Q&A: Scholars and Leaders
Students at Rausser College tend to be passionate about the environment and how it intersects with social justice, equity, and civil rights. Here, we feature two such students with leadership and activist roles who are making a difference in our College, on campus, and beyond.
Varsha Madapoosi.Photo by Adam Sings In the Timber.
Third-year society and environment and data science double major, sustainable design minor
Beyond her academic coursework, Varsha Madapoosi is engaged across campus in a variety of leadership roles. She’s this year’s eco-senator for the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) fellow at the Office of Sustainability, and a housing staff associate at Cal Zero Waste.
Breakthroughs: What led you to choose your particular areas of study?
Madapoosi: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where I could watch ducklings hatch, pick fruit from neighbors’ trees, and watch the sunset every day. I joined the Girl Scouts in elementary school, and, although I was the only brown girl on our camping trips, I enjoyed being outdoors so much that I put up with the stares and invasive questions. After moving to California in high school, I applied my connection with nature to school projects and even implemented a tri-bin waste system for the district’s 16 schools. At UC Berkeley, I’ve learned about environmental justice; it’s where I began my journey on advocacy and intersectionality.
I also believe that technology can help us repair many of the environmental issues that my generation is facing. Despite my lack of initial experience with it, I quickly learned to love data science. Now I hope to apply my interest, skills, and coursework in data science to environmental justice issues.
What are you working on as ASUC eco-senator and as DEIJ fellow at the Office of Sustainability and Carbon Solutions?
As eco-senator, I’m working to launch and support environmental justice campaigns, expand environmental education, and strengthen eco-community partnerships. I’m focusing my office’s work on wellness and intersectionality to uplift and empower student-driven community action. As DEIJ fellow, I’m implementing DEI into the Campus Sustainability Plan and serving as a liaison between the Office of Sustainability and student and staff groups.
In your view, what’s the “Venn diagram” of environmental justice and social justice?
Sustainability has been built under systems such as racism, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. We must actively reimagine the way our world is built in order to have a sustainable earth for everyone. Who is it built for? Whose voices are excluded in that process? In my work with the Students of Color Environmental Collective (SCEC), we’ve realized that a lot of what justice is isn’t taught in the classroom; it’s taught through peers’ experiences and through conversations about our experiences as people of color in the environmental movement. On this campus specifically, we need to ensure that all student voices are heard. In the spirit of advocacy and intentionality, we must acknowledge and listen to all communities.
Can you explain the term “intersectionality,” specifically in the context of environmental justice?
Intersectionality as a term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a UCLA professor of constitutional law and critical race theory. I think it’s very important to acknowledge its roots and the Black woman who created the framework for it. Personally, I view intersectionality as a community-oriented approach—ensuring that economic, political, and social frameworks are woven together to create solutions, while also acknowledging that individuals who make up these larger systems hold multiple identities and belong to multiple communities. Intersecting identities build up a person’s self-expression, character, and the way they view the world. So, when crafting environmental solutions, you need the active and intentional participation of even the most marginalized community members.
Lucy Andrews. Photo by Adam Sings In the Timber.
PhD candidate, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
Lucy Andrews studies water resource management in the lab of Ted Grantham, an associate professor of Cooperative Extension in water and climate. In addition to her doctoral work, she’s serving as external affairs vice president in the Graduate Assembly and co-chair of the Chancellor’s Independent Advisory Board on Police Accountability and Community Safety. A passionate ultramarathon runner, she coaches cross-country running and track at Oakland Technical High School.
Breakthroughs: What water issues are you studying, and what kind of career path do you hope to pursue?
Andrews: I’m fascinated by the management of water resources in a time of scarcity, climate change, and increasing demands for freshwater. I’m focusing on things like dam removal, environmental flows, and stream restoration in California water management. Environmental justice and cross-disciplinary methods are central to my research, as well as involving diverse collaborators in the planning, practice, and application of my science. I use spatial analysis and a variety of computational methods to illustrate trade-offs of various choices related to water use and management. I hope to find a public service or government job where I’m responsible for a blend of applied research, management, and policy support.
How do racial and social justice inform your approach?
I was brought up to believe that no action is neutral—you’re either solving a problem or contributing to it. I want to live in a world where everybody is flourishing and able to be whole, and we don’t live in that world right now. There’s also such a history of colonialism and extraction in traditional “resource management sciences.” Even the term itself is colonial, because it speaks of the natural world as a resource to be managed, rather than something with which to relate. As someone who plans to make a living in that field, I want to attend to the harms of my field’s past.
What do you do in your role as external affairs vice president in the Graduate Assembly?
I represent the interests of graduate students in political projects both on and off campus, interacting with organizations ranging from the UC Office of the President to state agencies. Recently, our advocacy agenda has included support for state bills that advance the study of reparations for Black Californians and a statewide commission to move toward racial justice and the deconstruction of institutionalized white supremacy. We’re also working across the UC system and in Sacramento to create more affordable housing for students, and we’re distributing a Graduate Assembly fund that supports Native American students at UC Berkeley.
Does that tie in with your work with the Chancellor’s Independent Advisory Board on Accountability and Community Safety?
Yes. A year or two ago the Graduate Assembly supported a political stance of divestment from the campus police department and the reinvestment of resources into forms of safety programs that don’t have a history of surveillance and racialized policing. And I’m in full support of that project, because I’ve observed many of my peers impacted by surveillance and physical harm from our police department that has really impeded their education. In this university-appointed position charged with recommending changes to the policing and safety of my campus, it’s incumbent upon me to do so with a deep understanding of what justice and repair would look like in that space.
What sparked your interest in running, and how does it intersect with your research interests?
I started running on the high school cross-country team as a way to stay out of trouble after school, and I haven’t looked back. After competing in college, I found myself running longer distances as a way to explore the places in nature that I was curious about, and then I started racing too. I’ve probably run six or seven ultras (that’s anything longer than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles) and countless shorter trail races. The farthest I’ve raced is 53 miles, but my 2022 season will end with a 62-mile race in May. For training, I typically run 60 to 75 miles a week, which includes some longer runs and a speed session or two.
Running connects me deeply to landscapes that I love; I’ve gotten to know a variety of ecosystems and terrains intimately using my own two feet. This makes me want to steward them through my science—that’s the core motivation underpinning my dissertation.
Running has also taught me to just keep showing up as I chip away at big goals. I’ve run almost every day for 15 years, through hard times and joyful times alike. I approach my science the same way—as a marathon, not a sprint—and I embrace the inevitable ebbs and flows that come with long-term projects.