Professors Taylor and Pellow discuss environmental racism at latest UD History Speaker Series


Katya Tolunsky, Staff Writer

Professor Dorceta Taylor called for students to demand the school hire people of color (POC) at Dorr during a larger discussion with Professor David Pellow about environmental justice and racism in the eighth installment of the Upper Division (UD) speaker series: “How did we get here?: Race and Environmental Justice.” The answer prompted a response from the faculty at John Dorr Nature Laboratory, who wrote a Letter to the Editor featured in this issue. 

During last Thursday’s event, guest speakers Pellow and Taylor discussed unjust environmental practices fueled by racism and stereotypes. Walker McCarthy (11), Tess Abraham (12), and history teachers Dr. Ellen Bales and Dr. Steven Fabian moderated the event. 

Taylor is a Professor of Environmental Justice at Yale University. In addition to publishing numerous award-winning books, Taylor was honored by the Smithsonian Institution and recognized as one of six people propagating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, according to the speaker series website. Pellow is the Dehlsen Chair Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pellow has written multiple works focusing on environmental justice, race, sustainability, and immigration. 

Taylor and Pellow explained how racism is often used to justify pollution and the dumping of toxic waste in marginalized communities. POC are often associated with dirt and filth, giving policymakers and corporations the illusion that pollution in these communities is acceptable, Pellow said. 

Not only are communities of color targeted as places to dispose of toxic waste, but the individuals within the community are blamed for damage to their environment, Pellow said.

“It was shocking to hear that communities of color, although they pay the most in energy and other resources, are living in areas with the worst air quality,” Abraham said. 

Abraham found Taylor’s response to a question asking how the community can actively include and encourage students of color to be involved in environmental activism to be inspiring, she said. “She emphasized that, as members of the HM community, we have a responsibility and ability to ask more of the institution in areas that can be improved upon,” Abraham said.

While it is important for students to speak out and make their voices heard about changes they believe are necessary, Dorr does not play a large role in the students’ every day lives, and it would be more impactful for students to advocate for larger, more substantive changes at the school, Rowan Mally (11) said. 

Bales appreciated Taylor’s expertise on the environmental awareness and concern that POC have always had, as inaccurate and reductive stereotypes have rendered them invisible, she said. “Taylor has done a great service in reframing mainstream environmentalism as a single concept about nature and done great work in recapturing the racist, sexist, and elitist roots of that movement, and the legacy left by that history,” Bales said.

In reframing mainstream environmentalism, Taylor discussed the origins of the environmentalist movement — specifically, the POC whose work was rarely recognized within the movement. For example, Phyllis Wheatley, a female slave, founded many environmentalist notions in her writing, although she is never given credit for them, Taylor said. Instead, white men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir are credited with the foundation of environmentalism. 

When asked what the biggest environmental threat is today, Pellow simply responded: social injustice. Abraham was surprised by the answer, she said. “Though I had been aware of the disparities, I didn’t fully understand the relation of racial injustice to the deterioration of the environment in certain communities.”

Taylor also spoke about the importance of grassroots organizations and local activism in order to bring about meaningful change. No politicians had any environmental planks or policies until environmentalists started pressuring the Democratic party to take environmental issues into consideration, Taylor said. Taylor referenced Stacey Abrams’ focus on targeting environmental issues in communities of color in Georgia and mobilizing people to vote.

Bales appreciated that the speakers used their personal experiences as a foundation for their work, she said. “The complexity and nuance with which they approach historical questions of environmental justice, nationally and internationally, is a tremendously valuable contribution.”

Before the speaker series, Abraham felt intimidated by the concept of environmentalism, she said. “I thought it was too difficult of a subject for me to study in school or research in my spare time,” she said. “Now I feel inspired to be involved, and I’ve become more interested in environmental issues and eco-conscious living. I feel better equipped to have input in this global conversation.”