Bentley Students Host Symposium on Intersectional Environmentalism
Sustainability student leaders from Bentley’s Office of Sustainability (OOS) planned this year’s Sustainability Student Leadership Symposium featuring celebrated environmentalist Leah Thomas, founder of Intersectional Environmentalist. The on-campus symposium, which brought together more than 100 student leaders from nine colleges and universities in the northeast to explore the intersection of social justice and environmentalism, kicked off the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Conference in Boston.
“The theme of intersectional environmentalism encompassed our goal for the conference: to address how environmentalism can intersect with so many facets of life, whether it be racially, socially, economically and more,” says Makenna Muigai ’26, who was an assistant project manager intern in the Office of Sustainability and helped organize Thomas’ visit to campus. “It was meant to address and not streamline a variety of environmental issues.”
Workshops — with topics ranging from the symbolic concept of mother nature and women’s connection to the environment to equity, justice and sustainability to environmental challenges like social inequities in an urban environment — were presented by students from Bentley University, Boston University, Macauly Honors College at Baruch College, Tufts University, UMass Dartmouth and UMass Lowell.
“I used communication skills that I learned in the course Interpersonal Relations [MG 240] to formulate the questions for the fireside chat and be an active listener to respond appropriately to her answers on the fly,” says Kompare, an Honors Program student majoring in Quantitative Economics and Health Studies. She appreciates the diverse perspectives that Thomas considers in her work in environmentalism.
The conversation included Thomas’ account of her formative college experience, particularly the realization that there weren’t many people who looked like her in the environmentalist movement. Thomas also shared her journey of organically becoming an influencer when her Intersectional Environmentalist Instagram account took off — and how she uses social media to spread bite-sized information.
Kiona Johnson ’25, who previously interned as a social justice coordinator in the OOS and is co-vice president of Black United Body, presented a workshop on ways to bridge the gap between Black voices and the topic of sustainability and environmentalism.
“Growing up in North Philadelphia, I realized that my area had large quantities of fast-food chains, and it sometimes felt like these were the only options for food,” Johnson says. “When I would travel to areas that were wealthier and predominantly white, the food options were much more diverse: restaurants that included fresh, vegan options and a higher frequency of grocery stores. This made me do more research into why we have a system where access to healthy and fresh food is a privilege rather than a right.”
Johnson developed a deeper interest in environmental racism — particularly how politics and policy shape cities — during the Bentley course Urban Politics and Policy (GLS 225) with Professor of Global Studies Juliet Gainsborough.
“The class discussed how politics and policy shape cities in the present and future,” says Johnson, a FirstGen Presidential Fellow majoring in Business Economics with a minor in Public Policy. “We discussed many topics, from the discriminatory policies in housing to the impacts of white flight, transportation and regional politics. It gave me a first look into how urban planning and politics are integral to the well-being of citizens.”
PROTECTING PEOPLE AND THE PLANET
Bentley has a long-standing history of commitment to sustainability. In 2007, Bentley was among the first colleges and universities nationwide to sign the Presidents’ Carbon Commitment (formerly Presidents’ Climate Commitment) to set a carbon neutrality target ― reaching a 70 percent reduction in campus greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The university’s 2021 Sustainability and Climate Action Plan focuses on climate resilience, further reductions in campus greenhouse gas emissions, equity and education ― with a commitment to purchasing 100 percent of its electricity to power the campus from renewable sources by 2026 and to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, according to the university’s Sustainability and Climate Action Plan. Bentley recently earned a STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) gold rating from the Association for the Advancement for Sustainability in Higher Education, which measures and encourages sustainability in all aspects of higher education.
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The idea for intersectional environmentalism as the symposium theme came from Sandy Cai ’26, a public relations content creator intern in the OOS and designer of the Sustainability Student Leaders Symposium (SSLS) website.
“During my work on the symposium, I generated ideas from concepts I learned from my Science of Sustainability class [NAS 345], including the triple bottom line — people, planet, profit — and meeting people where they are at,” Cai says of a course taught by Melissa Hey, lecturer in Natural and Applied Sciences. “I’ve also applied skills such as work ethic, team communication, time management and project management from group projects, club activities and working as a summer marketing specialist in the Office of Sustainability.”
Though many of the symposium workshops and conversations tackled serious national and international sustainability issues, the committee also built in opportunities for personal networking, such as a collaborative poster board for reflection and a photo booth that provided space for socializing and connecting as participants grabbed props and posed with each other with smiles all around.
“I wanted some sort of interactive activity where people get up from their seats and explore something about themselves and their peers at the symposium,” says Cai, who designed the planet, people, profit activity and photo booth props using recycled cardboard. She is a double major in Accounting and Information Design and Corporate Communication. “Essentially, when people lined up for the photo booth, they reflected on how aspects of their identities relate to the triple bottom line and shared various facets of their identities that brought them to the symposium. I loved facilitating this activity as people contributed their own response to the poster board and took the time to read other responses. Everyone’s responses were similar yet different in their own way, and that brought out a sense of community for me.”
Both Cai and Muigai, a member of the Women’s Leadership Program and double major in Business Economics and Film and Media Studies, arrived at Bentley with an interest in sustainability. Muigai, for example, was an advocate for Greenpeace Africa and started a pastry business that donated proceeds to planting trees at a local school. Cai was involved in high school clubs focused on DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) and the environment and spearheaded sustainability-related community initiatives. The pair are grateful for the opportunity to continue this important work at Bentley through their leadership in the conference and their work to provide opportunities for knowledge-sharing with students from other universities.
“The team of Bentley students who planned this event exceeded my expectations with their overall project management and creative ideas,” says Sophie Rodgers ’20, senior manager of sustainability at Bentley and member of the board of curators for the symposium. “We are seeing a growing number of students coming to Bentley with a sustainability mindset. They are continuously pushing the sustainability agenda forward — especially promoting all aspects of sustainability to make it truly an intersectional topic.”
EarthDay.org recommends using the following questions as a guide to assess an initiative:
- Is this project inclusive and accessible to all people?
- Is it beneficial to the community we are aiming to serve?
- Does my project incorporate diverse worldviews?
- Is my project participatory?
- Are we amplifying marginalized or excluded voices?
- Does this project perpetuate colonialism?