Broken Ground | Season 6 | Episode 2

Cameron Oglesby on Collecting Community Stories

Listen to environmental journalist Cameron Oglesby discuss how highlighting Black joy and centering community narratives in her writing drives action. 

A group of about a dozen people pose in front of a rural street sign at the intersection of Uniontown Road and Piney Woods Road.
Environmental Justice Oral History Project students, including Cameron Ogelsby, center right in a white shirt and sunglasses, pose with William Barber III, second from left, after a day of oral history collection with members of the Piney Woods Free Union community in North Carolina.

Episode Transcript

Broken Ground Season 6 Episode 2: CAMERON OGLESBY


Host: This is Broken Ground, a podcast digging up environmental stories in the South. I’m Leanna First-Arai, your host. In this season of Broken Ground, we’re introducing you to a few talented Southern journalists and storytellers. Folks who are helping to fill crucial gaps in news and information about our environment. In our last episode, Lyndsey Gilpin, founder of Southerly, explained what happens in these so-called “news deserts.”

Lyndsey Gilpin: That leaves a big space for industry, whether it’s fossil fuels, utilities, agriculture, to fill that gap by sending press releases and information and, oftentimes, disinformation.


Host: If you missed that episode, I hope you’ll go back and listen.



Host: In this episode, I want to introduce you to one of the young journalists whose career Southerly helped launch. Her name is Cameron Oglesby. Over the last few years, you may have come across her byline in Southerly, or Grist, or Scalawag. Any number of online publications. Her articles have explored serious environmental issues like pollution from industrial hog operations, Black land loss, and the disproportionate impact of flooding on low-income communities. But she’s also written extensively about Black joy, and Black communities’ deep connection to the environment – as birders, as beekeepers, as oystermen – stories that she calls, “twinkles of happiness and light.” As Cameron explains it:

Cameron Oglesby: It flips the script on what has been an overwhelmingly skewed narrative in history that paints both the South and Black folk in the South in a certain negative light.


Host: In between reporting assignments, Cameron has shepherded an oral history project focused on environmental justice. She’s mentored college students and recruited artists to display their work in an online environmental art gallery. And, believe it or not, she’s done all of this while a student at Duke University in North Carolina. This spring, she graduated with a Master’s degree, and right now she’s working on a five-part series for Yale Climate Connections, as well as a book. It’s a primer on the history of environmental racism.


Leanna First-Arai: What did you think of journalism as a kid, and how has that kind of evolved as you’ve learned how to do it?

Cameron Oglesby: My mom was a broadcast journalist. My aunt’s a broadcast journalist currently. My uncle used to be a journalist before he became the Patuxent River Keeper.

Leanna First-Arai: Right. Your uncle Fred Tutman is currently the nation’s only Black Riverkeeper.

Cameron Oglesby: Found that out later. I didn’t know that when I was young.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Cameron Oglesby: I guess my viewpoint of journalism as a child was … that it was a viable career path. I saw my mom flourishing in that. She used be a White House correspondent, and then she became, like, the, the person we would watch on the TV every morning when we were little.

Leanna First-Arai: Wow!

Cameron Oglesby: I actually hadn’t considered journalism as the path I wanted to take until I reached college and realized that all of the communication skills and writing skills that had been instilled in me as a child – being able to effectively communicate – was actually really a useful skill in advocating for the topics I was passionate about.


Leanna First-Arai: So Cameron, one of the topics that you’re clearly passionate about – you’ve written a ton about it – is biogas, which refers to the fuel that can be drawn off of these massive pits of waste that accumulate at industrial-scale animal farms, also known as “concentrated animal feeding operations” or CAFOs for short. But how was it that you got into biogas in the first place?

Cameron Oglesby: I had sort of become immersed in the biogas swine farm issue in, in Eastern North Carolina since I was a freshman at Duke, interested in environmental topics and some of the first things that come up at my university are, ‘How do we reach carbon neutrality? Oh, let’s use renewable natural gas from all the swine operations that are in our state,” right?

Leanna First-Arai: Uh-huh.

Cameron Oglesby: I had no idea what this was. And so, when I decided to write about this – I first wrote about it for Grist – it was with the intention of, sort of, breaking down what the heck was happening around biogas.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, and that Grist article had a really memorable title. You called it, “Hogwash, Making Fuel from Pig Poop Sounds Exciting, Unless You Live Nearby.”

Cameron Oglesby:  Yes.

