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Duke alumnus and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. knows environmental racism when he sees it – he coined the term in a jail cell.

In 1982, Chavis was arrested during a citizen protest as the state government tried to dump toxin-laced soil in Warren County, North Carolina.

“Forty years ago, of the 100 counties in North Carolina, Warren County was the most predominantly Black,” Chavis said during the fall 2022 Robert R. Wilson Distinguished Lecture.

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Audience listening intently
An audience listens to the fall 2022 Robert R. Wilson Distinguished Lecture at the Duke Chapel on Sept. 15. Photo credit: Duke Sanford School of Public Policy
 

The incident spurred the birth of the environmental justice movement and led to a landmark 1987 report documenting environmental racism by mapping locations of toxic waste disposal across the United States.

The lecture featured Chavis in conversation with Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental and climate justice activist and 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

Flowers is currently a Practitioner-in-Residence at Duke and the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in Alabama. The center improves access to clean water and safe waste treatment systems in rural communities, especially communities of color.

Cameron Oglesby, a master of public policy student, organized and moderated the discussion, "Environmental Justice: Past, Present, and Future" on Sept. 15 at the Duke Chapel. This event is a part of a larger fall series of lectures and celebrations of environmental justice at Duke.

"We put together this series of events because it was necessary. Educating ourselves – as citizens, scholars and members of the community – on the importance of doing environmental and climate work justly should not be an optional task,” Oglesby said.

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woman with microphone
Cameron Oglesby MPP 23
Photo credit: Duke Sanford School of Public Policy

The Sanford School of Public Policy, the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute hosted the event.

This lecture reflects the Duke Climate Commitment, which unites the university’s education, research, operations and public service missions to address the climate crisis. The commitment – to be formally announced on Sept. 29 – builds on Duke’s longstanding leadership in climate, energy and sustainability to educate a new generation of climate-fluent innovators and create equitable solutions for all. 

Excerpts

Q: WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO GET INVOLVED WITH THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT?

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Woman with mic
Catherine Coleman Flowers
Photo credit: Duke Sanford School of Public Policy

Catherine Coleman Flowers

“I saw an inconvenient truth when I saw the intersectionality between climate change and what was happening around the sanitation issue [in Lowndes County, Alabama, where Flowers grew up].”

“I'm a grandparent. I don't think that any grandparent or parent out there can sit idly by and not let our children have a future. And if we do not address climate change and environmental justice, there will be no future for them. And that drives me every day to do all I can do to make sure that my six-year-old grandson has a future.”

Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

“When I was born in Oxford, [North Carolina,] growing up, everything was segregated.”

“But growing up, I knew something was wrong. So, I'm always looking for ways…to prevent the wrong from coming back.”

“I'm a father and a grandfather and a great grandfather… I'm always concerned about the children and young people.”

Q: CAN WE ADDRESS ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE WITHOUT ADDRESSING RACISM?

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Man at podium
Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
Photo credit: Duke Sanford School of Public Policy

Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

“We're in denial of the existence of systemic racism.”

“We have to find a way to work together. I do think however, it is incorrect to think that Black people alone are going to solve America's racial problem. This is a problem that white people, along with other people of color, have to solve.”

“I want to build a movement that is multiracial that affirm the oneness of humanity of all people.”

“I'm hopeful. What I don't want us to do it to to have a debate about whether or not it is race, whether or not it is class, whether or not is Black, or whether or not is white. The fact of the matter is, we ought to be able to say, ‘This is wrong.’ And we ought to be able to say, ‘This is the way to right that wrong.’”

Q: WHERE DO BUSINESSES PLAY A PART IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT?

Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

“I believe that public and private partnerships are the way of the future. I had a good talk today with President Vincent Price, the president of Duke University. And he said that he has a vision of this university, becoming a center for climate, climate justice, and we extended it to the community in Durham, but also the community and the Triangle. You have some of the best scientific minds, some of the best healthcare minds. There are public policy minds in this area. You also have some of the leading corporations in this area.”

“The government, public, corporate leaders, we all have a role to play. And I think having a prestigious university like Duke University also play a leading role in bringing what would be these disparate entities together to find ways to work together.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers

“I believe that we have to have public-private partnerships as well.”

“When we talk about renewable energy, [we need to be] making sure that there are partnerships between Black entrepreneurs and brown entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs and people in the corporate world that are going to be putting these new sources of energy into all communities.”

Featured Video

Environmental Justice: Past, Present and Future

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Student Voices: Optimism for the Future

Karina Hendren MPP’23 attended this event and wrote about it for our Student Voices Series.

"'We have work to do.' This was the electrifying charge given by Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Warren County protests in North Carolina, a key event in the history of the environmental justice movement." 

Read Karina's story
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Documenting the Warren County Protests

What started as a mass protest against the dumping of toxic PCBs in Black neighborhoods in rural Warren County is now seen as one of the starting points of the environmental justice movement that is a strong voice in contemporary America. Duke alumna Jenny Labalme documented the 1982 protests as a Duke student.

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