On April 22, Earth Day turns fifty. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders mean that most of this year’s commemorations will take place virtually. But U-M—with help from the History Department and its Environmental Justice HistoryLab—was able to host some in-person commemorative events in March, some of the last the university held before closing campus because of the coronavirus outbreak.

It wasn’t the first time Ann Arbor was ahead of the game. Back in 1970, U-M held its Earth Day activities a month earlier than the rest of the nation to accommodate its academic calendar—then on the trimester system—giving the community bragging rights as being first. 

That four-day event, called the Teach-In on the Environment, was planned by the student-led Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT). It kicked off with an opening rally at Crisler Arena that attracted 13,000 and featured a mix of speeches from politicians, student activists, and experts—and entertainment from folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and the cast of Hair. Other events included workshops, a film series, panels, and a Diag “eco-rally.” The roster included representatives from Dow Chemical, senators, UAW President Walter Reuther, and Ralph Nader.

The Ann Arbor events were a dress rehearsal for the national April 22 activities, which would take place in 2,000 communities and involve an estimated 20 million people.

Students gather for a Diag rally during Michigan’s 1970 Teach-In on the Environment. (U-M News and Information Services Photographs, Bentley Historical Library)

Half a century later, U-M History joined with the School for the Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and the Ecology Center to help plan the Earth Day at 50 initiative, including a commemorative “Week of Action” scheduled for March 9-14, 2020.

History’s contributions included coordinating a youth activist forum on environmental justice and a panel featuring the activists behind the original Teach-In on the Environment.

The department is also collaborating with the Center for Academic Innovation for an Earth Day at 50 Teach-Out, running April 6-30, which convenes online learners with an interdisciplinary group of scholars to explore the origins of Earth Day and the future of sustainability.

These events took place as intended. Others weren’t so lucky. Earth Day at 50’s signature event, the Rise Up for the Environment Rally, planned by SEAS and the Ecology Center, featured a roster of activists, politicians, and experts like Naomi Klein, Mari Copeny, Abdul El-Sayed, and Philippe Cousteau, Jr. It was cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

Putting History to Work

History’s involvement in Earth Day at 50 is part of a long-term, department-wide commitment to public-facing scholarship. In 2017 Professor Matthew Lassiter and eight students collaborated to develop Give Earth a Chance, an online exhibit that documents the history of environmental activism in Michigan, including the campus activism that led to the 1970 Teach-In on the Environment, the establishment of the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, and even the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. 

“It was an amazing and transformative experience,” said Matthew Lassiter. “The project demonstrated that History undergraduates can produce original scholarship and laid the foundation for our research partnership with the Ecology Center.” 

Give Earth a Chance provided invaluable historical details for the Earth Day at 50 planners and journalists covering the events. It also laid the groundwork for the historic panel featuring Teach-In on the Environment activists, as the student researchers connected with these Earth Day veterans when working on the exhibit. 

In 2019, the department took matters further, launching the Environmental Justice HistoryLab, part of a larger suite of student-faculty collaborative initiatives aimed at demonstrating the real-world impact of historical research. The Center for Academic Innovation was an early partner, providing seed funding as a pilot to encourage innovative use of historical scholarship.

“The goal is to empower today’s community activists and inform policymaking,” said Lassiter.  “Our collaboration with the Ecology Center is a public engagement mission that connects the campus to the community and also provides History students with valuable experiences and career-oriented skills.”    

The lab’s spring-summer paid internship program—now entering its third year—pairs undergraduate History students with the Ecology Center. Students have collected oral histories and developed a digital exhibit documenting the organization’s first fifty years.

Meghan Clark (BA 2019) was part of the Give Earth a Chance team, and she signed on for the internship program after she graduated. “When you graduate you’re left with this question: I have this history degree, and I know how important I think history is, but how am I going to use this in the real world?” she said.

“I was able to use my research skills … as well as my history knowledge … and also challenge myself to develop these more professional skills,” said Clark.

Summer 2019 Environmental Justice HistoryLab interns and Ecology Center staff. Top row, left to right: Mike Garfield, Tracey Easthope, Izzie Kenhard, Meghan Clark, Katie Hummel; bottom row, left to right: Naomi Fergusson, Basil Alsubee.

This year, the Environmental Justice HistoryLab added a new component: documentary film production. In January, instructor Matthew Woodbury (PhD 2018) met for the first time with students in his History 390 minicourse. In just eight weeks, they produced a historical documentary film on the 1970 teach-in at U-M. 

“What energized participants was the knowledge that the film wasn’t just being created for me, rather it had the potential to reach a broad audience,” said Woodbury.

Filmmaking is not common in the history curriculum. But the steps leading up to the final product are foundational components of historical inquiry. After familiarizing themselves with the broader history of the environmental movement, the students narrowed their focus to Ann Arbor. They waded through archival materials—many of which had been digitized for the Give Earth a Chance exhibit—learned the rudiments of film production, and developed a script.

“This work was also, from the outset, a collaborative experience,” said Woodbury. “Students worked in teams of three to produce sections of the overall project, and that aspect of the course was novel for a lot of students. We benefited from having art students, environment students, and political science students all bringing their perspectives to the table.”

The resulting film, The Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT) Teach-In of 1970, incorporates the resources of the Bentley Historical Library to present a rich visual history of the teach-in. In one scene, students destroy a 1959 Ford sedan after putting it on “trial” on the Diag. The teach-in’s opening event is dramatized in a series of still photographs depicting speakers and performers engaging a packed crowd at Crisler Arena. The voice-over narrative ties it all together.

The fifty-year commemoration is a momentous occasion, but the hard work is not yet over. For History major Basil Alsubee, one of the HistoryLab’s interns, being able to learn practical skills that will help in these efforts was key. “It’s easier to see the real-world ramifications right in front of you than picturing them in an abstract way,” he said.

As long as activists continue to work for improved environmental health, the Environmental Justice HistoryLab will be there to record the history.