Turning Africana Studies Green

Dr. Rubin Patterson

If there’s one thing that bothers Dr. Rubin Patterson (Ph.D. ’92), it is the lack of Blacks and Latinos in environmental leadership positions.

So, instead of complaining about it, Patterson proposes to make Africana studies programs across the country green. His new book, Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences, outlines his ideas. 

“On predominantly white campuses, where some 90 percent of Black students matriculate, they have African-American studies courses,” said Patterson, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. “[I want to look at] greening the Africana studies curriculum ... [where they would] have environmental studies topics within the curriculum. African Americans would get the exposure and increase the appetite ... in Black and Brown communities,” Patterson said.

Greening Africana Studies

In his book, Patterson discusses ways in which Black communities are harmed by local environmental degradation and global climate change. For example, these communities can contain brownfields, which are lots that contain toxic or hazardous materials. Since many “African-American students come from areas that are more degraded,” there is a distinct need for students of color to learn about how toxins in their communities affect their health, Patterson said.

Kyndal Coote, one of Patterson’s spring 2015 Environmental Inequality course students, concurs.

“If children learn to love their planet, they will be more likely to feel obligated to protect and preserve what the planet has to offer before what we’ve taken for granted can only be explained to our great-great-great grandchildren through pictures,” Coote said.

Patterson inventoried the existence of environmental studies programs at the top 100 national universities. Of those institutions, 98 of them have the program, compared to about 25 percent of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, he said.

And even with the large number of environmental studies programs offered at pre- dominantly white institutions, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released statistics this year confirming the limited num- ber of freshmen minorities who chose to major in the science and engineering fields in 2012. The study, conducted by the NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics—Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in STEM, revealed that only 12.5 percent of minority freshmen at all U.S. four-year colleges chose these fields as their concentration.

Arguing that many Black communities are not aggressively engaging in environmental issues, Patterson’s book also provides examples of how Africana studies students and members of Black communities can prepare for green careers.

Budding scientist takes environmental science and runs

Chandler Puritty

Chandler Puritty, a senior biology major at Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences, can certainly identify with the importance of increasing minority interest in the environmental sciences.

Puritty went from being a freshman in the Environmental Biology Scholars Program to being a 2015 recipient of an NSF Graduate Fellowship, which provides her with about $46,000 per year for three years within a five-year fellowship period to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego’s Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program.

Puritty’s doctoral research focus is currently undetermined, but at Howard, she focused on the way plants use the metal nickel to either defend themselves or thrive in toxic-metal environments.

“When you plant nickel hyperaccumulator in soil that is permeated with a toxic element, such as nickel, the plant will harmlessly, basically, just suck up all the toxins out of the soil into an above- ground [environment],” Puritty said. “So, you can use these plants to remediate or restore any soils that have been kind of polluted before, and it’s cost efficient.”

This kind of research speaks, in part, to Patterson’s brownfields discussion.

“I’m trying to create a situation that more students of color get this exposure and develop career trajectories that will put them in position to shape policy on the environment,” Patterson said.

Puritty agrees.

“I think increasing minority representation in the sciences is just super, super, super important, and not enough people know how to do it,” she said. “I just want to be successful in my career, so that I can inspire another brown girl to ... follow in my footsteps and lead her to the STEM field.” 

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