Close menu Resources for... William & Mary
W&M menu close William & Mary

Students Integrating History and Biodiversity at W&M’s Highland

President James Monroe's Highland plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia is becoming a hub for both social and environmental justice. Eileen Dinn ‘23, Grace Breitenbeck ‘21, and Melissa Mukuna ’23 have the task of proposing some next steps for the property, keeping community at the front of their minds and taking careful consideration of the plantation’s history, biodiversity, and business needs.

William & Mary has owned Highland - a property of over 500 acres - since 1974, yet it remains mostly outside of the consciousness of W&M students. The historical site is a well-established public museum, and offers recreational and educational uses of its rustic trails. Some of the land is farmed, and a portion is forest. It has made a name recently for big archaeological discoveries and engagement with a descendant community.

“Nothing is going badly at Highland to prompt this project; we are simply hoping to make it more integrated with main campus and to improve upon its preexisting success. It is truly being run well with dedication to preserving the physical and historical importance of Highland. The team at Highland has made tremendous strides in uncovering new information regarding the structures there, as well as a commitment to working with the descendants of the people enslaved on the plantation,” Breitenbeck said. 

The research is only in its early stages. Dinn, Breitenbeck, and Mukuna are brainstorming ways to increase W&M students’ connection to the property and engagement in community-led initiatives related to conservation and social justice. The students plan to consult closely with Highland’s many stakeholders, including the Council of Descendent Advisors whose members had ancestors enslaved on the estate, to ensure their proposal meets the shared goals of community stakeholders. These discussions reveal the trickiest element to this research. Dinn, Breitenbeck, and Mukuna must find the balance between environmental sustainability and sustainable business practices.   

All three student researchers anticipate bureaucratic processes and money will be some of the greatest obstacles during the project. There will be a lot of footwork involved in acquiring all necessary permits and building rights. There are limitations to resources too, as with any research project.

Balancing conservation efforts with the financial needs of maintaining a museum will be difficult, but Dinn, Breitenbeck, and Mukuna are up for the challenge.

“What’s really interesting about this project is that the decisions we make do have real world ramifications, Mukuna said. “There are so many different avenues we can go down in terms of what we prioritize, but it has to be done in a way that there is some sort of revenue.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is how it bridges social and environmental justice, what Dinn, Breitenbeck, and Mukuna call ‘integrative conservation.’

“Conservation is not one size fits all. The underlying goal of integrative conservation is achieving environmental sustainability but doing it in a way that takes all parties into account. You have to work with the communities. It’s about recognizing the rights of the groups that are going to be affected by things. For Highland specifically, it’s about continuing to strive for the reparations and social justice that’s been needed for hundreds of years,” Dinn said.

Erica Garroutte, Program Manager for W&M’s Institute for Integrative Conservation, is advising the student researchers. “The Highland campus provides an opportunity for W&M students to work alongside community stakeholders and partner organizations to advance conservation and social justice in Virginia. Through place-based learning, W&M students will have the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the classroom to help solve real-world challenges in a meaningful way,” said Garroutte.

The three researchers are making community a top priority. In addition to speaking with Highland’s stakeholders, they would like to hear the voices of those living in the vicinity of the estate. Dinn is interested in a potential collaboration with conservation researchers at the University of Virginia, seeing as Highland neighbors UVA’s campus.

At Highland, integrative conservation is very closely connected to historical preservation. Mukuna is intrigued by the lasting impacts of crop-planting practices used by the enslaved farmers at Highland. Given that the world has moved forward with modern farming techniques whose harmfulness for the environment is becoming more apparent, she anticipates the lessons she and her colleagues can learn from these artisanal practices. Mukuna said there is an overall trend of Black American farmers harkening back to practices their ancestors used. She would like to be a part of this national conversation. 

Breitenbeck, like Mukuna, is excited by the broad reach of their research. “Highland, on a national scale, can be a role model for how to maintain and continue a historic plantation in the 21st century, when visitorship for plantation tours is not necessarily at an all-time high,” Breitenbeck said.

The events of this year have even further underscored the need to address social and environmental injustice, taking into account the voices of all communities that are affected. Although the coronavirus pandemic has not yet presented too many challenges for this research project, Dinn believes it has intensified the urgency of the project’s goals. Similarly, Breitenbeck acknowledged the significance of the moment.

“I think it’s important to look at the current political climate when we’re doing this work, with the Black Lives Matter movement for instance. There’s a lot of controversy about using former plantations as wedding venues or places for photo shoots, so I think that whatever our plans are, we need to be very very sensitive to the history of the plantation. Mainly out of respect and also because of the current political climate,” Breitenbeck said. 

Dinn, Breitenbeck, and Mukuna will continue to keep these community- and national-level perspectives in mind as research ramps up this semester and over the summer.

 “We have 535 acres of land to work with and a really cool opportunity for three students to put their ideas into action,” Dinn said. 

All three are thrilled by the myriad possible ‘next steps’ for Highland. Mukuna is eager to learn all she can about environmental justice and its intersection with social justice. She is determined to do thorough research this semester, so she can come up with good ideas for summer. All three students meet twice weekly with three faculty and staff members in a class designed to prepare them for their summer work.

“I would feel some sense of sadness if I came up with an idea in November - like ‘oh maybe we could do this’ - but I was five months late to it. So I would like to exercise every single possibility and then work on the constraints that need to be overcome for it to be feasible,” Mukuna said.

Sara Bon Harper, Executive Director of Highland, meets once or twice a week with the three students, alongside Garroutte and Dan Cristol, Faculty Director of Undergraduate Research at W&M’s Charles Center. “Highland’s history makes it an ideal place to explore issues of land justice and social justice,” Bon Harper said. “We have the opportunity to explore real-world possibilities to use the Highland campus for learning and to make change in our communities. This set of student projects is examining big questions, and I anticipate a big impact both for students and the conservation results. I feel very fortunate to be collaborating with the IIC and the Charles Center on this student work.”

In Fall 2021, the three student researchers will present a proposal for making Highland a more sustainable and integral asset for W&M, to Highland’s Council of Descendent Advisors and select W&M administrators. If acted upon, their proposal could have a significant impact on Highland, its surrounding community, W&M students and faculty members, and perhaps other integrative conservation initiatives around the country.