Part scientist, part humanist, part unstoppable force of nature, Cameron Oglesby is working to change our relationship with the planet we call home.
Oglesby is dedicated to gaining a deeper understanding of humans’ role in the natural landscape and dismantling the social and political barriers that prevent far too many of us from forming closer connections with it.
As an advocate, she wants to ensure all people reap the benefits of living in environmentally healthy communities and know how to protect and exercise their rights and support the rights of natural systems.
It’s a passion that stretches back, at least partly, to her youth.
“In middle school, I was very frustrated that many people didn’t seem to care about the natural world and seemed OK with all the ways we were damaging Mother Earth. I came to view humanity as being very separate from nature,” Oglesby said.
After coming to Duke, she gained a more mature understanding “of how inextricably linked we are to natural spaces, personally, financially and political. It became very clear to me that you have to understand and tap into human systems as well as natural ones if you want to bring about real change,” she said.
That realization has led Oglesby – who will graduate with honors this May with a major in Environmental Science and Policy, a minor in Earth and Ocean Sciences, and a certificate in Policy Journalism – to broaden her focus and explore human connections with the natural world through a multifaceted lens that includes policy, history, science, communications and the arts.
Her journey has led her to delve deeply into what it means to be a Black woman working in an environmental space where people of color are often not represented.
It’s also led her to seek out the stories of other people whose voices and perspectives are absent or underrepresented so she can document, learn from, and uplift their experiences.
I want to help bring people closer together, and closer to nature, by communicating environmental science in a way that makes climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and other urgent issues understandable and relevant and by including communities and voices that have been left out of the conversation so far."
Over the last four years, she’s profiled the descendants of formerly enslaved people from the Great Dismal Swamp; gained insights on Native American experiences with environmental racism from members of the Nansemond tribe of North Carolina, the Upper Mattaponi tribe of Virginia and the Amah Mutsun tribal band in California, to name a few; learned how the Malagasy people of Madagascar are struggling to reconcile the conservation of their lands with their everyday needs; and discovered how communities like the Quandamooka people in Minjerribah on Australia’s Gold Coast have been slowly but surely reclaiming their spiritual, traditional and legal land rights.
What she has learned has deepened her conviction that people all over the world have intrinsic cultural, ancestral and spiritual connections with the natural landscape that we, as a society, have a collective obligation to protect. And that has strengthened her resolve to help end the legacy of environmental racism and combat the corroding influence of disengagement.
“Of course, the land means something different to each of us. The value to some may be as simple as finding peace and rejuvenation in being outdoors, or just breathing clean air and enjoying green, open space. What people may not realize is that many of these basic pleasures are not always equitably available to all communities due to systemic and environmental injustice and gaps in public policy,” Oglesby said.
“I want to help bring people closer together, and closer to nature, by communicating environmental science in a way that makes climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and other urgent issues understandable and relevant and by including communities and voices that have been left out of the conversation so far,” she said.
She’s already on her way.
In her four years at Duke, Oglesby has advocated for racial equity and the institutionalization of environmental programs through leadership positions in student government, the Duke Environmental Alliance, the Duke Undergraduate Environmental Union, duARTS and Duke Arts, the Duke Chronicle, and other campus groups or programs.
What I’ve been able to do at Duke and what I’ve learned here, has made it clear that a career that focuses on both people and the planet is the right course for me."
She’s helped local nonprofits galvanize students from Duke and other local campuses to advocate for marginalized communities and has launched a podcast series called Bridging the Gap that explores race, identity, and marginalization at Duke and beyond.
She’s written about environmental injustice and other pressing issues for news outlets including Grist and Environmental Health News, and done social media, graphic design, marketing strategy and reporting for the environmental justice news outlet Southerly.
Over the last few years, Oglesby has organized and curated Duke’s Enviro-Art Gallery, an annual showcase of student and professional artwork, including her own drawings and paintings, designed to highlight the beauty and struggles of nature and raise awareness about environmental issues. This year, despite the challenges of COVID-19, she and her team were able to pull off the event virtually and add an impressive list of guest speakers and more than 600 pieces of art from around the world to the showcase.
Since last September, she’s also served as an undergraduate representative on the Duke Board of Trustees’ Sustainability and Climate Change Task Force. Her input is helping the task force assess opportunities for the university to expand and enhance its environmental leadership in the years to come. Oglesby used her seat at the table to advocate for the creation of core courses on environmental justice, as well as greater transparency and equity in university environmental decision making and programming.
As her undergraduate career winds down, Oglesby is focusing her efforts on one last special project: putting the finishing touches on her first book, which “explores the inherent touchpoints between human spirit, traditions and injustice as it relates to landscape and natural spaces.” She hopes this book will help illustrate the common threads between the human experience and the natural environment and, in doing so, illuminate and unify the understanding and appreciation of our collective environmental interests.
Cameron will return to Duke University in the Fall to begin graduate work in Public Policy, with an ever-focused eye on environmental advocacy and changing the world.
“What I’ve been able to do at Duke and what I’ve learned here, has made it clear that a career that focuses on both people and the planet is the right course for me,” she said. “Environmental racism and human indifference toward the degradation of the natural world aren’t going to go away on their own. We need to eradicate them through education, advocacy, empathy, communication, and greater inclusion in the scientific, policymaking, and decision-making processes. I very much intend to be part of that solution.”