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Environmental Factor

March 2011

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Green leader featured at Black History Month event

By Eddy Ball
March 2011

Southern High School Dance Company performing a traditional African dance

Members of the Southern High School Dance Company began their review with a traditional African dance. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Gaul, SRA International)

Harold (Hal) Zenick, Ph.D.

EPA leader Harold (Hal) Zenick, Ph.D., said that Brooks brings a timely message that parallels EPA's own green vision. Zenick is the director of the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory in the Office of Research and Development. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Gaul, SRA International)

George Benjamin Brooks, Ph.D.

Brooks' oratorical style clearly has its roots in the church his father ministered. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

from left to right, Champion Frederick Thompson, George Brooks, and Sheila Lee

Brooks, center, joined EPA-RTP Black Employment Program Management (BEPM) Champion Frederick Thompson, left, and BEPM Manager Sheila Lee, right. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Gaul, SRA International)

display of books, photos, and other literature

The library at EPA featured a special display of books, photos, and other literature in recognition of Black History Month. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In its celebration of Black History Month, NIEHS neighbor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), hosted a talk by sustainability specialist George Benjamin Brooks, Ph.D., Feb. 15 in the agency's Research Triangle Park conference center.

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The event opened with the Southern High School Dance Company's lively review of African American dance, from early African to Hip Hop. The audience of nearly 200 included employees from EPA and NIEHS, as well as students from three Durham, N.C. high schools - Southern, Riverside, and Northern.

As Brooks quipped in opening remarks, he was charged with presenting a talk that would reinforce this year's Black History theme - African Americans and the Civil War - as well as inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers while exploring the potential of green technology. "And I'm supposed to do all that in 30 minutes," he told the audience.

Remarkably, Brooks accomplished his task, and he could hardly have enjoyed a more receptive audience, one that gave him an enthusiastic ovation following his presentation.

Tracing sustainability throughout the African American experience

"You can tell that I'm a preacher's kid," Brooks said as he launched his talk with an account of his parents. Brooks father was a Presbyterian minister who started the prototype of the Head Start Program at his Phoenix, Ariz. Southminster Church, and his mother was a virologist and high school science teacher.

Often speaking with the rhythm of a revivalist minister, Brooks developed themes from his "Grandma was Green" videos and motivational talks to underscore how African Americans faced the experience of slavery and Jim Crow era sharecropping by acting on the wisdom and values of their African ancestors. He pointed to six principles of sustainability that his grandmother and other African Americans used for generations to shape their daily lives and their work:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Make the most of what you've got.
  • Do no harm.
  • Always seek to make things better.
  • Make it happen.

A message for the next generation

In the course of a talk that ranged from slave gardens and the contributions of George Washington Carver to sustainable agriculture, to community renaissance in the South Mountain Village section of Phoenix to leading-edge green science, engineering, technology, and design, Brooks never lost sight of the young people sitting in the first few rows of the auditorium. By the end of the presentation, the high schoolers were his primary focus as he challenged them to make a better world.

"See what the needs are and then figure out a way to do it," Brooks urged his young listeners. "Learn how to build institutions."

He closed with a quote from Harriet Tubman, "Every great dream begins with a dreamer," and recited a Kenyan proverb. "Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children," he said.

Although he used the word "sustainability" throughout his talk, Brooks said he was still searching for a better term. He said he wants something that denotes the sense of progression and making things better that is inherent in his grandmother's six principles, while also communicating the important quality of environmental stewardship.

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