Vernice Miller-Travis grew up in an era of tremendous social upheaval and optimism about the possibility of creating positive change through political activism. Even as a small child, walking home with her mother along Harlem's Lennox Avenue, Miller-Travis was impressed by the spirit of energy, determination, and hope that seemed to fill the streets of New York's oldest African-American neighborhood during the early 1960s. Though she was inspired by the activism that enlivened her community, as she grew older Miller-Travis could not help noticing the contrast between the growth of this political energy and the decline in economic status, social position, and health in Harlem's black community.
The political awareness that had been sparked in Miller-Travis growing up during the civil rights and black power movements would lead her to a career of working in social justice organizations. As a pioneer in the environmental justice movement, she was among the first to point out the connections between environmental pollution and racism, and to demand an end to the unfair placement of toxic industrial sites near the homes of people of color. In grassroots community groups and in large national and international agencies, Miller-Travis has advocated for the right of all people to a healthy environment, not only in her hometown of Harlem, but across the United States and around the world.
Grew Up in Harlem
Vernice Miller was born on February 18, 1959, in New York's Harlem Hospital, where both of her parents worked. Her father, Harold G. Miller, was a clerk who later became an office supervisor, and her mother, Helen L. Lyles, was a nurse. As a small child, young Vernice often spent her after-school hours at the hospital with her parents, then walked home with them along Lennox Avenue, one of Harlem's main streets. There she could experience the cultural life of her neighborhood, which, during the early 1960s, often included civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, speaking to excited audiences on street corners.
When Miller-Travis was six years old, her parents divorced, and she and her father continued to live in the Delano Village development on Lenox Avenue. Harold G. Miller was a Bahamian immigrant, and Vernice spent every summer as a child in the Bahamas enjoying the tropical beauty of the islands and the boisterous affection of her aunt, uncle, and fourteen cousins. Back home in New York, she loved jumping double-dutch rope with her neighborhood friends, reading books, and listening to music.
In the early 1970's Vernice went to live with her mother, and they eventually moved to the Highbridge neighborhood in the west Bronx. She became a featured soloist in the choir at Arturo Toscanini Junior High School 145, a South Bronx public school with a special emphasis on music. However, Miller-Travis' parents were not happy with the south Bronx school district, which had received very low performance ratings. In addition, schoolyard fights were common, and Miller-Travis, sharp-witted and outspoken, had already found herself a target for bullies. The family began to look for an alternative to a Bronx public high school.
They found it in a program called A Better Chance (ABC), led by African American educators Dr. Eugenia Bains and Alfredo C. Thomas to increase educational opportunities for students of color. The program helped provide outstanding students from low-income families with scholarships to private college preparatory schools. Through ABC, Vernice Miller received a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx.
Experienced Culture Shock
For a girl who had grown up in Harlem and Highbridge, Riverdale was like a different country, a whiter and much wealthier one. Each day, after taking a bus and a train to get to school, she marveled at the long lines of chauffer-driven limousines, dropping off younger students at the Fieldston Lower School. For the first time in her life, Miller-Travis realized that she and her family were poor.
In spite of the culture shock she felt at her new school, Miller-Travis loved her years at Fieldston and the progressive education she received there. When she graduated in 1977, she hoped to go to college in another state, perhaps Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. or Brown in Rhode Island. However, it was Barnard, an Ivy-League New York women's college affiliated with Columbia University, that gave her the most scholarship money, so Miller-Travis' father decided she would attend Barnard.
Barnard College is located in the Morningside Heights area of New York City, a Harlem neighborhood just a few blocks across town from the neighborhood where Miller-Travis had grown up. However, the two neighborhoods were worlds apart in terms of class, race, and culture. Miller-Travis had enjoyed her experience at the Fieldston School, feeling that her teachers were supportive and progressive in spite of differences in race and class. However, she felt that the environment at Barnard was deeply racist. It angered and pained her, for example, when fellow African American students were discouraged from pursuing professional careers, even after successfully completing most of the necessary course work. Especially painful for the Harlem native were the student-orientation sessions that warned white students to go immediately to the police if they accidentally got off the subway in Harlem instead of Morningside Heights, assuming that the largely black neighborhood would be dangerous.
Honed Her Political Activism
Miller-Travis developed as an outspoken, politically active woman. Many of her political activities, such as calling for the college to stop all investments in South Africa to protest that country's racist apartheid policy, angered Barnard administrators. They began withholding part of her scholarship, forcing Miller-Travis to do secretarial work in addition to her course load in order to pay her living expenses. Finally, after three years, Barnard asked her to leave, and Miller-Travis, who had been very unhappy there, willingly withdrew and finished her political science degree at Columbia University's School of General Studies.
