Meet Environmental Law Professor Maxine Burkett (X)

"Advocating for the health of one’s environment is a daily effort to seek social justice."
Maxine Burkett (X/Spence '94, Williams '98) JD, UC Berkeley '02 is a Professor of Law at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. An expert in the law and policy of climate change, her research is published in several journals and textbooks including Climate Law, Columbia Journal of International Affairs, and International Environmental Law and the Global South. Maxine recently spoke to Prep about her professional path and reflected on her Prep for Prep journey. 

How did you become interested in environmental justice and climate change law? 

I was born on the island of Jamaica and raised in Queens. Spending summers with my grandmother and great-uncle in Jamaica was such a contrast to living in New York City. As far back as high school, I noticed the “lead-to-prison pipeline,” as emerging data revealed the cognitive impacts of lead poisoning on young people in old apartments. I was also frustrated by the oft-ignored association between poor health – particularly asthma – and missed school days, and the poorer air quality in communities of color where incinerators and bus depots are more consistently located. 

I remembered sharing these concerns with friends from Prep and PREP 9. They would rejoin with sincere reminders that often a family’s next paycheck and other immediate needs were more important than a distant environmental concern. Yet to me they seemed connected. 

How did Prep for Prep nurture or encourage your path? 

Without a doubt, Prep changed the course of my life in every way imaginable, and I am eternally grateful. After years at Spence, Williams, Oxford, and Berkeley – kick started by those rigorous 14-months at Prep – I have the tools, confidence, and opportunity to project my voice farther. I can also help amplify the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard. I tell my children that their education can never be taken away from them, and I remind them the ability to access an excellent education has been hard fought. 

Were there any specific Prep opportunities that pointed you in this direction? 

While I was in high school, I completed a Coro Fellows Program internship with other Prep and PREP 9 alums. It was a fascinating deep dive into the various sectors of New York that make the city thrive or, if poorly implemented, flounder. I learned about how ethnic communities formed along nodes of the subway line, which underscored how infrastructure and seemingly minute decisions by policymakers directly shapes the city. 

I was also a White House Intern under the Clinton Administration during the summer of 1997. I was placed in the West Wing at the Office of Public Liaison and gained first hand engagement with the individuals and institutions that shaped our country and, by extension, the global community. The internship, which did not provide compensation or housing, was possible only because of Prep’s support. Prep provided a stipend and shared apartments in Alexandria, Virginia so that this opportunity was not limited only to those that could afford an unpaid summer in Washington, D.C. 

What kinds of changes are you seeing in the environmental justice movement that make you hopeful about the future? 

The environmental justice and climate justice movements are increasingly gaining the attention they need and deserve. So, too, has there been more holistic and accurate definitions of the “environment” as where we live, work, play. This is in sharp contrast to conventional views of the environment – imagine pristine forests and landscapes – which were understood as external, inaccessible, or in opposition to the lived experience or economic livelihood of the poor and people of color. 

My work on climate change is a necessary progression for social justice work. Climate change is the latest struggle against unchecked power, including its exploitation of people or of finite resources for energy. The impacts of climate change on poor and of-color communities in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria beg greater attention to our environments and the work we do in them. 

What motivates you to pursue the work that you do? 

I have a Manning Marable quotation above my desk that reads: “Intellectuals are the vanguard or ideological proponents of both well-entrenched and nascent social orders. It is their task to explain what has been, to justify or overturn what now exists. And to chart what must become tomorrow.” 

We in academia have a responsibility to serve the public good. Our years of research are valuable only in their ability to chart a more just tomorrow.
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