Engaged Faculty Profile: Ryan E. Emanuel

Name: Ryan E. Emanuel
Title: Professor and University Faculty Scholar
College of Natural Resources
Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources

Visit Dr. Emanuel’s website

Research Interests: My primary research interests are hydrology and environmental justice. As a hydrologist, I study water’s flow through watersheds to understand how much precipitation ends up being used by plants, how much is stored as groundwater, and how much ends up in rivers and streams. I am also interested in water quality, specifically, questions about sources of water pollution and, near the coast, the movement of salt water into environments that depend on fresh water are not well adapted to salt. As an environmental justice researcher, I am interested in documenting the inequitable distribution of polluting or harmful infrastructure in vulnerable communities. I also study the social, cultural, and historical factors related to these inequalities, especially inequalities that involve Native American communities in North Carolina. All of my research interests are bound up with issues surrounding climate change, and I have spent years studying the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and people in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Community partners: I partner with Native American Tribes and communities in eastern North Carolina, including communities and individuals within the Lumbee, Coharie, Haliwa Saponi, and Waccamaw Siouan Tribes. I have worked with non-Tribal community groups in Robeson County and elsewhere as a scientific advisor on issues related to climate change and environmental justice.

How did I get involved: As a Lumbee person, I was raised to value and respect relationships with community. I was also raised to understand that a key purpose of higher education is to give back to community. I come from the first generation of Lumbee people to benefit from a completely desegregated education. I learned that educational and other opportunities I enjoyed were privileges passed on to me by my elders, who were raised during the Jim Crow era, and who fought for equal access to education and more. I never questioned whether I would be involved in community work; I only questioned what it would look like. For many years, my community engagement revolved around promoting higher education and careers in science among Native American youth. Several years ago, however, I was invited to work alongside communities to answer specific questions they had about environmental justice, pollution, and related issues. I was also asked to join the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs’ newly-formed environmental justice committee. My work with that committee exposed me to public policy at the intersection of environmental justice and the rights of Indigenous peoples in North Carolina and elsewhere.

What motivates me: The Native American communities that I work with in North Carolina have spent centuries or millennia building and maintaining life ways, traditions, and cultural practices that often depend on a safe and healthy environment. For centuries, these communities have managed to survive and thrive despite policies that threaten them with violence, discrimination, assimilation, and other forms of oppression. The communities that I work with are proud to have survived and adapted into the 21st century, but they also recognize environmental harms that have come with adopting some of the land management, agricultural, and energy consumption practices introduced over the past century. Just like others across North Carolina and the world, Native American communities in eastern North Carolina grapple with issues of sustainability in food, energy, water, and more. However, these communities also have the added responsibility of knowing that their ancestors stewarded this land for millennia using complex knowledge systems and political structures. How do Indigenous peoples honor the work and sacrifice of our ancestors in the 21st century? There are many answers to this question. The answers differ for each Tribe or community, and there are answers from scientific, political, cultural, and other perspectives. This question motivates much my work, not only because I am a Lumbee person and have a personal stake in the answers, but also because I believe that the answers have broad relevance for our society as we teeter on the brink of catastrophic global change due to the legacy of unsustainable environmental practices.

Favorite NC town: So many North Carolina towns are special to me for different reasons, but Pembroke is one of my favorites. Pembroke is a historically and politically significant town for Lumbee people, because it is the seat of our Tribe’s government and the location of UNC Pembroke, an institution founded by our ancestors. But Pembroke is also special to me because it holds so many personal memories. Watching parades with my family during Lumbee Homecoming, visiting a favorite ice cream shop with my cousins, celebrating birthday parties in the tiny town park, and listening to elders tell about what happened at this or that place – these are just some of the fond memories that are woven into Pembroke and make it such a special place for me.