Researcher Profile: Dorceta Taylor

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 - 2:49pm

To many, the issues we face today seem unsolvable and overwhelming: inequality, injustice, political unrest and the increasingly relevant battle to protect our environment. Yet, how these issues insect is what has allowed Dorceta Taylor, University of Michigan professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability, to shape a unique approach toward researching and examining the root of these problems. Taylor holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in environmental sociology, and specifically focuses on the environment, food security and urban agriculture, as well as establishing diversity within these fields.

For as long as she can remember, Taylor has been interested in how things grow, how certain aspects of the environment interact and how humans collaborate with their surroundings. This has shaped her interest in environmental history, justice and food security. Though she has always been interested in sciences, she recalls preferring a hands-on research approach to learning about said interests.

“I realized more and more what I wanted to do was work at the nexus of human-environment interactions … be the person thinking about what actions we take, how do we do things, how we make policies,” Taylor said. “The field of environmental sociology focuses on the social aspect of how humans interact with the environment.”

Taylor’s research has concentrated on social factors such as race, gender and class, and their subsequent relation to environmental issues. She noted these components play into how various demographics are affected by the environmental obstacles we face today, exemplifying the recent hurricanes as one of many instances in which the consequences are exponentially higher for poorer, minority communities.

“You do get to see some of the invisible institutional structures or barriers, especially when you look at these things historically,” she said.

Taylor has authored both research reports and books, "Food Availability and the Food Desert Frame in Detroit: An Overview of the City’s Food System" (2015) and “The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection” (2016) and various similar works that explore social issues and their relation to the environment.

In addition to her work as a professor, author and researcher, Taylor is the University director of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, a two-year internship and research program for undergraduate students, including those of other universities, who are otherwise inadequately represented in the environmental and conservation field.

This past year, the second-year students were taken to the U.S. Virgin Islands to learn about different ecosystems in a hands-on learning experience that combined the hard science of survey data and actual interaction with communities there.

So far, 60 students have gone through the program, and Taylor emphasized the myriad opportunities made known to these students following this experience, including recruitments to the University. Additionally, Taylor is the principal investigator of the Environmental Fellows Program, which helps fund the expenses of graduate school and prepares students to be financially secure at their completion of school, with experience in the job market and networking.

“These fellowship programs are a direct result of the research that we have done on diversity, with the 2014 report (most commonly referenced as Green 2.0 report), a group of graduate students helped me collect the data and we put out the national report. It’s been a game changer, with the garnered publicity we have been able to have organizations open up positions to hire students,” Taylor said.

Taylor is also the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program for the School of Environment, where her tasks range from incorporating more inclusive teaching techniques in classrooms to helping recruit a more diverse base of students.

“At an elite university like Michigan, we have to ask ourselves: Are we only a university for the rich? Or are we going to take the mandate of public education seriously? If we do, then it behooves all of us to think about ways of broadening the audience we reach, the students that get an opportunity to come to schools like ours,” she said.

Taylor noted the growing popularity of her undergraduate courses on food justice and insecurity, claiming that close to 500 undergraduates have gone out to participate in and do their own research.

“It's been really quite amazing, both in terms of being able to teach and having students get really excited about this topic,” Taylor said.

An example of such students includes University alum and current Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds, who took the course on food systems and later moved on to create the nonprofit Growing Hope, a program that helps communities cultivate consistent access to healthy food.

Taylor’s food project has additionally funded community gardens in Ypsilanti, Flint, Grand Rapids and Lake Superior State. For the past five years, they have supported community gardens that provide plots for low income residents, and each year has yielded food for at least 20 families.

“There are a lot of very practical ways in which these research papers translate in a way that it positively impacts the lives of students and the lives of the community folks,” Taylor said.