Advancing environmental justice at the University of Iowa

The Advancing Environmental Justice (AEJ) project is a CLAS-funded Strategic Initiative to advance instruction and research in the broad area of Environmental Justice at the University of Iowa. Environmental justice is defined as the equitable distribution of environmental benefits & burdens, especially along lines of race and class, equal protection & meaningful involvement in environmental decision making, and a movement & collective activism to achieve these goals. The AEJ project will actively engage with environmental injustices and interrogate their root causes as they play out across human and natural landscapes at local, regional, and international scales. The objective is to transform UI CLAS into a national leader in Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice is inherently interdisciplinary. Led by faculty in the Department of Geographical & Sustainability Sciences and the Department of Sociology and Criminology, the AEJ strategic initiative will coordinate with faculty in other CLAS Units (e.g. School of Social Work, Department of Political Science) and beyond (e.g. College of Public Health, College of Engineering) to leverage existing strengths and build new institutional capacities in teaching, research, and engagement. The AEJ project aims to develop a critical mass of the many CLAS scholars already doing work relating to environmental and social justice outcomes, activism, and advocacy in order to increase interdepartmental collaboration and foster scholarly innovation and creativity around these issues.

The AEJ project is also supported by partnerships with the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, the Office of Outreach and Engagement and the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU).

Funding will support a seminar series on environmental justice with nationally recognized experts in the field. The seminars will heighten awareness of the importance of EJ topics across the U.S. and the globe. The seminars will enrich student access to distinguished thought leaders, promote the importance of environmental justice, and provide opportunities to build productive collaborations at global, national, and UI scales.

Funding will also support the development of new course offerings in environmental justice with the eventual goal of creating an interdisciplinary undergraduate certificate in environmental justice. New courses will provide a foundational understanding of environmental justice to equip students to make a difference in policy and advocacy. The AEJ project will aim to include field work, community engagement, and ICRU style research opportunities into these courses in order to provide engagement opportunities beyond the classroom.

The AEJ strategic initiative includes funding for undergraduate students working with faculty on environmental justice research. Projects can be focused on basic research, use-inspired research, or public engagement. By partnering with ICRU and OSE and the Office of Outreach and Engagement, the project will enhance experiential learning and expand research opportunities for undergraduates.

AEJ aims to develop a more diverse graduate student population and promote research and engagement in environmental justice. Graduate fellows will engage with faculty on course development and environmental justice research activities.

Building on their existing strengths in environmental justice, the Department of Geographical & Sustainability Sciences and the Department of Sociology will lead the AEJ strategic initiative and coordinate with faculty in other CLAS unites and beyond to leverage existing strengths and build new institutional capacities in teaching, research, and engagement. The Department of Geographical & Sustainability Sciences will provide expertise in the areas of geographical analysis, as well as the study of environmental justice, food justice and insecurity, and human/environment interaction broadly defined. The Department of Sociology & Criminology will provide expertise in environmental sociology, collective behaviors and social movements, social inequality, and sociology of race. Current and ongoing scholarship in the departments include:

  • Assessment of social inequity in disaster exposure and mitigation
  • Inequalities in exposure to urban flooding
  • Environmental impacts of agricultural systems and adaptation to climate change
  • The effect of the environmental movement on local economic development
  • Inequalities in the local food system
  • Assessment of differential exposure to toxic substances in urban environments
  • Disease risk following natural disasters
  • Food justice in agrarian India
  • Identification of geographic disparities in accessibility to health care and food security
  • Race and economic inequality in cities
  • Increasing accessibility of local food products to low-income populations
  • Urban ecosystems, biodiversity, and urban sustainability
  • Underrepresented farmers’ mental health

  • "The Latest Books and Reports Covering Environmental Racism and Justice" (via EcoWatch)
  • "Biden rejoins Pairs climate pact. Environmental advocates hope the best is yet to come" (via NBC News
  • "G.M. will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035" (via the New York Times)
  • "Coal and COVID-19: How the pandemic is accelerating the end of fossil power generation" (via
  • "Two Biden Priorities, Climate and Inequality, Meet on Black-Owned Farms" (via the New York Times)
  • "Biden promises to grapple with environmental racism" (via NPR)
  • "White House names members of environmental justice panel" (via The Hill)

AEJ aims to collectively work to address geographical and social dimensions of injustice that are embedded in the environmental, cultural, and economic fabric of the United States as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century.