History of Environmental Justice Education and Research at SEAS
For nearly three decades, SEAS has been on the forefront of environmental justice education and research. Here are a few highlights of that history…
It is widely recognized that one prominent wave of the environmental justice movement first gained traction in 1982 in a predominately African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina.
During that year, the community had been designated as the future site of a hazardous waste landfill—one that would accept the PCB-contaminated soil resulting from the illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways. Though the state was pressed to consider alternative sites, the designation of the landfill site in the small African American community remained unchanged.
In response, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, in tandem with other organizers, staged a massive protest in which more than 500 protesters were arrested, including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Although the protest failed to keep the landfill out of the community, the national environmental justice movement was underway in earnest.
The movement from the community of Warren County became a critical connector of numerous environmental justice struggles, including the United Farmworkers fight against pesticides, the actions of Indigenous peoples for restoration of their treaty rights, and numerous minority communities across the country struggling with excessive burdens of pollution, the denial of land rights and financing instruments, and a lack of access to green spaces.
RESEARCH AND EDUCATION
Recognized as a pioneer in environmental justice, Professor Bunyan Bryant—who in 1972 had become the first African American to join the faculty—attended a meeting at the Federation of Southern Cooperative in Sumter County. While in the area, Professor Bryant visited Emelle, Alabama, home of the country's largest toxic landfill—a facility that received hazardous waste from 48 states and 3 foreign countries. Sumter County, Bryant knew, was approximately 70 percent Black and one of the poorest counties in the nation.
Through a community activist, Bryant got his hands on the newly issued United Church of Christ Report on Race and Toxic Wastes in the United States—which stated that among a variety of indicators, race was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the U.S.
Shortly after, Bryant referred the report to newly-hired SEAS colleague, Professor Paul Mohai, also a pioneer in the field of environmental justice, who at the time was analyzing African American attitudes about environmental issues from a large national survey. SEAS professors integrated themselves into the environmental justice movement from its conception.
“Our mutual interest and desire for further exploration of these issues eventually led us to organize two important events in 1990,” wrote Bryant in 1997.
The first event was “The Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards” held at the school in January 1990. The historic conference would help to springboard environmental justice as a legitimate academic endeavor and spark high-level government meetings. These meetings contributed to President Bill Clinton signing the Executive Order “Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” and a special task force by the EPA.
“The early 1990s was when environmental justice really hit the national radar screen for the EPA and the federal government,” said Bryant. “I believe that the 1990 conference was the main catalyst.” Byrant and Mohai led a team of academics and activists to advise the U.S. EPA on environmental justice policy. The EPA dubbed this group the “Michigan Coalition”, which met with the EPA throughout the early 1990s. In its 1992 report, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities, the EPA acknowledged the 1990 Michigan Conference as bringing the issue of environmental racism and injustice to the attention of the agency.
Also as an outcome of the conference, Drs. Bryant and Mohai published Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, one of the first major scholarly books examining the links between race, class and environmental hazards.
Also participating at the conference was Dorceta Taylor, a dual PhD student at Yale at the time. Taylor would go on to join the faculty in 1998 and become a renowned scholar in environmental justice. She later served as SEAS Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion until 2020.
In a second important event in 1990, Drs. Mohai and Bryant were appointed Faculty Investigators of the U-M 1990 Detroit Area Study on Race and Environmental Hazards, the first survey research study at the time to study white and African American attitudes about environmental issues in the Detroit metropolitan area. It was also the first environmental justice analysis ever conducted in the metro area, examining the concentration of poor and African American residents around hazardous waste sites and polluting industrial facilities.
In 1990, Dr. Mohai also published his article “Black Environmentalism”, the first to challenge with national-level survey data the notion that African Americans are not as concerned about the environment as white Americans.
Drs. Bryant and Mohai served on the advisory committee to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington D.C. with nearly 1000 people, mostly of color. The outcomes of this conference included the defining of environmental justice as a national movement and the articulation of the 17 principles of Environmental Justice that have been used as guidelines for organizing local communities.
The school becomes the first and only in the U.S. to launch the Environmental Justice program that offers both undergraduate and graduate degree specializations.
Dr. Mohai provides testimony before the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights about the weight of the evidence pertaining to community claims about environmental racism to the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1993.
