On May 9 the fifth-annual Santa Monica College Public Policy Institute spring symposium kicks off a week of real-life discussion with students about environmental public policy.

Five years ago, the Public Policy Institute team developed the idea for a spring symposium with the intent of providing students and community members an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in a weeklong policy debate that would resonate with fellow citizens at the local level.

“We wanted to provide a space to engage and interact with policy makers and thus strengthen civic engagement,” said the co-director of SMC’s Public Policy Institute, Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein.

The institute covers a different topic at the symposium every year, but the topic always relates to one of the academic threads in the associate degree program at SMC.

“We are the only California community college with an A.A. degree in public policy,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said. “Our students can focus in one of five policy areas: arts and cultural affairs, education, environmental, health, and urban/socioeconomic. Our symposium themes always relate directly to one of these areas of public policy.”

This year’s theme is “Re-Imagine Environmental Justice.” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said that this theme was selected as a result of students’ interest in the topic.

“Our students have informed our thinking here,” he said. “Our students are passionate about environmental policy. We are actually following their lead here.  And, with the attention in Paris on climate talks and the issues in Flint and in our own backyard — gas leak in Porter Ranch — we thought it relevant to focus on environmental justice this year.”

There are several speakers involved in this year’s symposium, including SMC superintendent Kathryn Jeffery; State Assemblymember Richard Bloom; City Councilmember Pam O’Connor; environmental activist Adam Briggle; and ecofeminist and philosopher Chris J. Cuomo. Tahvildaran-Jesswein said the institute was very collaborative and interdisciplinary in its approach to selecting these speakers.

“We ask not just our students and fellow educators,” he said, “but also local elected leaders who they believe would be best to address the topic we are focusing on.”

He said the process for selecting the programming is also a collaborative one.

“We do strive for a diversity in presentations,” he said. “In other words, we want to be able to offer film talks, as well as traditional lectures and roundtables.”

The spring symposium is supported through a grant from the Associated Students on the SMC campus. In the past, they have also received funds from the City of Santa Monica and the County of Los Angeles and several contributions to the Public Policy Institute in support of their mission.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein said the institute hopes that “students and community members will walk away from the symposium more informed and ready to actually participate in the creation and implementation of public policy.”

“We really want the larger community to know that our events are free and open to the public,” he said. “And we encourage people to attend our many wonderful events and join the conversation.”

The symposium will run May 9-14 with events being held both on and off campus. For more information, go to http://www.smc.edu/AcademicAffairs/PublicPolicyInstitute/Pages/5th-Annual-Spring-Symposium.aspx.