A Call for Authentic Black Engagement

The following comments were expressed during a virtual conversation hosted by me and my University of Michigan School for Environment (SEAS) colleagues, Drs. Dorceta Taylor and Bilal Butt, entitled “Being an Environmentalist while Black” on June 10, 2020. My comments are based on a collection of conversations and personal experiences in order to frame real issues and discuss solutions for authentic engagement with black faculty, students, and staff, and in black communities. 

While Black faculty, students, and staff are grossly underrepresented in SEAS and most other environmental departments in higher education, this lack of representation is emblematic of a larger problem of the environmental field as a whole and even participation in environmental decision making. It represents a misconception of a more holistic understanding of what the word environment even means, as well as, perpetuates the misconception that Blacks don’t care about the environment, nature, or outdoors. It also supports the persistent environmental racism that perpetuates increased COVID-19 mortality in over-polluted Black communities, the eliminating of green space in urban communities, over-surveillance by police, and a sense of non-belonging by citizens in their own communities. Thus, it is imperative that the environmental field appreciate this larger comprehension of the environment.

As you think about the dominate narratives about Blacks and the environment, if you can, imagine being the only African American male professor or the lone African American doctoral student in our school, or the potential student whose admission into another concentration is questioned, because it is assumed that all Black students should concentrate in environmental justice. 

Navigating academic spaces dominated by systems of white supremacy and oppression- while difficult for Black faculty, students, and staff- is our norm. Ours is a life of experiences operating within and navigating a system that was never designed for us to fully participate in. And until there is a recognition by those who benefit from a system designed for them to excel, and for others to fail, what is happening right now will continue to bubble to the surface, just as it did last year, and the year before, and for more than a century before that.  

Therefore, what this moment calls for is a devotion to a set of authentic, shared values by the body politic. What this is not, is a moment for people to tick off a list of surface-level demonstrations of things they’ve done to feel anti-racist, nor to take advantage of this moment through new research projects on Black bodies and Black places that have no Black people authentically engaged in the projects.

To that end, as we go into the breakout sessions, I want you to reflect on the follow questions as you think about the today’s conversation and the actions you will take moving forward. 

  1. How does your research perpetuate colonialism and systemic and institutional racism?
    1. Do you actively seek out Black scholars for collaboration?
    2. Do you cite Black scholars in your work?
    3. Do you recruit and mentor Black students, especially from communities in which you do your research?
  2. If and when you engage with Black faculty or students and in Black communities, do not tokenize that engagement. Ask yourself,
    1. Are they equal partners? 
    2. Are they co-creators of knowledge?
    3. Are they respected for the knowledge we bring?
    4. Most importantly, are they equitably compensated? Don’t just extract. Be intentional about mutual benefits.
  3. How can you provide space, unique support, and culturally-relevant and responsive resources for Black students, faculty, and staff?
  4. Diversify your curriculum. Who are you NOT exposing your students to? Ask students to offer input on who and what they are reading.
  5. Lastly, we have to stop acting as if we don’t have a problem. It is time to “Make America Uncomfortable Again” as a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe noted. For this nation to ever be GREAT, we must be uncomfortable enough to authentically confront and defeat the systemic racism that so deeply corrupts it. This includes academia more broadly, and the environmental field, more specifically.

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