For years, environmental conservation organizations have lacked diversity and reinforced systems of inequalities. It’s essential that we correct these wrongs of history to ensure that Black and Brown communities, like the one I grew up in, have equitable access to clean natural resources and a say in how they’re managed.”
Anjali Boyd: Elevating Voices
You may remember Anjali Boyd as the Nicholas School student and community advocate who surprised the political establishment by running for district supervisor of the Durham County Soil & Water Conservation District in 2020, and winning.
Her double-digit victory over four other candidates in the race, her first run ever for public office, served notice that she’s someone to watch.
Now, she’s exceeding expectations again.
This January, the National Academy of Sciences appointed Boyd, a first-year doctoral student in marine science and conservation, to serve as an early career liaison on the U.S. National Committee for the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
As the only student and youngest member selected to serve on the committee, she’s helping guide its efforts to broaden the ocean science tent and inspire more young people, especially women and students of color, to pursue careers in the field.
In concert with that work, this February Boyd launched The Hub, a national online database that connects students with funding and internship opportunities in marine science, biodiversity and other environmentally focused STEM fields.
Closer to home, she’s helped develop new K-12 STEM curriculum for the Duke Marine Lab’s Community Science Initiative, and launched the Durham Youth Contest, a program that awards seed grants of up to $500 to support youth-led community-based conservation.
Boyd has also helped spearhead iNviTECH, an educational outreach initiative that aims to engage the next generation of STEM innovators and unlock their entrepreneurial spirit through specially designed, age-appropriate programs – the iNviTECH Playschool, Clubhouse and iLab – for preschool and K-12 children of color.
“As a Black woman in marine science, which is one of the least racially diverse STEM fields, it has always been important for me to create spaces and opportunities for other students of color to explore STEM fields and learn about the various career opportunities available to them,” she said.
Born and raised in Durham in a family that placed high values on academic excellence and community service, Boyd was drawn to a career in marine science after taking a course in high school and becoming “fascinated with learning about this unknown and unfamiliar world.”
As an undergraduate at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., she immersed herself in the ocean science and policy world, augmenting her coursework in marine biology with internships at NGOs and leadership roles in student chapters of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and other scientific organizations. She also made time to share her love of science and nature with local K-12 students by serving as a volunteer STEM mentor and tutor through Eckerd’s Office of Service Learning.
Those experiences confirmed for Boyd that marine science and education are where her passions lie, but they also drove home the need for more diverse representation in the environmental field.
That realization was one of her chief motivations for running for elected office after returning home to Durham to pursue doctoral studies at the Nicholas School.
“There are currently more than 450 Soil & Water Supervisors across North Carolina, but only three of us are Black women,” Boyd said. “This means there’s an entire lens we’re not using when designing and implementing conservation solutions.
“For years, environmental conservation organizations have lacked diversity and reinforced systems of inequalities. It’s essential that we correct these wrongs of history to ensure that Black and Brown communities, like the one I grew up in, have equitable access to clean natural resources and a say in how they’re managed.”
Today, in addition to her Soil & Water Conservation District duties and her National Academy committee work, Boyd remains actively engaged with ESA, the Society of Wetland Scientists and other national scientific organizations to boost underrepresented minority participation in ocean science and conservation.
Last September she was appointed by ESA’s governing board to serve on the 9,000-member association’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Task Force. She is the youngest member and only student on the task force.
She’s also working to help launch a new organization, Black Women in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Sciences that aims to “rewrite the narrative and drive innovation.”
Boyd’s list of research achievements is just as impressive.
In 2018, while still an undergraduate at Eckerd College, she was named a NOAA Hollings Scholar and subsequently spent four months conducting research on seagrass and food web ecology at the Duke University Marine Lab, under the guidance of faculty member Brian Silliman. That work led to her receiving an honorable mention in the highly competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program in 2019 – before she was, technically, even a graduate student.
In 2020, Boyd received a Dean’s Graduate Fellowship to pursue doctoral studies at the Nicholas School, where she is a member of Silliman’s lab. She is already lead author of one peer-reviewed study, now in review, and another that she hopes to submit for publication this year. Her work focuses on testing the hypothesis that removing top predators in a marine ecosystem will result in an increased abundance of mid-sized predators, or mesopredators, which, in turn, will lead to a decreased abundance of smaller prey species—essentially throwing the marine food web out of balance.
Understanding the implications of these interactions and how they may be exacerbated by physical pressures like erosion or sea-level rise is essential for reversing the loss of saltmarshes, seagrass beds, oyster reefs and other marine habitats that are now in decline in much of the world, Boyd explains.
Though still in its early phase, she hopes her work will ultimately contribute to ecosystem-based solutions that boost restoration efforts and help turn the tide of habitat loss. “That’s definitely one of the top things I’m working to achieve, right up there with increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the aquatic sciences, bridging the gap between entrepreneurship and scientific research, and owning and leading my own marine research center,” she said.
Some people might say she’s overly ambitious. But Boyd isn’t buying that.
