Welcome to another Climate Conversations SC. I’m your host Bob Petrulis.
Climate Conversations SC as a podcast of the Climate-Ready Columbia Conference coming up on April 1st and 2nd, 2022. This event will be held on the University of South Carolina Campus and is free and open to the public. No prior registration is required. For more information, go to climatereadycola.org.
In this episode, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Tameria Warren, who is Undergraduate Studies Coordinator for the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of South Carolina. In her research, she has interviewed African Americans from Michigan and South Carolina about their perceptions of nature, the environment, environmentalists, and environmental organizations. We began by discussing what she learned from the people she interviewed, and her thoughts about how the climate and environmental movements can become more inclusive.
Dr. Warren 01:32
So for those who are not familiar with me, thank you, Bob. Again, my name is Tameria Warren. I have been in the Columbia/Midlands area going on 14 years. And so I moved here in 2008. I am originally from Detroit, Michigan. And so my research did focus on a certain population within the metro Detroit area. Prior to moving here, I was working as an environmental engineer with General Motors in the Midwest, so in Michigan, and Ohio, in Wisconsin, and I ended up moving to South Carolina in order to work as an environmental compliance specialist with US Army, Fort Jackson.
So, I had the opportunity when I was starting my dissertation to really focus on those areas that are of interest to me. And at one point, I thought about looking at the work that I’ve done professionally, both as an environmental engineer with General Motors, and then as an environmental compliance specialist with the military. But I decided to really focus on an area that is near and dear to me. And that is looking at environmental issues as related to African Americans and our communities and the experiences that we have. And so, as you stated, for my dissertation, which is trying to understand our perceptions that African Americans have about the environment and nature, and how that actually influences our behaviors and our environmental commitments.
I chose to look at populations that I had been involved in so specifically with the Metropolitan Detroit area, as well as the Midlands/Columbia area. And so it was really an opportunity to reach out to either those that I knew or those in the community who are African American, and have that conversation about our understanding our perceptions about the environment, how that has been influenced either by those who are within our lives, such as our parents, our grandparents, other elders, how that has played out in our daily practices, and what does that mean for the future? So it was a really interesting and fun research project. Because, one, I did get to speak with individuals that I’m closely connected with, as well as I connected with others. But just getting these varying perceptions. I think there were some some major threads that I saw, whether it was for the population that was in Michigan, or in South Carolina, but then also realizing that there are some other differences that were there as well. So it was a pretty neat year’s worth of research that took place.
So you interviewed a whole bunch of people?
Dr. Warren 04:20
And what did you hear? I mean, what was the big takeaways from the interviews that you conducted?
Dr. Warren 04:31
One of the things is that there was a lot of early influences that we have had, again, whether it was with our parents, our grandparents, other elders or adults that were in our families or those that were close with community, that they really gave us an introduction to the environment. And that could have been whether we were in a rural area, or we grew up in a rural area or even grew up in an urban area. And so again, the two populations that I looked at was in metropolitan Detroit, as well as the Midlands/Columbia area, but noting that those individuals may not have grown up in those areas. And so, between the two populations, some of them did grow up in the inner city, some did grow up in a more country rural area. But nonetheless, it seems to have been an elder that really was that force that introduced them to the environment. And so that could have been either through farming, through gardening, through fishing, just kind of nature walks, biking, just really doing a lot of activities outdoors. Some of it was subsistence, and so you saw there were family members that engaged in hunting practices to feed the family, as well as community, some of it was just for sport. Others just really enjoy doing farming or gardening, whether it was planting your own produce, to eat at home, or even to just buy garden had nice plants in the area. So there’s various reasons why individuals were in outside spaces, but that was really the introduction to a lot of people, just from that connections that they were having with elders in the family.
Did you find differences between the the folks in Michigan versus the folks in South Carolina? Were they pretty similar across the two locations?
Dr. Warren 06:27
Well, one of the things that I think is unique about history, especially when it comes to the African American experience, is those migratory patterns. And so for, especially with my family, a lot of them were originally from the south. And so they came from maybe a Georgia, Mississippi and then moved up to the Midwest to work in the automotive industries, whether it was Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Milwaukee. And then what you saw with a lot of African Americans that were in the– closer to the East Coast, like in South Carolina, they ended up moving to maybe a DC, a New York, a Philadelphia. So you kind of saw those patterns where there was a shift in the population from the South for better economic opportunities. So one of those similarities that was there, is that those influences was really where you had individuals that, their roots were in southern locations. So they were farming, they were gardening, they were fishing, they were hunting, they were outdoors, often, and some of those same practices was carried on with them as they moved to Northern or eastern states.