In an article entitled “The Demographics of Dumping Revisited” published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, Dr. Mohai debunks claims made by University of Massachusetts demographers that race plays no role in the distribution of hazardous waste sites as contended in the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.
In an article entitled “Is There a Race Effect on Environmental Quality” published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Drs. Mohai and Bryant draw on data from the 1990 Detroit Area Study to demonstrate that African Americans are much more concerned about pollution issues than their white counterparts. Furthermore, their concern is related to the fact that they tend to live in more environmentally contaminated neighborhoods. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mohai and Bryant found no statistically significant differences between blacks and whites in their expressed concerns about and appreciation for the natural environment.
In an article entitled “Race and Environmental Voting in the U.S. Congress” published in Social Science Quarterly, Dr. Mohai and graduate student David Kerhner demonstrate that members of the Congressional Black Caucus consistently vote more pro-environmentally than their white counterparts and that the strong support of African-American members of Congress for environmental legislation goes beyond differences in party affiliation and ideology.
Dr. Mohai publishes the first comprehensive analysis of African Americans’ involvement in environmental issues in the journal Environment. In this article he demonstrates from a wide variety of data sources that, contrary to wide-held beliefs, African Americans are active on environmental issues and tend to express greater concern about the environment than their white counterparts, especially when those issues involve impacts on human health. Furthermore, these trends have existed for some time.
Environmental Justice becomes one of the school’s fields of study.
Dr. Mohai teams with EJ scholars Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dr. Robin Saha, and Dr. Beverly Wright to update the 1987 Report Toxic Wastes and Race in the U.S. By applying the distance-based methods pioneered by Drs. Mohai and Saha, the new study, Toxic Wastes and Race at 20, reveals that poor people and people of color are even more concentrated around hazardous waste sites than found 20 years previously. In July 2007, the team presents its findings at the first-ever hearings on environmental justice held in the U.S. Senate, chaired by Senator Hillary Clinton.
Dr. Byrant is awarded the William D. Milliken Distinguished Service Award, the State’s highest environmental honor by the Michigan Environmental Council. He is also awarded the Environmental Leadership Award for Recognition of Leadership and Contributions Promoting Environmental Justice by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).
Governor Jennifer Granholm appoints Dr. Mohai to the Michigan Environmental Justice Working Group, which produced an environmental justice plan for the state in 2009. Future faculty member Kyle Whyte also served on this working group.
As the first book in a three-part series, Dr. Dorceta Taylor publishes The Environment and the People in American Cities (Duke University Press, 2009), focusing on the environmental challenges American cities faced in the 17th through 20th centuries. Her research documents the race, class, and gender dynamics that arose as urban dwellers tried to deal with environmental problems.
Dr. Mohai, along with colleagues Dr. Paula Lantz, Dr. Jeffrey Morenoff, Dr. James House, and Richard Mero at the Institute for Social Research, publish the first national level-study linking public health data with the location of major industrial polluters. They find that racial disparities in the location of the polluters persist even when controlling for income, education and other socioeconomic characteristics. They find that the greatest disparities exist in the metropolitan areas of the Midwest. Results are published in the American Journal of Public Health.
The Environmental Justice Certificate Program is approved, building on SEAS’ reputation as the first major university program in environmental justice, as well as a tradition of commitment to diversity and the analysis of environmental inequities.
Through a grant from the Kresge Foundation, Dr. Mohai, along with colleague Dr. Byoung-Suk Kweon, Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Sanyun Lee, and graduate student Kerry Ard, conduct the first-ever statewide analysis of pollution burdens around public schools in Michigan. They find that two-thirds of all schools are located in the more polluted parts of their districts, that the larger the number of poor students and students of color in the schools the greater the pollution burdens, and that pollution burdens around the schools are negatively related to student health and academic performance. Their results are published in the journal Health Affairs.
Dr. Taylor publishes the second book in the third piece of her series, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York University Press, 2014) that chronicles the contamination of minority and low-income communities in the U.S. The book documents how the history of racially discriminatory housing policies has effectively forced minorities into proximity with polluting industries, and incorporates insights from sociology and the study of urban development that had previously been ignored in environmental justice scholarship.
