Meet the future of Environmental Justice: Toyosi Dickson (MS ’22)
U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) master’s student Toyosi Dickson (MS ’22) was a senior in high school when lead contamination was found in the drinking water at 30 schools in the Newark, New Jersey, public school system. Though Dickson had always been interested in environmentalism and nature preservation, the lead crisis opened her eyes to environmental injustice and underscored “how communities of color and frontline communities are left stranded by any type of actual representation when it comes to their health and safety.”
Pursuing environmental justice
Dickson went on to study at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. While there, she learned more about environmental justice through her participation in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at SEAS. The program develops the next generation of environmental professionals among traditionally underrepresented groups, and is directed by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, an adjunct professor at SEAS who is a well-known environmental justice scholar.
“Dr. Taylor connected me with SEAS and all of its work, and she opened my eyes to the larger environmental justice field that is present in academic spaces,” Dickson said. “While I enjoyed my studies as an undergrad, I found that when you work in a technical field, that itself is divorced from the human side, where the intersections of people and community are impacted by science and political decisions that typically leave out the most vulnerable populations in environmental decision-making.”
While specializing in environmental justice at SEAS, Dickson said she enjoyed the full slate of classes the school offered, which allowed her to learn more about law and society. A particular favorite was Indigenous Sovereignty and Environmental Justice taught by Dr. Kyle Whyte, the George Willis Pack Professor at SEAS and Dickson’s advisor.
“Professor Whyte introduced me to all the literature and caveats that aren’t typically represented when you talk about environmentalism, environmental safety, or sustainability,” Dickson noted. “I was able to get perspectives from different communities, Indigenous groups, and communities of newly freed slaves, and how they used their own ontologies to rediscover connections to new land and rewrite their own geographies.”
Whyte also served as the advisor for Dickson’s master’s project group, which created a diversity, equity, and inclusion assessment tool and plan for Vermont’s Natural Resources Conservation Districts. Dickson noted how enjoyable it was working with her fellow group members, who were “in sync” with their collaborations. “I am glad to have made the professional and lasting friendships I did, especially with my master’s project group. It’s been great.”
The future is wide open
Dickson graduated from SEAS at the end of April, and her future is wide open. She is still deciding on her next steps, whether it’s pursuing a doctoral degree or getting professional experience in a government job or wet lab. Whatever path she chooses, Dickson said she is excited about new opportunities to advance environmental justice, and is grateful for all that SEAS has provided.
Her advice to other students? “It’s the people you meet who will help guide you. Look up your professors and talk with them casually. Join a professional society or a club. You have opportunities to make real connections at SEAS, so make it personal, make friendships, and make the most of your two years.”