When Dorceta Taylor took her first biology course at Northeastern Illinois University, it quickly dawned on her that she was the only black undergrad in the room. Growing up in Jamaica, she’d always sat in science classes with black, white, Indian, and Chinese kids. “We did STEM like there’s no tomorrow,” she says. So then why, she wondered, were her science classes in the United States so uniform?
Taylor posed the question to her professor, whose response was surprisingly unscientific. “African Americans aren’t interested,” he said. His generalization was based on a body of research that points to a lack of connections between black urbanites and nature. But as a member of that community, Taylor knew it wasn’t true.
Her hunch was confirmed when she started finding cracks in the research. One touted analysis compared the perspectives of black children in New Haven, Connecticut, with perspectives from white adults in well-to-do suburbs. Class wasn’t factored into the responses. Another survey looked at black women’s opinions of a Philadelphia park to characterize “a legacy of fear toward the city’s natural environment.” The space in question was neglected, crime-torn, and hardly a suitable habitat for families or wildlife.
Flawed studies like these have led to what Taylor calls “eternal stereotypes” in conversations about racial representation (and the lack of it) in the environmental field. So the newly minted American set out to draw more sincere and accurate conclusions. Thirty-five years later, as a professor, author, and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, she’s finding better ways of polling communities and improving the pool of data. It’s this work that earned her Audubon’s 2018 Rachel Carson Award.
Taylor’s most recent research, published in the journal Environmental Justice last month, focuses on the values and viewpoints of minority college students studying STEM. For it she included 157 individuals selected randomly from three U.S. universities (a public one, a private one, and a historically black one from different geographies). The subjects were sent eight photos of landscapes and animal species—some remote, some urban—and were asked to rate their preference for each. Then, they responded to open-ended questions on their notions of nature.