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Earlier this year, I met with a white faculty member in my department of environmental sciences and policy to discuss my future as an environmental scholar. I was nearing the end of nine years of graduate school, beginning with law school and followed by the Ph.D., and this professor was recommended as I planned my next steps.
The professor began the conversation by asking my perspective on why it was so difficult to recruit students of color to the department. The question was genuine, and as the only black Ph.D. candidate in my program -- and one of only a few black Ph.D.s across the six doctoral programs in my department -- I’ve been asked that question repeatedly since I first started in 2012. Although there are some nonblack students of color and a few faculty of color, the department, like most environmental departments, remains overwhelmingly white.
I paused at the question, eyebrows raised, thinking about how I arrived in the department. I didn’t choose it because of a diversity recruitment strategy or because I’d worked for a traditional environmental organization like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. I entered this field because, 11 years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I learned some important lessons from my bosses and community partners at the City of New Orleans, who were nearly all black and nearly all women. They taught me that the future of black people in New Orleans -- and people of color across the region known as the Global South -- depended on the work we did to shape the places we live, work and play into less toxic, more equitable environments.
Advocacy and scholarship about protecting communities of color are rarely called environmentalism because those communities are still largely not considered places worthy of protection by environmentalists. Environmental justice, a more comprehensive conceptualization of environmental stewardship, provides an equity-based framework that remains marginal within environmental disciplines.
I learned about environmental justice by working with the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice on an initiative for home owners with posthurricane mold contamination. I worked with chemists, horticulturalists and urban farmers focused on soil bioremediation to prevent lead poisoning and provide a safe method to restore kitchen gardens across New Orleans.
I share with many of my mentors in New Orleans a critique of traditional environmental organizations inside and outside academe. Those organizations often give little more than lip service to pursuing environmental protections that reflect the real and inequitable dangers faced by people who live in the same places as the nonhuman species they fight to protect. The case of Turkey Creek, Miss., comes to mind. A historic black community nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Turkey Creek was slated for erasure by development interests in the mostly white neighboring city of Gulfport. Although many local people exhibited little if any concern for preserving the area and the lives of its human inhabitants, conservationists ultimately saved some of the community by intervening with major resources to protect several bird species, along with their local wetland habitats. The problem is not so much the intervention as the fact that communities of color like Turkey Creek do not fall within the protective interests of conservationists.
White-led conservationism historically and in present day sits in persistent and unnecessary tension with the environmental protection of communities of color. Environmentalism is white not because it is irrelevant to nonwhites. It is white because its primary considerations reflect the interests of mostly white and wealthier people -- to the literal exclusion of nonwhites. That is not to say, of course, that nonhuman species conservation is not of serious concern to black and brown communities. Rather, human and nonhuman conservation for our mutual survival cannot be disentangled.
Scholars like geographer Carolyn Finney and environmental law scholar Jedidiah Purdy trace the origins of modern environmentalism to colonialism, to indigenous land grabs and to the racialized conceptualization of nature as dominated space -- where humans control the valuation of species and humanity is defined as white. Social Darwinists and founders of conservationism Madison Grant, Gifford Pinchot and U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt maintained that whites were the most capable, civilized humans, whose duty was to conquer and manage inferior peoples in the larger quest for the New World and its resources. The expulsion of indigenous peoples from the territories that became our national parks, as just one example, reinforced the premise that humans are simultaneously oppositional to “nature” and that whites are the trusted human protectors of nature and its resources.
To be sure, certain subfields of environmentalism, such as ecofeminism and political ecology, confront and critique those ideas. And select environmental organizations, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, have been more proactive in resolving such tensions in their advocacy and scholarship. But the premise I’ve been describing remains largely intact in much of the culture and scholarship in the field.
For example, I am struck -- but unsurprised -- by the persistent representation of humanless natures in the halls of environmental departments and conservation organizations. When represented, humans are typically white advocates and scholars advocating on behalf of these decontextualized natures or people of color in the so-called Global South living in their “native habitats,” perhaps standing with the arms of white visitors around them. Despite the award-winning environmental advocacy of black and brown peoples like Wangari Maathai in Kenya, Berta Cáceres in Honduras and Margie Richard in the United States, little has changed in the American imagination as to who protects our environment and for whom.
All of this brings me back to the academy, to the office where I was asked why people who look like me are not flocking to environmental departments, especially when communities of color are disparately impacted by the consequences of environmental exploitation. I cannot speak for other scholars, but I know that I’ve spent the last nine years trying to reconcile what I’ve learned in the classroom with what I learned in New Orleans and what I knew of my own communities. It took connecting with race scholars in sociology, law and geography, and reconnecting with the kinds of community advocates who inspired me to pursue my graduate education in the first place, to find a way to redefine environmentalism and scholarship to incorporate the lived experiences and necessities of communities largely ignored by the discipline.
This is arguably the conundrum that every person of color entering a historically white discipline must confront. Far beyond the challenges of student and faculty recruitment, diversity strategies that are disconnected from issues of power, equity and tokenism raise much larger substantive questions about whether and how the discipline can embrace the multitudes it has been designed to erase. Such conditions can be prohibitive even if you are accustomed, as many of us are, to race (and gender and queer) isolation. I nearly quit law school and twice considered walking away from my Ph.D. program because I couldn’t find myself or my communities in the environmental curriculum.
No one strategy will fundamentally change the demographics of environmental academe or any other environmental organization. Dorceta Taylor’s research on diversity in environmental organizations demonstrates multiple forms of exclusion -- of people of color generally and women of color specifically -- that require multifaceted and often simultaneous strategies.
Having reached the end of my formal environmental education, I know that it will never be enough to conduct targeted recruitment of people of color as long as the programs to which they are being recruited continue to replicate white-centered brands of environmentalism. Until there is a disciplinary reckoning with historic and contemporary practices, along with a well-resourced commitment to transformative change, “diversity” will remain the same misconstrued problem with misguided solutions that it has been for decades.