Beverly Wright, founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, talks weather-related disasters, fossil-fuel divestment, and the role of HBCUs.
9.23.2016 / By Alexa B. White
The flood in Baton Rouge and parts of southwest Mississippi this past August placed the region in yet another state of emergency, with all-too-familiar scenes recalling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
Beverly Wright, sociology professor and founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), located at Dillard University, has been an academic beacon for action on the issues of climate change, minority groups, and communities with limited access to resources. DSCEJ was founded in 1992 in collaboration with community-based environmental groups and universities to provide education, programs, and training to promote citizens rights to be safe from environmental harm.
In December 2015, I served as a student delegate from Howard University in the HBCU Climate Change Consortium that traveled with 29 students and 15 mentors to COP21, the United Nation’s climate change conference. Wright was one of the mentors that lead the group. In this interview for HBSciU.com, Wright discusses her perspective on the state of HBCUs at a time of environmental injustice and an increasing number of weather-related disasters:
HBSciU.com: How have the Baton Rouge floods affected you?
Beverly Wright: I have family and friends whose homes went under water. Some of them moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and its outskirts and now their homes are sabotaged. So, it is affecting us. We’re just in recovery mode. We actually know what we need to do to help them get back on their feet because of our own experiences with Hurricane Katrina.
HBSciU: Do you think the Baton Rouge flood will change the national discussion on environmental justice?
Wright: Well no, to be honest. In fact, Donald Trump and Mike Pence are down in Louisiana right now. They don’t believe in climate change. People need a real explanation of what has happened to them and how they are affected. It [the flood] was an inland sheared tropical depression that just sat over Baton Rouge as it proceeded to rain. Trying to get people to understand the connection between that depression and climate change is difficult because they don’t accept the fact that it is climate change.
HBSciU: Do you believe that HBCUs are currently equipped to combat the challenges of climate change and environmental justice?
Wright: I think that they have the potential and even the will. I think collectively we could do a lot. That’s why DSCEJ is trying to work together, because our universities all have something to contribute. No one school has everything, but together we would be quite a force to be reckoned with. It would be wonderful if in fact we had climate change centers. Black people do as we have always done: We never have enough, or all that we need, but we come together and try to make a difference– doing it the old-fashion way. Because we are so capable of getting the resources, the schools that always get continue to get more — like Harvard and MIT. It’s hard for our schools to compete with them because they’ve been getting the money all along. It’s like starting a race with one barefoot and one with a tennis shoe.
HBSciU: Do you think that HBCUs divesting from fossil fuel industries would make an impression on their communities or industry?
Wright: I think it would symbolically make an impression, and I think that the fossil fuel industry is definitely afraid of the millennial generation. Take the movement to divest from South Africa during apartheid: It took a long time for that to happen. It was slow creeping and then finally a cumulative impact had something to do with the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa. I think they fear divestment. They see it coming.
HBSciU: Do you think HBCUs will join the movement to divest in the future?
Wright: It would have to be a sound business approach around schools or they are not going to do it. I don’t see our schools divesting. Not at the moment. I think that it will change as they get better footing, and the economy gets better. But right now, no I don’t see it.
Alexa White is a biology major at Howard University and an HBSciU Science Writing Fellow.
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