Collecting Oral Histories of Environmental Racism and Injustice (2022-2023)

Background

Scholars have long documented an array of environmental injustices in the American South, including the siting of toxic industrial sites next to poor and Black communities. Yet, despite the growing coverage of environmental justice issues in mainstream media, many stories remain untold. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts across rural and marginalized communities in the South, threatening the preservation of stories from elders and other first-hand observers of environmental injustice and racism. This older generation has been eyewitnesses to the ways in which climate change has impacted their communities: how such changes have altered agricultural practices, influenced decisions to migrate and, most importantly, affected their connection to the land. These stories are forms of collective knowledge, an intergenerational wealth that needs to be documented, archived and passed down. This is important for the communities themselves, as well as for scholars of the environment, humanities, public health and public policy who seek to advocate for more equitable policies.

Project Description

This project team seeks to document the history of racial inequities in the American South through an environmental justice lens. Team members will build a repository of oral histories that will provide evidence of the pervasiveness of environmental injustice and racism in the region to develop a fuller, more racially inclusive context for public discussions of environmental issues and policies. The team will incorporate a humanist and documentary perspective for communicating about environmental injustices and advocating for just, equitable and anti-racist solutions. The project is split into three components: an oral history component, a journalism component, and a podcast component.

For the oral history component, team members will work with community members and representatives from other institutions to interview and document the experiences of injustice as well as place-based expressions of people in rural and “environmental justice” communities. The final products will include a formal archival site of experiences translated as written works, audio interviews or short videos for the public, as well as less formal oral history materials for local community use. 

For the journalism component, team members will be paired up with a community leader across the region and write 1-3 feature length articles for major media outlets. In celebration the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Justice Movement, stories will highlight the work of environmental justice groups and leaders in the American South, including a short series of narrative-driven articles, each focused on a significant effort or issue from a different region or community. The efforts featured can be recent, historic or ongoing. Students will be paired and placed in their groups in the Spring semester. To participate in the journalism component, students must fill out this Google Form by February 9th. 

For the podcast component, in connection with Catherine Coleman Flowers and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) and in partnership with the student podcast Operation Climate, team members will produce a podcast series spotlighting environmental justice advocates and leaders. This project, also in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Justice Movement, asks prominent leaders to share their life stories, motivations and experience in the movement as a reflection on the movement's evolution. Interviewees will include members of the WHEJAC, attendees of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, and other youth climate justice activists and seasoned EJ advocates. 

Please note: The primary focus of this project is the oral history collection and website. Students working on the journalism and podcast components can count that work toward their team outputs but all team members will prioritize the oral history collection.

Learn more about this team by checking out their info session recording and slides.

Anticipated Outputs

Archival website and story map depicting experiences of rural environmental justice communities; oral histories in various formats; news articles documenting instances of environmental injustice or environmental racism; profiles on White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council members and meetings; podcasts and/or short audio documentaries

Timing

Summer 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Summer 2022 (optional): Begin readings and activities on the Environmental Justice Movement to help decide topics or regions of interest; journalism subgroup will report out stories (this only applies to team members who join the team in Spring 2022); engage in racial equity orientation or training
  • Fall 2022: Complete oral history training; begin outreach to communities and relationship building; begin conducting oral history interviews; develop format for archival website; journalism subteam will finalize and publish articles
  • Spring 2023: Analyze collected interviews and curate them based on community needs; design and finalize archival website for oral histories

This Team in the News

Amplifying Stories of Environmental Racism, Resistance in North Carolina

Former MLK colleague commemorates environmental justice movement with NC roots

See related Story+ project, Collecting Oral Histories of Environmental Racism and Injustice in the American South (2022), and earlier related team, ACRE-Duke Partnership to Improve Sanitation Access in Lowndes County, Alabama (2018-2019).

 

Image: Crossroads Complex (Agriculture is a major part of the Robeson County, North Carolina economy), by Gerry Dincher, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Field and silos.

Team Leaders

  • Elizabeth Albright, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Margaret (Lou) Brown, Franklin Humanities Institute
  • Wesley Hogan, Franklin Humanities Institute
  • Cameron Oglesby, Sanford School of Public Policy–MPP Student
  • Miguel Rojas Sotelo, Center for International and Global Studies-Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
  • Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/graduate Team Members

  • Amanda Ostuni, Masters of Public Policy
  • Ryan Parks, Business and Environment
  • Danielle Sullivan, Masters of Public Policy
  • Maya Wilson, Global Health - MSc

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Christina Boxberger, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Thanh-Nhu Bui
  • Sophia Chimbanda, Program II (AB)
  • Ariella Chukwuma, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Megan Corey
  • Victoria Ely
  • Tashia Ethridge, African/African Am St (AB)
  • Harriet Halloway
  • Ameena Hester, UNC Chapel Hill Student
  • Meghna Parameswaran
  • Isabel Rewick, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Madeline Waterfield
  • Qingyuan Zhang

/zcommunity Team Members

  • William Barber III, Rural Beacon Initiative
  • Catherine Coleman Flowers, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE)