Mellon Foundation awards Wake Forest $1 million grant for environmental justice project

Funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will support an initiative led by Corey D.B. Walker


Courtesy of Wake Forest

The initiative will be led by Interim Dean of Divinity Dr. Corey D. B. Walker.

Daniel Parolini and Maddie Stopyra

Wake Forest University received a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation on Jan. 11 that will fund new environmental justice initiatives led by the African American Studies and Environment and Sustainability Studies programs.

The project, led by Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, director of the African American Studies program and the interim dean of the School of Divinity, aims to educate community members on environmental awareness and bridge the gap between science and the humanities.

“Questions of justice in general, and environmental justice in particular, stand at the center of the discipline of African American Studies,” Walker said. “We seek to model a style of intellectual collaboration and teaching animated by the rich traditions of the humanities in educating a new generation of students who are scientifically literate and ethically informed with a broad vision for human flourishing.”

Designed to cultivate engagement on campus and in the community, the grant will fund several forms of outreach such as research seminars and public forums for advocates, journalists, scholars and public officials. The money will also help eight faculty members per academic year form a Faculty Fellows community in which they can share their research that involves African American and Environmental Studies. Additionally, the Community Environmental Justice Fellows program will allow community partner organizations to learn from and contribute to teaching and research, according to a Jan. 11 press release. 

Officially titled “Environmental and Epistemic Justice: A Transformative Humanistic Model for Science and Technology Studies,” the project originated as a collaboration between the African American Studies program and the Environment and Sustainability Studies programs.

“You can’t think about environmental justice and human justice separately,” said Julie Velásquez Runk, who worked on the grant proposal before joining Wake Forest as the director of the undergraduate Environmental Science program. “We each have [our own] programming activities — African American Studies has theirs, and we have ours — but Mellon brings them together in a new initiative.”

Runk said that under the new program, “there’s a lot of intentionality about not being simply an academic project, but one that is centered around the Winston-Salem community.”

Through its community-oriented vision, the project embodies the core commitments laid out in the university’s new strategic framework, according to Velásquez Runk. But its collaborative goals are nothing new to Wake Forest’s curriculum, according to Walker.

“This project is a continuation of the long and extensive history of cross-disciplinary collaboration and engagement with scholars across the arts, humanities and sciences,” Walker said. “Indeed, this initiative will not only draw on the rich traditions of these intellectual projects but also on the panoply of knowledge from across the university and the community in responding to the challenges facing our world.”

The university faced one such challenge in January 2022 when the Weaver Fertilizer Plant fire brought a new sense of urgency to climate justice in the Winston-Salem community. 

“The Weaver fire brought into sharp relief the deeply divergent lives and life chances different citizens and communities face in Winston-Salem,” Walker said. “It is yet another instance of ‘disaster by design’ — the infinite and (un)conscious ways in which racial regimes are naturalized and inscribed in the environment and in the very organization of life and society.”

This grant for environmental justice is not the first Mellon grant Wake Forest has received. In 2015, a three-year grant of $650,000 went toward the creation of a digital design studio in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library that allowed the university to expand its humanities research. In 2018, a four-year grant of $850,000 funded “The Humanities Engaged,” which developed a curriculum through community programming and new efforts in co-teaching.

“[These projects] leveraged the strength of the humanities at Wake Forest University in new and dynamic ways in addressing some of the pressing challenges facing our society and world,” Walker said. “This initiative builds on [those efforts].”