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Upbringing Spurs Passion for Environmental Justice

Thu Apr 15, 2021

Melissa Reyes has always had a keen interest in the environment. It stems from her upbringing in the Imperial Valley, which relies heavily on the agricultural industry.

Reyes has multiple family members who worked in Imperial Valley’s agricultural fields, including a grandfather who developed cancer from exposure to pesticides.

But it wasn’t until Reyes enrolled at Cal State San Marcos in 2017 that she really began focusing on environmental justice.

“I didn't realize that there were so many environmental injustices happening in the Imperial Valley until I learned about it when I got to Cal State San Marcos,” said Reyes, who will graduate next month with a bachelor’s in environmental studies. “I feel like that really promoted my passion for environmental justice, because it hit home personally.”

Reyes has been working hard throughout the pandemic to pursue this passion, both as an environmental justice intern through a partnership between the Office of Inclusive Excellence and the Sustainability Department and her role as co-president of the Environmental Stewards Association.

As part of her internship, Reyes was a presenter for the This Way to Sustainability (TWTS) Conference, which was hosted by Chico State in March. Reyes’ presentation was titled “Social Justice Through Sustainability: Acknowledging students of environmentally discriminated areas through sustainable efforts on campus.” The project analyzed how some CSUSM students come from places impacted by environmental injustices such as poor air or water quality and how the university can uplift the voices of those students.

“The environmental justice internship, which is only 2 years old now, has spurred lots of really cool research projects,” said Juliana Goodlaw-Morris, CSUSM’s sustainability manager, who coordinates the program with Ariel Stevenson, assistant director of programs and initiatives for the Office of Inclusive Excellence. “But the project that Melissa worked on, connecting environmental injustices and COVID-19 data with our students, is a very timely and important project. As we seek to better serve our students and ensure they are successful toward graduation, it is opportunities such as this that continue to motivate us to further develop the environmental justice internship program and the inclusive sustainability efforts at CSUSM.”

Reyes also played a vital role in an Earth Month event held on April 6 called “BIPOC and Green: Centering CS‘U’SM in the Environmental Justice Movement,” which focused on intersectionality in the environmental justice movement.

Helping to create meaningful events through the internship has been one of the highlights of Reyes’ time at CSUSM.

“I'm able to bring awareness to an issue that I strongly believe in, and I'm doing it with the help of these two amazing women,” said Reyes, referring to Goodlaw-Morris and Stevenson.

Reyes also credits professor Gabriel Valle and lecturer Christina Simokat from the environmental studies department for their support in her education. Simokat encouraged Reyes to join student organizations, which eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Stewards Association. With multiple environmental studies student organizations on campus, it was difficult for students who are interested in the environment to attend numerous meetings and events related to each group. That led Reyes and a group of friends to create one umbrella organization that is open to all students.

“Melissa is a driven student,” Stevenson said. “As an active member of the Environmental Stewards Association and an environmental justice intern, she continually connects her studies, her passion and her lived experiences to this work.

“In the last year, I watched her navigate the pandemic, lead presentations and present at a conference – all virtually. She is an example of the very best things we love about our students – resiliency, growth and dedication.”