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Dartmouth Research Looks At Promoting Racial Diversity In Climate Change Curriculum

Bala Chaudhary, now an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, works with undergraduate researcher Ashlyn Royce to collect soil samples on a "green roof" at DePaul University in Chicago in 2018.
Jamie Moncrief
DePaul University
Bala Chaudhary, now an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, works with undergraduate researcher Ashlyn Royce to collect soil samples on a "green roof" at DePaul University in Chicago in 2018.

A new study with a co-author at Dartmouth College examines how to cultivate more diverse leaders in white-dominated environmental and climate change fields, by improving racial inclusion in undergraduate programs.

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The study, published last week in the journal Nature Sustainability, says Black and indigenous students and other students of color tend to be highly interested in environmental science and climate activism, with home communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution.

A student quoted in the study told researchers, “People will talk about the polar bears dying before they talk about brown people breathing in dangerous air.”

“It’s not necessarily an issue of attracting people of color to the field,” said co-author Bala Chaudhary, an assistant professor of ecology at Dartmouth. “It’s, as we showed in the study, more about minimizing exclusion and isolation that pushes people of color out of the field.”

Chaudhary has also taught at Chicago’s Loyola and DePaul Universities, which were the focus of the study. Lead author Tania Schusler of Loyola and undergraduate researchers interviewed students of color in undergraduate environmental and sustainability programs, and analyzed their experiences.

Most of the students reported often feeling excluded or silenced by white-focused or race-agnostic coursework, professors, classmates and activities. Some said their classes tended to separate environmental science and its impacts on people, especially marginalized people.

The study quotes one student who said, “I feel like some [professors] wouldn’t even be able to talk to a student of color about race… it’s like, ‘This is a science class. We’re gonna talk about hard, empirical facts here’… So if someone were to bring up racism… it’s like ‘I’m gonna hit you with the empirical facts’ and deny the lived experiences of these people.”

Chaudhary, who co-wrote a widely read 2020 paper titled "Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab," said environmental educators have to work harder to bridge this gap between environmental science and the systemic societal problems it seeks to address.

“That was a really important result from our study, was that in designing curriculum that contributes to inclusion and belonging for students of color, that race and racism has to be integrated into many, many different types of courses,” she said.

The study’s recommendations include diversifying environmental coursework and reading lists, prioritizing diversity in hiring environmental faculty, and emphasizing racial justice work in training and promoting professors.

Students also called for resources that create more of what Chaudhary termed “belongingness” outside the classroom – such as racial affinity groups focused on environmental studies or climate change. Right now, she said, such groups tend to be campus-wide.

“They tend to pull students, then, away from their disciplines,” she said. “Then students of color are not integrated into that discipline as much.”

The goal for environmental educators, she said, must be to uplift non-white voices in their field to create better climate outcomes, and “because that’s what an equitable society does.”

“We need diverse thought and diverse approaches, and that requires lots of different people coming from many different backgrounds to develop the best solutions,” she said. “But … improving racial diversity in our programs is not important just to get the best result. It’s important because people of color simply deserve to be in these spaces.”

Updated: August 23, 2021 at 12:47 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include the name of the lead author, assistant professor Tania Schusler of Loyola University Chicago.
Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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