Marissa Alba Naclerio is a sixth semester Natural Resources & the Environment major. Naclerio is the president of Bringing Awareness Into Latino Ethnicities (BAILE) and an environmental justice advocate.
Environmental community, listen up: I’m concerned about sustainability at UConn.
During the summer of 2020, I was hired as an intern at UConn’s Office of Sustainability. In response to renewed conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice, my first task was the creation of the Environmental Justice webpage alongside a fellow new intern. This resource was ready for publication before the fall semester even began, but vehement criticism from management about making the page “political” or explicitly writing “Black Lives Matter” prolonged its publication by five months.
That was the first red flag. The second came during conversations about hiring new interns for the upcoming academic year. Generations of interns had placed pressure on management to list the internship on JobX rather than recruit from EcoHusky and the Honors Program. Past efforts to diversify recruitment consisted of dropping off a few flyers at each Cultural Center front desk.
So when it came time for this monumental office-wide meeting, a feeling of shock ran through my body when upper management said they wanted to target more Black and brown students to hire. This was their goal for creating a representative, inclusive environmental space? Tokenizing students of color for the sake of making the office appear “diverse” or “progressive”? They went on to comment that we’d received many white-sounding names on applications — except for the one Southeast Asian name they explicitly pointed out. I unmuted my microphone at this point to remind everyone that not every person of color has an ethnic-sounding name. Take mine — you’d never know I’m Indigenous Nicaraguan along with being Italian.
The third red flag was the most personal. After continuous rejection of intern suggestions to incorporate DEI training into monthly intern meetings, I created a four-part DEI training to cover topics like privilege, positionality, anti-racism (with a compensated guest speaker), intersectionality and allyship. I’m not qualified to conduct any of these trainings, but it was the best we could do in the absence of support from management.
Then, I learned the office was uncomfortable with lessons like these coming from the intern level. It was made clear to me that management believed they should be the ones educating interns. I was told that my lesson plans would be adopted by my superior with the time allotted to them cut in half and labeled as their own in order to get the green light from upper management to teach it back to us.
Friends, let me shine a light on a few important facts about the Office of Sustainability. In the nearly two decades since the office’s establishment, it has employed eight interns of color. Only two interns have been Black. Before I even began my internship, past interns of color warned me about the dynamics of the office environment. I quickly learned why I’d been warned. I was the target of microaggressions and overtly discriminatory comments about my identity — everything from typical Latina stereotypes to that dreaded question: “What are you?”
I was both othered for my identity and tokenized, expected to speak on behalf of all the Cultural Centers. It became clear the office considered students of color to be a monolith on campus. It self-reinforced this belief that “students of color don’t care about sustainability,” while students of color felt unsafe and disinterested in engaging with the office.
I resigned from the Office of Sustainability at the end of February. Afterward, I took time to contemplate what would have made me feel safer in this work environment. What struck me was the intern team had remained complacent in a system that had actively harmed me, despite many of them watching me sob over the treatment I was receiving for over six months. Measurable progress and internal action had only begun when my white coworkers complained about the treatment they received.
If we are to truly thrive as a community, I encourage you to ground yourselves in radical love and deep-seated respect for the roots of environmentalism. We must value the hard work and lived experiences of low-income and communities of color from which the Environmental Justice Movement was born. In an institutional setting, we must address the de-contextualization and co-option of these issues by white, Western environmentalism. We must approach sustainability with roots in justice and equity. As a university which boasts an Environmental Gen-Ed, we must apply this to whom we center and whose voices are amplified as we educate and empower the next generation of environmental leaders.
At our core, the environmental community has so much potential if we devote more of our energy to solidarity. Authentically support environmentalists of color. Step back, listen, practice empathy. The environmentalist community is so full of passion. Many of us practice radical love for our Earth — let’s direct more of it to the people working alongside us.