Letter from the Director | June 2020

“Welcome to an Extraordinary Individual During Extraordinary Times”

I like to think we have entered a period of new futures. A new future of thoughtful and principled consideration of MIT’s donor relations; a new future in which we have a renewed appreciation of our ability to respond quickly to global challenges—today the pandemic, tomorrow a range of climate change consequences; a new future of taking real action against murderous human rights abuses born of systemic racism.

On the one hand, it is important to consider each of these separately—in order to act with measurable progress—to make each new future a reality. You probably know or have recently become aware that the percentage of African American professors on the MIT faculty has remained at 4 percent since 2005 and while Blacks represent a little more than 12 percent of the U.S. population they are awarded only about 9 percent of science and only 4 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees[1]. The situation is particularly troubling for so-called “green” STEM fields—those focused on the climate, conservation, the environment, earth and atmospheric sciences[2].

On the other hand, the intimate connections between categorically distinct types of injustices substantiate the reality that harm to historically marginalized people and communities comes in many forms and is often coordinated. For example, and only one of many examples, African Americans are exposed to 1.5 times more of the type of air pollution (PM2.5) that is directly linked to lung and heart disease and premature death than white Americans[3]. As Robert Bullard, the renowned professor of urban planning and environmental policy points out… race, not poverty, is the strongest indicator of exposure to health-related particulate matter in the U.S. In fact, it is very well documented that environmental injustices of many kinds are the direct result of the history and present reality of systemic racism.

Will we take good advantage of this moment for a new future? As an optimist who loathes being disappointed, this new future is ours to lose. Unless we act, in real ways with an urgency akin to our response to COVID-19, these new futures are nothing more than fantasies.

So, it is my very great pleasure to welcome Luis G. Murillo-Urrutia as an MIT 2020-2021 MLK Visiting Scholar hosted through the Environmental Solutions Initiative. From 2016 to 2018, Murillo was Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development for Colombia in the administration of former President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Juan Manuel Santos. He also served as Governor of the Department of Chocó, a predominantly Afro-Colombian region of Colombia. Murillo served in these roles at an historical inflection point for the country as it was ending half a century of conflict that had resulted in the deaths of 220,000 people, mostly civilians, and displaced several million. Throughout the peace process and afterwards, the confluence of human rights, environmental stewardship, science-based decision-making and community engagement has been central to a better future. Minister Murillo played a critical role in making this new future for Colombia.

Murillo has been a lifelong advocate of Afro-Colombians and Afro-Latinos through his expertise in regional development, the environment, sustainable development and peace building. In 1993, at the age of 27, he was appointed to the Office of Director General of the Corporation for Sustainable Development of the State of Chocó and subsequently launched a reorganization of the office to focus on the protection of biodiversity and the land rights of Afro-Colombians and Indigenous communities of the Chocó River Valley Region. At 31 Murillo was elected Governor of the state of Chocó and soon afterward created a new Secretariat of Ethnic Affairs and the Office of Environmental Development. During this period rampant violence against the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities led Murillo to declare Chocó a state of peace, with implications for UN involvement. After leaving office under a controversial and much-criticized ruling by Colombia’s Supreme Court, Murillo continued his advocacy until he was kidnapped and his family threatened. He left Colombia for the U.S. with his family and did not return until 2011.

In addition to his central role in the domestic Colombian political transformation, he has been an active voice in urging fundamental changes to the formulation and deployment of U.S. foreign aid in ways that promote truly equitable and just development in Latin America. Murillo served as U.S.-Colombia Policy Coordinator and subsequently Senior International Policy Analyst at the Lutheran World Relief and has served as a Senior Fellow and Vice President for Programs and Strategy at the Phelps Stokes Fund where he led an effort to promote youth leadership in areas of institutional transformation and social and economic rights, especially inclusive of Afro-Descendants, Indigenous and other marginalized communities.

The Environmental Solutions Initiative is proud to host and partner with Minister Murillo as we develop our programs in Nature Based Solutions for Climate Change and Cities and Climate Change. With Minister Murillo’s wise counsel and direct engagement, we plan on acting on a variety of issues of environmental justice with a concentration on marginalized communities. Through his various roles in government and civil society Luis has been on the front lines of conceiving of and realizing a new and better future for the people of Colombia. We welcome Minister Murillo to MIT as a key advisor as we consider practical and concrete steps toward a new future at MIT[4].

Finally, we are also announcing today the release of the ESI Principles of Conduct and Engagement. While you may understandably presume that the origin of this document was a direct consequence of the Jeffrey Epstein situation earlier this year—it was not, though that event certainly motivated us to complete it. We started discussing the need for a document during the early summer of 2019 and have produced a statement that captures our collective values for conducting ourselves and engaging with others in a manner consistent with our core mission.

These principles will be reviewed by the entire ESI team on a regular basis as we initiate and develop many more relationships with diverse individuals, organizations, companies and governments. Let us know if you have any comments or suggestions.

John E. Fernández, Director
June 12, 2020
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Read past Letters from the Director here.


[1] National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2019. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 19-304. Alexandria, VA. Available at https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd

[2] Pearson, A. and J. P. Schuldt (2014) Facing the diversity crisis in climate science. Nature Climate Change, 4: 1039-1042, accessed 11 June 2020 at http://research.pomona.edu/sci/files/2014/11/PearsonSchuldt2014NCC.pdf

[3] Ihab Mikati, Adam F. Benson, Thomas J. Luben, Jason D. Sacks, and Jennifer Richmond-Bryant, 2018: Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status. American Journal of Public Health. 108: 480_485, accessed 11 June 2020 at https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297

[4] Special gratitude and credit goes to Marcela Angel, ESI Research Associate and Juan Camilo Osorio, ESI Research Affiliate, DUSP PhD candidate and Assistant Professor Grad Center for Planning, Pratt Institute for bringing Minister Murillo to MIT. Also, much appreciation goes to Prof. and Deputy Mayor of New York City Phil Thompson for the initial introduction to Minister Murillo.