So for myself, there was definitely, as a child, I would play outdoors, I would be in different areas. But then, when we went back south for the summer, doing the same things. And so you kind of saw that it was those those southern roots, that was really a connection amongst all of us whether I was talking to the population in Detroit, and yeah, obviously, for the population in South Carolina, is that you saw that similarity having the southern roots, as well as that migratory pattern, but then even just some of the practices themselves. And one of the things to note, and we’ll probably talk about this a little bit later, is that these experiences really aren’t that different from what you would see with other cultures, races or ethnicities. You had individuals who are outdoors, and they had those connections, or they’re introduced to these things by others within their families. So I think this gets to what we may talk about a little bit later, is the stereotypes that are sometimes often associated with African Americans and their perceptions to the environment were environmentally related issues. But I definitely think some of the similarities was just those historical pieces that we kind of seen in history,
Were your interviewees’ feelings about nature and the environment influenced by their ancestors’ experiences as enslaved plantation workers, or sharecroppers?
Dr. Warren 09:00
Those are true real life experiences. And actually, for some of the people I interviewed, more so from South Carolina, they did have some of those experiences, where they remember either their parents or their grandparents working out in the fields, whether they were sharecroppers or just living in rural areas. And as they migrated to other places, or even just kind of say, in the south, they had taken different career paths. So for some, there have been those kind of perceptions or negative connotations about African Americans and their connections to the environment, as it relates to slavery to sharecropping, being in in rural natural areas where we have been abused or not treated the best and so, kind of thinking about those experiences and there have been some who have wanted to kind of get away from that. But there also had been other others were, they definitely had fine experiences with their grandparents or parents, being out with the cows, other domesticated animals, working bringing in, that produce, those crops, selling them. So I think the experiences have been mixed.
But I think oftentimes, it’s just we have different language that is surrounded by it. And I especially think in this day and age where we’re trying to break through that kind of connotation, a negative connotation, especially if you think about a state like South Carolina where we know historically, the bumper, cash crops had been rice. And so you think about that, and that connection to slavery and the roles that a slave was Africans have had in it. And so that is negative, the brutal labor that’s gone along with it. But then once you think about the ingenuity that it took to bring those skill sets from West Africa over to an entirely new continent, and to be able to make that labor really the engine and a driving force for the economic boom within this country, when you start looking at the true history of it, then I think you start changing the language. And so I think the more we have just honest conversations about these things, as we really learned the true history about it, we can recognize that that time period of slavery up to reconstruction, and even the issues that we’re dealing with up until now, while that is negative, the other parts of it, they still can be celebrated knowing things like that. So it’s, I would say it’s a complicated story, because we all– and I’m thinking more so like African Americans and these experiences, we can see both sides of the coin.
So you mentioned stereotypes earlier. Did you want to follow up on that a little bit?
Dr. Warren 11:59
Yes. One of the things that came out of the research, which I have seen prior to this, is stereotypes as it relates to African Americans in the environment, as well as sometimes what we think an environmentalist is. And so there were generally a set of questions that I would ask all of the interviewees regardless of the region they were in. So we talked about some of the stereotypes of, What do you think an environmentalist would be? Because I not only wanted to understand what has been individual’s experiences in nature, but when we think about environmentalists, do they see themselves in that white and part of that was asking about the stereotypes that are often attached to the word environmentalist, or the environmental field. And when I was doing the research, it’s just gathering those questions. And one of the most simplest things that I did was making a word cloud. And so for those of you who aren’t familiar with a word cloud, you can take a bunch of responses from individuals, whether it’s verbal, or it’s written. And when you combine all of those words together, it will highlight the most commonly used words and then it’ll make those bigger or bolder, and then those that aren’t as frequently used, there will be a little bit smaller.
And so when we talked about the stereotypes that are connected to environmentalists, in particular, a lot of the things that we saw was that the words that came out of it would either be White or Caucasian, wealthy, Prius, granola, a lot of these things that have typically been stereotypical, just in general, that we kind of hear in popular culture. Rarely did anything come about as far as Black, African American, anything kind of relate it to just general African American culture. And so, part of that was just kind of getting an understanding of how did we view ourselves as it relates to the environment. So that was very interesting. Yeah, and one of the things that was also funny/interesting about it was that the responses were pretty common across the board. Whether I asked this question for the population that was in South Carolina or I asked the population in Michigan, I pretty much got the same type of responses. And so, that was very unique, and when I would share that with the interviewees, we kind of had a laugh about it, because it’s like, yeah, this is kind of the thoughts that we have. And that I was just on one end, thinking about who environmentalists are, or who do we perceive them to be. But then sometimes, there were perceptions about African Americans, not necessarily being connected to the environment. Part of that is what you alluded to previously, about the history that has been connected to it. And then also, it’s kind of what we see as far as who are the individuals maybe leading the charges as relates to environmental activism or other types of issues.
