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Hands holding recently harvested coffee beans.

Hands holding recently harvested coffee beans.

Environmental Justice and the Common Good

Santa Clara University launches a three-year presidential commitment to environmental justice that will expand and deepen efforts to create a more sustainable world.

Santa Clara University is launching a new commitment to sustainability. What is the initiative?
The Initiative on Environmental Justice and the Common Good is a three-year commitment grounded in our mission as a Jesuit, Catholic university and will further our work toward creating a more sustainable world. The initiative responds to Pope Francis’ call in his trailblazing encyclical, Laudato Si’, to act in solidarity with people in poverty around the world, who face severe threats to their environments and health. It also reflects the recently announced universal apostolic priorities for the Jesuits.

The announcement for this initiative comes on Oct. 4. Is there significance to this timing?
The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all who study and work in the fields of ecology, on Oct. 4. Announcing the initiative on this day allows us another meaningful way to honor St. Francis.

Santa Clara has demonstrated a strong commitment to the environment in recent years. What are some of the milestones the University has achieved?
During the last eight years, SCU has established a broad foundation for leadership in sustainability and environmental justice. Thanks to the efforts of many across the university, we are consistently top-ranked in surveys for sustainability work. Our faculty across disciplines have been recognized nationally for their research and service on environmental justice issues. And, students who engage in research that has an environmental justice component have won two Rhodes Scholarships, two Udall Scholarships, a Switzer Fellowship, as well as multiple Fulbrights.

What exactly is environmental justice?
Environmental justice is about the fair distribution of environmental risks and benefits. It is also about including all people in making decisions that affect their environments and health. Historically, low-income communities and people of color have often been disproportionally exposed to pollution; deprived of clean air, water, land, and other environmental amenities; and excluded from policy making. Environmental justice research seeks to document and rectify these injustices.

What are the goals of the Initiative on Environmental Justice and the Common Good?
This initiative has three main priorities:

  1. Promoting environmental justice across SCU through faculty development initiatives, and research and teaching partnerships with community-based organizations;

  2. Building a network to resource innovative models of research and teaching collaborations for environmental justice across Northern California, through partnerships with other academic institutions and community-based organizations;

  3. Expanding and resourcing collaborations among faculty, staff, and students at Jesuit universities in the U.S. and around the world.

Sprouting plants ready to be planted.

In Spring 2019, SCU hosted the Environmental Justice and the Common Good conference. Is this initiative connected to the goals of that conference?
Yes, absolutely! This initiative grows out of the conversations and findings of that conference, and the Bannan Institute collaborative prior to that.

Who will serve as the leadership team for this initiative?
The initiative is led by a cross-disciplinary steering group of faculty that includes Chris Bacon and Iris Stewart-Frey from Environmental Studies and Sciences; Ed Maurer from Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering; Chad Raphael from the Department of Communication; and Tseming Yang from the School of Law. The dean’s office in the College of Arts and Sciences will coordinate with offices and departments across campus to help the team achieve their goals.

What is the quickest way to learn more about the initiative?
Requests for more information can be directed to

O’Brien’s predecessors, Fathers Locatelli and Engh, signed the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Carbon Commitment. Does he plan to do the same?
Yes! Fr. O’Brien has already signed the pledge and joined SCU with leading colleges and universities around the nation who have committed to carbon neutrality and to education and research across our campuses. The launch of our new Initiative on Environmental Justice and the Common Good will only extend and deepen our efforts toward environmental justice. We are grateful to our faculty, staff, and students who have advanced our sustainability commitments over the years, especially to all those engaged with our Center for Sustainability.

How can we, as individuals, contribute to the University’s efforts in this regard?
Take a moment to read our current Sustainability Strategic Plan, which details concrete actions that we can make daily. Together, we have accomplished much, but there is more work to do. And there is no better place than Santa Clara to realize the promise of a more just, gentle, and sustainable world.