Guy O. Williams discusses racism, environmental justice

Monday, September 14, 2020 - 7:27pm

Guy O. Williams speaks about racism and environmental justice for U-M's 25th annual Earthfest Monday evening.

Guy O. Williams speaks about racism and environmental justice for U-M's 25th annual Earthfest Monday evening. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Laura Millar

Guy O. Williams, publisher of the first and only Detroit Climate Action Plan in 2017 and recipient of various environmental justice awards, delivered a talk on racism and environmental justice as part of the University of Michigan’s 25th annual Earthfest via Zoom on Monday. 

Williams is Chair Emeritus of the Great Lakes Leadership Academy Board of Governors and has served as a board member of the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors at Wayne State University and the Detroit Urban Research Center at the University of Michigan. 

Host Rosina Bierbaum, professor and dean emerita of the University’s School for Environment and Sustainability and the Roy F. Weston chair in natural economics at the University of Maryland, kicked off the webinar with some background information on the University’s sustainability initiatives. 

“In June, the city of Ann Arbor unanimously adopted an ambitious roadmap to carbon neutrality by 2030,” Bierbaum said. “And that was led by the city sustainability and innovations manager, a graduate of SEAS and the Taubman College (of Architecture and Urban Planning). And now as you heard, the University has its own Commission on Carbon Neutrality.”

Bierbaum also addressed how the Environmental Defense Fund was accused of racist practices in terms of their policy development, hiring and composition of their boards. She said Williams, instead of leaving the organization, decided to fix the issues involving race. 

“Guy Williams looked into these allegations against EDF, where he was working, and he's decided they were true,” Bierbaum said. “So what should he do? Williams said, ‘Rather than leaving EDF, I decided to stay and become part of the solution. And that was a life-changing decision.’ He channeled his intellect and his street smarts and his passion and his commitment into a 30-year career of fighting for environmental justice for all.”

Williams spoke of his journey and reaching what he called his “cusp of change.” He mentioned his experiences with segregation, environmental racism and alcohol abuse.

“I did not know that my early love for nature would become a cornerstone for my career working for a better, healthier environment,” Williams said. “I did not know that the nurturing Black community that raised me and gave me an inner sense of resilience, that I would later need that once I came out of that protective cocoon. I did not know that I would survive the trials of segregation, and then the trails of desegregation, only later to discover environmental racism and the horrible impacts of a chemical waste of our modern society. I did not know that my journey through alcoholism and drug addiction onward to many years of continuous recovery would equip me with an undone spirit of optimism.” 

Williams spoke about what it means to be “on the cusp” and his hopes for the future of not only the environment but society as a whole. He said the mathematical definition of a cusp is a point at which the direction of a curve is abruptly reversed. 

“I really dig that word abruptly,” Williams said. “And it feels like our country is in that moment right now, where something is going to change abruptly, hopefully for the better.”

Williams read from an essay he had written after his trip to Cancer Alley, an area along the Mississippi River with numerous chemical plants, in 1991. He mentioned how his hosts brought the group to the scene of the shooting of a young Black man, Corey Horton. 

“Our hosts were striving to emphasize the point that the environment means where we live, where we work, where we play and includes the totality of all living conditions that affect our daily life,” Williams said. “In the struggle to restore and protect our environment, the definition must be expanded beyond the idea of endangered species, wildlife habitat preservation and similar issues. Having healthy surroundings has become a life or death issue for humans as well.”

LSA sophomore Lauren Brown said it was important to take environmental justice initiatives seriously and work to create real change.

“If we don’t start saving the planet first, then we won’t have anything to work with,” Brown said. “It’s time that we start taking environmental issues more seriously and work towards creating the change we need.”

Williams ended his talk by encouraging viewers to vote. 

“Can anything be more important this year than voting and active citizenship?” Williams said. “We have no hope at addressing climate change without electing different leadership. That’s just point-blank.”

Daily Staff Reporter Laura Millar can be reached at lamillar@umich.edu.