A Voice for Equity and Justice In the Environmental Movement
Dorceta Taylor '85 M.F.S., '91 Ph.D., is one of the country's preeminent environmental justice scholars. But above and beyond her publications, Taylor says her work is about opening doors for other people by making the environmental movement more diverse.
By Timothy Brown
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Dorceta Taylor ’85 M.F.S., ’91 Ph.D., first heard of Yale as a young girl growing up in rural Jamaica in the 1960s. At the time, Yale didn’t admit women, but Taylor was determined to one day attend such a prestigious university. After completing her undergraduate degree, she applied to nearly a dozen graduate schools but the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) was always her first choice. She enrolled in the master's degree program in 1983, and in 1991 Taylor became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. at F&ES, a combined doctorate from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Department of Sociology.
She is presently the James E. Crowfoot Collegiate Professor of Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan, where she also serves as the Program Director of the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI) and as the university’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
As one of the nation’s leading environmental justice scholars and activists, Taylor will receive a Distinguished Alumna awardduring this year’s F&ES Reunion Weekend on October 10. She will also give a seminar entitled "When Cities Stop Growing: Using a Multicultural Perspective to Understand Food Access and Sustainabiltiy in a Post-Industrial City" that morning.
Taylor has always believed that the environmental movement could be more powerful if it were more diverse.
“We need to look at how equity, justice, injustice plays in the nexus of what we look at when we look at the natural environment, the built environment, future environments,” Taylor said in a recent interview. “You cannot leave out distributional issues. Even if the policies do not intend inequity, we have to look at how outcomes are shaped differently. And it has to be an integral part of the education that students are getting.”
The environmental justice movement has grown steadily since the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit nearly a quarter-century ago. But significant work remains. In 2014, Taylor analyzed the state of diversity of nearly 200 environmental organizations nationwide for a report commissioned by Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity across mainstream environmental NGOs, foundations and government agencies. Taylor found that although people of color represent more than a third of the U.S. population and 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, people of color never occupied more than 16 percent of the staff in the environmental organizations she surveyed.
Alumni on Campus
Dorceta Taylor will deliver a lecture at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, October 8 in Burke Auditorium (Kroon Hall) as part of the lecture-based course Diverse Voices, which is co-led by Frances Beinecke ’71 B.A. ’74 M.F.S. and F&ES Dean Peter Crane. More information.
“Diversity is not about offering someone who’s unqualified a job,” she said. “It’s really about inclusion, and everyone benefits.” Since the report was released, many mainstream environmental organizations — including The Nature Conservancy, Ford Foundation, and government agencies — have used it as the catalyst for making an institutional commitment to increasing diversity in their workforce.
Taylor is the author of several books, including “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility” (New York University Press 2014) and the award-winning “The Environment and the People in American Cities: 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality and Social Change” (Duke University Press 2009), as well as numerous refereed journal articles.
Despite her illustrious career, Taylor says she continues to encounter prejudice both within and outside the academy.
“I never lead with ‘I graduated from Yale University,’” she said. “And if they don’t know that I went to the School of Forestry or that I earned two Ph.D.’s in five years, what I’ve found, even now, is that the stigma of being Black, and to some extent female, precedes me and precedes other people of color.”
But when Taylor talks about racism, her tone isn’t angry or bitter. “One of the strategies I use to get beyond it is just the idea that I might be here for a larger purpose,” she said. “And that purpose is not about whether someone believes that my work is any good, or whether or not they think I’m qualified. That’s really sort of irrelevant. The question is, how do I open the door for other people? How can I use what I’ve learned to help others? That’s a lot bigger than just my publications.”
Taylor also believes that schools of the environment must be more proactive in addressing issues of equity and justice in their curricula. “It’s not just, ‘Are we gonna put a few things in there to appease these people of color who are always complaining?’” she said. “It’s about having a better understanding of ‘environment’ and environmental dynamics.”
“The missing piece in the classroom is to train students coming out of programs like Yale to model, to include in their data set how these things [inequity and injustice] play out on the ground, not just in the U.S., but all over the world,” Taylor said. “If we look at the future, the people who don’t have that skill set, who don’t know the variables to incorporate, who don’t even think about justice when doing a policy recommendation or formulating a problem — if we’re not looking at these aspects of it, we’re missing a huge piece of the global dynamics. So not having that as more of a substantial part of the program could affect F&ES in the long run as kind of missing the boat.”
Despite her critiques, Taylor is proud of her education at F&ES. “Consistently I’ve always said I would do it again. Certainly there are issues, but it’s also the opportunities and possibilities that that school opened for me that I was able to grab that I want opened for everybody,” she said. “The whole university is really quite spectacular for leaving that open canvas for you as a student to go as far as you want to go, and for that I’ve always said I’m grateful.”