By Charlotte Spears ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer

Poster courtesy of Azella Markgraf

Eighteen months of planning and one pandemic later, Azella Markgraf ‘21 and her team hosted around 50 college and high school students at the Cultivate Justice Conference this past weekend. The conference, held over Zoom on October 24th, aimed to educate students about environmental justice and climate change activism. 

Along with Markgraf, Lucy Dixon ‘21, Olivia Ng ‘21, Henry Wilkerson ‘23, and Kate Cross ‘24 helped create a conference with representation from more than 19 high schools, colleges, and universities.

Dr. Ryan Emanuel, Professor of Environmental Science at North Carolina State University, was one of two keynote speakers. Dr. Emanuel is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and studies Indigenous rights and environmental justice. During the conference, he encouraged students to amplify marginalized voices in communities that are facing the effects of climate change and pollution. 

“Don’t look away,” Dr. Emanuel said. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Tthis doesn’t affect me, this is a community I’ve never heard of before.’ You all are being trained to think critically, trained to think with quantitative skills, qualitative skills. Use those skills towards answering questions in communities because those communities don’t have any input [in environmental decisions] and don’t think it’s fair.” 

Dr. Emanuel focused on thinking about justice in terms of the environment and called for students to do the same. 

Tha afternoon session featured Shyla Raghav, the second keynote speaker, who is the Vice President of Climate Change Strategy at Conservation International. Raghav discussed the urgency of a response to climate change and the injustices associated with inaction. 

In her presentation, Raghav stated that the idea of climate solutions needs to be revolutionized. “We need to fundamentally flip our value system in a way that we no longer focus on sustainability because sustainability is just sustaining the status quo,” she said. Raghav proposes a more “regenerative” and “restorative” economy that encourages “green jobs” and disincentivizes exploitation of communities and resources. 

To Raghav, the solution to the climate crisis “really requires an acknowledgment of the colonial routes of our economic system,” and lies instead in “respecting all human rights” and making “structural change” to environmental policy decision making. 

Raghav underscored the importance of justice in the context of climate change, saying that it is “really about restoring our sense of belonging within our communities, to all of humanity, and to our planet. It’s about our behavior;, it’s about how we treat one another.; Wwe are changing our planet universally.” She continued, “Iit’s not just about our survival today.” 

There are different dimensions of justice within climate change according to Raghav. “There is intergenerational justice in climate change. By not working on it today, we are shifting the burden and making it more difficult for future generations. We are displacing the responsibility,” Raghav said. 

Eighteen months ago, before the pandemic, Markgraf began planning the conference, taking into account the purposes each speaker would bring. After speaking and negotiating with contacts, she narrowed it down to the two keynote speakers and six speakers to lead workshops. The workshops featured topics including, “Eco-anxiety: How to Manage Stress about Climate Change Productively,” led by Health and Human Values Professor Dr. Lauren Stutts, and “Youth Activism and Empowerment within the North Carolina Climate Justice Movement,” led by Madeline Parker, the Youth Climate Justice Organizer at NC WARN. 

But as COVID-19 cases began to rise in the U.S. and Davidson transitioned to remote instruction, the plans of an in-person conference and networking with students from other colleges, universities, and high schools went out the window. 

“When the pandemic hit, we were only a week and a half out from having the actual thing, so people were signed up and really excited already and people had made travel plans,” Markgraf said. “But everyone’s life got put on hold for a while, so we sucked it up and said this is what we had to do. We ultimately decided to postpone until now.”

The goal of this conference was to connect students doing similar environmental justice work in the Southeast region. The event organizers recognized the importance of youth in climate and environmental justice activism. 

“We see this whole youth movement emerging, and they’ve made it really clear that we are the generation, and the generation following us is the generation that is going to have to make change,” said Markgraf, who describes herself as a part of the older generation of leaders in the climate change response. “We don’t have an option because it is going to affect our lives.” 

Lucy Dixon ‘21 works in the Davidson Office of Sustainability and also helped organize the conference. Dixon says that college and high school students are the “driving force” of climate change and environmental justice response because they “don’t want to inherit what is coming to [them].”

“We are looking around and things are obviously getting worse and we are going to be the generation that has to deal with that, and whatever political party you are on, you still live on this planet and are seeing what’s happening,” Dixon said. 

Dixon hopes that the main takeaway of the conference is that anyone can be an activist. “They don’t have to be this crazy extremist to participate in activism and create change around you. It is something that you can do locally, globally, in the U.S. It is accessible to young people,” she said.  “Don’t be hesitant to say that this is what you want.”