At a Glance …
Born Vernice Miller on February 18, 1959, in New York, NY; married Charles Travis, 1998. Education: Columbia University, BA, political science, 1982.
Career: Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, conference coordinator, 1984-86; United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice, Special Project on Toxic Injustice, research assistant, 1986-87; Center for Constitutional Rights, capital campaign director, 1987-92; United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, U.S. Citizens Network, New York Coordinator, 1992; Natural Resource Defense Council, Environmental Justice Initiative, director, 1993-99; Ford Foundation, Community and Resource Development Unit, environmental justice, program officer, 2000-03; Groundwork U.S.A., executive director, 2005-07, consultant, 2007-.
Selected memberships: National Black Environmental Justice Network, founding member; West Harlem Environmental Action, co-founder and member of board of directors; Healthy Schools Network, board of directors; Smart Growth America, Vacant Properties Campaign, Advisory Board, Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, vice chairperson.
Selected awards: Charles H. Revson Fellowship, 1992; Kellogg National Leadership Fellow, 1997.
Addresses: Office—c/o Groundwork U.S.A., Strategic Development and Outreach, 104 Jewett Place, Bowie, MD 20721. Web—www.groundworkusa.net.
After her graduation from Columbia in 1982, Miller-Travis did temporary office work as an administrative assistant for two years before taking a job with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, coordinating their semi-annual national conference. She enjoyed her work for the non-profit organization, but in 1986, she was offered another job that would change her life forever.
Dr. Ben Chavis (now Chavis-Muhammad), a friend of Miller-Travis' who was studying at the nearby Union Theological Seminary, offered her a job with the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. The Commission needed a research assistant for a special project investigating the racial makeup of the communities near hazardous waste sites. From 1986 to 1987, Miller-Travis worked on the Special Project on Toxic Injustice, documenting the chilling fact that race was indeed the most statistically significant indicator in the location of toxic waste sites; that is, that such sites were most often placed in neighborhoods where people of color lived. The results of this study, published in 1987 under the title Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, helped launch the American environmental justice movement.
Miller-Travis found the work she had done on the Toxic Injustice project to be both personally and politically satisfying. As an activist and the daughter of a Harlem Hospital nurse, it did not surprise her to find that there was a connection between racism and the great number of health problems often found in communities of color. She began to look at her own Harlem community with this new awareness.
Campaigned for Change
In October 1986, Miller-Travis had met a group of citizens of west Harlem who were protesting the rank toxic fumes released by a sewage treatment plant located on the Hudson River that bordered their neighborhood. She began volunteering her time to work with them, and in 1988, along with community activists Peggy Shepard and Chuck Sutton, she founded West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), a grassroots organization to work for environmental justice in Northern Manhattan. In 1992, WEACT brought suit against the City of New York for damages caused by the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. They negotiated a $1.1 million settlement, which they used to continue to investigate and document environmental health problems in West Harlem.
Miller-Travis was co-chair of the board of WE ACT for six years and has continued to be a member of the board of directors into the early 2000s. In 1987, she took a job as capital campaign director for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a progressive law firm dedicated to defending civil rights, freedom of speech, and voter rights. Part of Miller-Travis's work took her to the Mississippi delta to build a Southern office of CCR that supported African American voting rights in hopes of changing the white-dominated political structures of that region. By 1992, Miller-Travis' work with the CCR had helped promote increased black voter participation in elections. This, in turn, had greatly increased black representation in the political system, especially in the states of Mississippi and Tennessee.
In 1992, Miller-Travis left the CCR to work on another project that brought together her passion for environmental justice and her organizing ability, the U.S. Citizens Network for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). UNCED, also called the Earth Summit, was a gathering of government officials from the nations of the world to work out ways to solve the many problems caused by increasing pollution and consumption of natural resources. The non-governmental organization, Citizens Network for UNCED, brought together advocates and activists from across the country to communicate their concerns to those who would attend the conference.
As the New York coordinator of the Citizens Network, Miller-Travis planned dozens of meetings, conferences, and other events where representatives of activist groups throughout the world could meet to discuss their work and build global connections. Since she was aware that many delegates to U.N. events never leave the wealthy neighborhood where the headquarters is located, she arranged "toxic tours" of the city, where delegates could visit the communities that were most affected by environmental hazards, poverty, and poor health status. These events and gatherings not only created lasting connections among citizens action groups worldwide, but also continued to develop Miller-Travis' conviction in the importance of the fight for environmental justice.
