One of my favorite poems is called On the Pulse of Morning, by the poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. This beautiful poem calls attention to the history of slavery, colonialism, and environmental degradation in the US, while instilling a sense of hope, unity, and responsibility, for our planet as well as the people upon it. In this poem she wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.” At its essence, this is what Black History Month is about. It is a celebration of the African diaspora and a time to remember our history and accomplishments.
This celebration is sometimes met with dissent. Earlier this month, for example, a northern Utah charter school received criticism after allowing parents to opt students out of its Black History Month curriculum. Some even question the purpose of having a Black History Month. At its core, it is a question of equity. The history often taught in schools in the US is centered around white European history. The histories of Black and brown people are added when they are deemed important or necessary. This is a major issue because it means that only specific narratives are shared. It often renders Black history to the atrocities of slavery and the events of the civil rights movment, leaving out our true, rich history which contributes to discrimination, inequity, and ongoing racial domination.
As a PBA, I care deeply about creating a sustainable future. A sustainable future is one that is free of racial injustice, equitable for all people, and restorative to those who have suffered the most under marginalization. This means acknowledging the painful past, reflecting on how it shapes our world today, and putting in the work to make it right going forward. In the past, Black people, like gold or oil, were seen as a great resource to be extracted, and allowed Europeans to build wealth and create a system for global slave trade which eventually evolved into the neoliberalism we see today. We can also see this continuing through systems like mass incarceration and policing. This is why environmental justice is integral to the sustainability movement–injustice is used to drive systems that contribute to food insecurity, climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction to name a few. That’s why, this month I took up the task of attending various events in celebration of Black history, especially focusing on environmental justice and sustainability. I hope to share the knowledge I gained and encourage other PBA’s to fight for social justice too. Below I’ve described a few of these events and my main takeaways, and, where possible, I’ve linked to an event recording that you can watch.
I attended the kick-off to the Winter 2021 Detroiters Speak series. It is a part of a community-based course that includes participation from the general public and college students from both U-M and Wayne State University. The focus of this session was framing structural racism and how understanding it can inform public health. Facilitator Peter Hammer, proposed that understanding structural racism helps us diagnose the root causes of endemic inequity and the impediments to better health. One topic discussed was the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. In Michigan, Black people make up 14% of the population but 41% of deaths. This is due to centuries of health disparities that lead to Black people having higher rates of comorbidities (diabetes, hypertension, etc) and being less likely to have white collar jobs that can be moved online (bus drivers, food service, frontline health workers).
This session also included case studies on water shut-offs in Detroit and the struggle for safe and affordable water. They shared work from We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective which detailed the water crisis and how water is a social force that connects to systems of power. This means that it is entangled with race, politics, and the environment.
You can watch classes live & catch up on previous sessions on the General Baker Institute’s Youtube channel. You can also visit the Detroiters Speak page to see sessions from previous semesters as well!
Environmental Justice for Black Communities: Legal Avenues Under the Biden Administration Panel
This panel was hosted by Howard University’s Energy and Environmental Law Society (HEELS) and BlackOak Collective. Panelists discussed how to keep people engaged with the incredible inertia taking place to push for environmental justice. They noted that it is incredibly difficult to create change at a governmental level because the work requires constant leverage, which doesn’t happen quickly. They also discussed the importance of communities and their need to have a stake in what’s going to happen and not just being given the role of a participant. One way this happens is by making resources flow into communities and not corporations, creating opportunity, capacity, and power within those spaces. For example, Biden is pushing for electric vehicles in the US. We can think about school buses and converting those to electric buses. However, we have to change our thinking to transform the community, so we also have to create electric charging stations by the local basketball court that can also provide light for the courts and internet for the community. That’s the kind of transformative, cyclical thinking that is required.
One of my greatest takeaways was why diversity is desperately needed in these places. Historically, Black students have been left out of opportunities because of barriers like being unable to afford to take on an unpaid internship that can open more opportunities. This is why there is a need to distribute funds to bring Black people in these spaces that have been ignored for so long. It also requires engaging Black students in environmental justice and decision making. And lastly, remember that there is no social justice issue that climate justice does not touch.
