What Learning about the Earth Can Do for a Girl

Girls in the ECO Girls program visit a local farmers market.

Girls in the ECO Girls program visit a local farmers market.

March 18, 2015

AAUW Book Discussion

cherokee-rose
Author Tiya Miles discusses her historical fiction book and answers questions from AAUW members.

2012–13 AAUW Community Action Grantee Tiya Miles sees herself as an unlikely founder of a group like ECO Girls. True, she sports a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work as a public historian and has expertise in African American studies, history, Native American studies, and women’s studies, but her turn toward the environmentally conscious came later in her career.

“[There were] a number of lines running towards the ECO Girls project. Intellectual and personal,” Miles explains. Line one? Her daughters, who were in first grade and just beginning to get a sense of themselves when she had the idea. Miles noticed that the “pinkified popular culture of girlhood” was influencing one daughter, while the other was feeling anxious that her love of geckos wasn’t girly enough. Miles was worried, “seeing my own daughters growing up thinking they had to be a certain kind of girl.”

2012–13 AAUW Community Action Grantee Tiya Miles

2012–13 AAUW Community Action Grantee Tiya Miles

Around the same time, Miles attended a conference at the University of Michigan’s African American studies department. Citing Harriet Tubman and W.E.B Dubois’ environmental leanings, one speaker asked the group, “Are we in black studies going to do anything about the environment? Or are we just going to write about it afterwards?”

Miles was listening, and she followed conference participants to Detroit afterwards for an environmental tour. She saw people living by “toxic waste sites” and “junkyards right across the street from a playground.” When Hurricane Katrina battered Louisiana a couple years later, Miles saw people who were already vulnerable because of race, gender, class, and geographic location become “ruined.”

She felt compelled to act.

“I had an energized night where I couldn’t sleep and I started typing up the notes for ECO Girls,” she remembers. “Coming out of that tour, [I knew I had to] try to make an intervention around girls in our community, connecting up their own developing identities to strengthening ties to the natural world.” She also knew that she had to start local, at home in Michigan.

At its core, ECO Girls seeks to foster environmental awareness, leadership, ecological literacy, cultural education, and self-confidence. The organization focuses specifically on reaching girls of color and girls in economically challenged areas who have less access to green spaces. The idea is to educate girls about the environment in order to instill a connection with nature, and through that develop a generation of strong, empowered change makers.

Miles and fellow professors, students, and other volunteers come together at summer camps and on weekend programs where girls are invited to find their place in the campus community. They participate in farmers markets, build their own eco-communities, view environmental and community-oriented films, work in teams, and much more. The environment is redefined as not only air, land, and water but also their homes, their blocks, and their communities.

A lifelong learner, Miles is taking time away from ECO Girls while she’s on sabbatical, making her way into the world of environmental history at Montana State University and pondering what form ECO Girls will take once she’s back in Michigan.

The support from AAUW, says Miles, affirmed that “community work, work outside academia, is not only something that we can accept but that we champion and want to support.”


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