Bass Connections projects bring together Duke faculty and students to explore real-world issues in interdisciplinary research teams.  These projects aim to provide both graduate and undergraduate students with greater exposure to inquiry across the disciplines, partnership with unlikely fellow thinkers, sustained mentorship in teams and the chance to experience the intersections of the academy and the broader world.

Over the past few years the Duke Human Rights Center has led a number of Bass Connections-sponsored initiatives.  2018-2019 projects include:

ACRE-Duke Partnership Partnership to Improve Sanitation Acess in Lowndes County, Alabama

Since 2014, Duke’s Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) have partnered to address the inadequacy of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is an economic, racial and environmental injustice entrenched in many communities in rural, black America. This year through a Bass Connections project, students worked with ACRE’s director, Catherine Coleman Flowers, to examine the reasons for the lack of proper sanitation in Lowndes County, and research how to improve sanitation access in the county and explore racial, economic and climate justice in rural America.

Sowers and Reapers: Gardening in an Era of Change

This Bass Connections project brought humanities tools to the issue of environmental justice and migration. The project team documented how Durham residents in two garden clubs and one community garden engage with issues around climate change, environmental justice and gentrification through their gardens. This work drew on human rights approaches, oral history, gardening history, documentary photography, digital mapping and exhibit curation.

Here are updates from students involved in Sowers and Reapers and the ACRE-Duke Partnership.

Sowers and Reapers: A Durham-based project

By Jordan Dozier (’19)

Durham’s Year-Round Garden Club members with Sowers and Reapers team member Surafel Adere. Photo by team member Rachel Radvany

From backyard gardens to community gardens with an emphasis on faith and connections, the act of tilling the earth is about more than plants or food. As a member of the research team for Sowers and Reapers, a Bass Connections project, I’ve learned that what’s most important about growing things in Durham is the humans who make meaning out of the soil.

As part of our year-long project we’ve heard from many speakers about how they see cultivating the earth. This is especially important in a time of climate change, when even local plots are changing because of shifting weather patterns. We’ve also partnered with three gardening groups and interviewed members about how their connections to growing things.

I’ve repeatedly heard the word LISTEN. Gardeners listen not only to the seasons, but to their neighbors, families, and communities. For many, gardening is a way to connect to the past and honor ancestors. For others, it’s an investment in the next generations.

As my fellow student, Matthew Sima, says, “Wicked issues such as climate change and environmental justice oftentimes become larger-than-life after their portrayal in the media and it is hard for people to correlate with and understand them. For us, oral histories provide an intimate personal aspect to these problems and allow us to witness individuals actively combating or dealing with these issues in our own communities.” 

Durham’s explosive growth and increase in overall income have heightened concerns about social and environmental injustice. Gentrification and tax increases are marginalizing some while the history of Durham is being built over with new condos and shops. Gardeners who have lived here for decades are among those still nurturing history as well as community connections for the future.

“You’re never done,” Blossom Garden Club member Bebe Guill told us. “Once you get something, you think, ‘Oh that’s perfect!’ And then, Hurricane Michael comes along. So you just start over. That’s gardening.”


Resilience and Community: Learning About Environmental Disasters and Injustices in Louisiana
By Elizabeth Allen, and Laura Landes, Masters of Environmental Management 2019

As part of our community partnership with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), students traveled with ACRE’s director Catherine Coleman Flowers to the Climate Reality Training in Atlanta, Georgia in March. It was there that we first heard Lieutenant General Russel Honoré speak about environmental justice in Louisiana. Only days later he invited Ms. Flowers and our group to visit him to learn about his work in person.

General Honoré has been involved in environmental justice issues in Louisiana for years, coordinating Hurricane Katrina Relief efforts in 2005 and later founding the Green Army to empower environmental activists in Louisiana to fight for their health and their families. The Green Army continues to coordinate efforts to fight the spread of pollution by the many industrial plants sited along the Mississippi River. General Honoré connected us with many other environmental justice activists in the area, which was an incredible opportunity to hear their stories.

This is how we found ourselves driving through the area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that 32 years ago was named “Cancer Alley” because of the disproportionately high rates of cancer deaths resulting from air pollution.

General Honoré told us stories about the smoking industrial plants that seemed to be everywhere we turned. Local activists in the parishes of St. John and St. James shared their experiences watching as industries came to the area and, as a result, the land where they grew up turned from honeysuckle, butterflies, and beauty to air pollution, sickness, and death. We learned about relatives lost to cancer and communities torn apart by a myriad of illnesses. We also learned about communities banding together to make change happen. Grandfathers, mothers and siblings inspired us with their tales of working together to protect their families from the dangers of air pollution.

We also got the chance to tour New Orleans and see how it has changed almost 14 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Ninth Ward and battered the rest of the city. We saw the place where the levee broke, releasing the river to flood and destroy countless houses. We saw the empty lots where these houses used to be and the abandoned buildings that are remnants of a community destroyed. But we also heard from more than a dozen people working on various environmental justice issues to protect the city they love that is still recovering from a disaster more than a dozen years before. We met amazing people trying to rebuild the community with improved infrastructure, both green and gray, to counter the kinds of environmental dangers they face.

Our trip was filled with an amazing collection of stories about communities overcoming all the odds to join together and fight to protect themselves and the land they have lived on for generations, even though many would have left and never come back after Hurricane Katrina. They continue to fight for their rights to clean air, water, and soil, even though they are constantly told that their lived experience is wrong and that their high rates of cancer and other diseases are not caused by the massive amounts of pollution from the industrial plants nearby. We are so grateful that they opened their doors to describe their challenges and successes and hope to support them in any way we can. We also plan to post interviews from the trip on the Environmental Justice timeline we are creating as a part of this project.


Environmental Justice Resources: Timeline on Environmental Justice and Interviews with Leading Activists and Scholars

Screenshot of EJ timelineAs part of the Bass Connections project students built an online, interactive environmental justice timeline that describes the history and the development of environmental justice in the U.S. The project aims to create a detailed history of important events in the environmental justice movement, and includes interviews with critical advocates and expert academics. You can view the timeline here.