Recognizing Pittsburghers of Color: Conservation and Environmental Justice

October 7, 2020 by Meredith Bennett, PPC Intern

Danielle Andrews-Brown

 
Danielle Andrews-Brown has been a lecturer and the Environmental Studies Program Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh since 2017. She earned her doctorate in Soil Science at The Pennsylvania State University. She conducts research relating to water and soil quality, including the effects of carbon and nitrogen contaminants, estrogen pollutants, and antibiotics. She is also interested in research about science education. Dr. Andrews-Brown is a 2020 Pitt Sustainability Award Winner in recognition of her work to make the University of Pittsburgh more sustainable. She is the Chair of a subcommittee created to instate sustainability attributes for the University curriculum.
 
Tell me about your work. What do you enjoy most about it? Why did you choose this career?
I have a PhD in Soil Science. I focus mainly on soil and water quality in terms of environmental restoration. I have worked on wetland, stream, and watershed restoration projects. I have focused quite a bit on buffer zone management, revegetation, and the fate and behavior of nutrients and pollutants (personal care products) in the environment. Currently, I focus on mentoring, teaching, and learning in the sciences by college students. I love being out in the environment doing work that benefits both people and the environment. I love the sound of flowing water. I love science, but I would say this career chose me rather than me choosing it.
 
What are some challenges you have faced during your career? What are some accomplishments you are particularly proud of? 
It is difficult to fund research projects of interest. I do not always feel supported and mentored to be successful. I have received many awards and honors, but what I’m particularly proud of are all the notes, emails, and cards from students whose lives I have had a positive impact on and made a good difference in.
 
Why is it important for people of color to be represented in the sciences and what are some ways that white people can be more inclusive and respectful?
People of color (POC) are underrepresented in the sciences and usually experience workplace discrimination and challenges related to hiring decisions or promotion and advancement in their careers. Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity are essential in the sciences. More often than not, decisions are made based on science, but this science doesn’t often include diverse viewpoints, and research questions often don’t prioritize areas of interest to POC.
 
White people can be better allies to POC in many ways, including:
  • speaking up when you see inappropriate treatment of POC
  • educating yourself about POC, their history, and their contributions to the sciences
  • being willing to engage in meaningful change and not just share/exchange platitudes
  • accepting the discomfort of dealing with how you have benefited from institutional racism
 
A couple good reads: White Fragility (Robin Diangelo), How to be an Anti-racist? (Ibram X. Kendi)
 
What do you enjoy most about connecting with nature?
The peace it brings to me. 

Tiffany Taulton

 
Tiffany Taulton is Director of Community Initiatives with the Hazelwood Initiative. The Hazelwood Initiative is a community development corporation in the racially diverse neighborhood of Hazelwood, Pittsburgh. She supervises equitable community engagement and communication within the initiative. Taulton has also worked for the Environmental Defense Fund evaluating national clean energy strategies and the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning. She is the author of the food chapter in Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan 2.0. Taulton is very passionate about environmental justice and is committed to helping vulnerable communities deal with the effects of climate change. She is a member of the Black Permaculture Network and volunteers with the Black Urban Farmers and Gardeners Co-op in Pittsburgh. She also loves to travel and has led two trips to assist Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria with the Carnegie Mellon University in Puerto Rico student group.
 
Tell me about your work. What do you enjoy most about it? Why did you choose this career?
As Director of Community Initiatives for the Hazelwood Initiative, I oversee communications, outreach, and grants to support the people side of community development—in contrast to the real estate side of development that my other colleagues focus on. In short, I work at the intersection of education, public policy, and planning. It is a position that I enjoy because I have the freedom to set my own goals. I can work across silos to find more holistic solutions to problems, and I’m able to improve people’s lives in a very tangible way. I chose this career because my experiences living in New York City during the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 made me realize that not enough was being done to prepare vulnerable communities—particularly Black and Brown communities—for climate change. To the contrary, displacement caused by gentrification and the widening divide between the rich and the poor were destroying the one source of resiliency vulnerable people had: a strong sense of community. Hazelwood Initiative is committed to preserving affordable residential and commercial property in the midst of a period of redevelopment, and I am proud to help long-term residents stay in the community so that they can enjoy the benefits of this new growth.
 
What are some challenges you have faced during your career? What are some accomplishments you are particularly proud of?
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a significant challenge to my outreach work as it has made it nearly impossible to meet with people in-person for educational or community-building social events. Although we have converted to Zoom meetings, this is not a perfect solution, because so many people in our community either don’t have computers, don’t have internet service, or are not tech-savvy enough to log on to the conference platform.
 