SEAS Black History Month keynote speaker Heather McTeer Toney was the first African-American, the first female, and the youngest to serve as Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi from 2004-2012. In 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama as Regional Administrator for the EPA’s Southeast Region and she currently serves as the Climate Justice Liaison for the Environmental Defense Fund and Senior Advisor to Moms Clean Air Force.
Heather McTeer Toney addressed how we must embrace climate action as the social justice issue of our time. One piece she said was something that I often reflected on as I began developing an interest in the environmental movement. This was, with all the systemic injustices going on, how can I ask people to think of the climate crisis? She proposed that, in order to move forward as a country, we have to address the global movement for the climate crisis. We need to push for equitable climate action. “Every problem presents an opportunity to shift into change”, she said. Thinking in this way allowed me to consider the struggles we face as a transformative opportunity.
She also provided this inspiring note that students have brilliant ideas and yet our knowledge goes untapped, but there are :boards, commissions, races, and spaces that we can serve right now”, by bringing an environmental lens to issues that typically or traditionally may not be considered environmental.
This was the third annual Douglass Day Celebration for the University of Michigan Libraries. Douglas Day is an annual celebration of activist Frederick Douglass and the history of activism in the United States. This year, they celebrated the life and activism of Mary Church Terrell, a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Colored Women. The keynote was given by Dr. Shelley Haley, Ph.D. ‘77 on Tragedy and Triumph: The Personal Cost of Racial Injustice and Social Justice Activism in the Life of Mary Church Terrell. In the opening they noted that the purpose of this event is to ask ourselves what action we take everyday to counter the inequality and inequity inherent in this country. This event was a great opportunity to dive deeper into the history of racial and feminist activism.
Judas and the Black Messiah Movie Screening
The film follows the story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal (The film has been released in theaters and on HBO Max). This movie comes at an incredibly important time as people have become more open to consuming Black stories following the intense summer of violence, police brutality, and calls for change. In addition, this film may be the first time a wider audience is being introduced to the history of the Black Panthers. The film brings up the pain and trauma stemming from physical and emotional violence, which we see on screen. This content may be hard to view, even for myself it was distressing to see at times but film, like art, music, and other mediums are important vehicles to disseminate information and humanize people and so it is essential to tell these stories.
The Future within the Black Lives Matter Movement and The Intersections of being a Black, Queer, and Gender-Nonconforming Activist
In this closing address to MESA’s Black History Month, black, queer, and gender-nonconforming activist Janaya Khan discussed identity and the Black Lives Matter movement. This event was sponsored by The Spectrum Center and Central Student Government, and co-moderated by students Adrian King and Jolyna Chiangong, and the Vice President Of Student Life Dr. Martino Harmon. All throughout February, MESA has been coordinating events and curating discussion about Black people in politics, financial literacy, etc. Bringing the celebration to a closing it was incredibly meaningful to remember where we came from and where we are going.
This conversation with Janaya Khan began with the topic of pronouns and why they have the ability to incite rage. They proposed that it was due to audacity. When topics of identity are brought up, people may become angry because it is seen as division or even persecution. We need courage and nuance, and the ability to imagine greater. Khan stated that someone imagined shackles on Black wrists, and enough people believed it to make it true. They reminded us that we have to be the disruptors of what is true in our lifetime.
Coming at a time when the pandemic, job instability, and violence against Black lives has made this past year particularly stressful, hearing Janaya speak was deeply sincere and healing. They encouraged us to continue our activism and continue frequenting spaces like this, because this is “where we practice, and it’s where our tools get sharp and our minds get sharper. So we’ve got to preserve and protect them and create them as much as possible. At our dinner tables and our churches and our jobs and our classrooms, everywhere, everywhere we go”.
These were some of the events that I had the opportunity to attend during this month. The month of February celebrates and highlights the achievements of Black people, but it doesn’t end just because the month does. Continue celebrating and reflecting on the mark that Black people have left on this world. I encourage you to advocate for justice and Black lives each day. You can do this by commiting to the work of being actively anti-racist. If you have trouble getting started, visit some of the resources linked below.
What will you do to be actively anti-racist today?