About This Campaign

This campaign was created by Julia Wilcots, Meghana Ranganathan, Rohini Shivamoggi, and Diana Dumit, Ph.D candidates at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT, to raise awareness and support for bill H.R. 8455.

As geoscientists, we have unique ties to natural features and as women of color, we understand and have experienced the difficulties of navigating the geosciences with minoritized identities. One of these difficulties is the legacy of racism, colonialism, and oppression that is embedded in the geosciences and in the geographic features of the United States. No geoscientist should be forced to contend with the violence of racist and offensive names, names that denigrate themselves and their communities, as they do their work.

Our story

In January 2021, while planning for a future geologic field season, we encountered an offensive, anti-Black racial slur used as a place name in a publication describing the geology of southern New Mexico. Caught off-guard by seeing this slur printed in a document that has been passed along and cited by numerous geologists since its publication in the 1960s, we began digging into the issue of racist, offensive terms used as place names in the United States. Aided by MIT Assistant Professor Kristin Bergmann, we worked quickly to redact the initial offending document and reached out to librarians and colleagues to ask them to do the same.

Soon, we realized this problem extends far beyond the one example we encountered in southern New Mexico; over one thousand natural features in the United States have racist names. We learned that many of the current, offical, government-recognized racist place names, before the 1960s, contained racial slurs -- words that are now, thankfully, explicitly banned.

Shocked, not only by the existence of these names, but also by the lack of attention they have received, we immediately sought to understand how to go about removing racist language from place names in the United States. This led us to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), which has a form we could fill out to request a name change. However, the BGN states themselves that they do not prioritize action on changing names. Furthermore, the BGN lists only two words as truly racist and offensive and requests that when you ask for a name change, you propose a new name that is in the same spirit as the original name. Unfortunately, this process seemed to us to be inefficient and potentially problematic (how do you choose a new name that is in the same spirit as an ugly and offensive name?).

H.R. 8455

We were very excited to learn that Rep.s Deb Haaland and Al Green have introduced a bill to expedite the name-change process. Their bill will create a committee within the government dedicated solely to re-evaluating the names of geographic features. In this way, individual citizens will not have to contend with the beaurocracy involved in changing offensive names one at a time, each with the possibility of the BGN rejecting the proposal on the basis of the old name not being offensive enough or on the new name not fully representing the spirit of the original name. Instead, members of Congress and the new committee would take charge, evaluating names themselves and working with communities to ensure that the features are renamed in a respectful, honorable manner.

Advocacy and this campaign

As geoscientists, we are in a great position to advocate for this bill, both because many of us spend our lives studying these natural features and because as we work to diversify the geosciences, racist and offensive names on public lands serve only as a barrier to our efforts. Thus, we created this campaign to give a centralized location for geoscientists to advocate for this bill, H.R. 8455. The first stage of this campaign is an open letter, encouraging others to support the bill, which is open to be signed by any member of the geoscience, Earth, and environmental sciences community (including students, researchers, teachers, advocates, activists, and anyone who considers themselves involved in environmental work and/or Earth science work) and anyone else who is interested in supporting the bill.

Who can sign the letter?

Anyone! While we especially call on the geosciences and environmental sciences community (including teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, faculty, activists, advocates, and anyone involved in environmental and/or Earth science work) to sign, the more support the better. We hope to raise awareness across the country about this bill, so we appreciate support from anyone who wishes to sign.

How can I share information about this campaign?

In the Resources for Further Action page, there are sample emails to send to your representatives and to send to your departments and networks to encourage people to sign and get involved. There is also a sample script to call your representatives. We also have some social media resources - a photo to put on Instagram advertising the campaign and a sample caption, a sample Tweet to share, and a hashtag to use.

What will happen after I sign?

We hope to gather as many signatures as possible in the first stage of this campaign. The four of us then plan to write op-eds in major media sources to improve public awareness for H.R. 8455. In this first stage, we will be reaching out to our own congressional representatives, mentioning this campaign and the signatures we have gathered.

Once we have reached a critical number of signatures, we plan to implement two strategies. Firstly, we will reach out directly to the offices of Rep.s Deb Haaland and Al Green, and to the House Natural Resources Committee (where the bill currently sits) to bring attention to this campaign and determine what more can be done to gather support for and ultimately pass the bill. Secondly, we hope to engage with geoscientists and anyone else who wants to get involved by having members of the geoscience community or anyone passionate about the subject write letters or vignettes of support for the bill, which we will then advertise and put on this website in a blog form.

We believe that with public awareness, a campaign to encourage people to call their elected officials, and reaching out to the media, we can significantly improve public and congressional support for this bill.

How else can I get involved?

If you'd like to get involved beyond signing the open letter, please sign up for updates here. Note that your email will not be shared with anyone beyond the four of us, purely for the purposes of updating you about this campaign. Your email will not go on the signatures for the open letter.

We will send updates to that mailing list with new ways to get involved, including opportunities to write your own op-ed or blog post, ways you can engage your local community or your institution, and opportunities to get involved in a social media campaign.

Please also see our Resources for Further Action page.

Can I share a thought or comment with the organizers?

Please respectfully share thoughts, comments, ideas, or resources here!