From disillusionment to advocacy--my path to environmental law
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From disillusionment to advocacy–my path to environmental law

By Lydia Heye

Lydia on graduation day in front of Royce Hall at UCLA, May 2022. Photo by Rebekah Heye

Growing up, I probably wouldn’t have considered myself an “environmentalist.”

No, I wasn’t a climate denier or serial-litterer. I was always – and still am – a big lover of the outdoors and would have supported anything to protect it!

Rather, I was disillusioned with the conservation and environmental movement as I had perceived it in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and as I related to it as a person of color. I would watch thousands attend climate protests downtown when, just weeks prior, less than a hundred showed up for a racial justice protest on those same streets.

“What kind of future are these people trying to protect if they won’t stand up for the injustices happening to my community today?” I would often wonder.

The “aha” moment

I first heard the term “environmental justice” in college during a class I took on different perspectives on social justice. Up until that point, I had a very narrow view of environmentalism that only had enough room for those who were white and elite in society. Broadening my understanding of environmentalism to encompass protecting communities of color, low-income communities, and Indigenous sovereignty opened the door for me to join the movement. The more I learned about environmental justice, the angrier and more passionate I got. From my background and personal experience with racial injustice, it only made sense that these same injustices would manifest in the environmental context.

Lydia with family in Colorado, July 2021. Photo by Rebekah Heye

I never imagined that my fascination with environmental justice would lead me to environmental law. Heading into law school, I did not have a solid idea of what area of the law I wanted to practice, only that I wanted to focus on racial injustice. Naturally, I assumed that would mean I would become a civil rights or immigration attorney.

However, during my first semester, I attended a lunch event put on by the environmental law society on Indigenous land rights and environmental justice. Attorneys working on issues related to the Dakota Access Pipeline and Mauna Kea spoke to how they partnered with community stakeholders and utilized the law to amplify their voices. In that moment, it felt as if the imaginary lightbulb above my head went off.

“That’s exactly the type of work I want to do!” I thought to myself. (I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had said it audibly, too, out of excitement!)

The learning continues

I joined the board of the Environmental Law Society at UCLA as the Environmental Justice Chair and enrolled in as many environmental law classes as I could. I quickly realized that there was much I needed to learn about environmental law and the movement more broadly.

Lydia on top of Flattop, Anchorage, September 2022. Photo by anonymous hiker.

Thanks to the professors and mentors I had during my time in law school and in my various internships, I fell in love with the practice and study of environmental law. I was continually challenged to think critically about how we can utilize or change the law to better protect our communities and achieve environmental justice.

When it came time for me to look for post-graduate jobs, I knew that I wanted to work for an organization that not only did right by the environment, but also right by the communities around them. I believe that Trustees does both.

I am excited to continue to learn and grow as a lawyer and person during my fellowship at Trustees, and I can’t wait to experience more of this beautiful state!

Lydia Heye joined Trustees as a legal fellow in September 2022 and will focus on legal work around mining and oil and gas industrialization in the Arctic. Find out more about Lydia on the Trustees’ “Our Team” page.