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Class On African-Americans And The Climate Breaks Ground At WMU

A three-quarter view of a young man holding a microphone and addressing a crowd. He is wearing a purple hat with the Greek letters of his fraternity, and a black anti-Covid face mask as well as blue latex gloves. At right, another young man listens.
Sehvilla Mann

Western Michigan University student George Seahorn has a thinker’s interest in nature. 

A senior in philosophy, he says he’s fascinated by “harmony after disasters, the peace after a rainstorm or the calm after a blizzard.”

Seahorn also has a passion for African-American studies. “It gives me some kind of hope on my origins,” he told WMUK. “Eventually I’m going to figure it out.”

As Seahorn was picking out classes for the fall, he saw one that promised to unite these interests.

“I said, ‘African-American Studies...climate change!? I’m not a real big science guy, but the fact that African-American Studies and climate change together...I need to know what this is about.’”

That is the reaction Deirdre Courtney was hoping for.

One of a handful, at most

Climate change’s many harms often hit minority communities the hardest. Yet studying global warming can be a lonely experience for students of color, in courses that are sometimes very white. The class that drew Seahorn’s attention, "African-Americans and Climate Change," went in a different direction.

Courtney, a PhD student at WMU whose research focuses on the climate, proposed, designed and taught the class. Courtney said when she was an undergrad at Western, taking environmental studies and science courses, she saw few other students that looked like her – even in big sections.

“I would say that I probably was like one or two or a handful of African-Americans in the class,” she said. “To be honest, I might be the only African-American in some of my courses.”

Courtney spoke with WMUK early in the semester as the class got underway. Ten students had enrolled. Her impression was seven were black – a solid majority. They came from fields as varied as music and criminal justice.

Courtney said she planned to start the course with how the warming of the planet is changing society.

“And then we’ll focus on more of nature, and African-Americans and their place in nature, and then the third part will delve more into the environmental justice movement.”

Courtney said teaching and organizing have taught her it’s most effective to meet people where they are.

“That’s, you know, where I think Western could do a better job, is like going to where the students are.”

“We’re all really waking up”

Western professor Denise Keele agrees. She’s a cofounder of the school’s climate studies minor. She said some of Western’s climate courses have attracted a diverse group of students, but others, especially in the hard sciences, have skewed white. Keele says this is a moment of reckoning at many institutions, including Western.

“We’re all really waking up to focus on not just that systematic racism exists, but how are we going to incentivize and change within our own world, and that world for us is our climate change education,” she said.

Keele added the climate program is talking with Western’s Lewis Walker Institute, which focuses on race. Together they may create a course on climate justice. She also said some students are working to gauge interest in the program among Latinx students. Keele said they're asking questions: “Why are certain populations either not finding our climate change studies minor, what are we not offering that makes it look like something they could be interested in?”

She said she hopes to put Courtney’s class to the permanent catalog, and added that Courtney is co-developing a second course, on migrants and climate change.

Spreading the word

Courtney said she hopes her class on African-Americans and the climate inspires students to act. In Seahorn's case, it already has.

On a windy day last month, Seahorn and a handful of other students gathered by Western’s flagpoles. Seahorn was hosting a recycling drive – a competition – inspired by what he was learning about plastic waste. He checked each contestant’s bags for non-recyclables, judged the amounts and awarded three prizes, sponsored by his fraternity.

Junior Ophelia Williams’s entry took third place. Seahorn had told her about Courtney’s class, and Williams said was “definitely” interested in signing up.

“I took an African American studies class once and loved it,” she said. “I don’t really know much about African-Americans and climate change, so I feel like it would be, definitely something I’d be interested in just so I could get more knowledge about it, so I could help the community more.”

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.
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