Organizers of UCLA’s Oct. 1 social equity and sustainability concert didn’t use “Environmental Justice Rocks” as a tagline, and for that, we thank them. But that doesn’t mean that the idea around the musical event, called “Common Experience: Earth Sessions,” isn’t of the same chord. 

Environmental justice — the social movement to address the disproportionate exposure to environmental harms faced by low-income communities of color and other marginalized groups — will be front and center at the event, which features Atlanta-based duo “EarthGang,” along with a surprise musical guest and other activities. It will also be a focus of UCLA’s Volunteer Day on Sept. 30.

The focus on environmental justice grows out of the Common Experience, an annual UCLA community-building tradition in which a committee of students, staff, faculty and alumni select a title — a book, a film, a podcast — for the Bruin community to read, listen to or watch together centered on a common theme. This year’s selection was “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet” by activist and author Leah Thomas.

Hands hold year’s Common Experience book, “Intersectional Environmentalist” by Leah Thomas, up against a blurry green backdrop. The words "Common experience at UCLA 2023 - 2024" line the image.
Ariel Chow
The “Intersectional Environmentalist” is meant to fuel conversations and cultivate community around the pressing issue of environmental justice.

“I just couldn’t be more thrilled with the selection,” said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer and a member of this year’s Common Experience selection committee. Katz said Thomas’ book is written in a way that perfectly facilitates dialogue — the type of dialogue Abigail Johnson, assistant director of academics and the UCLA First Year Experience, envisioned while planning for the fall return to campus.

“I can just imagine a student going and sitting down with a stranger at a dining hall, and then, knowing that they both have something to say about the Common Experience, striking up a conversation,” Johnson said. “That’s really our hope of building community and inspiring activism through this.”

“The Intersectional Environmentalist” — both the book and the nonprofit founded by Thomas — engage with sustainability around the concept of intersectionality, a termed coined in the 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Promise Institute Professor of Human Rights at UCLA School of Law, to refer to a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Through that lens, Thomas’ book focuses on the link between environmentalism, privilege, racism and civil rights and the need to empower those communities that suffer most from environmental injustices and the global impacts of climate change.

While it was Katz’s first year working with the Common Experience, she was able to lay unique groundwork for the programming around “The Intersectional Environmentalist” by connecting the planning team with campus stakeholders doing relevant work in environmental justice. Groups like the Environmentalists of Color Collective at UCLA and the Student Sustainability Leadership Council helped facilitate a collaboration between the Common Experience and students that went deeper than it has in years past.

“I think the topic of equity and justice is very important to many of our students. Climate is top of mind because they’re going to have to face the worst of its impacts,” said Katz, who noted that much work is underway at UCLA to elevate and expand the work around sustainability at this intersection.

That includes the ongoing work of student, faculty and staff researchers across campus aimed at helping government agencies and social services providers respond in an equitable way to the danger of rising temperatures and extreme heat in Los Angeles, which tend have the greatest impact on low-income residents, communities of color and the unhoused population. UCLA’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan also puts much of its focus on social equity in sustainability. Katz says that the campus is only just getting started.

“I think traditionally, within sustainability, a lot of policies and formal plans have focused on the environmental aspect because it’s easier to track — for example, gallons of water or tons of greenhouse gas emissions. But the definition of sustainability is really about integrating environment, equity and economy,” she said.

Student Nahi Arreola-Bittner stands holding a sheet with a QR code for a book; in the background are other students and a sun umbrella
Idriss Njike
Student Nahi Arreola-Bittner at an “Intersectional Environmentalist” book distribution event during this week’s True Bruin Welcome.

Nahi Arreola-Bittner, a sustainability and environmental justice intern with the Common Experience and a fourth-year student in geography and environmental studies, puts it another way: “A lot of times when we think of environmentalism, we think of cleaning parks and the like. But there’s less thought about the work that’s being done in the communities that are facing the most environmental racism.”

Arreola-Bittner says one place doing this work is the Mini Urban Farm at Los Angeles’ Exposition Park, which is among this year’s Common Experience–related UCLA Volunteer Day sites. Bruins can work in the community garden and at the adjoining recreation center, where residents from the local community grow and harvest produce and learn about sustainability and self-reliant lifestyles.

“I’m really interested in creating better frameworks of food sovereignty and more individualized or localized food systems, especially in those parts of L.A. that have been abandoned by the city, in a sense, or lack resources,” Arreola-Bittner said. “Sometimes they have these beautiful projects going on, but they are usually run by folks who aren't from there.”

Johnson sees the Common Experience, and opportunities like the one this Saturday at the Mini Urban Farm, as a means of bringing people together in action who might not ordinarily interact.

“That’s the beauty of intersectionality, is finding the things that we’re passionate about and figuring out how they intersect with other people’s identities and interests so we can be building something greater,” she said. “The important piece is that we’re doing that together.”