New grant will create an institute for racial and climate justice

The University of Oregon has received a $4.52 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a new initiative envisioning a transformative research platform for racial and climate justice. It is the largest humanities award in UO history.

The Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice will be a multidisciplinary collaboration between leaders from the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences and College of Design, alongside other partners across campus and institutions in the region, including the University of Idaho and Whitman College. With capacity made possible by the Mellon funding, the institute will tackle the intertwined issues of racial and climate justice and work toward a more just future for the region.

A second award from the Mellon Foundation will expand educational programs for incarcerated Oregonians.

“We are tremendously grateful to the Mellon Foundation for recognizing the innovative thinking of our faculty,” said UO president Michael H. Schill. “This award will support our researchers’ work to address racial and climate justice through a uniquely humanistic lens. It will empower the UO to be a visionary leader in this arena.”

The initiative grew out of the UO’s Center for Environmental Futures in the College of Arts and Sciences, also currently funded by Mellon, and was inspired by an urgent desire to address the ways that the climate crisis and social injustice are raging throughout the Pacific Northwest. The events of summer 2020, including wildfires that forced 40,000 Oregonians to evacuate their homes and protests of racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, clarified the need to address deep-seated issues stemming from the intersectional problem of racism and climate change.

Those issues have long been concerns of the faculties in the UO’s Environmental Studies Program and the Department of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies.

“Oregon has a dark history of racial discrimination,” said John Arroyo, professor of planning, public policy and management and director of the new institute. “The Mellon award will allow the UO and our educational and community-based partners to co-create deep and meaningful equity work that will envision and realize what a just the future looks like for the Pacific Northwest.”

The UO was among the 38 institutions invited to submit proposals in the Just Futures competition.

Professors Laura Pulido and Mark Carey are core team members for the new institute and are internationally known for their environmental justice scholarship. Professor Alaí Reyes-Santos, program coordinator for the team, works on questions of water justice and of Afro-Indigenous traditional ecological knowledges in the Pacific Northwest.

The grant provides resources to develop and expand research projects, foster interdisciplinary conversations across campus and amplify the regional impact of the work. The Just Futures Institute will build on preexisting strengths at the UO and address questions like how melting glaciers disproportionately affect racial and Indigenous groups, how climate change is damaging traditional food sources for Indigenous communities, how racial and ethnic communities have been displaced by uneven urban development and how essential workers have been affected by the twin crises of climate change and the pandemic.

“There are so many people at the UO whose work centers on the fight for racial and environmental justice,” said Stephanie LeMenager, an English and environmental studies professor and co-organizer of the institute. “This institute will combine the imaginative and scholarly work of the humanities with expertise in policy, design and historic preservation to help communities around the Pacific Northwest.”

With professor Marsha Weisiger, LeMenager is one of the founders and co-directors of the UO’s Center for Environmental Futures, which will house the new institute.

In addition to focusing on communities most affected by the climate crisis and racism, the institute will help improve and increase access to higher education for historically underrepresented communities and first-generation college students through a postdoctoral scholars program, community partnerships throughout the region, and student-centered environmental justice leadership training. The hope is to build a student body and faculty pool that reflects the historic racial and ethnic demographic shift across the Pacific Northwest and focuses on underrepresented communities in the effort to tackle climate and racial justice.

“The vision for every aspect of this institute is one that positions the UO as a leader in a bold cultural change,” LeMenager said.

“This institute will build a bridge between statements and action toward achieving racial and climate justice on the UO campus and across the Pacific Northwest, and offer a model for the rest of the country on addressing the most pressing issues of our time,” Arroyo said. “With Mellon’s support, the UO is poised to become a national leader in these areas.”

The Mellon project builds on recently announced initiatives of UO Provost and Senior Vice President Patrick Phillips on the environment and diversity.

“The Just Futures Institute aligns perfectly overall with the UO’s new initiatives,” Phillips said. “It exemplifies the kind of work that will help us tackle these monumental challenges and play a significant role in improving the lives of people in our community, our state, the region and the world. The Mellon grant shows how our collaborative thinking, our diverse ideas and our creative energy will surely play a part in amplifying voices that have often gone unheard in the fight for environmental and racial justice.”

In addition to the Just Futures Initiative, the Mellon Foundation separately awarded the UO’s Prison Education Program $481,000 to support the expansion of humanities courses and programs for incarcerated Oregonians and UO students. The award will build on the work the Prison Education Program has done since 2007 to serve incarcerated Oregonians and to offer UO students an opportunity to take classes in a range of subjects and to learn with and from their incarcerated classmates.

By Emily Halnon, University Communications


The Just Futures Institute will bring together several UO faculty and staff leaders from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Design and programs across campus including:

John Arroyo, planning, public policy, and management; James Buckley, historic preservation; Bob Bussel, Labor Education and Research Center; Mark Carey, history and environmental studies; Franny Gaede, UO Libraries Digital Scholarship Services; Ana-Maurine Lara, anthropology; Stephanie LeMenager, English and environmental studies; Kathy Lynn, environmental studies; Taylor McHolm, Student Sustainability Center; James Meacham, InfoGraphics Lab; Joanna Merson, InfoGraphics Lab; Steve Mital, Office of Sustainability; Jerolim Mladinov, architecture; Laura Pulido, Indigenous, race and ethnic studies and geography; Gerardo Sandoval, planning, public policy and management; Alaí Reyes-Santos, Indigenous, race and ethnic studies; Sarah Stoeckl, Office of Sustainability; and Marsha Weisiger, history and environmental studies.

UO programs participating in the Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice include: the Center for Environmental Futures, the Climate Change and Indigenous People’s Initiative, the Collaborative for Inclusive Urbanism, the Critical Race Lab, the Environmental Studies Program, the Glacier Lab, the Department of Historic Preservation, the Department of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies, the InfoGraphics Lab, the Labor Education and Research Center, the Office of Sustainability, the School of Architecture and Environment, the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management, the Student Sustainability Center, the Tribal Climate Change Project and the UO Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Services.

The Prison Education Program is run by Shaul Cohen and Katie Dwyer.