BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Raising Awareness of - and the Need for - Black Environmentalists

February 18, 2019

Tim Lucas (919) 613-8084,

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From left to right: David Gill, associate professor of marine conservation; Nicolette Cagle, lecturer and director of Duke's Environmental Science Summer Program;
Kyle Cornish MEM'20 and Adrienne Harris MEM'05.

DURHAM, N.C. -- To honor Black History Month, the Nicholas School of the Environment spoke with two faculty members, a master's student and an alumna about their experiences learning about black men and women working for the environment, the need to raise awareness about this work among black youth and how black communities in the U.S. are disproportionately affected by environmental issues.

Black History Q&A - Our Contributors

David Gill is an assistant professor of marine conservation at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. He hails from Barbados, and holds an MS and PhD from the University of the West Indies. His research centers on coupled human-natural systems in the marine environment.
Nicolette Cagle is a lecturer, emphasizing natural history and environmental education, at the Nicholas School. She’s also the director of Duke University’s Environmental Science Summer Program, a two-week course providing local teens with hands-on environmental lessons.
Kyle Cornish MEM'20 is a first-year Master of Environmental Management student focusing on environmental economics and policy. He’s interned at the Center for American Progress in D.C. and is interested in environmental justice and advocacy.
Adrienne Harris MEM’05 is a Nicholas School and Spelman College alumna. She works as an environmental scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, focusing on water quality. Adrienne is a diversity advocate and has volunteered at the Greater Washington Urban League Thursday Network.


Question 1: "Did you know of black women or men working in environmental science when you were thinking of pursuing it as a career? If so, who?"

David:  Not that I can remember. I was attracted to the career by a combination of growing up by the ocean and documentaries on TV (i.e. Jacque Cousteau). I did my first degree at Dalhousie University in Canada and I don't remember any faculty of color in my department. Only while doing my Master's back home did I encounter lecturers of color.

Nicolette: I was seven years old when I first recognized that I wanted to devote my future to the environment. In fact, I was inspired to be a “naturalist” by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist," and by the time I spent outdoors with my mom and dad. By age 13, I was regularly volunteering at a nature center; and by age 16, I was hired in my dream job as a naturalist. I stayed in that position, part-time, through college. 

When I was considering pursuing a career in the environment—through all of my education, teenage volunteer work, and early work experiencesa—I had never knowingly encountered a black man or woman working in environmental fields or for environmental causes. 

Kyle: I knew that there were black people working in environmental science, but I had no idea who or where they were. Few of my peers and none of my professors in the environmental science department were black. Because of that, I struggled to form personal connections with other people in the field. What really cemented my interest in environmental science were the opportunities that I had to engage and work with students of color from other institutions. 

Adrienne: My college professors were black women and men working in environmental science; including my adviser, who ran a nonprofit that assisted African communities in gaining access to safe drinking water. I began considering environmental science as a career during sophomore year of college. I had begun studying environmental science and gained exposure of how environmental science expanded beyond wildlife conservation, including environmental health. This exposure and my interest in public health led me to pursue a graduate degree at the Nicholas School. 

Question 2: Did your coursework include the contributions of black men and women to environmental science? If so, who?

David: Not to my knowledge.

Nicolette: My coursework did not include exposure to the contributions of black men and women in environmental fields, which reflects the structural racism of our society, not a real absence. 

When I was a child, Dr. John Francis (AKA “the planetwalker”) had spent 17 years in silence, walked untold distances and worked ceaselessly for a range of environmental protections, but I didn’t know. When I was a child, I was fed stories about Robert Kennicott’s and Stephen Baird’s natural history work for the Smithsonian in the mid-1800s, but I was not taught about Solomon Brown, who worked with Baird daily. And when I was a student of environmental science and natural resources at the University of Illinois—an agricultural-focused land grant institution—I was not exposed to the accomplishments of George Washington Carver, whose work underpins modern conservation agriculture.

Kyle: My undergraduate course work in environmental science rarely, if ever, included the contributions of black people to the field. I was only exposed to those contributions through the lens of environmental health in black studies courses. I have been able to take some environmental science courses that center on the contributions of black people at the graduate level, but I’ve still largely had to build my own environmental justice curriculum. The environmental work and concerns of black people and people of color are severely underrepresented in environmental academia. 

Adrienne: My college and graduate school course work included learning about contributions of black men and women to environmental science. An environmental policy course taught me that those contributions are often from community leaders experiencing environmental injustices. Attending college near Clark Atlanta University’s Environmental Justice Resource Center provided me the opportunity to attend lectures by then EJRC’s director, Dr. Robert Bullard (known as the Father of Environmental Justice). Dr. Bullard’s passion for environmental justice sparked my interest in pursuing a career in environmental science.

Question 3: What approaches do you think could be better used to increase awareness among black youth about career opportunities in environmental science?

David: Mentor-mentee initiatives, targeted programs in specific communities and getting environmental science on the curriculum in select communities. There are quite a few initiatives that are trying to link mentors of color to students, offering career services and networking opportunities. One that I've connected with in the past was EcologyPlus.