Leanna First-Arai: And Cameron, I’d love to hear an excerpt from that piece, if you’d be so kind. Maybe starting with this part here, breaking down what methane actually is.

Cameron Oglesby:  Sure.


Cameron Oglesby: If the lagoons are left unchecked, the waste that builds up in the pink-tinted waters releases not only extreme odors but methane, ammonia, and other pollutants that can spread into nearby communities. Methane is a greenhouse gas about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, and the other pollutants, like hydrogen sulfide, which is responsible for the odor, can inflame the eyes, skin, and lungs. The smell leaves people reluctant to exit their houses for fear of difficulty breathing — even just to hang their laundry outdoors. The predominantly Black and low-income communities surrounding these farms have experienced increased rates of respiratory and heart disease for decades. Pork producers say they have a solution, specifically to the methane issue: capturing the gas coming off of these hog lagoons and using it as fuel, a form of “renewable natural gas,” or RNG. The move is pitched as a solution twofer, a win for the community and the climate, too. Environmental advocates and many local residents, however, argue that an investment in so-called biogas will only further perpetuate a practice that harms neighboring communities.



Leanna First-Arai: Do you remember your reactions to the first time that you spoke with community members living in and around CAFOs or, or proposed biogas facilities?

Cameron Oglesby: Yeaaaaah. The cognitive dissonance. I was … that, it, I was … I was horrified. I was, I was angry. I was really disappointed in all the institutions that were advocating for this, right? At the time, Governor Roy Cooper was advocating for biogas as a part of the, the state’s Climate Action Plan.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah.


Cameron Oglesby: I was literally sitting in administrative spaces at Duke, hearing people advocate for this system and this strategy that I was hearing at the community level was doing horrible harm. Made absolutely no sense to me.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah. How do you even wrap your head around that?

Cameron Oglesby: It was discouraging as heck. And so that was one of the reasons why I think I really leaned into journalism also is that educational tool, that gap filler, right? If we want our institutions to both acknowledge the harm and address the harm, then maybe a starting point was educating the general public – and not just to care, but to empathize. I think that’s a really critical part. That’s why centering community narrative and storytelling in a way that’s not just stating the facts and statistics, but that’s really getting at the heart of the community experience seemed to be so effective.


Leanna First-Arai: So I remember I was reading this article when I was doing some preliminary research of my own ahead of a reporting trip to a poultry biogas operation in Maryland and Delaware.  And biogas is a really complex issue. There’s all these technical elements to it. And there’s also a lot of political complications tied up in it.

Cameron Oglesby: Mm-hmm.

Leanna First-Arai: And I think you laid it out really clearly, um, to the extent that it honestly helped me understand the issue better.

Cameron Oglesby: Cool. I was pretty new to journalism at that point. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. And I would find out later that this starting point that was designed to be this educational tool actually did serve that purpose. It, it had been added to syllabi at Duke, at UNC, at Appalachian State. People were teaching this content to their students via this article.

Leanna First-Arai: That’s really impressive.

Cameron Oglesby: And it was also necessary that somebody continue to report on the issue, so I would go on to report on it for Environmental Health News and then Southerly and Scalawag. I brought it into every, every outlet I reported for after that I was talking about the biogas issue in some form because it wasn’t getting the coverage it needed, something that was understandable at every level.

Leanna First-Arai: I did wanna ask you, since you brought up Southerly, um, we were so surprised and saddened to hear about its closing for now or transformation. Um, what’s your reaction to Southerly, kind of, um, saying goodbye for now?

Cameron Oglesby: I was devastated. I saw that and I was like, ‘Whaaaaa, oh, oh my God.’

Leanna First-Arai: Same.

Cameron Oglesby: My first introduction to Southerly was when I was just getting into journalism as a student. I had just decided I wanted to explore journalism as a way to, to communicate environmental issues, to have environmental impact. And Lyndsey Gilpin, the founder of Southerly, came to Duke and she spoke about Southerly and she spoke about the work. That was sort of our introduction to each other.  She would eventually become my editor at the Ninth Street Journal when I was first starting out.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, for listeners, the Ninth Street Journal is one of the student newspapers at Duke University. But Cameron, you worked with Lyndsey Gilpin there?