I think there’s one stereotype that the only time that you see African Americans or people of color engage in environmental conversations is when it’s only related to environmental injustices or racism, as opposed to full conversations as it relates to the environment itself. So part of the conversations that we were having with the people that I interviewed is that they’re just as concerned about the issues that are related to climate change, global warming, all of these other things that we see in the news or media, just like any other group or population. But it may not always be seen that way because quite often, the face of the environmental movement is not that that has much color. I have personally seen that just in the work that I’ve done, or the career that I’ve had, or even the groups or organizations that I’ve been a part of. And so I won’t necessarily say those, some of the stereotypes aren’t inaccurate. But it was just very interesting to kind of, when you having this conversation with multiple individuals, and you’re getting some of the same responses, it’s kind of interesting to see all that together.
When I think about the environmental movement, it went through this long period, and much of it is still in this period. In which things like saving whales and polar bears
Dr. Warren 16:31
or being a tree hugger.
Yeah, or, or consuming the right stuff, or shopping at Whole Foods, whatever it happened to be, was considered to be environmentally virtuous. My guess is that that could be part of the reason that mainstream environmentalism has not traditionally connected very well with communities of color.
Dr. Warren 16:59
Yeah, I think there is a level of elitism that is connected to the environmental movement that transcends just the African American community, but I just think it’s also related to class. Some of the conversations I think that we had as relates to environmental movement, as you say, you kind of think about those who have the resources, the ability to be sustainable in their purchases. And so maybe they’re supporting a more environmentally friendly or focused establishment, like a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s, or they’re able to make certain purchases that are more sustainable, versus what we can get at a more big box store. So I think there is this, there has sometimes been a disconnect, because the things that we have talked about as relates to the environmental movement may not just have been– it may be cost prohibitive in some manners for African Americans or just for other individuals who may not have the financial resources. And so you can kind of see that disconnect.
And part of that is what were some of the questions that I asked during the research, as well as kind of the conversations that I have, in general of some of my courses or in other areas, is that when we think about these perceptions about environmentalism, it is based off, I think, that more stereotypical perception that we have with individuals, but not realizing that some of the actions that we do in our own homes and other areas, actually are those of environmentalists as well. And so some of the examples that I give, and this isn’t just particular to African Americans, I see this in a lot of other households. But I know this is something that we can relate to. I talk about individuals who when we go to the grocery store, any type of store, and we have an abundance of plastic bags that we end up accumulating, and one of the questions I will ask is, well, what is it what do you do with those bags? And people respond? Well, I’ll use it as a trash can liner, I’ll use it to pick up dog waste, I’ll use it to– they seem to repurpose it a lot, which is a part of the P2 hierarchy, the pollution prevention hierarchy. We look at other ways, I’ll say if you’re frying something and you have like a little jar or a can on the back of the stove, and you pour the grease in and you reuse it again, what are you doing? You’re recycling, so there’s these different habits and practices that we have that doesn’t often equate to being green, being sustainable, being an environmentalist, but that’s what we’re actually involved in.
And so as we’re having these conversations, more examples come about, and it’s almost like a light bulb goes off, because again, we’ve had these perceptions about what a traditional environmentalist would be. And we don’t actually equate that to the actions that we do because that isn’t often seen, that isn’t often talked about. So again, I think it transcends just the African American experience. This could be for those Caucasians, who may not even consider themselves to be environmentalists, or those who don’t necessarily have the same resources. But there definitely is this disconnect that we sometimes see with that.
How do you think the these movements, the environmental and climate movements can really become more engaged with these issues and more inclusive? Is that possible, do you think?
Dr. Warren 20:35
Well, I definitely think it’s possible, and it’s no different from what we see with any other organization or entity. There has to be a willingness to make those changes, or really be honest about where that organization is lacking. And so oftentimes, we see from the top down from leadership, administrative positions, whatever it may be, that the diversity is very low. And so there has to be a willingness to recognize where that organization is, and then also be willing to find out, well, what are the ways in which we can make changes. And not just doing it for diversity’s sake, just to have more people of color coming in just to say we’ve checked off a list. But to really understand when you have diverse perspectives, then there’s ability to reach different individuals within the community, to address different issues that are out there that maybe have not been dealt with before. And we can be more inclusive in the efforts to improve the environment.
