Ecology Center Partnership


In 2018, the U-M HistoryLabs program established a public engagement partnership with the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center to research and document the history of environmental activism in Michigan, especially sustainability and justice campaigns, for scholarly and public audiences.  The Environmental Justice HistoryLab has coordinated this partnership, which builds on the “Give Earth a Chance: Environmental Activism in Michigan” digital exhibit that chronicles the spring 1970 U-M Teach-In on the Environment, the nationwide Earth Day that followed, the founding and early years of the Ecology Center, and other statewide environmental campaigns in the 1960s and early 1970s.  The collaboration has produced a digital exhibit on the history of the Ecology Center through the 1990s (the 2000-2020 period is still under construction), conducted dozens of interviews with local activists, and contributed archival materials and historical context for the Ecology Center’s weekly features in the 50 Years of Fighting for a Healthy Future” project during 2020.

Click on the banner below to visit the Environmental Justice HistoryLab’s digital exhibit: “The Ecology Center: 50 Years of Education and Activism for Environmental Health and Justice.”

Click on the banner below to visit the Ecology Center’s “50 Years of Fighting for a Healthy Future” website, developed in partnership with the Environmental Justice HistoryLab and drawn from the above exhibit on the Ecology Center’s history researched primarily by History undergraduates. Matthew Woodbury, the 2019-2020 project advisor and liaison between the Environmental Justice HistoryLab and the Ecology Center, drafted eight of the stories in this series.

Tracey Easthope, the Ecology Center’s main liaison to the Environmental Justice HistoryLab, discussed the value of this public engagement project during the 2020 commemoration campaign:  “Our collaboration with the History Department and the work of the students has turned out to be really useful for our current work, by providing important context and details for long-running advocacy campaigns. Most recently, when thinking about messaging around the City-wide recycling conversation, it was incredibly helpful to be able to refer to the long and detailed history of productive engagement, and further, to be reminded of the critical role of independently operated recycling operations in driving recycling throughout the country [referring to the Recycling section of the website]. While we expected the history project to be important to inspire staff, to remind us of our identity and purpose, and to bind us together, it was surprising that the work would be so useful in ongoing campaigns. The experience deepened my appreciation for the role of history in sharpening and enriching current debates, and making them more vital.”

The Ecology Center History Research Team

The archival research for this Environmental Justice HistoryLab/Ecology Center history project has focused on the holdings of the Bentley Historical Library, digitization of the internal files of the Ecology Center, and videotaped interviews with current and former Ecology Center leaders. Undergraduate History majors and minors have conducted the bulk of the research while working as Ecology Center History Fellows through summer internships generously funded by the U-M Center for Academic innovation, which also supported the work of 2019-2020 project advisor and contributor Matthew Woodbury, a recent U-M History Ph.D.  Additional research team members have been funded through the Rackham Public Engagement Internships program for graduate students and the Engelhardt Social Justice Fellowship through Community-Engaged Academic Learning at U-M.  Oversight of the project has involved Professor Matt Lassiter of the History Department, Ecology Center director Mike Garfield, and Ecology Center senior strategist Tracey Easthope.            

The summer 2019 Environmental Justice HistoryLab Team, from left: Meghan Clark (Engelhardt Social Justice Fellow), Basil Alsubee (Ecology Center History Fellow), Katie Hummel (Rackham Public Engagement Intern), Naomi Fergusson (Ecology Center History Fellow) meets with Mike Garfield and Tracey Easthope.  Not pictured: Izzie Kenhard (Ecology Center History Fellow).

The summer 2019 team (Meghan, Naomi, Izzie, Basil, Katie) processed and digitized dozens of boxes of organizational files at the Ecology Center’s office.

The summer 2019 team (pictured: Basil, Naomi, Meghan) conducted more than a dozen interviews with current and former Ecology Center staffers and local activists.  View the interview archive here.

Hannah Thomas and Meghan Clark, two of the original Ecology Center History Fellows during spring/summer 2019, return for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the ENACT Teach-In and Ecology Center founding held March 11, 2020.  Hannah and Meghan researched and produced most of the content for the 1970s section of the Ecology Center exhibit and also worked on the pilot “Give Earth a Chance” exhibit.  They co-authored a book chapter, with project director Matt Lassiter, about their experiences for the anthology Teaching Undergraduates with Archives (Michigan Publishing, 2019).