Nicolette: Today, we are keen to acknowledge the power of storytelling. Storytelling is an impactful teaching strategy that forges intellectual connection and emotional engagement, while conveying context, culture and values. 

We can use storytelling to foreground the accomplishments of African Americans in environmental fields and to help black youth see themselves as successful and fulfilled in environmental fields. 

We can also uplift the stories of black achievement in environmental fields to educate those in positions of power and privilege and mitigate stereotyping and implicit bias. For example, recent research indicates that a wide swath of the American public, including whites and non-whites, associate the term “environmentalist” with whites and under-estimate the environmental concerns of under-represented minorities (Pearson et al 2018; shared with me by Randy Kramer).

Kyle: I think that academic staff and faculty at all levels have a responsibility to be unconditionally supportive of the interests of black youth. It’s especially important to ensure more educational support to black students to help them finish high school and degree programs so that they have access to career opportunities in environmental science. I think that one way to increase awareness is through a focus on the multidisciplinary nature of environmental science. People of color are underrepresented in environmental science compared to biological and natural sciences and emphasizing the connectedness of these disciplines is essential. Environmental science intersects with business, economics, public health, communications, and psychology, and focusing on the areas where these fields overlap will be vital to raising awareness about career opportunities in environmental science among black youth. 

Adrienne: Increasing awareness among black youth about environmental science career opportunities is a key element in the expansion of diverse perspectives in the environmental world. A new approach must include the technology appeal by highlighting how technology is used in environmental science. Also, the use of technology (e.g. social media) in reaching black youth. For me, the spark went off when I recognized how the environment effects a community’s health and economy. Sharing how an environmental science career could improve your community’s sustainability and environmental health is an appealing mission for many youths.

Question 4: In 1990, minorities accounted for about two percent of staff at leading environmental organizations (ie. NGOs, foundations, government agencies) in the U.S.; by 2006, they accounted for about 14 percent of staff, according to a recent report.  Do you think this is an encouraging representation of more minorities pursuing careers in environmental science, including positions in management and policy?

David: I think this is a very encouraging trend. Although it is unlikely that many would hold senior positions (this will likely take time), it shows that progress is being made. A group of colleagues and I talk about increasing diversity in coral reef science in a letter to "Nature: International Journal of Science."

Nicolette: Yes, I do think that we are seeing an increased awareness of and willingness to act to ameliorate the conditions that have led to the severe under-representation of minorities in environment fields. Large organizations, like the North American Association for Environmental Education, now embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) as a critical part of their mission. 

Moreover, we have seen the emergence of organizations and sub-groups specifically devoted to DE&I in environmental fields, including the Center for Diversity and the Environment, InTeGrate’s DE&I in Earth and Environmental Science workshops and the Ecological Society of America’s Strategies for Ecology, Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) program.

That being said, structural racism and implicit bias are persistent problems that require decades of hard work and ingenuity to surmount. It took over 15 years to see an increase from two  to 14% in minority staff at leading environmental organizations. That percentage needs to at least double to attain proportional representation.

Kyle: This is a first step, but 14 percent is still approximately half that of the minority population in the US. Environmental organizations often recognize the importance of diversity, but do not reflect those values in their actions. What would truly be encouraging is if more environmental organizations dedicated resources to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Only when environmental organizations take these initiatives seriously will careers in environmental science become more welcoming to people of color.

Adrienne: The increase of minorities working in environmental organizations is an encouraging representation of more minorities pursuing careers in environmental science. I was also encouraged that the report concluded that the organizations are interested in continuing to diversify their staff. Many studies have shown that diversity increases productivity in an organization.

Question 5: A 2018 EPA study showed that blacks faced a 54 percent higher pollution-related health burden compared to the overall U.S. population. How do you think institutions can help bring more members of these communities to the table and give them a voice?

David: I would say: 1) Increased public awareness of these environmental justice issues through formal and informal media. Perhaps the university can facilitate this by creating opportunities for conversations on these topics together with local communities; 2) push for inclusion of affected groups in local decision making on environmental issues and pollution control; and 3) more environmental justice research to shed light on the mechanisms, scale, and inequality in effects of the problem and potential solutions

Nicolette: Institutions can and should bring communities of color, which are being disproportionately burdened by pollution and other environmental issues, to the table in a number of ways. First, institutions need to literally invite representatives of all stakeholders to the table, perhaps using community-driven research approaches. Second, institutions must create safe and comfortable spaces for all people to voice their concerns, needs and suggestions. Third, institutions must be willing to let go of some power and share real power, including decision-making, oversight and control of the purse-strings, with those that have not been given a seat at the table. This power dynamic is important and real; regarding the former, we need to consider who has the power to “share” and “give,” and what conditions keep those power dynamics in place today.

Kyle: Institutions need to make a more concerted effort to meaningfully involve black communities in decision making. They need to go to the people in these communities and sit around their tables for a change. Black people do not need institutions to give them a voice, rather institutions need to listen to what black communities have been shouting for decades. Black people show greater concern for the threats of climate change than white people, and rightfully so—they are among the communities that will be most affected by climate change. I’m hopeful that institutions will wake up to these realities and focus their efforts on challenging the status quo under which poor communities and communities of color disproportionately shoulder the burden of environmental degradation.