Cameron Oglesby: She was the reason why I was able to do so many environmental stories about Durham. And cover environmental topics for this city that was not getting much environmental coverage, right? She was the person editing my pieces and spurring me forward. And after that, she offered me a job as an editorial assistant. So before I’d even done any reporting for Southerly, I was just learning the ropes from Lyndsey and learning about how meaningful environmental topics were in the South, right? Covering environmental justice in the U.S. South. Lyndsey was my introduction to that.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, I mean, Southerly’s work really helped to address news deserts, um, with respect to, of course, environmental news specifically. But Cameron, can I ask: what’s been your experience reporting from news deserts?

Cameron Oglesby: A lot of the reporting I’d done, especially as I was getting into it, it was a lot of local reporting. So I was working for my school’s paper.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Cameron Oglesby: And their purpose, was to fill an ever-growing gap in local coverage of various issues. It wasn’t just environmental issues. But in particular, The Ninth Street Journal had become THE local news source for people in Durham when I was reporting there as a student. That’s weird to me cuz we’re a student paper. We’re just students learning how to be journalists.

Leanna First-Arai: Right, yeah.

Cameron Oglesby: And we had become the news source for people.

Leanna First-Arai: Wow.


Cameron Oglesby: The way that I have sort of come to interact with this idea of news deserts is understanding that the media landscape has been shrinking. And unfortunately that means oftentimes that environmental topics, especially with the, the growing threat of climate change, are not getting the coverage that they need. People are not being introduced to climate change and environmental racism and various environmental degradation issues in a way that is informative and allows them to make the best decisions for themselves.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.


Cameron Oglesby: If we’re talking about the swine issue, for example, a lot of community members know they live next to a swine facility. They know they smell the odors, they know that it sucks, but do they know the history? Do they know what’s happening in the biogas landscape? Right? Do they know that this big industry is about to come in and make their problem a lot worse? Probably not. And so being able to cover those issues in depth and make them accessible for people with brochures or with other forms of storytelling has been extremely significant.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Cameron Oglesby: That’s one of the reasons why I have expanded outside of traditional journalism to include other forms of storytelling, right? Places like Earth in Color, which is not a newsroom. Um …

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah. Let’s talk about Earth in Color for a minute.

Cameron Oglesby: Mm-hmm.

Leanna First-Arai: This is a website-slash-creative studio that bills itself as “a digital home for blackness and greenness.”

Cameron Oglesby: So Black culture and nature.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.


Cameron Oglesby: It was sort of the first outlet that allowed me to write about the types of communities and experiences that were so similar to my own connections to place and space and nature.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, so one piece on there I found particularly beautiful, honestly, um, and a piece that really resonated with people on the internet, is titled, “How Black Folks Have Built Resilient Spaces for Themselves in U.S. Mountains.”

Cameron Oglesby: It was part of the Earth Curiosity Series, which focuses on the sort of fascinating interactions between earth science and Black culture. And, um, this piece in particular, was focused on the significance of these geological marvels in creating homes and space for community building for Black folk, especially in Appalachia, where it has historically and traditionally been characterized as a, as a space for poor white folk, often doesn’t include the Black folk that were born and raised and built wealth and community there.

Leanna First-Arai: Absolutely. Cameron, would you be able to read us the opening paragraph here?

Cameron Oglesby: Sure. Here we go. If you’ve ever stood a top of mountain ridge overlooking the plentiful tree scapes of Appalachian wilderness or summited a mountain on the West coast, then perhaps you felt the power of these spectacular giants. Their height alone makes one ponder the existence of a higher power. It is the presence of these geological creations that we can learn so much about our own history. The Rockies, Smokies, and Blue Ridge are all part of the gorgeous mountain range that is Appalachia. These vast vertical stretches of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock are geological curiosities and sources of untold Black history.

Leanna First-Arai: The opening paragraph here is super powerful, and, and I imagine that many of our listeners will want to pop right onto the text of the piece and keep reading. We will link to it on our website at Broken Ground Podcast dot org. But if you could explain, Cameron, um, what did you want readers to take away from this?


Cameron Oglesby: This was a part of Appalachian history that a lot of people hadn’t heard of, and I heard that in the feedback and the way that it just blew up on Twitter.

Leanna First-Arai: It did!

Cameron Oglesby: Yeah, I was surprised. I was shook. Um, a lot of people didn’t realize that there were Black people in Appalachia. No, I’m joking. That’s, that’s a, that’s an exaggeration.

Leanna First-Arai: Are you joking though? Because I think there’s a lot of people that don’t know.


