Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown calls for “radical empathy” at first 2024 Foreman lecture

A woman speaks at a podium in front of a screen.
Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown speaks at Stetson Law in February, 2024.

Coinciding with World Day of Social Justice, Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown, a prominent eco-justice scholar, spoke on the link between environmental problems and social injustices.  

Her moving address, which she gave Tuesday, February 20 in the Great Hall, was the first installment of the Edward and Bonnie Foreman Biodiversity Lecture Series of the spring 2024 semester.

“You may be familiar with the phrase ‘a comic’s comic,’” Law Professor Royal Gardner, Director of Stetson Law’s Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy, told the audience as he introduced her. “Dr. Shankar Brown is not a comic’s comic. She’s a teacher’s teacher – wonderful in the classroom. She puts into practice what she preaches.”

Thinking differently about environmental policy

An internationally renowned professor, environmental justice scholar, artist, author, and activist, Shankar-Brown opened her talk by commending the students, faculty, staff, and others gathered for their commitment to the fields of environmental law and social justice.

“I am just so grateful for all of the amazing work and the passion that all of you have, and that you are launching into our world – especially because our world needs all of you – us, collectively,” she said. “My hope is, it will stimulate conversations, it will give pause to wrestle, to start to ponder and ask questions, and to engage in meaningful conversations.”

She urged the audience to employ intersectionality in their approach to developing strategies and policies to fight climate change and other environmental challenges as future legal professionals or policymakers.

Coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to the way multiple aspects of an individual’s identity – race, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, housing status, and more – create a unique lived experience worthy of consideration and respect, especially when it comes to environmental disasters like storms and sea-level rise.

Vulnerable, underserved communities such as the unhoused are disproportionately affected by flooding, inadequately infrastructure, heat exposure, pollutants, and other consequences of unsustainable practices.

 “One of the things that we have to actively and intentionally do in our work is to break silos and make sure that we are honoring intersectionality to understand the interconnective web of all of these huge, massive challenges that our world is facing today,” Shankar-Brown said.

An urgent call to action

Shankar-Brown ended her talk by imploring her audience to practice “radical empathy” in their advocacy work, and to be actively engaged in their communities. She read aloud a passage from Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, a book she heartily encouraged the audience to read:

“Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will,” she recited. “It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another, as they perceive it.”

As for staying engaged, she said activism can come in many forms: finding others to be “coconspirators” in the cause of eco-justice, attending demonstrations, and speaking at city council and county commission meetings when monied interests promote policies that could potentially harm communities.

“There is greed but there is also good,” she said. “My hope is that we refuse to just give up and be apathetic.”