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The (Mis)Education of US on Climate and Health


View the live speech: MLK Health Sciences Lecture 2020 
Watch: Student Perspectives on Health Equity

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to be here and for that very kind introduction. I want to first acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land, the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Wyandot tribes who were here before Ann Arbor was founded. I also want to acknowledge those who have helped honor the legacy and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at this University, particularly the students, the office of diversity and inclusion and all of the profound and powerful lecturers who came before me.

And last but not least, thank you to my University of Michigan colleagues, friends and family that are here today including: the resilient and dynamic woman who birthed me, Terrie Henderson, my ‘second mom’ Paula Comer, my Aunt’s Dwanda, Carole and Deborah, my husband Hughey and my wonderful daughters who I am super proud of, Arielle and Jeannelyn — my JJ celebrated her 11th birthday just yesterday so this is a super special time.

Kresge Environment Senior Program Officer Jalonne L. White-Newsome delivers MKL Day lecture

Before I came to U of M, the bigger connection with climate change and environmental justice had not crystallized – for me personally or for the field nationally.

As a new doctoral student in 2007, eager to figure out what in the world I wouldn’t mind studying for the next three-to-eight years of my life, I was fortunate to receive the help and guidance of Ms. Dana Thomas in the office of practice in the school of public health.  She introduced me to several leaders at the Detroit Health Department.

The Department wanted to better understand how to address the risk of ‘extreme heat and heat waves’ on some of Detroit’s most precious residents – its senior citizens. This conversation became personal quickly. As the primary caregiver for my grandparents, I witnessed changes due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. It was challenging to explain the risks of having a ‘too hot house’ to Nana and Grandaddy, as they didn’t always understand why we should turn on the AC. or keep doors and windows open. And they weren’t alone in exhibiting those behaviors.

Watching them, this research on ‘extreme heat and heat waves’ was no longer just a way to ‘get the PhD’. With my advisor Dr. Marie O’Neill’s guidance, I became vested at the intersection of climate change, extreme heat and equity. And I learned quickly that similarly to most other social problems, most of those suffering were poor people, people of color, and the homeless or houseless.

Armed with a passion for equity and a knowledge of our state and city’s climate history, I embarked on this journey…and I brought my family with me. My grandparents, great aunts and about 20 other volunteers over the age of 65 across Detroit participated as data points for my research. I wanted to better understand heat exposure across the city, including the health risks inside homes. I wanted to find the potential behavioral interventions that could guide the practice of protecting public health across the city. I engaged with seniors, or as I call them, “the wisdom holders,” across the city. I heard stories, including from my grandparents, about growing up in Mississippi, surviving the Jim Crow era and the challenges they still faced north of the Mason Dixon line, even though I was coming to talk about climate change.

After I decided to study heat waves, it dawned on me that I had experienced two myself – the Chicago heat wave of 1995 and the Parisian heat wave of 2003. Both were devastating. And as a proud, Detroit native, I soon learned through my research there had been decades of extreme weather events in Michigan’s history that had touched the health of generations of Michiganders — although NEVER at the frequency of the last decade that we have experienced.  One of the deadliest came in the 1930s and claimed the lives of at least 364 Detroiters due to five days of 100+ degree temperatures. People succumbed to the heat in their homes, unable to get relief from fans. Others collapsed on the street walking to work and school. At that time, air conditioning was not prevalent; there were no cooling centers or public health measures in place to respond. And there was little precedent for helping anyone, because there had not been many other 100-degree days in recent history. So the threats and the reality of climate made their mark.

Back in the 1930s, heat wasn’t the only problem in the United States. There were 24 recorded lynchings. The NAACP defeated the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee, John Parker, who was on record for opposing voting rights for African Americans.  And in 1933, the scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson published The Miseducation of the Negro.

Amazingly, 87 years later, this work is part of the theme for today’s celebration of Dr. King, and the impetus for the theme of the symposium, “The (Mis)Education of US on Climate and Health.”

Kresge Environment Senior Program Officer Jalonne White-Newsome

I believe Dr. Woodson and Dr. King’s writings, although decades old, continue to share relevant truths that can guide the necessary actions we need to take on climate and health in our current societal context. While 2020 doesn’t exactly mirror 1933, I posit there are similar challenges now. Among them, that we are living in a world of severe injustice, with unnecessary killing of and suffering for people of color — not only from police officers, but from health care systems and hospitals that do more hurt than harm. That we have an education system with teachers quick to label our black and brown children as disruptive, sending them to the ‘school to prison pipeline’ without trying to understand the full context of their lives. That thousands of black and brown communities suffer from environmental injustices such as allowed pollution, inadequate infrastructure, a prioritization of industry profit over people’s lives, dirty air, lack of regulation of coal-fired power plants, large sites of hazardous waste, fracking pads, freeways, severe and repeated flooding leading to gentrification.

It’s clear: The impacts of climate change hit our black and brown communities first and worst across this country due partially (or some might say fully) to institutional and structural racism.