Cameron Oglesby: They didn’t realize how cemented Black culture and upbringing and even aspects of the Civil Rights movement were in this part of the country that had traditionally been characterized as a poor white region.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, I’m sure it was eye opening for a lot of people. Maybe we could turn now to Piney Woods Free Union as another example of the rich history that you’ve explored through your writing. Um, you had written a piece that was published in both The Nation and in The Margin titled “Rebuilding the Homestead.”

Cameron Oglesby: Yeah.

Leanna First-Arai: And this piece talks about a historically Black community that so far has remained untouched by industrial development, like CAFOs or biogas facilities. Um, and now it’s fighting to remain that way. Can you just read us the first paragraph of, of this piece?

Cameron Oglesby: Yes.


Cameron Oglesby: Piney Woods, North Carolina is one of those small, quiet, rural communities you might pass on a drive up north. Blocks of lush grass, farmland and forests are bisected by a single asphalt road. It’s not uncommon to find a tortoise or two lazing on the empty street, unafraid of potential traffic. These untouched stretches of green are an under-realized beauty. At one point known as Free Union, Piney Woods was founded well before the Civil War by Black folk and Croatan and Tuscarora Indigenous peoples. The area is known for its 300-year legacy as a historically tri-racial, economically independent, and free community. It is perhaps one of the oldest examples of uninterrupted land ownership by Black people in North Carolina and maybe the entire American South.


Leanna First-Arai: Your angle in this story was really different than,  than I’ve seen in any other coverage of biogas. Um, and specifically, I’m talking about the way that you focus on the threats that the expanding biogas industry poses to Black land ownership.

Cameron Oglesby:  Mm-hmm.

Leanna First-Arai: I’d love to hear how your thoughts on how your unique perspective in this world as a Black woman with ties to family land, um, your life experience in general, led you to, to link these two together.

Cameron Oglesby: For all of the pieces I’ve written about this intersection of environmental justice and land or, or farming in particular – because I realize I write a lot about agriculture – um, that was not on purpose. It’s not like I grew up on a farm, like some of the people I’m reporting about. I haven’t had that opportunity. But that is aspirational for me. My goal is to be the next family land steward.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, I’ve read that your family’s owned a farm in Maryland for nearly a century. Something like 140 acres?

Cameron Oglesby: Yeah, yeah. So my grandma and my uncle currently care take about 25 acres, and then the remaining – do the math 140 minus 25 – is under the care of my great aunt Argie, who – she’s like, she’s, I think she’s like 98, so.

Leanna First-Arai: Goodness!

Cameron Oglesby: It’s a really fascinating family history, how everything kind of trickled down. I actually wrote about it for Earth in Color, uh, for one of our Unearthed pieces. But, right now, the bigger portion of the farm is leased out. There’s pesticides used, there’s herbicides used. It’s not regenerative agriculture. But I think if we can cultivate it in such a way that we’re serving it as it serves us – I think that’s the lesson I learned perhaps most poignantly in speaking with everyone for this article – then I think it’ll last us quite a long time. Um …

Leanna First-Arai: So had you been to Piney Woods before this story for the Margin?

Cameron Oglesby: I was actually planning to go anyway, and then I was offered this, this article opportunity. I was like, let me just – let me feed two birds with one scone and head down to Piney Woods. Uh, and, um, it ended up serving a dual purpose; I wrote about it for this article, and I connected with enough people to develop a long-term relationship for oral history work that I would be doing with them over the following year.

Leanna First-Arai: Hmm. I wanna hear about the environmental justice oral history project because I think that it sounds like such a good example of what you’re talking about here. So, um, can you just tell us a little bit about what that has looked like and, you know, the students that have been involved and what, you know, what y’all have learned together?


Cameron Oglesby: Yes, that has been a process. Um, what I’m calling it is a “multidimensional storytelling hub.”

Leanna First-Arai: Woah.

Cameron Oglesby: It combines oral history collection – traditional oral history collection – with, uh, student journalism and podcasting and events and research. It does a lot of things, um, to tell a cohesive and expansive story about environmental justice and place-based land connection in the U.S. South. So it literally does everything I’ve been trying to do with my journalism, but it does so across platforms and across mediums.

Leanna First-Arai: So, I know you provided us with some interview clips. Um, I would love to play one from a resident and community historian in Piney Woods Free Union. So this is Charles Shepherd. He’s an indigenous man who’s a descendant of free Black folk and the Croatan and Tuscarora tribes of coastal North Carolina.

Charles Shepherd: We were the first, we were the first that the English encountered. Never been conquered, never been on a reservation. We are still on our homeland. Never surrendered. Yet no one knows about us, so I’m hoping that this gets out there. And the people get to hear, you know, know more about this story.

