Story+ Project

Collecting Oral Histories of Environmental Racism and Injustice in the American South

(2022)

Story+ 2022 | Environmental Justice and Oral Histories

Overview This project will document and communicate the history of racial inequities in the American South through an environmental justice lens. We aim to build a repository of oral histories that will provide evidence of the pervasiveness of environmental injustice and racism in this country, especially in rural Southern communities. This project builds upon an ongoing collaboration between the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Nicholas School of the Environment, and the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts across rural communities in the American South.  As the pandemic continues, stories and memories of community elders and other first-hand observers of environmental injustice and racism are being lost.

Oral histories represent collective knowledge, and intergenerational wealth and these stories urgently need to be documented, archived, and passed down: for the communities themselves, on their own terms, as well as for scholars of the environment, humanities, medicine, and public policy advocates who seek to promote more equitable policies. This project will add a humanist and documentary perspective for communicating about critical environmental issues while advocating for just, equitable, and anti-racist solutions.

The project timeline is Sept 2021-May 2023. However, this timeline may be extended as additional partnerships and funding are secured. You can view the connected Bass Connections project here.

Story+ Project This EJ Oral History work is divided into two categories: the formal oral history collection (conducted over the course of two years, 2021-2023) and a journalistic component (over the course of 2022 with potential expansion into 2023) in partnership with regional and local outlets and communities across the South.

Given the historically extractive nature of both academic and journalistic institutions, the Story+ team will be tasked with developing a methodology for intentional, equitable, and meaningful interaction with community partners and members for both the oral history and journalistic components of this project.

This work will build upon the project’s current tentative strategy for community engagement and will include conducting literature reviews, speaking with area experts and community organizations, and otherwise researching the best practices in working with and in community. The final product will consist of a series of methodological frameworks and recommendations that the larger project will utilize.

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Preferred Skills for Undergraduate Students

  • Interest or experience with either journalism or oral history collection
  • Interest or experience with environmental justice or environmental justice communities
  • Open-minded, willing to learn new or contradictory ideas to their own, and ability to ask and dissect difficult questions

Preferred Skills for Graduate Students

  • Research experience, specializing in humanities or social science research
  • Experience directing a team
  • Training in racial equity or understanding of culturally inclusive/non-extractive team management and community engagement practices
  • Extremely organized, flexible, and capable of pivoting project direction, as needed
  • Interest or experience with environmental justice and with environmental justice communities
  • Interest or experience with journalism or communications (for the purposes of advising students on research)

The graduate student will act as research lead for the students with the support of the current EJ Oral History Project Coordinator and one of the project’s faculty leads. They will direct students as they conduct literature analysis, interview experts, and develop a set of methodologies for the journalistic and oral history components of the project.

    Project Sponsor(s): 

    Cameron Oglesby, MPP Candidate

    Elizabeth Albright, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

    Margaret Brown, Franklin Humanities Institute

    Wesley Hogan, Franklin Humanities Institute

    Miguel Rojas Sotelo, Center for International and Global Studies-Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies

    Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

    Graduate Mentor(s): 

    Nikki Locklear, PhD student, History

    Undergraduates: 

    Audrey Alexander, Ariel Chukwuma, Tri Truong

    Outcome: 

    Our team, “Collecting Oral Histories of Environmental Racism and Injustice in the American South,” set out this summer to tackle a methodological quandary: how can we prepare next fall’s Bass Connections students to conduct ethical oral histories? To answer this deceptively simple inquiry, the project’s undergraduate researchers addressed three related questions, which they would take apart, expand, simplify, and make their own over the course of the six weeks. Their research consisted of literature and website reviews along with expert interviews with people invested in environmental justice and oral history work, both around and beyond Duke. Once they became acquainted with the history of environmental justice as a social movement, they talked to these experts about their experiences, lessons learned, and recommendations for future researchers. Our Story+ team accomplished a feat that can bedevil even experienced researchers: they devoted six weeks to listening, learning, and thinking about research methods, all while centering humanistic values of community power and justice. Their intellectual labor ultimately produced accessible materials that will facilitate the Bass Connections team’s training in oral history, but we believe they can benefit anyone interested in approaches to ethical community engagement and environmental justice.

    Tri Truong researched principles of non-extractive community engagement, examining oral history and community partnerships in other contexts to inform his understanding of justice-oriented research. His work culminated in a Story Map outlining approaches he synthesized to aid the Bass Connections team’s training. He identified community orientation, maintenance of trust, empathic understanding, community empowerment, and creative engagement as key principles; the Story Map suggests ways for the Bass Connections team to adhere to them. 

    Ariel Chukwuma pursued the second question of project sustainability. Through her expert interviews and reading, she considered the best way to train student oral historians as well as how the project as a whole can fully replace extraction with collaboration. Her Story Map, another resource for the Bass Connections team, breaks down the process of collecting oral histories into steps students can take to protect and promote community ownership. She also created a workshop the team can use to help interested community members become oral historians themselves. 

    Audrey Alexander answered the call to transcend simply documenting histories. Their work asked how the Environmental Justice Oral History Project might practically support the communities asked to share stories of their struggles. Audrey learned from interviews with researchers and activists that, while communities were educated and proactive about environmental concerns, they need better access to resources. Audrey created a repository for the state of North Carolina featuring a list of annotated, categorized online resources—everything from free water testing and pro bono legal services to affordable healthcare clinics and ways to get involved with local organizing. 

    As a whole, this summer’s Story+ team accomplished our central task of helping to prepare the EJOHP researchers for the challenging yet invaluable work they’ll undertake this fall. You can view their work using the links below, or email Cameron Oglesby (cameron.oglesby@duke.edu) to learn about and contribute to the EJOHP’s upcoming activities.

    Environmental Justice Oral History Project

    Topic(s)

    • Environment
    • Public Policy
    • Race
    • Oral History
    • Civil Rights
    • Global Health