Dr. Tony Reames said his passion for the environment and how it impacts marginalized people was formed in his youth.
“I always say I grew up in an environmental justice community,” he said. “I grew up in Bishopville, South Carolina. That’s in Lee County.”
As in Robert E. Lee.
“It’s home to the Cotton Museum, the Cotton festival, and a Plantation called Tanglewood, which was owned by Ed Cotton Smith,” he said, “So, that kind of paints the picture of this place.”
Lee County was home to many textiles plants, but as that business waned, county residents had few options for ways to make money. So the county opted to open the state’s largest private prison and the state’s largest landfill.
Reames’ mostly African American community was directly impacted. His mother was the lab manager for the city’s wastewater treatment plant, and his father was a truck driver, Reames notes that he has a “real regular, real Southern family.”
While studying engineering, he discovered how, historically, highways often came through Black communities. It was in undergrad that he vowed to be a part of the solution and not the problem.
Speaking with Reames as the coronavirus pandemic and as protests rage around the country over police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was enlightening. He noted that COVID-19 and the fight for racial justice have highlighted the systemic disparities that test the legacy of resilience among African Americans.
“We’re resilient, we’ve been through slavery, we’ve been through Jim Crow, and Civil Rights,” Reames said, “But all of those struggles, they do peel away at your level of resilience.”
A multidisciplinary scholar with degrees in engineering and social science, Dr. Reames works to connect the areas of technological advancement, policy, and social equity to the environment. As an associate professor at University of Michigan, Reames teaches his students about sustainable systems, climate and energy. His work outside of the university, with varying organizations in Detroit, allows him to put his passions into direct action.
Reames focuses much of his scholarship and research on the field of energy justice. He explores disparities in residential energy generation, consumption and affordability. And as the country explores long-denied justice for people of color, Reames sees the potential for new opportunities.
Reames attended a historically Black college, and after participating in ROTC, later joined the Army. “I think even in Iraq, I was studying environmental justice,” he said, “We would blow stuff up, and then we would rebuild it.”
Prior to his deployment, Reames worked for the state Environmental Health Department in South Carolina, doing underground storage tank cleanups, mostly at abandoned gas stations.”
“And most of those were in Black communities and low-income communities where the gas station left or somebody owned it,” he told me. “All these tanks are leaking old gasoline and stuff into people’s drinking water. And so, it was again, like this environmental justice kept coming up, and trying to figure out who’s gonna clean this up, and who’s responsible for it. All the while people are being impacted by it, at no fault of their own.”
Witnessing these disparities in a multitude of communities has shaped Reames work, and yet, during this crucial time in American history, it is not his primary focus. Instead of continuing to add to documentation of disparities — something that has been central to Reames work — he’s shifting his focus.
“[I’m] thinking about, how do I use this opportunity to prepare for whatever it looks like on the other side of this?”
Reames said that he has been thinking a lot about the opportunity for policy changes, and how we can learn from the additional burden that has been placed on African American communities through history.
“To say, okay, there’s a windfall of cash that comes out of a stimulus or a green new deal. How do we ensure that the people who have borne the brunt of these multiple crises are able to benefit from it?”
For example, as America pivots, maybe permanently, to a work-from-home lifestyle, how do lower-income communities adapt? “If everybody has to stay at home, how do you make home healthy? How do you make a home affordable?”
He has asked these questions personally and as an advisor to a number of Detroit community organizations.
Gloria Lowe is the founder of We Want Green Too, a nonprofit initiative that works with veterans trying to transition back into their community. Her organization came to the conclusion that their goal is best accomplished by helping them work with their hands in the building industry.
“Dr. Reames is a veteran,” she told me. “He understands the struggle, he speaks the language.”
He’s not headstrong or pompous.”
Lowe has worked with Reames on several surveys that they both hope will help Detroiters become eligible for home repairs to make their homes more energy efficient.
She said her deep respect from Reames came from witnessing first-hand his understanding and comfort using the terms “energy justice” and “energy poverty” in any circle.
“It seemed that finally somebody in the world of academia understood how important those concepts were to my community,” she told me.
Reames and Zachary Rowe, CEO of Friends of Parkside, were recently awarded a five-year multimillion-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. One of their goals will be to improve energy efficiency and usage in Parkside, a public housing complex in Detroit.
As a Black researcher at the highest levels of academia studying issues that directly affect Black people, Dr. Reames knows he is an outlier and an important voice. However, those who work with him say that his humility is one of his greatest attributes.
“I can count the number of researchers of color that I’ve worked with over the past 10, 20 years,” said Rowe. “And Tony is sort of rare within that mold of researchers who will listen. He doesn’t come to the table like he’s the smartest person in the room, even though he may be.”
This piece was produced with the partnership and support of the Detroit Equity Action Lab Race and Justice Media Collaboration at Wayne State University to support Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) journalists freelance journalists from marginalized communities.