Feature photo: Grand opening of the community garden (Credit: EARTHGANG)
During the most isolating months of the pandemic, I suddenly found myself with time to question both my rationale for pursuing a PhD in environmental science and my life’s path. I found myself asking why I had chosen to earn three degrees consecutively. I was 27, had not taken any breaks between earning my high school diploma, a bachelor’s, and then a master’s, and now I was working feverishly to finish my PhD in less than two years. Why had I been pushing myself so hard for a decade? Where was I really headed? I decided then and there that I had better figure out what I was going to do with all those hard-earned, academic achievements.
While I knew that following the traditional STEM pipeline could lead to a tenure track position in academia or to a postdoctoral fellowship, these otherwise great options did not align with my newfound interests, which had bloomed during the pandemic. Virtual graduate school had, fortuitously, granted me free time to focus on what would become my passion: the concept of ecocentrism. Ecocentrism comprises a set of values and a scientific approach that stress the importance of the entire environment. As Paul Shrivastava, now Chief Sustainability Officer at Penn State, has stressed since 1995, an ecocentric approach requires organizations to focus on their interconnectedness with the overall environment; to effectively manage environmental crises; and to work toward sustainability. For me in particular, ecocentrism meant teaming up with colleagues in my personal network to achieve environmental justice goals in our community.
Launching myself on my new path, I decided to collaborate with EARTHGANG—a group of Atlanta rappers, managed by my fiancé—to start a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the greater Atlanta community about local environmental injustices and potential solutions. It might seem unlikely to find rappers so focused on protecting the environment, but this aspect of their identity and music had long resonated with their fans worldwide. In fact, many of their local listeners support environmental causes. Forty-three percent of residents in Fulton County, Georgia—where Atlanta is based—are Black, and the EPA recognizes that the environmental justice movement was started primarily by people of color, seeking to address inequities in environmental practices in their communities. So EARTHGANG is carrying forward a long legacy.
EARTHGANG was fortunate to receive a donated acre of land in southwest Atlanta in 2020. This acre is now managed by Jean Childs Young Middle School as a community garden, and the school uses the plot of land to help educate its students about horticulture techniques and the importance of healthy eating habits. A future goal of our nonprofit is to acquire additional land to create more such community gardens. This ongoing effort will allow our team to educate Fulton County residents about how to produce local, sustainable food sources.
EARTHGANG’s next initiative, which we will launch on April 22 (Earth Day), is an effort to improve household recycling and solid-waste management practices. We will encourage Fulton County residents to participate by training them in best recycling practices for their community. We will initiate a series of interviews with workers from Fulton County Solid Waste Services, which we will share with residents. And we will also engage local politicians, activists, musicians, and other influencers by asking them to showcase their participation and how they have implemented the program in their own households.
My work to plan and develop our nonprofit’s initiatives has allowed me, for the first time, to do science for fun, to feel that my scientific endeavors are both meaningful and enjoyable. I love being the go-to — EARTHGANG and their management team ask me to research important environmental topics. My role then is to synthesize and effectively communicate the science back to them.
Recently I have realized: I am a scientist. Indeed, I am a Black woman scientist, using my education to create an impactful change in my community. This realization is a full-circle moment, and it has helped me to decide that this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.
Where will you find me after spending a decade earning my degrees? I will be using my education to teach my community about how to become ecocentric, while providing them the tools to do so.
Jazmine R. Alexander is HBCU-educated, meaning that she has attended Historically Black Universities for her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral work. She is currently a PhD candidate at Florida A&M University, where she is studying environmental policy and risk management. She has interned at the National Science Foundation and at the Quality Education for Minorities Network. After graduation she aspires to continue her work seeking environmental justice for communities of color. She has been an AWIS member since 2021.