Professor Spotlight: Carolyn Finney on Leaving Cal

As summer commences, I want to close the school year with a deeper look at Professor Carolyn Finney from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. She is most widely known for teaching the undergraduate class, Introduction to Culture and Natural Resource Management (ESPM 50AC), which I was enrolled in this past spring, and also teaches the graduate class, Race, Identity, and the Environment (ESPM 252). I had the wonderful opportunity to interview her about her life and her thoughts on leaving UC Berkeley this year.


S: About leaving the university… I know it’s your last year here since you didn’t get tenured as a professor, so I wanted to ask about your opinions!

C: Oh yeah. So did you get a chance to see the website at

S: I think so! I took a look at it.

C: That’s the one the students and faculty put together with the letters and the petitions. It actually gives you a lot of information on what happened. So the short version I can say to you is that… personally, it’s both depressing, it’s frustrating, and it’s also maddening because as the only African-American in the department teaching these classes, a lot of people really want me here. A small group of scientists don’t, and have voted against me. What that reveals is both a lack of understanding about the kind of work I do, as well as the importance of doing work in the sciences broadly defined […] If we’re talking about the United States, we understand that it’s gotten more diverse recently. We have to really understand what that means for different communities of people. And the world has always been much more diverse, right? How do we better understand and deal with these issues? How are we going to get better at addressing issues dealing with the environment like climate change and whatever those issues are, if we don’t have a better understanding of the need and knowledge of diverse communities?

Those who do research have to develop new methodologies, get better at engaging with communities fairly. We have to spend our time building relationships with communities in difference. We have to look at our theories and maybe some of our theories in the past didn’t address their needs. And we have to come up with new theories and challenges. There’s a lot of work to be done. There are those who don’t value that work, and there’s some who just don’t know how to understand that work. But they have the power to vote people like myself out.

S: I feel like…a lot of people in science judge by the technical work involved and not necessarily the holistic views involving interactions with people.

C: Sometimes it’s quantitative verses qualitative… For me, both things are equally valuable and necessary. Some things need to be measured quantitatively, that we need to understand. I have a good friend who does soil science and she works in her lab, and her work is completely important. But she also understands that the work that I do, in terms of how to measure and understand people’s experiences, sometimes can’t be quantified […] but the work is equally as rigorous and important. And actually, I think that both of those should be taken together! Some of [the perspectives on science are a] very old-school, conservative way of looking at how we do —

S: Just education in general.

C: Yes, that’s it! So, some of that is what I’m coming up against here.

So, it’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating because it also means that a lot of students who came here […] won’t have me to work with. […] When I was an undergraduate, I had one Asian-American woman as my advisor, and teaching a class. In all of my schooling I had… one [woman of color] in my undergraduate classes, one in my graduate classes, and one in my Ph.D level courses. The importance of also having diverse faculty, faculty of color, standing in front of a classroom changes things too, you know. You can see what it actually means.

S: One more question! In ESPM 50AC, you discussed the meaning of sustainability. Could you describe your definition of the word?

C: That’s good! Look at you, throwing it back on me! When people ask me about sustainability, the first question I ask is, “What are we trying to sustain?” Sustainability for me, partially, is about relationship — that human beings have to the Earth and the land, as well as the relationships we have to each other. And both of those – we can’t have one without the other in terms of living well.

In order to talk about what kind of relationships we want to sustain, we have to be critical about [them]. There’s a lot that’s problematic in the existing ones that we have. If we’re talking about issues of the difference between the rich and the poor, and understanding that there are some problems […], I don’t want to sustain that relationship the way that it is now. It doesn’t support everybody. I’m interested in sustainability in that before we sustain something, we first get real with what we have. […] Are we willing to […] change things? We don’t necessarily throw everything out. But maybe some of that stuff has to look different.

Sustainability for me… it is an ideal that we are not at.

S: I think that when most people hear the word, they associate it with taking care of the environment, but that’s obviously not the case for you.

C: Not for me. Part of it is the relationship to the environment. So what is implied is taking care of the environment and taking care of each other.

S: But it’s not the entire picture.

C: No, for me, that’s something to aspire to – that element of care, what it means to care for the environment, and for each other better. And part of that is that, we have to dig deep and understand: What hasn’t worked? […] What needs to be transformed? What new might emerge? Once we have dug deep enough, then we can work to achieve some larger ideals of sustainability. I don’t know if that makes sense. For me that’s uh…

S: It is an ideal!

 C: It is an ideal. I think it’s a good one! And what it requires us to do is to look at ourselves right now. We have to start from where we are, not some ideal of where we want to be. That’s how we can be real. Because then we can look at ourselves, warts and all, and […] we need to do the hard work. There’s some hard work in there we gotta do. We gotta call ourselves to task.

Professor Carolyn Finney describes her life experience as being shaped by a variety of factors. As an adopted child, she’s always understood the importance of belonging to a group, whether it’s a family, or a formal institution. Her upbringing, as an African-American in a wealthy predominantly white neighborhood, has taught her about race, class, and their intersections with privilege. Her acting career, which she pursued for 11 years before going back into academia, affects her understanding of differences and similarities between characters, as well as their emotions and motivations. Lastly, her travels and work all over the world, from Nepal to various parts of Africa, also affect how she perceives difference in communities.

Today, Finney is involved in a variety of activities outside of academia. Much of her work is “set up around public engagement.” She serves on the National Parks Advisory Board, a government agency, to look at issues of diversity and analyze how the national park service interacts with local communities. She is also involved in a group from Vermont called the Center for Whole Communities, a predominantly white organization, to dialogue about issues of race and conservation. This year alone was a busy one due to the release of her book, Black Faces, White Spaces, published June 14th 2014. Because of this, she was invited to speak at academic institutions all across the US, as well as environmental organizations that look at representation of different races within environmentalism. She has also appeared on the Tavis Smiley Show and NPR.

Finney reminds us of the importance of diversity and the interactions between people within larger scientific movements, and I’m positive she will continue working hard even as she departs from UC Berkeley. I wish her the best in the rest of her pursuits, both within and outside of academia.

If you’re interested in reading Professor Finney’s aforementioned website, please check out 

Sharon Chen

Molecular Environmental Biology // Global Poverty and Practice Go Bears! Class of 2017.

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1 Response

  1. March 5, 2018

    […] doctorate in geography. She went on to teach about how people interact with the environment at the University of California, Berkeley before becoming an assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky. Now, she serves […]

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