Meet The Future Of Environmental Justice
For nearly three decades, SEAS has been on the forefront of environmental justice education and research—initially bolstered by the landmark “Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards” hosted at the Dana Building in 1990. Just two years later, the school became the first in the U.S. to launch an Environmental Justice program that offered both undergraduate and graduate degree specializations.
Building upon that early milestone, SEAS continued to deepen its impact through scholarship, advocacy, community partnerships, and master’s projects—with environmental justice at the core of its mission to create a more environmentally sound and sustainable world.
Today, SEAS is at the nexus of environmental justice thought leadership, and is recognized as a trusted resource for expertise on both state and national levels.
Following last year’s appointments of four SEAS faculty and alumni to state advisory roles in Michigan, the Biden administration appointed three SEAS faculty to national advisory positions in 2021. The contributions of Professors Paul Mohai, Tony Reames, and Kyle Whyte are now helping to meet—and shape—the future of environmental and energy justice.
Assistant Professor Tony Reames
Senior Advisor, Department of Energy’s (DOE)
Office of Economic Impact and Diversity
In his role for the DOE, Assistant Professor and Energy Justice Lab Director Dr. Tony Reames is responsible for energy justice policy and analysis to ensure energy investments and benefits reach frontline communities and Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Reames was recently awarded a grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research, in partnership with the National Center for Institutional Diversity, for his project, “Enhanced Energy Monitoring for Energy Justice in Detroit.”
Reames, a U.S. Army veteran who reached the rank of captain, shares his thoughts on his White House appointment.
“I’m honored to once again serve our country, this time in a role to ensure that every American household is able to benefit from a cleaner, more affordable energy system that will create jobs, protect the environment, and build wealth, particularly in communities of color and for underserved populations,” says Reames. “The opportunity to shape our government’s approach to energy justice, while recognizing how past decisions created the environmental injustices communities experience, is a responsibility I do not take lightly.”
Professor Paul Mohai
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN
Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice
Dr. Paul Mohai is a professor of Environmental Justice, and Environmental Policy and Planning at SEAS. He is the co-founder of the Environmental Justice program at U-M and a major contributor to the growing body of quantitative research examining disproportionate environmental burdens and their impacts on low-income and people of color communities. Mohai has been tapped to lead nationally—by helping in the federal government’s efforts to review, improve, and advance Environmental Justice Screening and Cumulative Impact Assessment Tools, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN.
“In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, and with many years of a growing environmental justice movement and accumulating scientific evidence behind it, momentum for creating and implementing policies that result in genuine reductions in pollution burdens and improvements in public health in overburdened and disadvantaged communities has reached a tipping point,” says Mohai. “It is unimaginable that at this point in time environmental justice leaders and impacted communities will settle for anything less than policies that will produce real measurable outcomes.”
Professor Kyle Whyte
White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council
Dr. Kyle Whyte is the George Willis Pack Professor of Environment and Sustainability and the specialization coordinator for the Environmental Justice program at SEAS. He also serves on the Management Committee of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. His most recent research, “Effects of land dispossession and forced migration on Indigenous peoples in North America,” was published in the journal Science.
Whyte is one of five academics on the 26-member White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, most of whom represent communities burdened by environmental hazards. He shares his perspective on the goals and challenges of the Council’s work, along with his vision for the nation’s focus on Environmental Justice.
KYLE WHYTE Q & A
As a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, what areas do you consider most in need of progress?
It’s important for government agencies to continually refine the ways in which they hold themselves accountable to communities affected by discrimination. The creation of accountability measures that agencies can abide by is a key area of progress for environmental justice. The meaningful involvement of communities is another key area where great improvement can be made, ensuring that agencies respect the free, prior, and informed consent of people who face severe environmental risks.
What barriers must the Biden administration overcome to achieve its environmental justice goals?
One of the key barriers is the impetus to support climate change solutions without evaluating their environmental justice ramifications. There are certain solutions to climate change—nuclear energy, for example—that have caused great pain among people like Indigenous peoples, and could perpetrate further equity issues if expanded.
As specialization coordinator of the Environmental Justice program at SEAS, what is your vision for how the program will evolve?
Across its history, the Environmental Justice specialization has been most successful when it has fostered a community of students, staff, and faculty who are committed to the values of environmental justice. One of my goals is to foster a strong intellectual community where everyone supports each other. I hope to strengthen the intergenerational community too, further connecting current students with alumni. A strong intellectual community is what we need to be a place where we can create innovations in environmental justice in areas such as law and policy, science and research, advocacy and organizing, fundraising and philanthropy, and media and education. I want a vibrant community that is generative of creativity and mutual exchange.
