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Meet Monica White

New Nelson faculty member will focus on environmental justice

Spring/Summer 2012 | By Jenny Peek

In an attempt to give a voice to people who are often ignored, Monica White has dedicated her research to studying communities of color, focusing primarily on black farmers in the Midwest.

When she joins the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, she will have new opportunities to expand her community-driven research and engagement. White will serve as assistant professor of environmental justice, a new position created and shared by the Nelson Institute and the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Monica White
White will lead environ-
mental justice research,
teaching and outreach.

White seeks to understand what motivates people to improve their social, political, economic and environmental reality through activism. She has been particularly interested in the rise of urban agriculture and the development of sustainable community food systems.

Through recurring conversations with urban farmers in minority communities in Detroit and abroad, White realized that gardening for some is not just about food, but connected elements of justice.

"One of the things that became clear is their desire for a relationship with the environment," says White. "Farmers connect with their land as stewards. I want to expand the discussion about how communities of color see the environment, how they work with it and how they try to improve it for future generations."

In bringing her work to Madison, White hopes to broaden her analysis of food systems across the Midwest, studying the role of black and indigenous farmers and the importance of growing food in varying urban contexts.

"I'm really excited to meet communities that I can engage with," White says. "It's like throwing a pebble into a lake and watching the rings get wider and wider. I see the work we're doing in Detroit connecting to work in Illinois and to the work I'll be doing in Wisconsin."

White is also eager to take part in the conversations occurring at the university around issues of the environment, sustainability, food justice and agriculture.

"This is a dream job for me, to be able to engage in conversations across disciplines. Addressing environmental issues through interdisciplinary research is really exciting," she says.

White is already hard at work brainstorming ideas for Global Environmental Health: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, and Environmental Studies: The Social Perspective. She says she hopes to bring a positive focus to society's increasing environmental justice challenges.

"I want to look at the environmental issues people experience," White explains. "But I also think there are amazing things communities are doing in response to these issues. We have innovations, movements and people that are coming up with novel ways to respond to environmental destruction."

Monica White with students
White (center) says she hopes to bring a positive focus
to society's increasing environmental justice challenges.

White envisions using examples of real-world, on-the-ground initiatives -- ranging from soil remediation to water purification to the use of solar energy and the building of hoop houses -- to stimulate class discussions around innovation and progress.

"Environmental destruction can be overwhelming, but when you give students a way to understand that people are responding, they realize all hope is not lost," she says. "I want to allow students to combine both theoretical and practical understanding to conceptualize sustainable cities."

White will also play an active role in the Nelson Institute Community and Environmental Scholars Program, which offers a diverse cohort of undergraduate students an academic framework for examining the links between environmental studies and community service.

"Sometimes there's an invisible wall standing between a university and the community. I want to help bridge the gap by giving [students] the tools to address issues they're passionate about," she says.

All in all, White couldn't be more excited to bring her work to UW-Madison.

"Sometimes, you just feel like something fits," she says. "To be able to teach amongst the academic conversations, to do research around the people I'm collaborating with in this field, and to play a mentoring role with students - I'm really excited about it."



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