The Value of Public Engagement and Community Partnerships

Below, Meghan Clark discusses the value of her two-year collaboration with the Ecology Center through the Environmental Justice HistoryLab, including the practical relevance of developing job market skills as a History major and also the inspiration of working for a social justice organization.

Naomi Fergusson (below), an undergraduate from California, worked on the project as an Ecology Center History Fellow during summer 2019 and continued her research affiliation with the Environmental Justice HistoryLab through her graduation in May 2020.  In this interview, Naomi reports the excitement of archival discoveries showing the Ecology Center’s long history of working in coalitions with racial justice organizations and involvement of elementary, middle, and high school students in community-based coalitions for environmental justice.

Basil Alsubee (below) is a History major who worked as an Ecology Center History Fellow after his sophomore year and continued his affiliation with the Environmental Justice HistoryLab by shooting a documentary film about current student activism through the Climate Action Movement at the University of Michigan in the context of the 2020 commemoration of the first Earth Day.  In this video, Basil discusses the inspiration of working with an environmental justice organization started fifty years ago by U-M students and the importance of involvement in environmental sustainability and justice activism while “reckoning with global affairs and my place in the world.”

Izzie Kenhard (below), a History major from England, also worked as an Ecology Center History Fellow during summer 2019 before shifting to the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, another initiative of the U-M HistoryLabs program.  In this interview, Izzie talks about the excitement of archival discoveries and emphasizes the changing priorities of environmental activist campaigns during the 1980s versus today.

Ecology Center History Fellows (Summer 2020)

The summer 2020 team consisted of four undergraduate Ecology Center History Fellows–Nissa Thodesen-Kasparian, Lily Antor, Frances MacKethan, and Carmen Parkinson–who worked with Ph.D. student Allie Goodman, a Rackham Public Engagement Fellow, and project advisor Matthew Woodbury. The team researched and contributed content for the 1990s and early 2000s sections of the “The Ecology Center: 50 Years of Education and Activism for Environmental Health and Justice” website and processed videotaped interviews with current and former Ecology Center employees and activists. Visit the About page of the website exhibit to learn more about each of the student team members.

The Ecology Center History Fellows for summer 2020 meet on Zoom, because of the pandemic restrictions, for the inaugural planning meeting with Tracey Easthope and Mike Garfield of the Ecology Center, Rackham Public Engagement Fellow Allie Goodman, and Environmental Justice HistoryLab director Matt Lassiter.

Nissa Thodesen-Kasparian (below) joined the summer 2020 team just after graduating from the University of Michigan in May 2020 with a double major in History and International Studies. Nissa, who previously worked with environmental justice organizations through U-M’s Detroit Community-Engagement Research Program, talks in this video about how the Ecology Center internship solidified her desire to pursue a career in the nonprofit environmental advocacy sector. Nissa also discusses how gratifying it was to help advance the Ecology Center’s goals by applying the research and analytical skills that she developed as a History major in a collaborative enterprise.

Lily Antor (below) is an undergraduate student double majoring in History and Political Science and joined the summer 2020 team after her sophomore year. In this interview, Lily talks about how relevant and rewarding it was to conduct research while working for the Ecology Center at the time of its fiftieth anniversary, and she also discusses how the team adapted to the inability to access physical archives during the covid shutdown by creatively exploring digitized archives such as congressional records.

Carmen Parkinson (below) is an Ann Arbor native majoring in Environment and minoring in the History of Law and Policy. She joined the summer 2020 team after her sophomore year and described the internship as an amazing experience, especially by documenting the activism of the Ecology Center and its allies, developing her research skills, and writing website pages for public audiences.

Frances MacKethan (below) is a History major who joined the summer 2020 team after her junior year and focused primarily on indexing and excerpting the videotaped oral history interviews. Frances talks in this clip about the value of taking the skills that she learned in her classes and applying them to a public website in the “real world in a real job” by documenting the inspiring history and legacies of environmental activism in southeast Michigan as part of a research team.

“Overall my experience at the Ecology Center was great. It was a wonderful internship that gave me the chance to be published, to work on research that would be impactful, to take my history skills and apply them to the real world, and hear the stories of people who made a huge impact. And it’s helped inspire me to think I can do it too”–Frances MacKethan