SEAS EJ students Bernadette Grafton, Alejandro Colsa, Katy Hintzen, and Sara Orvis, advised by Drs. Rebecca Hardin and Paul Mohai, identify the 40 most influential EJ conflicts in U.S. history by conducting a national survey of over 300 environmental justice leaders and experts across the U.S.. These 40 cases become the first U.S. EJ cases to be mapped onto the world EJ Atlas (https://ejatlas.org/) maintained by researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain.
The University of Michigan is a major co-sponsor of the Michigan Environmental Justice Summit: Unfinished Business: Environmental Justice in Michigan, held in recognition of the 20th Anniversary of the Executive Order 12898 and the 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act.
The second book of Dr. Taylor’s series, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement (Duke University Press), examines the emergence and rise of the American conservation movement from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, demonstrating how race, class, and gender influenced every aspect of the movement from the establishment of parks to outdoor recreation and forest conservation; and the movement's links to nineteenth century ideologies.
Dr. Mohai provides testimony about environmental racism to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at hearings focused on the Flint Water Crisis. The hearings gather testimony to determine if actions resulting in the poisoning of Flint's public water supply abridged the civil rights under state law of those affected. The hearings result in the report: The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism through the Lens of Flint.
SEAS Emeritus Professor and Flint Native Dr. Bunyan Bryant receives Environmental Justice Champion Award for his lifetime work to advance environmental and social justice at the Flint Environmental Justice Summit held in Flint, Michigan, March 2017.
Dr. Mohai serves on Governor Rick Snyder’s Environmental Justice Working Group which submits 33 recommendations to the Governor for advancing environmental justice in Michigan in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis. Future faculty member Kyle Whyte serves on the Working Group.
Dr. Mohai publishes “Environmental Justice and the Flint Water Crisis” in the journal Michigan Sociological Review. The article provides a brief history of environmental justice, defines the concept, and analyzes the Flint Water Crisis through an environmental justice lens.
Dr. Tony Reames wins place on Grist 50 for his groundbreaking work on Energy Justice.
SEAS EJ students Laura Grier, Delia Mayor, and Brett Zeuner partner with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC), under Dr. Mohai as faculty advisor, to create an EJ Screening Tool and use it to conduct the first-ever statewide environmental justice assessment for Michigan. The student team presents their findings to Michigan’s Interagency EJ Response Team in Lansing, which works to implement the EJ Screening Tool for State government.
Dr. Mohai presents testimony about environmental injustices in Michigan to the U.S. House
Subcommittee on Environment, chaired by U.S. Representatives Harley Rouda and Rashida Tlaib. The hearings examine air and water pollution in Michigan, with a specific focus on Detroit and Flint, and on the disparate impacts of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color. The hearings also explore the negative health effects of living in heavily polluted areas and community efforts to hold industry and elected officials accountable for past and current actions.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer appoints SEAS Professors Tony Reames and Paul Mohai and SEAS Masters student John Petoskey to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC-EJ), the first-ever external advisory council to help guide environmental justice policy and decision-making in Michigan.
SEAS and the University of Michigan celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the 1990 Michigan Conference on Race and the Environment, credited for bringing environmental justice to the attention of the federal government and launching the academic field of environmental justice. The celebration includes EJ student flash talks and panel discussions by EJ community leaders and renown national EJ leaders and experts.
Tony Reames testifies before the Subcommittee on Energy of the Committee on Energy and Commerce to discuss the importance of an equity-based approach to improving clean energy access.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer appoints several SEAS faculty and alumni to the state Council on Climate Solutions, including EJ faculty member Sam Stolper and Dean Jonathan Overpeck. The Biden/Harris Administration appoints Kyle Whyte as a member of the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Tony Reames as a Senior Advisor in the Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity.
Today, the strength of the environmental justice program at SEAS continues to draw students to “where it all began” in education and research. Building upon the vision of their predecessors, environmental justice students and researchers examine how and why inequalities arise and are maintained around the world. They tackle global issues like climate vulnerability and adaptation; environmental workforce dynamics; environmental and public health; energy transitions; agricultural change; food security; forest governance; hazard exposure; community revitalization; conservation and access to natural areas; as well as conflict mediation, management of non-governmental organizations, advocacy campaigns, public opinion, and more.