In honor of Black History Month, Spectator is publishing a series on notable black alumni, scholars, activists, leaders, and more whose stories should be honored. Upon graduating from Barnard, Vernice Miller-Travis, BC ’80, participated in the study that coined the term “environmental racism.” By hand, she drew the heat maps that showed race was the most significant factor of toxic exposure.
The image above displays the three co-founders of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Peggy Shepard— the current executive director of WE ACT— is pictured on the left, the late Chuck Sutton is in the center, and Miller-Travis is on the right.
Vernice Miller-Travis, BC ’80, envisioned herself in Washington, D.C.; Providence, Rhode Island; or any city other than the one where she had lived her entire life. However, the offer of a full scholarship solidified her decision to stay in New York and attend Barnard. Although she could see the neighborhood where she grew up from Columbia’s campus, there was a stark difference between the two communities.
“You literally could line all the black students up on College Walk and count us. That's how few of us there were. So we all knew each other.”
Miller-Travis found her space in a world that seemed foreign through the Black Students’ Organization and the Caribbean Students Association. Despite finding solidarity among the other black students who attended Columbia and Barnard, Miller-Travis remembered the intense prejudice that led to the racial segregation against Harlem and its residents from her fellow students and administration.
“I always loved my community and I always loved being from that community, but my love for it intensified when I went to Columbia because there was so much disregard and fear and separation between the Harlem community and the campus and it pissed me off every day,” Miller-Travis said. “It fired me up about how much I loved the community. I really wanted to rail against that notion that it should be a place to fear.”
Ultimately, Miller-Travis would translate her commitment to her community by dedicating her career to environmental justice, participating in research that coined the term “environment racism.” However, at the start of her undergraduate years, she majored in political science and planned to attend law school in order to become a civil rights lawyer. In the midst of the civil rights movement, Miller-Travis closely followed the work of Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a prominent civil rights leader who organized in North Carolina and received his Master of Divinity from Duke University while incarcerated under false charges. After learning more about his background, she decided she was determined to work for Chavis.
To her surprise, the leader she admired through national media coverage was pursuing his Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary—only a block away from Columbia. In New York, he would be the director of the Commission for Racial Justice at the United Church of Christ. She continuously contacted him, urging him to allow her to participate in his activism. Eventually, he invited her to join a research project on toxic injustice.
Miller-Travis knew she wanted to work in civil rights, but this project was her introduction to environmental justice.
“I thought that I had studied everything there was to study on civil rights and racial justice. I had never heard toxic and injustice in the same sentence,” Miller-Travis said.
Today, this research uses computer-generated heat maps to identify concentrations of environmentally hazardous waste sites. In 1986, Miller-Travis created these by hand. She spent an entire year gathering data to investigate the relationship between the exposure to waste and the demographics of the ZIP codes where hazardous waste sites are located. The study—which was the first of its kind—concluded that race is the most significant indicator of where these sites are located.
Miller-Travis’ research allowed her to define her own role in civil rights issues. She was not interested in Democratic Party politics, and continuously rejected her neighbor’s invitation to attend a West Harlem Independent Democratic Club meeting, a political organization in New York City.
But when she finally agreed to attend, she arrived to hear the members speaking about the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, located between 137th and 145th streets along the Hudson River. The plan treats 170 million gallons of raw sewage and wastewater a day, and the resulting smell of raw sewage and mosquitos often invaded apartment buildings located on Riverside Drive. This prevented residents from opening windows and using air conditioners on the hottest days in the summer, according to the club’s members.
For the first time, Miller-Travis saw that she could use the research she had pioneered to lead actionable change in the community—the same ideas around racialized locations of hazardous waste sites could be applied to those of sewage plans.
“I walked into the meeting and they were talking about the North River Sewage Plant and the light bulbs went off. It was like I was struck by lightning. It never occured to me that some aspect of this issue was unfolding in my front yard. It wasn’t a hazardous waste site, but the concept was still the same.” Miller-Travis joined the organization that night.
This example of organizing prompted her to employ the help of her friend and former fellow CSA member, Dr. Jean Ford, CC ’78, P&S ’84, who had conducted research on the high asthma rates in West Harlem. Together, they mobilized youth in West Harlem by training them to do traffic counts alongside roads in Harlem. They concluded that the bus depot, the marine transfer station, and idling garbage trucks contributed to West Harlem’s high asthma rates. The emissions from the vehicles on the road exacerbate respiratory disease, lung cancer, and asthma.
In 1988, Miller-Travis co-founded West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT for Environmental Justice), in response to the unhealthy and dangerous conditions the plant created alongside Peggy Shepard and Chuck Sutton. WE ACT sued the city to correct the plant’s flaws. The organization continues to mobilize people of color and low-income residents in the fight for healthier communities and environmental justice.
Although Miller-Travis never considered a career in public health in college, she had a tremendous impact on the field through her work, which connects academia and activism.
“We went to so many funerals. There were so many people dying in our communities. ... That’s not the case anymore,” Miller-Travis said.
For Miller-Travis, many of the connections she made with black students at Columbia and Barnard were formed due to the campus’ isolating treatment of them. These relationships would ultimately advance and expand her advocacy work, which ultimately led to the life-saving research on traffic counts that she used to combat the high asthma rates in West Harlem.
“[The Black students at Columbia] are still a community, even though it's been 40 years, we are bound by those relationships. It was a hateful place for black people. Columbia was inhospitable everyday, all day. We had to form a community so that we could survive. And we did, by lifting each other up.”
Today, she is still involved in environmental consulting while WE ACT is growing strong, building partnerships across the city under the leadership of Shepard, who is now the executive director. Citing a decrease in annual asthma-related deaths in West Harlem, Miller-Travis said she remains optimistic about the future of environmental justice and activism because she has witnessed the power that grassroots movements can have.
“I haven’t met a challenge yet that I don’t think people standing together empowered by information and strategy and mobilization can’t defeat,” she added.