Meet the future of Environmental Justice: Anna Bunting (MS ’23)
A chance meeting with University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Professor Kyle Whyte prompted Anna Bunting (MS ’23) to take a leap of faith and pursue a master’s degree in environmental justice at SEAS.
Bunting, who studied environmental biology and zoology as an undergrad, met Whyte in Summer 2020 after graduating from Michigan State University. Bunting’s interest in environmental justice and Indigenous sustainability led to an introduction with Whyte, the George Willis Pack Professor at SEAS, who asked if they had considered graduate school.
“Kyle told me about SEAS and invited me to apply,” Bunting said. “It was during the pandemic, and I told him I couldn’t afford to attend SEAS. He said, ‘We can make this work, but you have to take a leap of faith and trust me.’”
Bunting’s only prior experience with SEAS had been to attend the Michigan Environmental Justice Summit 2020, which commemorated the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards. The summit—and the environmental justice students and faculty Bunting met—left a lasting impression on her, so they decided to follow Whyte’s advice and take that leap of faith into the unknown.
It’s a decision that has paid off in spades for Bunting, who received tuition assistance through the Carolyn and Peter Mertz Fellowship, which made attending SEAS financially possible and allowed her to grow her environmental justice expertise through classes with Whyte and Visiting Associate Professor Cedric Taylor, among others.
Bunting said Whyte “opens up new worlds of understanding about Indigenous environmental justice and sustainability, as well as about Indigenous rights,” while Taylor “connects the histories and politics associated with the Flint and Detroit water crises.”
In addition, Bunting’s master’s project, Mapping Environmental Justice and Community Resilience in Southwest Detroit, afforded her a real-world opportunity to help develop an environmental justice screening tool and community resilience plan for the 48217 area of Southwest Detroit, which is known as the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan.
The master’s project was done on behalf of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which Bunting had an internship with during her first year at SEAS. While in school, Bunting also served as an EcoLeader Graduate Student Research Fellow at the National Wildlife Foundation, and as an Environmental Fellow at the Yale School of the Environment, where they worked with the nonprofit organization Freshwater Future in support of their efforts to provide clean, safe, affordable drinking water in the Great Lakes region.
That fellowship led to an internship and eventually a full-time job focused on water justice policy with Freshwater Future, which Bunting began in December 2022. They recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for Great Lakes Day and to Lansing, Michigan, for World Water Day to bolster the organization’s drinking water advocacy work.
“I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned at SEAS and prove to an organization that I can do the work,” Bunting said, “so much so that they’ve invited me to stay on, which is awesome.”
Bunting, who is from Southeast Michigan, has a remote position with Freshwater Future, and will stay in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future. “I love Michigan and plan to stay here for the rest of my life,” they said.
As Bunting reflects on her upcoming graduation, they remain grateful for all that they learned at SEAS and to Whyte for encouraging her to take that initial leap of faith, which has provided her with a future filled with possibilities.
“I met my best friends at SEAS,” Bunting said, “and I found my people—those who share the same priorities as me, and who I can learn from and take my cues from.
“The me right now versus the me from two years ago feels unrecognizable,” Bunting continued. “I didn’t have the imagination that I would ever be in the position that I am now. Education is power.”