The Bell Museum’s mission includes the charge “to create a better future for our evolving world.” We see that future as one that is not only more sustainable for the Earth, natural habitat, and the plants and animals in the environment, but also more inclusive and equitable for the people who live in it. Through the exhibition Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice, a project of Humanities Action Lab, the Bell approaches natural history through the lens of social and environmental justice. By using this lens, we foreground the ways that the effects of environmental degradation impact us differently. Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and people living in poverty suffer disproportionately from environmental harms such as pollution, natural disasters, and climate change.
What is Climates of Inequality?
Centered on ideas of collaboration, community, and relationship building from the beginning, this exhibit was developed by the Humanities Action Lab, a coalition of students, educators, and community leaders that produce public humanities projects on matters of urgent social concern. In the Spring of 2019, partners in classrooms across the Americas, including the University of Minnesota, worked simultaneously to create exhibition content, particularly in the form of interactive, digital story maps composed of text and images. These stories illuminate local experiences of environmental injustice—from Minnesota and around the world—with the aim of engaging the public, provoking questions, and sparking change.
University of Minnesota professors Kevin Murphy and Jean O’Brien, who taught the initial class that contributed to the exhibition, asked the Bell to host the exhibition. The answer was a quick yes and it was decided that the Bell wanted to go deeper into Minnesota’s stories of environmental justice—lending an opportunity to draw upon the work of students and faculty even further. The Bell worked with classes in History, American Indian Studies, American Studies, and Heritage Studies and Public History over the following semesters to explore possibilities for additional exhibit components, activities, and programs—bringing our expertise in public engagement and science learning together with humanities-based tools such as storytelling.
Patricia O’Leary, a student in one of these classes, worked with the Bell to develop programs supporting the exhibition in a virtual internship during Fall 2020 as part of a capstone project for a Master’s degree in Heritage Studies and Public History to be awarded in May. In addition to contributing to Bell program development, O’Leary created on-demand virtual programming that allowed her to develop her existing connections with local organizations and language skills earned growing up in a bilingual household. Her interests and expertise expanded our capacity to reach our neighbors in this important time and included efforts such as Spanish-speaking content in support of this bilingual exhibition.
Why are we hosting Climates of Inequality?
This exhibit comes at a time of heightened awareness of the racial injustices that members of BIPOC communities face on a daily basis. As we experience the historic decision that charged Derek Chauvin with the murder of George Floyd and see the ongoing need for change, we have reconfirmed our institutional commitment to prioritize equality and inclusion. We seek to provide a platform for exploring these issues and to make space for stories and voices that we don’t usually hear.
We see this exhibition as an opportunity to teach, and to learn ourselves, about the experiences of environmental injustice that are a reality for marginalized communities all over the world, including in Minnesota. Many people visit the Bell with an interest in nature and conservation, but they may not have considered how humans are put at risk by the same forces that threaten endangered species and degrade habitat. O’Leary explained that environmental justice could provide a bridge for many people who are already thinking about climate change, prodding them to begin thinking about it within the context of social justice.
“Environmental injustice is tangible—you can clearly measure its effects and can see them on a map,” she explains. “When you see what neighborhoods are impacted by environmental harms, it’s hard not to think about social justice.”
O’Leary hopes that this exhibit is a space where people feel safe learning, while also feeling uncomfortable enough that they want to change.
Natural history does not stop at the bank of the Mississippi River nor in the woods of the North Shore. Natural history is a part of the cities and communities we’ve built—it grows through the cracks in our sidewalks and into our neighborhoods. It includes the sprawling diversity of our Minnesota landscapes, and it includes the stories of environmental degradation that affect our communities. Associate Director of Public Engagement and Science Learning Jenny Stampe explained the relationship between humans and natural history.
The central pillars of our programming were panel discussions that brought together frontline activists, academics, and community leaders to discuss pressing environmental issues and the ways in which they experience them. We invited guest moderators to organize the discussion they wanted to hear and to invite panelists, allowing us to widen our circle and bringing us into conversations with new community partners.
In one panel discussion, several activists shared their experiences, focusing on what environmental justice looks like in their communities. José Luis Villaseñor, a community connector on issues of social, economic, and environmental justice, shared that people who are experiencing environmental degradation don’t necessarily use words like climate change or environmental justice. Instead, they talk about their lived experience, including the health complications and lives lost as a result of environmental injustice. Roxxanne O’Brien, a Northside environmental justice activist, urged audience members to use their privilege—to use the tools they have to speak up and make a difference. Panelists made the point that environmental justice isn’t something happening far away—it’s here and now—we can act with that knowledge and reality.
This exhibition has also presented the opportunity for the Bell to learn about environmental justice in the Twin Cities, and to think about how we can engage broadly with the community. The Bell hosted two sessions for staff members to learn about environmental justice perspectives and the partnerships that are developing as a result of this project. Additionally, the Bell will be participating in the project Minnesota Transform. This project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and distributed through the University of Minnesota, will enable the Bell to continue building on the conversations and relationships that were started during this exhibit.
As a museum, we believe that our commitment to building a better future for our evolving world is not strong enough if it doesn’t include a commitment to the people who suffer the most from these environmental harms. Environmental justice asks for a more comprehensive view of conservation, climate change, and other issues in order to care not just for nature but for all of the humans that are a part of it.
Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice is on view at the Bell until May 16