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New Charlotte exhibit highlights climate equality in a changing world

Keri Petersen (left), senior director of history and exhibits at the Museum of the New South, and Tina Shull, director of Public History at UNC Charlotte, at the exhibit "Climates of Inequality."
David Boraks
Keri Petersen (left), senior director of history and exhibits at the Museum of the New South, and Tina Shull, director of Public History at UNC Charlotte, at the exhibit "Climates of Inequality."

This story appeared first in David Boraks' weekly newsletter about our climate and the impacts of its changes. Get the news to your inbox first by signing up for all our newsletters here.

An exhibit at Charlotte's Museum of the New South this summer examines the global phenomenon of climate change as a local issue, through the eyes of educators and their students.

The exhibition "Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice" was organized by the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey and includes local stories of climate effects and injustice from 23 cities. It's been traveling the country, adding local stories all along the way, including from Durham, Greensboro, Princeville and now Charlotte.

A companion exhibit organized locally zeroes in on Charlotte. "Climate Refugees in the City of Creeks" looks at environmental change, displacement and climate-related migration. Both exhibits, with Spanish and English text, are in the museum's space on the ground floor at Three Wells Fargo Center, 401 South Tryon St., in uptown Charlotte.

"Climates of Inequality" runs through Sept. 8 at the Museum of the New South. Find out more and see the online exhibit here.

"The big theme of it is that environmental history and environmental justice affects everyone, and that everyone has a local issue around environmental justice, right in their own communities," said Keri Petersen, the Levine Museum of the New South's senior director of history and exhibitions.

But, said Petersen, climate change and environmental issues disproportionately affect people of color and lower incomes.

In cities around the country, organizers of "Climates of Inequality" found local partners to help tell stories about the effects of climate change, including climate migration. Here in Charlotte, in addition to the Levine Museum of the New South, that included professors and students at UNC Charlotte, local public school students and their teachers who are fellows at the Charlotte Teachers Institute. The institute provides training and guidance to teachers to help them develop new curriculums.

The main exhibit includes a series of displays in the center of the room from places such as New Orleans, San Francisco, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Newark, New Jersey. It looks at how people in Princeville have been displaced by flooding, which is becoming a bigger problem with climate change, and how immigrants who fled climate disasters have faced substandard housing and hardship in Greensboro.

The Charlotte-focused exhibit covers the outside walls. Maps, photos, tablet-based videos and text connect the city's history of racism to modern-day climate and environmental injustice.

One federal government map from 1935 shows how Black neighborhoods were redlined, or declared unsuitable for investment. That meant residents there couldn't get mortgages — an inequity that led, in part, to the creation of the city's infamous "crescent and wedge" pattern of income and social inequality. Upscale white neighborhoods grew south of uptown while Black neighborhoods spread in an arc from west Charlotte to east Charlotte that were zoned for business and industrial use and targeted for major highways.

"Areas that are part of the crescent are more vulnerable to displacement, flooding, environmental pollution, air pollution, and that intersection of health outcomes that relate to that history," said Tina Shull, director of public history at UNC Charlotte, who helped organize the exhibit.

One display describing Charlotte's history includes a video of environmental activist Eboné Lockett reciting a poem written for this exhibit that captures that history.

"I hope that you can hear and feel my hampered breath, so you can understand the weight of what I'm fighting for. Green acres, nature and trees, clean, accessible water, lower rates of disease," Lockett, of the group Harvesting Humanity, says in the video. "I am fighting to save our sacred waters. I'm fighting for a lower probability that asthma will claim the lives of sons and daughters and communities that look like me."

Another section captures the experience of climate refugees who have moved to Charlotte. A Charlotte Teachers Institute fellow asked her students to tell their stories about climate migration and synthesized the narratives into a picture book about the experiences of an imaginary immigrant.

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"Many of (the students) are new arrivals from Central America who actually have experienced hurricane events that were a big factor in displacing them from their homes, and led them to come to Charlotte and resettle," Shull said.

Added Petersen: "We often have a tendency to think about climate refugees being people from other countries, other parts of the globe. And this exhibit really shows us it's right here around us every day."

A section on environmental and climate activism in Charlotte mentions UNC Charlotte alumnus Benjamin Chavis, who coined the term "environmental justice" and helped lead protests against chemical pollution in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. And it recounts how UNC Charlotte students marched from campus to Charlotte City Hall on the first Earth Day in April 1970.

The physical exhibit at the Museum of the New South also has a digital online component on the "Climate Inequality" website.

"So what you see in the exhibit space is somewhat teaser content for a lot of that historical part of the story," Shull said.