Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 8, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Lasting Legacy of Brown
University of South Carolina Upstate:
A Model of Excellence and Diversity
Fifty Years after Brown v. Board of Education: Reflections from an Activist-Administrator
Faculty Involvement
A Search for Deep Diversity in the Communication Classroom
Making Diversity News
The 1954 Brown Decision: Fueling the Torch of Liberation for Asian Pacific Americans
Brown v. Board’s Legacy and Contemporary Black Higher Education
Student Leaders Reflect on the Legacy of Brown
The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice: Education and Empowerment for an Engaged Citizenry
Diversity at Middlesex Community College
Books on Brown v. Board of Education

The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice: Education and Empowerment for an Engaged Citizenry

By Beverly Wright, director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and Debra Rowe, senior fellow, Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future

“Democracy required an educated populace; the survival of the earth will require an environmentally conscious citizenry. It is our job as educators to make this a reality.”
                                —Beverly Wright

“I began my undergraduate studies at Xavier University as a chemistry premed major. After meeting Dr. Beverly Wright and working with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, I realized my true calling in life . . . working in the field of public health to help create healthier communities. As deputy director of a nonprofit organization involved in the fight against AIDS, I am keenly aware of the disparate impact AIDS and other diseases have had on the African American community. The valuable lessons learned at the center have enabled me to be a consummate change agent within the African American community, securing resources to provide services to those at greatest risk.”
                   —Robert Swayzer III, MPH, CHES (DSCEJ Intern 1994-1996)

Mississippi River Avatar community advisory board meeting
Mississippi River Avatar community advisory board meeting

Although race was clearly the central feature of the Brown case, income and class were its close cousins. Black students from rural and impoverished areas represented the constituency of plaintiffs in the group of cases that comprised the landmark Supreme Court case. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long prepared leaders to serve their communities and to resist and overcome the direct and residual effects of racial oppression. Xavier University in Louisiana follows in that tradition of social justice and uplift.

To think that there are communities across the South where economic conditions are reminiscent of the late-nineteenth century is hard enough, but to learn that a new and deadly enemy has crept into the picture is unthinkable for most people. This nefarious enemy of low-income, mostly rural African Americans is environmental pollution. Across the country, many of the toxic waste dump sites and the industries most dangerous to human health are located near communities of people of color and poor people.

To fight against this deadly phenomenon, a dynamic university-community alliance is emerging nationwide under the umbrella of sustainable development. With environmental justice and social equity as its goals, sustainable development seeks to create a flourishing environment, healthy communities, and strong economies. As a spur to global engagement with this issue, the United Nations has declared 2005 to 2014 the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice serves as a model for how colleges and universities can work with communities to address critical environmental issues.

The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
Strategic Planning Clean Production follow-up meeting  
Strategic Planning Clean Production
follow-up meeting

The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) at Xavier University is one example of how a university can make a commitment to address sustainable development challenges. The center was developed in 1992 in collaboration with community environmental groups and other universities within the region to address pressing environmental justice issues. A major goal of the center has been the development of minority leadership in the struggle for environmental, social, and economic justice along the Mississippi River Corridor of Louisiana. The center’s philosophy is that “Environmental justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced, and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.” The center concentrates its work along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, an eighty-five-mile stretch of land located between the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that is home to approximately 134 petrochemical plants and six refineries. Residents in this area bear the pollution burden for the entire state. They have suffered accordingly.

The center represents an innovative approach to addressing environmental justice issues and embraces a unique model for community-university partnerships, called “communiversity.” This model emphasizes a democratically based collaborative partnership between universities and their surrounding communities. The partnership promotes bilateral understanding and mutual respect between community residents and academics. In the past, collaborative problem-solving attempts that included community residents and academics were one-sided in terms of who controlled the dynamics of the interaction, which group was perceived as having valuable knowledge, and who benefited.

Preparing Citizens for Environmental Leadership

In recent years, the center has become a powerful resource for environmental justice, education and training. It has developed curricula that are culturally sensitive and tailored to the educational and training needs of the community. Because of this work, many local residents have grown into national and international leaders, advocates, and spokespersons for environmental justice. For example, one community board member, Margie Richard, is the North American 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize winner. She is the first African American to win this prestigious prize.

The center not only promotes education and empowerment of citizens on environmental issues, but also provides practical job training for residents. In a collaborative effort, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University of Louisiana, the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, and the Trainers of the Laborers-Association of General Contractors (AGC) Education and Training Fund have successfully trained over 150 residents from environmentally at-risk urban neighborhoods in New Orleans and Atlanta.

The Role of Xavier University in Supporting Environmental Justice Initiatives 

In 1992, Xavier University assumed financial responsibility for the development of the first environmental justice center at an academic institution in America. The center works with faculty and students on most of its projects. It offers scholarships to students through its environmental justice scholars and internship programs, it supports an Environmental Justice Club, it regularly conducts tours of the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, and it hosts seminars and brown bag lunches for student and faculty development.

Xavier University’s strong support for the center, while not surprising, represents a bold and unconventional step for university-community relationships. However, most of the communities the center serves are in a battle with large chemical companies and many of these companies support the university and our students through scholarships, so we must walk a fine line. Therefore, the center does not accept funds from corporations, but when they call, we encourage them to support the university and our students through scholarships. Our hope is that we can educate a more environmentally conscious citizen.

The DSCEJ was the first of five environmental justice centers to be established at HBCUs over the last ten years. Unfortunately, however, only three remain. They include the DSCEJ at Xavier University in New Orleans, the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, and the Center for Environmental Equity and Justice at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

The DSCEJ at Xavier University has been recognized both nationally and internationally for its work. Its model is being studied for replication at other universities in the United States. At least two or three large universities from across the country visit the center each year to learn how to work successfully with communities on these issues. We are particularly proud of the environmental justice curricula that the center developed, which 225 New Orleans public school teachers were trained to use. The DSCEJ is committed to the struggle for environmental justice and will continue its fight through education to win social and environmental justice for black people in the Deep South. The spirit of Brown lives on in the center’s mission and work.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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