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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Teona Williams

Before entering grad school, Teona worked as a communications assistant at a non-profit organization in Washington, DC focused on establishing marine protected areas around the world. It was during that experience that it sunk in for Teona: “I realized how important it is to think about environmental justice and incorporate different local voices before making huge environmental decisions.”

She continues, “SNRE has the oldest environmental justice program in the country. I came here to be a part of that legacy. My interest is in environmental justice, equity and racial diversity, but I never thought I’d be in a program that was tailored to do that specifically. Here I’m rooted in the foundations of environmental justice that provide a framework for my own research.”

U-M is a vastly different experience, particularly when one considers the size of her undergraduate institution, Bowdoin College in Maine, a school of 1700 students total on the gorgeous Atlantic coast. It was there that Teona fell in love with environmental studies through historical perspectives.”

Teona’s thesis focuses on African American university students’ attitude towards outdoor recreation. She explains, “When we think of the mainstream environmental movement, we think of wealthy or middle class white men. I wanted to push back against this discourse and examine how African Americans play a role in this conservation.” She’s in the middle of analyzing data from a survey sent to undergraduate students at U-M, Northwestern and a number of historically black colleges and universities. So far, she says, “I’m hearing lot of interesting stories from the open ended questions on the survey. Many participants seem to be involved in outdoor recreational activities as a way to connect with family and friends and build community.”

Ann Arbor was an adjustment for Teona, falling into neither the small college community or major metropolitan city she grew up in. She says, “Ann Arbor grew on me. I come from a large family and I am close to my siblings. Here, though, I was able to grow a family away from home. It was easy to come to U-M and build it, and not just in SNRE. That’s the cool thing at Michigan – it’s already so interdisciplinary in nature. I have great friends in SNRE, Education, Public Policy, Engineering, and Public Health. It is easy to make connections with people who are studying interesting things. Everyone at U-M is passionate about their work and sees it as a way to leave their mark on this world.”

In high school, Teona had an opportunity to volunteer for a local park in Maryland and considers that experience her first time being surrounded by so much nature. She developed a real love for the outdoor environment and now finds a certain sense of peace and tranquility in nature that is hard to replicate elsewhere. She says, “Now when I’m stressed, I take walks by myself through the Arb and talk through things to myself, reflect on my own emotions. I wanted to sustain the sense of happiness I get in nature through the rest of my life. When it came time to look at schools, I intentionally looked for environmental programs to build knowledge in the field.”

Her next step is a Ph.D. program where she’s considering a future as an environmental historian with a background in research and advocacy. “Ideally, I want to balance my love for environmental history, teaching, and producing research that is beneficial to the communities I’m from.”

She’s engaged on campus in a variety of ways, particularly as the co-chair for SCOR’s political action committee and multi-cultural leadership council. Teona was also part of the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative at Rackham last year. During that experience, she designed a course dealing with the role race plays in environmental crises, using the water crisis in Flint as case study. Partnering with Communities First, a local non-profit organization in Flint, Teona spent 12 weeks interning last summer on a community based research project to determine what Flint resident perceptions were of their city parks through the Environmental Fellows Program at SNRE. She says, “This experience cemented what I already knew: we as academics need to shift away from the model of community outreach to community partnerships. We shouldn’t go into a community with a project, rather we need to go ready to listen and ask what the community needs.”

When she’s not doing research, you can find Teona outside. “I go biking, hiking, or camping, when the weather allows. I love cross country skiing when we have the snow. I do all kinds of outdoor activities, and I love reading too. Right now I’m finishing books written by Octavia Butler.”