Studied for Environmental Justice
In 1992 Miller-Travis received a fellowship to continue her studies, and that fall she re-entered Columbia University as a full-time graduate student. She took an interdepartmental course of study that combined the fields that seemed most useful in the fight for environmental justice—urban planning, environmental law, and public health. While attending classes, she gained practical experience in the issues of urban planning by becoming vice-chair of New York's Community Planning Board 9, a volunteer civic organization responsible for reviewing land use, zoning and development issues in the West Harlem and Morningside Heights neighborhoods.
After a year of study at Columbia, Miller-Travis took a job as the first director of environmental justice for the Natural Resource Defense Council, a national environmental, scientific, and legal advocacy organization headquartered in New York City. She remained there from 1993 until 1999, but was frustrated in the job, feeling that, as a largely white organization, the NRDC did not fully understand the needs of communities of color. She had frequently seen that, while the environmental justice movement was mainly composed of people of color, the mainstream environmental move- ment was almost exclusively white, and she began to feel that this separation stood in the way of either group's long-term success.
In 1999, she left NRDC to launch the Partnership for Sustainable Brownfields Redevelopment a cooperative effort focused on revitalizing brownfield sites. A brownfield is a vacant area that has been damaged by industrial waste or pollution, or left abandoned by past industrial or commercial uses. In the partnership, Miller-Travis worked with government officials and neighborhood residents to transform such abandoned land into useful community facilities, such as parks. She also served on a Federal Advisory Committee to the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency where she worked to draft a new law entitled The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Redevelopment Act which was passed by Congress in 2001.
Joined Ford Foundation
In July of 2000 she joined the staff of the Ford Foundation, an independent international funding organization with goals of reducing poverty and promoting democratic values. During her years of working with other non-profit organizations, Miller-Travis had received support from Ford many times. When the foundation decided to start a grant-making portfolio to aid those working for environmental justice, Ford administrators immediately thought of Vernice Miller-Travis, who had worked in the field for more than a decade. At first, Miller-Travis had no intention of applying for the job herself, though she happily recommended several likely candidates. She had married Charles Travis and moved to Maryland in 1998, so taking a job at a New York foundation seemed highly impractical.
However, a vice-president of the Ford Foundation convinced her to apply, and Miller-Travis was soon offered the job heading the new environmental justice funding portfolio. Because the work was so close to her heart, she accepted, and for the next three years she devoted herself to the growth of the U.S. and global environmental justice movements, through education and funding of advocacy groups. She enjoyed the progressive working atmosphere at Ford, and loved traveling to such countries as South Africa, Brazil, Nepal, and India to learn from and support the growing environmental justice movements there. By 2003, she and the Ford Foundation had given over $12 million in grants to those working in the field of environmental justice.
One of Miller-Travis' most innovative granting ideas involved caring for the personal well-being of those who worked in social justice movements. As a longtime community organizer, she knew only too well the exhaustion and despair that activists could experience during the long struggle for social change. As part of her program, Miller-Travis arranged grants to meditation and retreat centers where activists could go to renew their energy in order to continue their work within their own communities.
Continued Lifelong Advocacy
After working at Ford for three years, Miller-Travis decided that her own self-care required her to take a break from full-time work. For the next two years, she worked as a consultant on brownfield redevelopment. In 2005, she returned to work full-time as executive director of Groundwork USA, a network of non-profit organizations dedicated to increasing the ability of communities to resist pollution and to reclaim damaged and toxic areas and improve their immediate physical environments. After working in many different aspects of the environmental justice movement, Miller-Travis had come to feel that one of the most important aspects of social change work was developing support structures that would enable the movement to sustain itself. As part of Groundwork USA, she felt that she could help build a framework of funding, education, and political pressure to aid communities in improving the health of their own environments.
In 2007, Miller-Travis stepped down as executive director, but has continued to work with Groundwork USA as a consultant. As a lifelong activist, she not only frequently writes and lectures on environmental issues, but is also an outspoken advocate of creating and supporting sustainable activism for long-term social change.
New York Times, November 30, 1989, pp. B1, 6; August 16, 1991, p. B3; January 5, 1994, pp. B1, 3, January 16, 1994, p. B1.
Groundwork U.S.A.,http://www.groundworkusa.net/index.html (November 27, 2007).
National Black Environmental Justice Network,http://www.nbejn.org (November 26, 2007).
"Pollution, Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement," The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1846825 (November 27, 2007).
"Statement of Vernice Miller-Travis," U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works,http://epw.senate.gov/107th/mil_5-25.htm (November 26, 2007).
"Vernice Miller-Travis," Brownfields2008,http://www.brownfields2005.org/en/speaker.bio.aspx?id=4621 (November 26, 2007).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Vernice Miller-Travis on September 26, 2007.
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