UO’s new institute fighting the common roots of racial and environmental injustice

By John Notarianni (OPB)
March 7, 2021 2 p.m.

The PNW Just Futures Institute aims to re-center the environmentalism debate on the most vulnerable people

2020 was a year when many of our society’s problems became impossible to ignore. The summer of protests for racial justice led to more frank and public discussions about Oregon’s racist history, and September’s wildfires burned 1.6 million acres, illustrating the increasing urgency of climate change.


But an increasing number of academics, environmentalists and activists are asserting that these aren’t two disconnected issues; that they’re intertwined, with common roots in the same societal forces.

The University of Oregon is starting a new institute to look at the intersection of racial and climate justice. Earlier this year, UO received a $4.52 million dollar grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to support a three-year environmental humanities initiative called the “Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice.” It’s a collaboration with the University of Idaho and Whitman College in eastern Washington to fund research, publications, community engagement and to expand access to higher education for historically underrepresented communities.

The new institute’s director Dr. John Arroyo recently talked with OPB about the disproportionate toll the climate crisis has on marginalized groups, what we tend to misunderstand about our own climate here in Oregon and his hopes for the next generation of academic research and societal change.

John Notarianni: Climate change and racial justice: These are two of the most urgent, entrenched challenges that we face today, but they’re often not spoken of in the same breath. What do you see as being so important about the intersection of these two things?

John Arroyo: When we think about climate change, I think we really need to look beyond recent pressing headlines to consider how slavery and colonialism and land tenure were all shaped by the pervasive history of capitalism and all the traditions of extraction. These are all the same traditions that exacerbate climate change issues today. We look at things like hotter neighborhoods and climate hazards, hurricanes, wildfires. We look at community pollution in public health and the economic toll that has.

I think it’s interesting here in the Northwest because we look at this narrative of environmentalism, and much of that is centered on conservation issues: preserving trees and wildlife and open space. And while that’s important, it’s also really important to center all the people that have not traditionally been a part of that environmentalism debate, which mostly are low-income communities of color. They’re the most vulnerable, and they suffer the most.

Notarianni: When we think about climate change issues, the Pacific Northwest is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind. Why is this so important to be addressing here?

Arroyo: One of the challenges we have with the climate change narrative is that we tend to look mostly at urban areas and they’re on the East Coast or even in the Southwest, and we think about heat and extreme winters. What we don’t think about is the role of the Pacific Northwest as the ‘next West.’


One of the projects involved in the Just Futures Institute is Whitman College’s Next West Lab, where they’ll be bringing underrepresented students to look at land and geography issues in eastern Oregon and in eastern Washington. I like the way they framed this as the ‘next West,’ where we’re able to repurpose that spotlight and say, the Pacific Northwest has a lot of things to teach us about climate change, about our history of racial injustice and how it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Notarianni: When we’re talking about racial justice, a lot of times I think we tend to think about it as a monolith; as ‘racial justice issues.’ But that is nowhere near how it actually functions, right? Different people in different situations have really different experiences, and I’m sure, even in the Pacific Northwest, there’s really different ways that people are impacted by a changing climate. Can you give me some examples of how different people are impacted by this in different ways?

Arroyo: During the summer, as we were working on the grant, we thought a lot about the wildfires that we were having here. You know, we tend to hear these problems and they seemed so monolithic, right? But they stem from so many different parts of the country. We don’t really stop to think about how different groups of people actually address this or have traditionally addressed this.

You know, I think a lot about even geographic issues and how the narrative of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest is about rain and sort of this mild climate. But most of Oregon is actually going through drought in eastern Oregon, and they’re having severe water issues, and we don’t seem to think about that.

Another large issue, I think, for the Northwest specifically, is just environmental migration: environmental refugees coming to Oregon. Not everyone is moving to Metro Portland for affordability and other issues, and these newer gateways are opening up. But we’re not as prepared in those areas to help support and deal with them, so we don’t actually know the extent of all the issues they’re going through.

Notarianni: If you could, tell us a little bit about a few of the projects that the Institute’s working on.

Arroyo: One of the projects will be working on deals with economic dignity. And one of the key focuses here will be developing an atlas of essential workers looking at Oregon and the Pacific Northwest and the precarity of essential workers here that come in all forms and backgrounds: everything from the timber industry to healthcare to wine, salmon fisheries.

Along the lines of essential workers, we’ll also be working on an update to our 2008 report on the state of immigrants in Oregon and traveling the state talking about some of the issues that immigrants are facing. One of the projects will be a three-year studio looking at Latinx housing issues and livability in Portland, Seattle and Boise.

Another project will look at the role of health and Afro-indigenous healing through a digital portal and website and environmental humanities project, which is especially important with the growth of new Afro-Caribbean populations here and a large growing Mam population as well, as we also think about the evolution of indigeneity here in the Pacific Northwest.

Notarianni: Working on these issues that have been so central for so long, I wonder what’s giving you hope right now that we’re going to see change on these challenges?

Arroyo: What gives me hope is looking at a new generation of students, whether they’re grad students or undergrads. We have a large growth of Latinx, Black, Indigenous students, rural white students coming to our universities with an interest and the hunger to really figure out how to do applied work. And I think it’s changing the way we think about higher education and degree programs because it’s forcing us to think what types of jobs exist after they leave and they graduate and they matriculate from their degrees.

I think we have a large growth of activism and them seeing the applied role of sociology, the applied role of anthropology, the places that we have as students and teachers to help a whole new generation figure out the role of activism that they want to serve and how these are probably two of the most pressing issues of our time.

Listen to Dr. John Arroyo’s full conversation with OPB’s John Notarianni using the audio player above