If Not Us, Then Who?

Partnership with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights
October 8, 2017

Prabhav Chawla is a computer engineering major from Haryana, India.  In this post he reflects on the impact of his ENGL 1102 class: “If Not Us, Then Who?: Student Activism, 1960-Present,” a freshman composition course affiliated with the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain and taught by Brittain Fellow Ruth Yow. Serve-Learn-Sustain facilitated a partnership between the course and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights through which students created digital tours for visitors to the Center on issues ranging from clean water to immigration to gender equity. Additionally, Prabhav and several of his peers in the class attended events in the SLS Environmental Justice Series.

I came into Georgia Tech with a clear goal – to hone my scientific and technical knowledge. I was excited to embark on a four-year long journey which would culminate in a degree in computer engineering. I scoffed when I learned that I was required to take 24 credit-hours worth of social and humanities classes, for I could see no value that they could add to my degree. I had walked into my English 1102 course with the same attitude, and it didn't help – I found myself skimming over assigned readings, winging the reflection essays and not taking interest in class discussions. Around late February, the class shifted gears to discussing environmental justice; this time around the readings struck a chord with me, and the class discussions enticed me to speak up. It seemed that slowly but surely, Dr. Yow’s course had worn down the misgivings I had. Becoming cognizant of environmental activism made me realize that as a prospective engineer I should be concerned about the holistic impact of my work on the community and the environment I live in. This important realization could not have come from a STEM course.  Transitioning from being indifferent to taking interest in the course material also made me reflect on my tendency to step into things with a predetermined mindset, which in retrospect has been a weakness and an area I would like to improve upon.

My interest in environmental justice was sparked by our class discussion on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). As an international student, I wasn't well aware of the controversy surrounding the construction of DAPL. The course reading provided a broad overview of the problem - the region close to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation in North Dakota had become a hotspot for confrontation between law enforcement on one side and Native Americans and environmentalists on the other, who argued that the construction posed a danger to local water supply sources and to culturally significant indigenous sites. What appealed to me more was the television interview of a young student activist that we watched in class. Living away from the comfort of her home, tolerating police brutalities as a teenager, the student had been protesting in North Dakota for almost a year; her courage was praiseworthy. I could not imagine myself taking such action if construction activities in my neighborhood posed risks to environmental justice. I also thought of this issue from the point of view of Energy Transfer Partners’ engineers (the company that proposed the pipeline)—common, everyday Americans who were just doing their jobs when they drew up the construction plans. There was no deliberate intent to cause harm, but they unwittingly embroiled their company in a controversy. It won’t be long until I venture out into an engineering job, and at that point, I will have to concern myself with the ethical and environmental impact of my work. By engaging critically with environmental rights through this course’s material, I think I will be better equipped to do so when the time comes.

Another noteworthy aspect of this course that broadened my interest in environmental justice was the partnership with Georgia Tech’s very own Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS). As an SLS-affiliated course, my English class promoted the theme of “creating sustainable communities” through course content and community interaction.  I also attended two SLS sponsored events for extra-credit, and I am glad I did. The first event was an eye-opening address by Dr. Alex Karner, Professor at the School of City & Regional Planning, who explained how structural racism can inhibit environmental justice. His speech provided me with a new lens to look at environmental justice – can a city’s transportation and residential infrastructure unduly influence access to healthy food, clean air and water and access to government welfare services for people of a certain race? The answer seemed to be a resounding yes, based on the data presented on Atlanta’s demographics and resource distribution.  The second event was a lecture by Dr. Gwen Ottinger, a Professor at Drexel University. Giving the example of California residents who lobbied for an air monitoring system near the Crockett oil refinery in the 1990s, Dr. Ottinger spoke about empowering local communities by providing them with actionable data about the air they breathe.

Equipped with my new-found interest in environmental justice and the knowledge on the topic that I had gained from course material and SLS events, I was waiting for an opportunity to write about environmental justice. The final project in the class required that students to collaborate in groups to create virtual museum tour stops based on the themes presented in exhibits at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. My group leader was Patrick Robbins, who, coincidentally, had also attended Dr. Ottinger’s lecture. When our group was assigned the topic of environmental justice, Patrick and I drew inspiration from Dr. Ottinger’s talk. Our project was about the human right to clean water, and how ordinary citizens are involved/can get involved in monitoring the quality of their local water sources. While writing the expository essay for the tour stop, I integrated what I had learned so far about environmental rights. Thus, this project became a reflection of my interest in and knowledge of environmental justice.

In the weeks leading up to the final project, our class discussed Stephen Weil’s “Making Museums Matter.” In his critical analysis of the purpose museums serve and how visitors interact with exhibits, Weil writes about the concept of an entrance narrative—the basic framework with which one “construes and contemplates the world.” Comprised of one’s previous experience, expectations and emotions, the entrance narrative is, in essence, the beliefs with which one walks into a new experience. My initial thoughts regarding this course was that it would not contribute to my college education; this therefore constituted my entrance narrative. I am not sure where this belief stemmed from – perhaps I was just echoing the stereotypical belief held amongst engineering students. Even though this belief I held gradually changed, I would have better enjoyed the course and immersed myself in the material had my entrance narrative not been so negative. I have realized that a key aspect for my future intellectual growth would be to have a positive growth-mindset. One way I can work towards this is by putting myself in new intellectual environments; I could join a non-STEM club or perhaps enroll in another SLS-affiliated course. After all, college is about exploring new avenues and challenging existing beliefs.


Interested in visiting the National Center for Civil and Human Rights?  Access the student tours below.  Have you attended 3 or more SLS-sponsored events?  Come by our office for two tickets to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights!