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A Conversation with the Black Environmental Thought Collaborative, August 15, 2012

Black Environmental Thought Collaborative

Conveners Rose Brewer and Seitu Jones

IAS staff writer Amir Hussain met with Professor Rose Brewer of African American & African Studies, and co-convener of the Black Environmental Thought Collaborative, to learn about the work of the collaborative and the BET Conference.

Amir Hussain: Can you speak about your role in the collaborative?

Rose Brewer: I have been an activist-scholar for my entire career. So I have always been connected in one way, shape, or form to community-based organizations. This particular community-based organization, AfroEco, has for a number of years been concerned with issues of land access, food justice, and environmental equality. Given my work on race, class, and gender, it seemed to me that was a piece that also had to be very much a part of any equity agenda, any move toward substantial social transformation. My own research and writing is very much connected to issues of social injustice, race, class, and gender, and increasingly understanding how the injustices around the environment and the earth are intimately connected to those other issues of inequality. So I was pulled to the philosophy of sustainability, and as it turns out, some of the work of IAS is now very much concerned with issues of sustainability, so it seemed to me that this was a collaboration that fit in with the goals of IAS and my own research and writing and activist-based career as well as some incredible community-based organizers and thinkers.

AH: What work has the Collaborative been involved with?

RB: On a day-to-day basis, we’ve been partnering with other community folk who are trying to assure that there is food justice where there’s little food sovereignty or food security. We have also got an initiative of black cooperative farmers on the ground in the Twin Cities. A year or so ago, we did a food survey about access to healthy foods and we participated in a set of community conversations around these issues. A good deal of what we’ve done this past year is associated with our upcoming conference, Black Environmental Thought II. Seitu Jones, who is one of the co-founders of AfroEco, has been a collaborator with me on our IAS grant. We have a fantastic group of scholars and activists and community members who will be participating and our hope is that, in the next phase of the work, we’ll be doing some kind of publication from the conference. We also expect to do more work on the ground in the wake of some of the new information that will come out of the conference.

AH: I had the chance to meet Sam Grant [of AfroEco] and hear about the BET Summer project. What is the relationship between the summer work and the upcoming conference?

RB: They are intimately connected. Sam may have mentioned the fact that one of the key pieces of BET Summer is predicated on something called Detroit Summer. That particular initiative effort [Detroit Summer] is an excellent example of a way to think about young people who are in communities that are often stressed but who get involved in changing those communities through gardening and through becoming aware of the history of relationship of those communities to the earth. We drew upon some of those ideas to frame and to set the parameters for BET Summer. What does it mean conceptually to bring young people into a political and social frame around Black Environmental Thought, relationships to the land, and sustainability was very much the goal of BET Summer. Some of those young people will be presenting at the Conference, as well. We are very much interested in youth leadership because if we don’t build political awareness and leadership, then yet another generation may not be as well prepared. The youth were very hands-on, very involved in an active way in unfolding their relationships to the land. It should be a nice complement at the conference in terms of what we end up with bringing together youth, community organizers, and scholarly researchers.

AH: Black Environmental Thought is a concept that guides the Collaborative. One can get a sense of what is meant by the term, but can you elaborate on the idea?

RB: There have been people who have thought about particular communities or particular ethnicities and their relationships to the earth. We typically think about that, although stereotypically, with native people. But indigenous folk are not the only people who have evolved and cultivated an appreciation and an understanding of the earth. That knowledge is deep in the African heritage. The African diaspora, both here in the US as well as around the world, brought many environmental insights with them. Unfortunately, under conditions of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and under conditions of racial apartheid that followed that trade, appropriate attribution to this information was not given or it was buried—it was made invisible.

There is a text called Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas by Judith Carney—probably one of the set of materials that’s more familiar than some—that shows how African enslaved women, especially, had knowledge of rice cultivation. That was one of the main reasons that Senegambia was an area that enslavement happened; it wasn’t just accidental. The fact that they brought this knowledge with them and they transported it to the Americas and made a rice crop possible—that is a body of information and thought that needs to be understood. So I would frame Black Environmental Thought in that way—that it is information and practice that comes out of an African descent experience…and we’re trying to give it visibility and understanding.

AH: What makes the Institute for Advanced Study a good home to support such an effort?

RB: The IAS is incredibly aware of and attuned to the issues that we’re putting on the table. They have made a commitment to be an engaged center with scholarly excellence. They understand that all knowledge is not rooted in the academy, that a good deal of it is community-based, and that those connections between the academy and the community need to be made in a respectful and equitable way. The fact that they have supported community organizations alongside intellectual commitment is just invaluable in so many ways.

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