One achievement that I’m particularly proud of is the creation of our Neighborhood Investment Fund COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant (NIF C-19). With our grant, we were able to help about 80 households and put $50,000 directly into the community to help residents get caught up on late rent, mortgage, and utility bills, pay for emergency home repairs, and purchase basic goods such as food, diapers, and cleaning supplies with dignity through the distribution of gift cards.
 
Why is it important for people of color to be represented in public policy, planning and community development, and what are some ways that white people can be more inclusive and respectful?
Disparities in access to public parks, tree canopy coverage, and public transportation are directly responsible for the poor education, economic, and public health outcomes for Black and Brown people in the city of Pittsburgh and around this country. At the root of all these disparities are the racist public policy and land-use decisions that have been made since the first colonial settlers arrived. Historically, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) have been the victims of policies designed to prevent them from living in, or even traveling through, certain neighborhoods.
 
They have been deprived of resources through policies of exploitation, forced removal, and economic displacement. And the neighborhoods that they do live in have been systematically disinvested from—or used as sacrifice zones where polluting industries are sited, and waste is stored. For these historic wrongs to be corrected and the relationship between white and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color communities to become more equitable, white people must not only share the power to decide policies and control spaces with Black, Indigenous, and people of color. They must also recognize the need to promote the leadership of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in creating policies around land use in their communities. In addition to local governments hiring more Black and Brown planners, I would like to see more programs designed to get Black, Indigenous, and other people of color youth interested in careers in public policy, planning, and community development.
 
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part of my work is being able to see improvements in the lives of the people I serve every week, while also knowing that my work will benefit future generations.

Clif McGill

 
Clif McGill is a lifelong nature enthusiast and has studied both independently and formally. He considers himself a semi-professional photographer specializing in nature, garden, and documentary photography. He supplements his income through photographic commissions, sales of photos, and occasional teaching. He has completed photographic assignments for the Frick Environmental Center, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Pittsburgh Department of Public Planning, and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. He has also documented the landscape of Chatham University through photography and taught a photography course there. He also often leads nature walks in the Pittsburgh area.
 
Tell me about your work. What do you enjoy most about it? Why did you choose this career?
My interest in the natural world has been lifelong. As a child, my interest was supported by my family who not only tolerated me collecting and bringing into the house various insects, spiders and found natural objects, but also bought science books for me, a microscope and chemistry set, and encouraged my interest in attending a Jr. Naturalist program at Carnegie Museum for several years. My love for collecting and display was further encouraged by the program’s wonderful director. Because of my keen interest in insects, and because I once created a miniature insect diorama in the form of a vitrine that he liked, he recommended that I study directly with the museum’s curator of entomology. The museum became my second home. As a young adult, I spent two semesters at Point Park College as a biology major and did very well in my courses. My love of photography has a family history. As a child, I attempted to chase and photograph animals with an antiquated Kodak box camera. It wasn’t until 1995 that I decided—during a trip to Montana—to purchase a decent, modern SLR. I did that with the certain purpose of sharing the beauty and wonder of nature with others. That is still my goal. I find everything about the natural world fascinating—from stones to stars. My principle photographic subjects are wildflowers, garden flowers, and insects, and animals of all sorts. My forte is the ability to combine the aesthetic/artistic aspects of photography with documentary detail. I’m a member (a very amateur member) of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania. I’m also a member of a recently formed Wilkinsburg Pollinator Garden Group, and a brand-new member of the Sierra Club. I’ve done photographic assignments for the Frick Environmental Center, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Pittsburgh Department of Public Planning, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, and several other groups. I currently produce calendars and greeting cards as fundraisers for the Wilkinsburg Pollinator Garden Group, and I create different cards and calendars for my own profit. I’m currently seeking technical help to construct a website before the end of the year to display my images and discuss the world of nature around us.
 
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career? What are some accomplishments you are particularly proud of?
I assume, with a smile, that you mean challenges as a person of color. First, let me say that there are some challenges that are seemingly ubiquitous—they may occur in a person’s life regardless of color. Among these may be economic challenges that can have an influence on training, education, or the ability to purchase materials and equipment. Depending on the background or physical location, the experience of mentorship and connection with people in one’s field of interest may also be challenging.
 
