Three Roosevelt students canoeing in the Chicago River watershed
Students canoe through the Chicago River watershed
When we are reading something on the page, instructors will have always read it in advance, and generally have an idea of what they want to take away from it. When we open ourselves up to experiencing other cultures directly, it by definition forces us to be flexible and open. Bethany Barratt Professor of Political Science

Last year, students in the Urban Environmental Justice course released monarch butterflies in Little Village’s La Villita Park — a peaceful, verdant space on top of a Superfund cleanup site. The neighborhood has become a nexus of surging COVID-19 cases and pollution that students will investigate this fall with Professor Bethany Barratt.

Each semester, the Roosevelt University Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project hosts experiential courses that compare social justice issues across the globe. In Urban Environmental Justice, students travel over Thanksgiving Break to the Pacific Northwest, where they hike through the world’s largest temperate rainforest, meet local organizers and visit a reservation on the Olympic Peninsula.

Learn more about real-world learning opportunities at Roosevelt.

While COVID-19 means that the international travel won’t happen this fall, students will still gain hands-on experience as they research human rights violations at a local level.

Each semester, Professor Barratt takes her students to meet with frontline activists from Calumet to learn about “environmental sacrifice zones” around the city. The class has paddled down the Chicago River and studied Bubbly Creek, one of the country’s most infamous polluted waterways.

The Loundy Project will also host a virtual speaker series, Just By Nature, which is open to the Roosevelt community. Past speakers include:

  • Thomas Frank, Southeast Environmental Task Force
  • Troy Hernandez, Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization
  • Kimberly Wasserman, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Bethany Barratt is a political science professor and the director of the Joseph Loundy project. She answered some questions about her course and the urgency of her students’ research.

The Urban Environmental Justice class on the Hall of Mosses Trail in Olympic National Park

Pictured: The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. The temperate rainforests on the peninsula have more biomass per square acre than anywhere else on the continent — no wonder students were literally hugging trees. We measured our heart rates at the start and end of the hike and found they’d fallen by 10%!

What makes the Joseph Loundy project unique?

As far as I know, it is the only center of its kind in the country that gives undergraduates opportunities to do this kind of cross-national and experiential human rights research, applied to solving real-world problems here in Chicago.

Taking a multi-pronged approach, we investigate — and craft responses to — a constellation of mutually implicated social justice challenges. For instance, we examine the sources of environmental injustice literally from the river, from the heart of abandoned industrial sites in the Southeast, from the vantage point of communities of color who have successfully organized to defend themselves against corporate polluters.

In so doing, we aim to identify the most fruitful avenues for the pursuit of greater justice.

How do students learn about ways to challenge injustice?

We do this in four ways:

  • learning from top organizers in the field.
  • hearing directly from those whose lives have been marred by environmental injustice.
  • providing opportunities for onsite investigation of current environmental injustices in our own community that students might not otherwise encounter.
  • learning from experiences of communities across the globe, traveling each year to see firsthand the problems and their solutions in another country.

Four Roosevelt students watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean at Ruby Beach.

Pictured: Sunset at Ruby Beach on the Pacific coast. For many students, it was the first time seeing the ocean! Much talk of epiphanies and moments of clarity up there.

Why is it important for students to meet experts and visit these locations?

There are so many, but one of the most important is that experiential learning, by definition, entails unexpected opportunities for discovery, on the part of students and instructors alike.

When we are reading something on the page, instructors will have always read it in advance, and generally have an idea of what they want to take away from it. When we open ourselves up to experiencing other cultures directly, it by definition forces us to be flexible and open.

One great example is the course I team-taught with a colleague at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, part of Roosevelt’s growing relationship with the University. The class is on miscarriages of justice, and we meet together via Zoom once a week. One reading entailed an overview of the Dutch and US criminal justice systems.

Even though they were not focused on policing specifically, my students made a comment in passing about their concern regarding a perceived lack of oversight of police in the Netherlands. It quickly became clear that the Dutch students did not see this as concerning because they implicitly trusted the police to have the best interest of all the citizenry at heart.

This sparked a very lovely and passionate conversation about our understanding of the police and their role that lasted the entire rest of the period, even spilling over into the break between classes when over half of my students remained after to continue the conversation. If we had been discussing these articles only amongst ourselves, we would have had no idea how different their culture and structure of policing are!

Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project

In 2008, with an initial $100,000 gift from alumnus Joseph Loundy, Roosevelt University established the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project. This program is unique in the United States and gives students once-in-a-lifetime experiences and opportunities. The project partners with other campus and community organizations to provide human rights–related programming to the larger Roosevelt community and the public.

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