Leanna First-Arai: Cameron, so what was your goal in helping people like Mr. Shepard document their story?

Cameron Oglesby: Historically, oral history, journalism even, has been relatively extractive in some cases. You parachute in, you take out their story, you do something with it, with limited consent or informed consent. And this was an attempt at developing out a set of resources for how people can more intentionally engage with communities and conduct oral histories like we have done in collaboration with community, through co-ownership with community, and in service to community.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Cameron Oglesby: We’ve collected oral histories in the Gulf South in particular, just knowing that that’s a real hotspot for environmental racism. We have also collected about – it’s more than 40, closer to 50 – oral histories from the Piney Woods Free Union community. We’ve also collected oral histories of EJ advocates across the region just to learn more about their motivations.

Leanna First-Arai: Cameron, that’s a lot!

Cameron Oglesby: Too much! (LAUGHING) Way too much material. But we’re gonna be launching our website as a public facing space for people to learn more about our community partners in Warren County, in Piney Woods Free Union.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Cameron Oglesby: All of this is designed to be a sort of a repository of information and resources and experiences and joy and I’m really excited to share it with the world.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, I can’t wait to see it.


Leanna First-Arai: When you’re thinking about, sort of, these narratives of thriving Black communities, how do you see sort of elevating these narratives as being part of the work of seeking environmental justice?

Cameron Oglesby: I hear people say, ‘I’m giving voice to these communities.’ I’m like, no, they have a voice. It’s a matter of megaphone. It’s a matter of making sure that people are actually incorporating those voices into every aspect of the work we’re doing.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.


Cameron Oglesby: When we have so much pain and victimization broadcast about a particular community in a particular region in the media, it feels necessary and appropriate to counter that with the stories of prosperity. It doesn’t paint Black folk, it doesn’t paint the region, the U.S. South with a singular brush. It highlights that people have been overcoming this stuff for decades, for generations, for centuries. These are little, I guess, twinkles of happiness and light and cultural significance and spiritual significance that are necessary for painting a holistic picture of my community, I’m gonna be honest. So that’s sort of the thought process in propping these up.


Leanna First-Arai: Is there anything that makes you kind of hopeful about the troubling state of journalism right now? As you know, it’s like, it feels like the walls are closing in around us to a certain extent, but you mentioned a moment ago, kind of, seeking and identifying and creating spaces beyond sort of traditional forms of journalism. Is there anything in the world of journalism or storytelling that does make you hopeful at this, like, really difficult moment?


Cameron Oglesby: Maybe this is just my view as a young person also engaging in, heavily in social media, right? But what it means to be a journalist and a storyteller feels very different for me than maybe it does for some of the instructors I had in school when I was in the journalism program. And what I mean by that is I see the type of education and storytelling coming out of platforms that are not news outlets. Like your Earth in Colors or your Intersectional Environmentalists.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Cameron Oglesby: As outlets like, like Southerly, um, sort of find their, their end points or their wrapping points, or their transition points, right? There are numerous avenues to engage people across the board without having to go through, like, a Washington Post or something like that, right?

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah.

Cameron Oglesby: There’s so many young people that have decided they want to tell and elevate these stories on their own. I think that gives me a lot of hope for at least the storytelling landscape outside of traditional news outlets, right? It’s, it’s not ending, it’s transforming, and I’m really proud and excited to be a part of this evolving landscape.


Leanna First-Arai: Cameron, it’s been super nice to speak with you about all of your work and to hear some of, more than anything, your, your hopeful overtones, on the transition of storytelling platforms. So yeah, thank you so much.


Cameron Oglesby: Thank you for listening and allowing me this space to talk about this work.

Leanna First-Arai: Take care.

Host: That was independent journalist and storyteller Cameron Oglesby. Check out our website Broken Ground Podcast dot org for links to some of her  work.


Host: Next time on Broken Ground, what happens when news deserts are so vast that residents can’t find safety information in their own language … in the middle of a disaster?

Victoria Bouloubasis: When there’s a pressing issue, and public officials who are supposed to give you information are not, and when you see on the ground what’s happening, the story is revealed to you.

Host: That’s next time on Broken Ground.


Host: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment rooted in the South. Broken Ground is produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley, Paige Polk, Pria Mahadevan, and me, Leanna First-Arai, with the invaluable assistance of Ko Bragg. Visit us at Broken Ground Podcast dot org to find some other great podcast-related content.