In that stark reality, I want to use Dr. Woodson’s and Dr. King’s work as the foundation for our conversation today, lifting three main points in our time together. (1) The purpose of education, (2) The perpetual nature of miseducation, and, (3) The promise of re-education.


Dr. King spoke on many topics, including a piece called “The Purpose of Education.” In February 1947, this work was printed in the Maroon Tiger, Morehouse College’s campus paper, where he addresses the truth about education.

  • He wrote, “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal and the facts from the fiction.”
  • He wrote, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”   
  • And finally, “The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

What I believe Dr. King is telling us today as we talk about mis-education on climate and health is that:

  • We must discern fact from fiction.
  • Education is not just about books but about experience.
  • Having some character and integrity – with traditional education – is critical.

That is the true purpose of education, particularly for those who care about the health and quality of life for our communities.


I was an undergrad at Northwestern University when the Internet was born. Before then, some of you of a certain age might recall, when we wanted information, we turned to the Dewey Decimal system and card catalogues at the library. That, or word of mouth, our favorite news reporter, a peer-reviewed journal or magazine delivered by mail. I trusted those sources of information. But that’s not the case anymore. With the Internet, Twitter, Snapchat, podcasts, and blogs all moving information around the Internet at lightning speed, it can be overwhelming to sift through the tidal wave of information in the search for the truth.

Well, let me help there. The Lancet Report released in November is an international, multidisciplinary collaboration to monitor the evolving health profile of climate change. It’s a GOOD source. This report provides an annual update of more than 41 indicators across five domains related to climate and health. The report shares some harrowing truths supported by solid science:

  • The combustion of fossil fuels suggests the world is following a ‘business as usual pathway.”
  • 8 of the hottest ten years have occurred in the past decade.
  • The health care sector is responsible for 4.6% of global emissions.
  • Air pollution deaths have reached 7 million globally, impacting the heart, lungs and other vital organs.
  • The top conditions putting families and livelihoods at risk include wildfires, heat waves, and flooding.
  • Economic losses for the uninsured are placing a high burden on individuals and households.
  • And the downstream influences of climate change – migration, poverty exacerbation, violent conflict, mental illness – are affecting everyone of all ages, particularly children.

What got our nation and our world into this current state? Indisputably – across many reports from the 4th National Climate Assessment and others, it’s a clear combination of:

  • Human-caused factors: Fossil fuel combustion (coal, oil, gas), land use changes, like deforestation.  Really, anything that puts greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others – into the air.
  • Some Natural drivers like volcanic eruptions.
  • Synthetic manufacturing gases (CFCs, halons, HCFCs).
  • And a factor I like to throw in, Capitalism, the economic system our country runs on driven by profit.

Without a doubt, the impacts of climate change on health and life are evidenced in the storms, droughts, floods, heat, cold, hurricanes, and the stories of destruction, loss and loss of life in the news daily. But how does this global problem become a bigger problem for lower-income communities and communities of color? Well, let’s ask the National Academies, in particular a comprehensive paper published in 2017 that provides an explanation of the drivers of health inequity.

The paper states that:

Health inequities are a result of more than individual choice or random occurrence. They are the result of historic and ongoing interplay of inequitable structures, policies and norms that shape lives. 

Take a minute to reflect on that statement. When you think about the drivers of climate change… who is feeling the impacts the first and worst… and the context of those communities… it becomes really clear why our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico did not receive the response they deserved after the hurricane. It becomes clear why certain more affluent communities were told to evacuate in California from the wildfires and downwind pollution, and communities of color weren’t given the same notice. It becomes clear why folks living on the East side of Detroit are experiencing multiple incidents of flooding from increased precipitation, when right across the street in Grosse Pointe, there are concrete structures to protect the ‘high wealth’ residents and their homes.

This mis-education on climate change – and health – is a result of mis-information, mis-association and just plain old missing the mark.

This mis-education becomes even more dangerous when it is the mindset by which our leaders lead, our decisionmakers decide, and our teachers teach. The mis-education in our society has unfortunately led to us allowing the market (and society) to conduct ‘business and usual’, to convince the masses that there either is no problem OR the problem is too big to solve, or continuing to weaken and in some cases slash our current environmental regulations, permitting processes and diminish the power of governmental agencies that were put in place in the 1970s to protect our air, water, land and health.

Yes, I believe we have been ‘mis-educated’ – as people of color, as people of this nation about climate, and as people concerned about the health of our communities. But the good news is we can ‘re-educate’ ourselves and that gets to King’s final point.


So, in a country that is overcome with hate, injustice, lack of accountability, institutional and structural racism, how do we re-educate ourselves? Dr. King suggested that we need to see ‘through the propaganda.”

The list of propaganda to dismantle could be lengthy. But here is where we could start:

  • Despite the propaganda, health disparities and climate change are NOT the fault of the most impacted communities. They’ve been driven by those with the most financial wealth.
  • Despite the propaganda, solutions created WITHOUT the experience and brilliance of impacted communities, whether they be grassroots, frontline, justice leaders or just a local mom, they will fail.
  • Despite the propaganda, we HAVE to address the ‘systemic and institutional racism’ across all sectors working on climate issues. Cause if we don’t, it means we will be addressing the symptom but not the root cause.

