November 23, 2017

Webster’s tenth annual Human Rights Conference addresses environmental justice, keynote speaker Dr. Carolyn Finney

Webster’s tenth annual Human Rights conference discussed environmental justice in relation to human rights. The event covered climate change and racism present in environmental projects.

Carolyn Finney was the keynote speaker this year. Finney is an author, performer, and a cultural geographer. She spoke about topics pertaining to her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans and the Great Outdoors.

“We, meaning human beings, cannot survive if we don’t address what we collectively are doing and how we interact with the environment itself, but also how we treat each other,” Finney said. “And, we don’t treat each other well.”

Finney’s speech examined the way people of different ethnicities treat one another and how people interact with the environment. It also discussed historical moments, under representation and white privilege.

Human Rights majors Ellyse Meyer and Brooke Nelson attended the conference. They are currently taking a class where they were required to read Finney’s book.

“It was great to see [the book] come to life and hear her talk about it rather than reading it on paper,” the students said. “When we hear people like her talk, that gets us really hyped about the environment and it makes us want to go out and spread the word.”

Finney said when talking to those who do not share her views on environmental racism, she tries to find common ground with them.

“People invite me around the country, I’m often talking to predominately white audiences,” Finney said. “So the very first thing I think of, what do I know I have in common with them? And what I know, is that we’re humans that generally want to feel like we’re treated well.”

Kate Parsons was the event planner for this years’ conference. Parsons is a fellow for the the Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies at Webster. She said she was chosen to organize this year because environmental justice is a particular interest of hers. She said it is important to hold a conference regarding a topic not a lot of people are familiar with.

“People know that there are contaminates that are harmful,” Parsons said. “But what they don’t know is that those harms don’t affect all people equally.”

Parsons said reaching across the divide and seeing commonalities between people is important now more than ever, particularly in the political spectrum.

“Politically, we’re really polarized as a country right now,” Parsons said. “So, working first on relationships and trying to sort of find those spaces that Carolyn was speaking about [like] cultivating empathy so that we can actually have those conversations with one another.”

Parsons said she hopes the conference provided greater awareness and greater empathy for those subject to this crisis.

“Local issues are also connected to global ones,” Parsons said. “Environmental racism is not just a problem in St. Louis, or even in the United States. It’s a global problem.”

Finney said people do not have to agree to have a good relationship with each other.

“If everybody felt like me, that would be so limiting because there’s only so much that I know and understand,” Finney said. “The minute you add another person to it, the possibilities just exponentially start to grow. We create that space and that potential when we understand that we may have to give up something for that. But that’s the risk to gain, instead of the risk to lose.”

Finney is currently traveling to speak at colleges around the country. Her next event is on  Oct.19 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Finney does not consider her work a job, but rather a practice of spreading awareness.

“Because the work I do is for others and myself, I don’t see it as a job,” Finney said. “I think about how fortunate I am to do work that I love and care about.”

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