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Greening Africana Studies

An interview with Dr. Rubin Patterson by E. Rahdri

Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences

Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences
Publication Year: 2015
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Dr. Rubin Patterson, chair, Department of Sociology
Dr. Rubin Patterson

Dr. Rubin Patterson, chair, Department of Sociology, recently authored a book titled, Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences.

Doctoral Candidate E. Rahdri, Department of Sociology recently completed an interview with Dr. Patterson on his new book. The interview appears below.

The Interview:

E. Rahdri: It’s a pleasure to be here today with you, I’m very glad you were able to make time for me, I know you’re very, very busy. One of the first questions I’d like to ask you today is, what compelled you to write a book about Environmental Studies and Africana Studies—about bridging these two disciplines together?
Dr. Patterson: The reason why I decided to pursue this project is because the environment is a very important subject matter, and it has a huge impact on our lives. In fact, it’s been said before that the environment is our life, and when the environment is doing poorly, then our lives are doing poorly. As it turns out, African Americans have been historically, woefully underrepresented in the environmental organizations and environmental movements.

And so, I said, how can I best address that? One way of addressing that, given I was at the University of Toledo, a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) campus, and like other PWI campuses, where well over 80% of black students happen to go, [students'] there may take Africana Studies and African American Studies courses to meet their [major’s] requirements. Africana Studies and African American Studies Departments do not have a Green Curricula, and they are missing an opportunity to expose African American students to the importance of the environment. So that was what I was after—to have the hundreds of African American Studies departments and programs around the country take up the subject of the environment, so that they can expose African American students to this hugely important topic.

Africana Studies started with the title of Black Studies back in 1968. That was when the first program was created out at San Francisco State and it moved on from there to hundreds of campuses around the country; and part of the mission was to use some of the intellect and resources of the university to address some of the problems in the Black community, and by the way, that’s why you have universities. You have universities to address social problems and challenges and to also preserve, and celebrate the culture of society.

Those black intellectuals back in the 1960s were saying, hey wait a minute, fine you’re addressing all these issues in the broader white community, but you’re completely ignoring the issues in the black community, as well as ignoring the cultural aspects to be celebrated, critiqued, and retained. So we needed an academic department that actually does that. The University will be better for it and the overall society will be better for it. So, all that was great, and they looked at various aspects of the black experience, holistically.

But one area they overlooked, going on 50 years now, was the environment. That is a colossal oversight because there is more environmental degradation concentrated in the black community than in other communities, and given that, in order for Africana Studies to fulfill its mission, it has to take up the environment.

E. Rahdri: Given that environmental inequality has been a transnational issue for decades, why do you feel that the bridging of Environmental and Africana Studies is just emerging? Why do you think it’s just kind of been overlooked?
Dr. Patterson: Environmentalism has been pitched and perceived as a conservationist perspective—to conserve nature and wildlife and humans for many generations to come or to preserve nature irrespective of humans, for the sake of nature itself. But, you have African Americans who say that’s all fine and dandy, but we’re dealing with more immediate issues like violent neighborhood crime, our children not receiving a good education, and challenges with families, etc. We really don’t have time to think about preserving ecosystem far-removed from our domain.

But that began to change in the 1980s because black and brown people began to notice that landfills covered with society’s refuse was concentrated in their communities; and that this too was an environmental issue, not just issues that dealt with conservation, and preservation of the ecosystem and endangered non-human species.

Also, if you live in a heavily environmentally degraded community, people aren’t going to make investments there. To patronize the institutions to your choosing, you’ll likely have to go outside [of the community] to the store to get fresh green vegetables because the stores in the area will not make the investment needed to bring healthy options to the community. There will be no jobs and property values will go down and the schools will be significantly underperforming. The environmental health will not only weaken, but also the biological health of the people because air pollution is worse in African American communities, and there is more lead concentration, which adversely affects the health of African Americans and their overall material well-being.

So, there is a disconnect in the way many African Americans have come to understand environmentalism—to mean conservation and/or preservation of the ecosystem in some far-removed place—saving rain forests and spotted owls, for example. Don’t get me wrong, these are all important environmental matters, too, which will undoubtedly eventually come to harm African Americans and all other humans if ecosystems deteriorate and biodiversity diminishes. But, once the connection is made that environmental issues impact their daily lives, especially adversely, African Americans’ interest in and engagement with environmental issues and studies are very likely to expand.

E. Rahdri: Tell me about the commonalities that you mentioned in Chapter 2.
Dr. Patterson: So, the book is organized in a particular way. The first chapter talks about how Africana Studies blew it because it didn’t focus on the environment. I looked at all the Africana Studies Programs around the country to see how they self-identified as a program and I also looked at the expertise/foci of each professor in the programs to see how they self-identified (i.e., what issues they focused on in their research and teaching). Only two percent focused on the environment. Only a tiny percent of African American Studies professors publish articles/books on the environment.

Chapter 2 basically states that the Environmental Studies people and the Africana Studies people have not reviewed one another’s work and need to do so in order to collaborate together—to build new knowledge and perspectives. In Environmental Studies, there are five main paradigms and Africana Studies has four main paradigms. I constructed a grid, which illustrates the main paradigms within the two fields of study to show how there are commonalities and parallels between them.

E. Rahdri: It seems as if you designed a grid for those who would attempt to do the work of bridging some aspect of these two theories together using a combination of the paradigms to create new or transform old perspectives to either applied and/or basic research?
Dr. Patterson: Yes, that’s correct. I’m convinced others will build on this and make it much more sophisticated, which will facilitate community organization work, scholarly research, and course development that bridge both disciplines.

E. Rahdri: Now, what I really want to do is get into Chapter 4, Green Jobs. When it comes to African Americans, green jobs aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when we consider work—whether it’s at the post-graduate level, middle class, or working class or any class for that matter. First, green jobs just don’t resonate with us, and then if we break it down, in some communities it might mean working with your hands, working in the fields—that’s the type of imagery that might come to mind. And I do understand that green jobs can mean a lot of things, intellectually. But, at the core of things, it does bring up thoughts of slavery or tenant farming. Can you address this?
Dr. Patterson: You have green jobs. Some of them are blue (turquoise) collar and some are white (lime) collar. The greatest concern for me is that African Americans, on the whole, are not currently academically prepared to acquire those highly paid green jobs. Green jobs are good for the environment—e.g., solar panels, or help reduce the toxicity to make products and/or use less material, e.g., green processes, and recycling. These are the jobs that will become more viable in the future, and people who prepare for them will have greater marketability than who do not.

Engineers and bioscientists are not the only professionals needed for green jobs; social scientists and humanists, too, are needed to assess and influence the attitudes, aspirations, and behaviors, of the community concerning the environment.

E. Rahdri: Dr. Patterson, thank you for your time and this informative and interesting interview.

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