don’t have money for the Hydro Flask or low–energy appliances,” she says.
Instead, Marina wants people to focus on the bigger issues in climate change. She says that voting for people with policies that focus on climate change and paying attention to companies’ wastes and emissions are effective ways to help the environment—and ones that don't require a certain level of wealth.
Julci Areza (C ’21), who identifies as a first–generation low–income student, agrees with Marina. She believes the movement for environmental justice should be rooted more in tackling systemic issues, rather than praising those who spend the money on sustainable products and condemning those who don’t.
Seeing people so unaware of the particular climate change issues faced by lower–income communities is frustrating for Amira. “The only way we can actually make change is joining coalitions and mobilizing,” s says. “So, I get angry and frustrated, but I get very hopeful because I see the mobilization taking place, not only in the U.S., but across the world, on this particular issue, from a climate standpoint and from an income inequality standpoint as well.”