Panel discussion

Left to right: Dorceta Taylor, Dolores Huerta, Julie Packard, Wawa Gatheru, and Emily Kwong discuss the future of environmentalism during a panel discussion at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Matailong Du/ National Portrait Gallery

Missing Voices in the Story of the U.S. Environmental Movement

Professor Dorceta Taylor discussed early  environmentalists whose contributions often go unrecognized at a recent panel discussion at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The panel was held in conjunction with a new exhibition featuring Taylor and other individuals who have shaped the U.S. environmental movement from the mid-nineteenth century conservation efforts to today’s focus on climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental justice.

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., “Forces of Nature: Voices that Shaped Environmentalism,” features more than 25 U.S. activists, politicians, writers, artists, and scientists — including several Yale graduates — who have shaped the U.S. environmental movement from the mid-nineteenth century conservation efforts to today’s focus on climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental justice.

During a panel discussion featuring environmental leaders included in the exhibition, Yale School of the Environment Professor Dorceta Taylor ’85 MFS, ’91 PhD noted that the names and personal histories of those not highlighted  (nor widely recognized as environmental leaders) reveal just as much about the movement’s history as do the stories of those featured.

Taylor, senior associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion and professor of environmental justice at YSE, cited several examples of people of color — some of whom are famous, others who have been lost in history — who should be recognized as environmental leaders, including Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian woman who was a guide on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and York, who was enslaved by the Clark family. Taylor noted that the explorers would not have made it 8,000 miles to the Western U.S. and back without Sacagawea and York’s environmental expertise. She also cited Phillis Wheatley, who was sold into slavery as a child. Wheatley wrote about nature and the environment in her poetry, influencing the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (who is featured in the exhibit). Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist and escaped slave who walked thousands of miles in the dark to evade capture and to help other enslaved people reach freedom in Canada and the north through the Underground Railroad, could not have done that without a keen understanding of the land, Taylor noted.

“If you are enslaved, and you want to get to freedom, and you have no GPS, no fancy cellphone … could you get out of slavery and could you do it at night without markers and with dogs tracking you?” she asked panel attendees. “We celebrate John Muir (also featured in the exhibition) for his walks. Tubman should also be recognized for her accomplishments.”

Taylor also pointed to the sociologist, historian, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois for his studies of the living conditions of urban Blacks and Jane Addams of Hull House for her efforts to improve urban neighborhoods and workplace health and safety.

Portrait of Dorceta Taylor
Dorceta Taylor portrait is part of a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery highlighting the contributions of more than 25 U.S. environmental leaders.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association; Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; and Wawa Gatheru, founder and executive director of Black Girl Environmentalist and a Public Voices fellow at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications and The OpEd Project, joined Taylor on the panel. Emily Kwong, co-host of NPR's science podcast Short Wave, was the moderator.

Responding to a question by Kwong on inclusivity, Gatheru recalled her feelings upon joining the environmental movement as a Black teenager.

“One of the reasons why that term (environmentalist) didn't resonate is because the idea of an environmentalist was not one that I felt included me … as a Black American … a Kenyan woman… (and) a young person,” she said, adding that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done for youth of color to really see themselves represented in the U.S. environmental movement.

Huerta, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work advancing environmental, racial, and economic justice, said that everyone needs to raise their voice to protect the environment.

“We’re talking about life on our planet and life in the future, so I think everyone one of us knows that we have to do something in order to stop global warming,” she said.

In addition to Taylor, the exhibition, which is on display until September 2, 2024, includes five other Yale alumni: George Bird Grinnell 1870, known as the father of American conservation; Gifford Pinchot 1889, who founded the Yale Forest School; Aldo Leopold 1909, whose work at the U.S. Forest Service led to the protection of 500,000 acres of wilderness in New Mexico; conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy ‘63, ’71 PhD, who is known for his decades-long field research on the Amazon; and sculptor Maya Lin ’81, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and whose recent work includes an ongoing multimedia project dedicated to the environment and climate crisis.

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