I want students to understand how marginalized groups can band together and make a difference. That’s how change happens.

Jennifer Thomson

Professor Jennifer Thomson, history, studies the relationship between American political culture and environmental politics in the 20th century. She is particularly interested in how scientific claims about the health of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants pervade contemporary environmental politics.

Thomson's scholarship traces how competing conceptions of health came to structure the landscape of American environmental politics in the post-WWII period. What she discovered is that environmentalists' ideas about health, while deeply influenced by established science, were just as shaped by the radical health activism of African-American, feminist and gay communities, particularly through the connections these communities drew between health, marginalization and political power.

Thomson's new research explores how environmentalism survived the 1970s. Even as civil rights, anti-war and women's rights struggles waned in radicalism and popularity, their tactics and ideas persevered and evolved in the environmental politics of the 1970s and 1980s. The participatory democracy and civil disobedience so characteristic of the 1960s found new outlets in organizations and events like bioregional watershed councils, Friends of the Earth branch offices, Earth First! blockades, Critical Mass conferences, coalitions with organized labor and environmental justice struggles. Thomson seeks to discover what this evolution can teach us about American history in a broader sense.

In her teaching and advising, Thomson hopes students will connect the 20th-century history of the United States and structural inequalities with collective political possibilities today. Her discussion-based classes allow students to articulate their positions and debate issues more effectively. "I want them to draw on our country's history to understand what's happening around them in the world today," she says. "I also want them to understand how marginalized groups can band together and make a difference. That's how change happens."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Radicals and Reformers, a course that examines grassroots movements of the 1960s and 1970s including the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and women's liberationists. "This isn't just an intellectual exercise," Thomson explains. "At the end of the course, I challenge my students to identify a problem on campus and use the material they've studied all semester to design a positive intervention."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015

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