I’m in an unusual position: I’m a minister’s son, and this fact has profoundly influenced almost every aspect of my life. My father had broad social contacts with people of both races. As a very young child, I went to an all-white Sunday school and church. This was because my parents were from a rural community. I never once thought of that situation as strange. All my neighbors in this particular location were white. My brother and I were welcomed into their homes for ice cream, to watch TV, or to play with their children. I went to a high school in that area for my junior year and part of my senior year and was often the only person of color in my classes. I was never made to feel secondary or less than acceptable—at least overtly or recognizably so— because of race. Only one incident occurred that left me feeling dejected, and whether that incident was an act of subtle racism or just poor teaching, I’ll never really know. In my junior year, I had independently designed a study of a common wasp (a spider-hunting species) and how its actions were influencing life around it. The study involved biostatistics (a branch of science and math unknown to me at the time) and the interweaving of life and the complexity of relationships in the natural world. When I showed the beginning of this project to my science teacher, he looked at it but seemed uninterested. No directions were given. A lot of work went into the papers—including many hand drawings—but without direction, I merely filed them away; in fact, I still have them to this day. Again, subtle racism or poor teaching? Did he say to himself “a budding black entomologist? Ha, I don’t think so!” Or did he just say, “ah, so what?” Who knows?
 
On many occasions when I’ve attended events related to science or the arts, I’ve been one of the few people of color there; many times, I’ve been the only person of color there. I’ve been asked why this was so. Some have conjectured the answer was economics, but by-and-large this isn’t true: many of the events were nominally priced or free. The problem is a lack of exposure to the arts and sciences. Along with a lack of exposure, a sense of importance is missing. This is where good, informed parenting comes in, along with excellent teachers and role models. Also, organizations need to play their part and design outreach programs to make their memberships more inclusive. Many years ago, I attended a lecture and slide show at Carnegie Lecture Hall given by Dudley Edmondson, a nationally known black birder and photographer. He had a colleague with him. He told the audience at the time that this may be the only appearance of two black birders together that you will ever see! So far, it’s been true! I’m not being naïve or unrealistic; I certainly recognize there are problems. Fortunately, I’ve been given hope just this year when I’ve seen black couples out for romantic walks in Frick Park, or black parents taking their children on interesting hikes along the trails and through the woods and fields.
 
A favorite assignment and achievement of mine was documenting the arboretum and landscape of Chatham College (now Chatham University), and afterward (by recommendation of the Professor of Landscape Studies) teaching a course in photography there.
 
Why is it important for people of color to be represented in the sciences and what are some ways that white people can be more inclusive and respectful?
I think it’s quite important to truly understand the history and the profound effect that the past can have on the present. While many nationalities came here to seek freedom, Africans were forcibly brought here to lose their freedom. While Indigenous peoples of many cultures have a close association and great respect for the natural world around them (their very lives depend on it), a slave’s viewpoint of that world was probably quite different: the world about them was a place of forced, harsh, unrewarding labor. Perhaps the best that wilderness beyond the fields and farms could offer was a place of desperate escape, and not the sweet Walden-like solitude of contemplation. And while many people readily say that slavery ended over 140 years ago, its effects are still felt generationally. We are still dealing with the sowings of hatred and injustice that have led to economic and political disenfranchisement, social ostracization, etc. We recently heard the story of John Lewis who as a child was denied the privilege of borrowing books from the public library simply because of his color. It almost seems unbelievable, but there was a time when black people in this country were literally and legally considered as three-fifths of a person! These are truths that must be recognized and understood. It may sound grand, but it’s my belief that people of color are truly bearing the cross of freedom for this nation.
 
With all that said, common sense dictates that we must find common ground. We must accept and embrace each other. We are all dwellers on planet Earth, and as such we have the obligation to become just stewards [wise caretakers] of our home, and this care should extend into our social world as well. A phrase recently has been popularized: There is no planet B.
 
As far as increasing representation of people of color in the sciences, I think education is certainly a key. Coupled with education is the creation of opportunity—especially for children— to become acquainted with the wonders, the beauty, and the value of the natural world. The Junior Naturalist program at Carnegie Museum was key to not only sustaining my interest in the natural world but increasing it. People who are in positions of leadership (scientific professionals, educators, etc.) need to be encouraged to engage in outreach efforts and to share the joy and importance of scientific inquiry.
 
What do you enjoy most about connecting with nature?
Without a doubt, connecting with nature is one of the principal joys of my life; in fact, contact with the natural world is indispensable to my well-being. In looking back, I find it interesting that my earliest childhood memory was of my grandmother’s garden. With the whole natural world as my companion, I’m never at a loss for entertainment, and I’m never bored. To me, it’s an honor and privilege to photograph and explore outdoors. The world still presents itself to me as a delightful garden, and I still feel as a child in it.