“It’s about protecting our planet, elevating the voices of youth, people of color and woman, and bringing new perspectives and solutions to the table to address the world’s most pressing environmental and human health issues,” she said. “If you want it to happen, you have to work for it.”
Most people of faith are on board about caring for the environment and wanting clean energy. They just may not use the same words to convey it or necessarily view advocacy as a natural expression of their faith.”
–Avery Davis Lamb
Avery Davis Lamb: Tapping In To Faith
Avery Davis Lamb’s journey to faith-based environmental advocacy began, fittingly enough, in a garden.
As a boy growing up in Topeka, Kan., he loved working with his mother in the family’s yard, a mini-Eden of flowers and foliage where, between all the weeding and staking and deadheading, he came to appreciate the value a gardener brings to a garden, and vice versa.
“Being outside and working with plants was such an affirming part of my childhood,” he recalled. “It definitely planted a seed, even if I didn’t start thinking about the environment from a faith or vocational perspective until years later.”
Lamb’s “ecological conversion” came while attending a Christian conference during his days as a biology major at Pepperdine University. When the conference’s discussion turned to Christian ethics on climate change and sustainability, he realized that though he grew up in the church he had never heard much there about caring for the environment. That puzzled him, because looking back, he knew how formative his childhood experiences in the garden had been for cultivating his own connection to God.
“That’s the moment I realized that my faith has in it a call to care for God’s creation,” he said.
After graduating from Pepperdine in 2016, Lamb heeded that call by heading to Washington, D.C., for a year-long internship at the faith-based social and environmental justice advocacy organization Sojourners.
“It was an interesting time to be in Washington. On one hand, I was able to take part in the People’s Climate March and do lobbying and advocacy on important issues that were finally gaining momentum, like climate justice,” he said. “On the other hand, we were in the midst of the Trump Era environmental rollbacks, so there were lows as well as highs.”
When his internship ended, Lamb signed on as a policy advocate at another D.C.-area faith-based NGO called Interfaith Power & Light (IP&L). There, he advocated for climate policy on Capitol Hill on behalf of the 20,000 congregations in IP&L’s network and organized grassroots campaigns to address environmental issues affecting local communities.
“There were two campaigns I’m especially proud of,” he said. “In the first, we successfully organized communities of faith in Baltimore to oppose the city’s practice of allowing trains carrying crude oil, which poses an explosion risk, to pass through a low-income, mostly minority neighborhood on their way to port. City council members said hearing the moral voice of the city’s united communities of faith made the case.”
In the second campaign, he led efforts to bring leaders from multiple faiths together to advocate for a bill mandating the District of Columbia to switch to 100% clean energy by 2032, the most ambitious municipal goal of its kind at the time. “I held prayer meetings with the leaders and asked them to talk to the D.C. Council about the moral imperative of switching to clean energy,” Lamb said.
The united voices of faith once again carried the day, and the bill became law on Dec. 18, 2018.
While presenting a unified front was critical to the success of both campaigns, Lamb learned that respecting differences between communities was just as imperative.
“Faith communities are as diverse as the rest of the American public, both politically and theologically, but it’s not an unbridgeable divide if you’re willing to listen to them and see the issues from their perspectives,” he said. “Most people of faith are on board about caring for the environment and wanting clean energy. They just may not use the same words to convey it or necessarily view advocacy as a natural expression of their faith.”
And that, Lamb explains, is what has brought him to Duke to pursue Master of Environmental Management and Master of Divinity degrees, and a Certificate in Community-Based Environmental Management.
“After reading the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that shows we have 10 years to enact unprecedented changes if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, I realized the training I had received up to that point wasn’t going to be adequate to help bring about the changes we need in the time we have left,” Lamb said. “I needed much better spiritual and scientific toolkits, and Duke was the place to get them.”
Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza’s courses on community-based environmental management have been especially helpful in “affirming that rather than always looking for large-scale technocratic solutions to problems, it’s often better to draw solutions from individuals and communities who know the local environment and have a vested interest in seeing it flourish,” he said. “That’s a takeaway that will definitely help guide my future work.”
Post-graduation, Lamb hopes to apply his expanded skill set to a career, most likely in faith-based advocacy, that helps bring about meaningful environmental and social progress while strengthening people’s connections to God and nature. His time as a board member at the Center for Spirituality in Nature in Arlington, Va., has piqued his interest in creating opportunities for people to experience the divine through outdoor meditation and other nature-based experiences. He’s also intrigued by the Church of the Wild movement, in which congregations meet outside to see what their encounters with God are like when their altar is a rock or stump and they take a 20-minute walk through the woods instead of listening to a sermon.
“For me, it all comes back to the Garden of Eden story, which I consider the foundational Biblical text on the relationship between God, humans and nature,” Lamb said. “In that story, God is not a king or a philosopher. He’s a gardener. He scoops up soil from the ground and breathes life into it. What a beautiful story.”
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."
Cameron Oglesby: Bridging the Gap
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.
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.
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.”
Read more stories featured in the Duke Environment Magazine Spring 2021 issue.