A small college in Kansas City, Kansas, wants climate justice at the center of everything it does
Donnelly College students learn about environmental ethics both in class and in their community. Adding solar power to a new building and growing neighborhood gardens, the college is trying to lead by example.
Joe Multhauf is an avid gardener, but even he was thinking that a chilly day with wind gusts up to 20 mph was less than ideal for putting seeds in the ground.
Still, there he was in late March, kneeling on the ground in a courtyard at a low-income apartment complex just west of downtown Kansas City, Kansas, teaching college students the proper spacing for lettuce and other seeds.
Multhauf, an assistant professor, is the longest-serving instructor at Donnelly College, a small, Catholic college a few blocks from the Wyandotte Towers Apartments. He’s taught science courses for 30 years. The one that brought him to the garden — environmental ethics — is in its second year, and it’s quickly become one of Multhauf’s favorites.
“It’s part of our values and the mission of the college to be responsible for the environment,” he said. “So everything we do ties in with that.”
Donnelly is a two-year college founded in 1949 by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and the Benedictine sisters of Mount St. Scholastica. Its mission from the beginning has been to serve students who otherwise would not have had access to a college education. Many current students are from immigrant families. Of 98 students who graduated this spring, 71 are the first in their families to attend college.
The college recently completed a new academic building — its first new construction in 70 years. Multhauf and his co-teacher, Paula Console-Soican, teach environmental ethics in a classroom on the third floor, where a continuous trickle of water from an indoor lettuce planter provides background noise.
Console-Soican is an assistant professor of English, so under her guidance students study writings by Wangari Maathai, a graduate of Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, who won a Nobel Prize for her humanitarian and environmental activism; and Drawdown, Paul Hawken’s plan for climate solutions.
But the outdoors is the bigger classroom for the climate ethics students.
They walked neighborhoods, noticing the absence of crosswalks, the run-down parks and the prevalence of security alarms on the homes near their campus. For comparison, they visited the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and strolled the wealthier neighborhoods there, noting the larger homes and lawns and calmer streets.
They visited Mount St. Scholastica, home of a community of Benedictine nuns in Atchison, Kansas, and volunteered in their gardens.
And they returned several times to the Wyandotte Towers Apartments, where they planted vegetables and also fruit trees. The biggest hurdle for the class was this spring’s weather, which brought prolonged cold, occasional late bursts of snow and frequent windy days — almost inevitably on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which is when the class met.
Climate ethics at the forefront
The focus on climate ethics at Donnelly College isn’t limited to a single class. College President Stuart Swetland, a Catholic priest, said environmental justice is central to the college’s mission.
“It has to be at the forefront,” he said.
Swetland noted that the leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, known to some as the patron saint of ecology. Swetland speaks and writes often about Francis’s 2015 letter, Laudato Si’, a call for care of the environment and people.
“As Pope Francis said when he came into the head of the Catholic church and took the name Francis, one of the reasons he took the name is because he recognized that humanity doesn’t have a great relationship with the earth at this stage,” Swetland said. “And we needed to pay attention to that.”
So when the college built its new academic building, it put solar panels on the roof. And it added a grassy quad to share with a neighborhood of tightly packed houses that doesn’t have much green space. Two of the books chosen for campus-wide reads over the last four years focused on environmental justice.
“We try to encourage our students to think holistically when it comes to their approach and their vocation in life,” Swetland said. “And we’re trying to do that, both by what we teach in the classrooms, and by example.”
Many of Donnelly’s students have witnessed the inequities of climate injustice first-hand, Swetland noted. They live in neighborhoods with unhealthy air, excessive heat and shortages of healthy food.
“It’s always the poor, and it's always the inner city, where environmental injustices create the most harm,” Swetland said. “So for our students, this is not just theoretical. They recognize the need here.”
Daniel Zavala, a sophomore in the environmental ethics class, commutes to Donnelly from Olathe, Kansas. He said the excursions around Wyandotte County changed his perspective.
“When we were over to plant at Wyandotte Towers, that was enlightening to me,” he said. “Because we can talk all we want about how climate impacts our lives and how we live it, but truly those who are impacted are those who are not as fortunate as we are.”
Juliet Her, a sophomore who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, said she also learned from the emphasis on gardening.
“My mom was always gardening and I kind of understood it,” she said. “But the way we do gardening here in environmental ethics is both similar and also very different. And I think it’s really cool to see the different ways that we can grow our own produce and also encourage the community to do so as well.”
Swetland sees the college’s climate justice teachings as a bridge with the community.
“This is obviously a very important thing for Catholics,” he said. “Our teachings on environmental justice are very strong. But it’s not just a faith-based thing. One thing I think we all share is this common earth, this common home, as Pope Francis likes to call it. And it needs our care. So this is one place where we can begin building cooperation, and maybe build toward cooperation and peace in other areas.”
This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR 89.3, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News, The Kansas City Beacon and American Public Square.