The Environment brings Paul Quinn and Duke to a Common Ground

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[Dallas, TX – January 27th,2015]


Paul Quinn College is a small historically black university in Dallas, Texas. Duke University ranks among the country’s most elite schools.

An unusual partnership this semester is bringing together students who are 1,200 miles and seemingly worlds apart. Eight students from Paul Quinn and seven from Duke are studying the environment — and learning how they and their schools share more in common than they thought.

Paul Quinn and Duke have teamed up to offer four classes in environmental justice, which examines environmental laws and actions through the lens of race and income — how lead smelters, waste incinerators and other hazardous operations end up in poor neighborhoods in West Dallas or rural North Carolina.

The Duke students will spend three weeks on the Paul Quinn campus in Dallas. The Paul Quinn students, in turn, will spend two weeks at Duke in Durham, N.C. The rest of the semester, the students will learn together over the Internet.

“This might wind up being the coolest thing that we ever do for lots of different reasons,” said Michael Sorrell, who is Paul Quinn’s president — and a graduate of Duke’s public policy and law schools.


The joint program grew from an environmental issue close to Paul Quinn: the city’s McCommas Bluff landfill 2 miles away. In 2011, the Dallas City Council favored a plan that would have sent all of the city’s garbage there. The idea was to raise more money for city coffers. But the plan sparked outrage from Paul Quinn students and the surrounding Highland Hills neighborhood, which is mostly low-income and minority.

When Paul Quinn students and leaders wanted to research the problem, Sorrell called his North Carolina alma mater for expertise. He wound up talking with Deborah Gallagher, an associate professor of environment.

The City Council had to ditch the landfill expansion plan when a federal court ruled it would be unfair to private waste haulers. Sorrell and Gallagher stayed in touch and vowed to find a way to work together.

And that’s how the joint program evolved. Last week, the students from both schools sat in a classroom at Paul Quinn. One by one, they discussed why they wanted to be in the program.

“I wanted to see the difference in the two schools and how we interacted,” said Destiny Modeste, a Paul Quinn student. She added: “I just want to learn more.”

Duke student McCann Sheridan said, “I’d just like to get out of my comfort zone and help make a change.”

Danielle Purifoy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Duke doctoral student, asked the class about the local landfill. Why would Dallas city officials put it in a community like Highland Hills? Purifoy captured the steady stream of answers on a white board: Residents there are less educated and less likely to protest. They have less political power to fight back. As one Paul Quinn student put it, “It’s easier to get away with it here.”

Advocacy in action

Then the students learned about some of the first lawsuits that challenged waste facilities being put in poor, minority neighborhoods. One landmark case came out of Houston. Another came from Warren County, N.C.

That afternoon, the students and their instructors took a field trip to the McCommas Bluff landfill. Later, when they go to Duke, the students will visit that school’s marine lab to learn about environmental issues along the North Carolina coast. They’ll meet with local community groups that are promoting fair environmental decisions.

Sorrell said the lessons learned this semester will affect more than just the 15 students. The students will research ways to get communities more involved in environmental issues that affect them. And they’ll share their results with those communities.

“It also says to people, stand up and advocate for yourself and watch what happens next,” Sorrell said. “Advocating for the community put us in a position where we are equal partners with Duke on a project that is going to change the lives of our students and the communities we serve.”

AT A GLANCE: The two schools

Paul Quinn College

Location: Dallas

Enrollment: 243 students (87 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 1 percent white, 1 percent other)

Religious affiliation: African Methodist Episcopal

Annual cost (tuition and fees, room and board, other expenses): $26,300

Low-income students (based on percentage receiving federal Pell grants): 79 percent

Graduation rate: 5 percent

Duke University

Location: Durham, N.C.

Enrollment: 15,467 students (10 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic, 49 percent white, 21 percent Asian, 14 percent other)

Religious affiliation: United Methodist

Annual cost: $61,748

Low-income students: 14 percent

Graduation rate: 94 percent

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

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Cherie S. White
Cherie S. White
Cherie S. White is Director of Digital Strategy for the Tom Joyner Foundation, a writer and editor.