How does SEAS prepare students to meet the future of environmental justice?
The SEAS Environmental Justice specialization is poised to be a place where the knowledge of communities is a non-negotiable dimension of the work needed to achieve environmental justice. We will engender a culture at SEAS that respects the diversity of knowledge, and the importance of ethically founded partnerships among advocates of environmental justice who come from different walks of life and have different talents and skills. It’s important to ground environmental justice education in the voices, knowledge, and wisdom of communities who have been on the frontlines resisting inequity and calling for just and sustainable futures.
Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice
In 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed SEAS Professors Paul Mohai and Tony Reames, SEAS alumni John Petoskey (MS/JD ’20)—still a master’s student at the time—and Mona Munroe-Younis (MS ’11) to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. It is the first external advisory council to help guide environmental justice policy and decision-making in Michigan.
JOHN MINODE’E PETOSKEY (MS/JD ’20)
Associate Attorney, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Chicago
Enrolled citizen, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians
“I carry my homeland in my heart in all the work that I do. The reason I am working in the field of environmental advocacy is simple: to protect our homeland and the Great Lakes for the coming seven generations, just as my ancestors seven generations ago preserved our homeland for me.”
MONA MUNROE-YOUNIS (BS ’06, MS ’11)
Neighborhood Planner, Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, City of Flint
Executive Director, Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint
Racial Healing Practitioner for the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation initiative, Flint
“The three most pressing issues for EJ movements are: 1) systemically shifting to renewable energy and combating climate change; 2) state-level policy change to bake cumulative impact analysis into permitting processes, which disproportionately harm people of color and low-income people near multiple sources of pollution; and 3) preservation/expansion of Indigenous/tribal environmental rights and cultural landscapes. Right now, we’re fighting a new EJ threat—Ajax’s plans to build an asphalt plant across from Flint’s largest public housing complex, where breathing issues are widespread from the nearby incinerator and other polluting facilities. Michigan’s environmental policies are failing Flint once again.”
Dan and Sheryl Tishman
$11 MILLION GIFT FUNDS NEW TISHMAN CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE
The NorthLight Foundation and Dan and Sheryl Tishman have committed an $11.125 million gift to SEAS to expand the school’s environmental justice efforts and impact at a pivotal time for social justice.
“As environmental funders, for decades we have discovered that frontline communities have been largely left behind by the environmental movement,” say Dan and Sheryl Tishman. “These communities have very little voice in the battle for a clean environment and climate change, but sadly have been the most impacted. It is our mission to invest our philanthropy in places where there is a great need and little investment. Environmental justice is at the heart of solving the greatest environmental challenges of the day. We know of no other university that has been willing to establish a center focused on environmental justice. We are so excited to be partnering with Michigan to create this one-of-a-kind program.”
The Tishman Center will enable SEAS to expand the scope of its Environmental Justice program and integrate environmental justice more effectively into all solutions for the planet. The gift will provide funding to hire and retain additional top environmental scholars across disciplines. As part of its goal to create more cross-campus partnerships with other schools and colleges and embed environmental justice within all fields, the new faculty positions will be hired within SEAS and the College of Engineering. The gift also will provide for expanded justice programming and training, and allow for the recruiting of top students from underrepresented backgrounds who lack the resources to study in SEAS’ preeminent environmental justice program.
Dr. Jonathan Overpeck is the Samuel A. Graham Dean and William B. Stapp Collegiate Professor of Environmental Education at SEAS. “It is more critical than ever,” he says, “that those in interdisciplinary fields across U-M, including engineering, have a firm understanding of how to integrate environmental justice into real-world solutions that address climate change and sustainability. The new center will help ensure that SEAS is positioned to have the greatest impact in the communities with the greatest need.”
Through their NorthLight Foundation, the Tishmans make investments at the “intersection of human and environmental landscapes and work with organizations to deliver high impact and systemic change.” The family has a multigenerational legacy at U-M: Their son, Gabe (AB ‘19), and Dan’s late father, John (BSE ‘46), are both U-M alumni. As longtime supporters of the university, the family’s combined charitable gifts, which include donations to the College of Engineering, Michigan Athletics, and this most recent commitment, will total more than $25 million.