We dismantle this propaganda by sharing the evidence of solutions that work. Here are some examples of ‘re-education’ happening across this country from great leaders and organizations working at every level.

Health Care Without Harm: An international NGO working to reduce the environmental footprint of the healthcare system, particularly reducing GHG from hospitals. They also have created an expansive network of physician leaders that are speaking out in the health care sustainability movement and building partnerships with groups like the Emerald Cities Collaborative in Oakland, CA to help build partnerships between hospitals and the community members they serve to increase resilience.

Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments: The only national nursing organization focused on the intersection of health and the environment, this organization designed this first-of-its-kind fellowship program to train nurses to work with communities in tackling serious environmental health threats, including toxic chemical pollution, water contamination, climate disruption and related health impacts, and more.  In July 2019, the ANHE announced the start of a historic year-long Environmental Health Nursing Fellowship program.  with 30 ANHE fellows from across the United States, conducting projects in their communities to address a community-identified environmental health need and build support for community-driven solutions.

PolicyLink: Has helped stand up the national Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus, which consists of 54 organizations and 90 individuals — mostly grassroots organizations — that have spent the last year ‘re-educating’ our congressional leaders, their state and local leaders, on climate-driven flooding, affordability in addition to building solidarity, their work helped increase appropriations in the area of water.  (

Peggy Shepard: One of the matriarchs of the EJ movement, the Executive Director of West Harlem Environmental Action or WE ACT, has been addressing what she terms “no education” by  delivering its Environmental Health and Justice Leadership Training program to residents, our members, and to 9-12th graders in a local high school where we train 90 students each year in three classes for one week.

Groundwork USA: A national network working in localities across the country, particularly supporting youth, started the Climate Safe Neighborhoods partnership to explore the relationship between historical race-based housing segregation and the current and predicted impacts of climate change.  They literally overlay ‘redlining maps’ with areas experiencing extreme and flooding to help communities understand this connection and fight for policy changes.

Lara Hansen, EcoAdapt: A leader in the field of climate adaptation and the convener of one of the largest adaptation forums nationally has created a database called CAKE of what’s working, but also provides direct technical assistance to governments, institutions to understand their climate vulnerability and address it, and incorporate climate change in their work – across the country.

Green Door Initiative: Ms. Donele Wilkins of Detroit, long time fighter for health and justice says, “Mis-education on climate change, health and equity equates to a death sentence for the most vulnerable underserved populations in our community.  I disagree with the statement that “ignorance is bliss” and embrace the statement that “my people are destroyed for lack of Knowledge.”

Philanthropic Community: The Kresge Foundation has made commitment through our climate change, health and equity initiative to support the work of health systems, local health departments, practitioners and community based organizations to change systems, practices and policies that will better protect our communities from the impacts of climate. And beyond Kresge, there are groups of funders that work directly at this, the Health and Environmental Funders Network that are ‘re-educating’ grantmakers across this country about racism, how that plays out in their grantmaking, and how to be leaders of health and justice in the climate space.

In conclusion,  I encourage us all to reflect on the ideals and life of Dr. King, the words of Dr. Woodson, and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We can activate our own power if we exercise four things: Humility. Healing. Harambee. Hope.

  • We need HUMILITY in our Leaders/decisionmakers in academia, business, finance, philanthropy, health care, government, and other sectors.  We must humble ourselves, acknowledge the past and current structures that have allowed communities of color and the poor to suffer, and begin to ‘re-educate ourselves’… connecting the dots between what we have contributed to the spiraling health disparities  in this country made worse by climate change.
  • We need the time to HEAL… acknowledging this is the first step…and the rebuilding of trust takes time..but it can happen.
  • In this past 3 years, I’ve witnessed harambee – a pulling together across communities. Our climate problems mixed with all of the horrible “isms – racism, sexism, etc.” have brought together new friends, new sectors, and new partnerships. We must continue to connect and work together, intersectionally and make each others fight, our own fight IF our desire is to meet the needs of people’s lives being changed by climate.
  • And finally, we must remain HOPEFUL.

As Dr. Carter G. Woodson said, “If the highly educated Negro would forget most of the untried theories taught him in school, if he could see through the propaganda which has been instilled into his mind under the pretext of education, if he would fall in love with his own people and begin to sacrifice for their uplift – if the “highly educated” Negro would do these things, he could solve some of the problems now confronting the race.

I think this can be the lesson for us all, whatever our race. Let’s not stay ‘mis-educated’ but take the time to re-educate ourselves, respond to structural and institutional racism, reform what’s not working in our multiple systems, and revitalize the health and wealth of this country.

It’s 2020, and the time is now. Thank you, God Bless, and be of service and in service to each other and humanity in whatever work that you do.