Duke and Dallas HBCU Join Forces for Environmental Justice

A new DukeImmerse program will allow students from Duke and Paul Quinn College, a HBCU in Dallas, to solve environmental issues

Just 10 miles south of Dallas, Tex., one of the richest cities in the country and home to Paul Quinn College, there are rolling green hills and beautiful views of the Dallas skyline. There are also abandoned lots, deteriorating buildings, high unemployment and a large landfill.

Next spring, Duke students will join forces with students from Paul Quinn College (PQC), a historically black college, for a new program focused on urban blight and the root causes of environmental injustice. They’ll partner with members of the community on landfill issues and restoration of an urban stream.

The DukeImmerse program, "Urban Environmental Justice and Social Entrepreneurship" will build on previous work done by PQC students who successfully protested expansion of the landfill in an adjacent neighborhood. Several years ago, they started a "We Are Not Trash" campaign targeting city hall developers.

"We decided to find a way for Duke students and PQC students to learn about environmental justice and study together for a semester and come up with potential solutions for sustainable development," said Deborah Gallagher, an associate professor of the practice of environmental policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment.  

Before developing the DukeImmerse project, Gallagher took a group of graduate students to Dallas a year ago to interview people in the community. The residents weren't "as concerned about the landfill as we expected them to be. Instead, they were concerned about food deserts and sustainable development."

Food deserts -- poor underdeveloped neighborhoods with high unemployment that have little to no access to fresh food -- will be one of the common urban problems that the students will study in four interrelated, theme-based seminars.

Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, and also an alumnus of both the Sanford School of Public Policy and Duke Law School, was open to partnering with Duke on a project and will co-teach a course on social entrepreneurship. (Sorrell will speak at Duke Wednesday, Oct. 1.  See accompanying story.)

"It is impossible to overstate the importance of the DukeImmerse project to Paul Quinn and its students, the community surrounding the college, and people everywhere who believe in power of partnerships and innovative solutions to society's most pressing problems," Sorrell said. "I'm proud that Duke is unafraid to push past conventional thought and engage in the lives of a community that has heard 'we can't' far more than 'we will.'"

Gallagher agrees that the partnership is an opportunity for Duke to make a significant difference.

"HBCUs are a source of leadership in their communities, and Paul Quinn College is a bright light in an economically challenged area -- but they don't have the kind of resources Duke has," Gallagher said. "The goal is to use Duke resources to solve real-world problems, providing a transformative experience for the students at both schools."

Rebecca Vidra, the director of undergraduate studies for environmental sciences and policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, will teach a course on restoration ecology.

"Ecological restoration offers opportunities to restore both nature and community in urban settings," Vidra said. "Particularly in places where green spaces are associated with danger (i.e. crime opportunities), we need to engage community members in visioning open spaces that are safe, beautiful and create opportunities for community members to come together."

Vidra said ecological restoration can increase the ecological and economical value of abandoned lots and brownfields. For example, PQC students decided to turn the school's football field into a farm. "They said, 'we don’t need football, we need food,'" Gallagher explained.

In addition to ecological restoration, the program is comprised of courses on environmental injustice, social entrepreneurship, and how to use research tools to involve the community. Gallagher said it's important for students to learn how to work with community members as partners rather than subjects.

"The stream cleanup will be a team-building enterprise in Dallas. Once students return to Durham, we will loop the Paul Quinn students into the classroom using Internet technology" such as Google Hangouts or Telepresence, Gallagher said.

The PQC students will come to Durham for two weeks to participate in one of the highlights of the program, a visit to Warren City, NC, that Gallagher describes as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement.

For more information on the environmental justice program or to apply, visit the DukeImmerse website.