Now, I will say, for the individuals that I interviewed, in both locations in Michigan, in South Carolina, I think I was able to dispel some myths that we aren’t as involved in the environmental movement, as some people may think. And so obviously, for myself who have, I have been an environmental engineer, I’ve been an environmental compliance specialist, I am now working in a school that has environmentally related majors. This is something that I’ve been doing for almost 20 years. And I was actually interviewing other African Americans who have been in the field as well. So they’re either working with hazardous materials, solid waste, energy, air. There were some ladies that were in Michigan that were actually with the Sierra Club, as well as other environmental organizations. And so that in itself was showing that there is potential to work in these spaces, but the numbers have to increase.
So, I think some ways in which organizations could do that is it has to be a concerted effort to reach out and not just reach out to increase the numbers, but really trying to get individuals to come in, hear what they’re saying, and even try to get them in leadership positions. And I know for any entity or organization, change can be hard, it can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re used to doing things a certain way for decades, years, however long may be. But given the issues that we’re dealing with, especially when it comes to climate change, you’re going to have to have those different perspectives that come in to find solutions to the problems. And that means having those that are probably going to be most affected by it. Now, that doesn’t mean that everything needs to be changed. There’s definitely people who are in these spaces, or these organizations that are doing great work, have done it for years. And they genuinely wants to make progress. But if we’re really going to be effective, we have to have individuals all across the board that could bring solutions to the problems. And so it just really has to be a concerted effort to make changes in not just to change the color or the face of the organization, but to bring them in so they– so we can have an opportunity to bring effective solutions.
What we really need to do is to recognize that there have been all these voices in the conversation all along, but some of them have been ignored.
Dr. Warren 24:13
Yeah. And it’s just definitely we want the voices– you want to hear what’s being said, but it just can’t stop there. We can listen all day long, we can get input, but you need individuals who are in the ground, in those areas who have those lived experiences to be a part of the problem solving, be a part of the solution creations, all of those things. Because at the end of the day, representation really matters. When I was having these conversations with the people that I interviewed, and one of the questions in particular is, do they think or did they think that mainstream organizations did enough in the communities that they were in, or did they see them enough? And oftentimes, the answer was no, that they weren’t aware of what any, some of the mainstream organizations were doing within their communities or just in general. And so it’s, again, those organizations probably could reach out to the communities and they can get their input. But to me, that’s not enough. If they really want to be effective, there has to be more inclusive, you need membership. And then once you start getting the membership, then you also need them in leadership positions, because, quite honestly, you may have the best of intentions, you may think you have the answers to a particular problem. But sometimes you’re only seeing it from your lens. And once you have others coming in, you have the opportunity to look at it a little bit different. But you won’t know– you don’t know what you don’t know. And you probably won’t see that until you had individuals coming in and kind of shaking things up and giving you a different perspective.
This has been a just a fascinating conversation. And I’m so appreciative of the work that you’ve done and the work that you’re doing on CPAC, and a number of other organizations I think you’re involved with as well.
Dr. Warren 26:17
So looking forward to continuing to work with you for a long time. Anything you’d like to say as we wrap things up?
Dr. Warren 26:27
Um, well, first, thank you this has been enjoyable. It’s not often that I get to talk about the research, although it’s something that I definitely enjoy, I thought it was important, and I’m pretty sure one day I’ll continue to the next stage of it. I would definitely like to do a follow up on the interviewees that I reached out to, as well as kind of expand the research. I focused, as you can tell, from Michigan and South Carolina, I focused on the Midwest and the South. But I’d definitely like to get a perception for those who are on the East Coast, as well as the west coast because there is a lot of environmental work and sustainability work that has been done by African Americans and others of color. So we only got a perspective out of my research from a small group. But I would definitely like to see what that work has looked like and what those perceptions are in different areas. And so that’s something I’m looking forward to. So given the opportunity to talk about this, it just kind of reignites that fire to say one day, Tameria, let’s go ahead and work on this research again. So thank you for the opportunity to be able to share it.
Then I guess one thing I would just like to share as we close is that these are definitely the conversations that we need to have, especially as we’re unfortunately dealing with climate change and all of the ramifications from it. And as you had mentioned previously, we can no longer have this divide between the global north and the global south. And in order to bridge that gap, you’re going to have to have those conversations with the individuals who are immediately impacted. We can hear them, we can listen to them, but they have to be involved in the movement, in the change, in the problem-solving. And so, I look forward to having that happen. But a part of that is going to have to be organizations, groups, being willing to bring in everyone so those problems can be solved.
Thanks to Dr. Tameria Warren for this fascinating discussion. Dr. Warren is Undergraduate Studies Coordinator for the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of South Carolina, and a member of the Climate Protection Action Committee, CPAC.
This has been another Climate Conversation SC I’m your host Bob Petrulis. This conversation was recorded on zoom on February 2 2022. Shout out to madirfan at Pixabay for our intro music.