November 10, 2016
Dr. Steven Bennett Wing, activist for environmental justice and advocate for human rights, mentor and friend to many, died peacefully Nov. 9 in the company of his family in Chapel Hill, N.C., after a valiant battle with cancer.
Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, had been a member of the public health faculty since 1985. Educated at Vassar as an undergraduate and having earned a master’s degree in sociology at Duke, he completed doctoral studies in epidemiology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983.
His long list of honors reflects the social causes for which he worked so diligently – an award from the Concerned Citizens of Tillery and Land Loss Fund, an advocacy group for an underserved black community that has advocated staunchly for environmental justice (1997); a certificate of honor from the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (2003); the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology Research Integrity Award (2009); the American Public Health Association Environment Section’s Homer N. Calver Award (2011); the Self-Determination Award from the Black Workers for Justice (2014); and the John O. Blackburn Award, presented by NC Warn, a nonprofit organization focused on stemming climate change through advocacy for clean energy (2016).
“But it’s not about me,” he would say frequently. He praised community colleagues who worked to educate themselves and institute social change, and he saw himself, not as deserving the spotlight but rather as being a spotlight that helped illuminate injustice in North Carolina and throughout the country.
He trained his students to be thoughtful, respectful, committed community activists and scientists, and they remained devoted to him. He was honored with the Gillings School’s Greenberg Award for Outstanding Teaching, Service and Practice (2004) and the John E. Larsh Jr. Award for Mentorship (2014).
“Ultimately,” Wing said, in an interview for Carolina Public Health magazine, “public health is about changing something. I’ve learned, especially as I began to work with community organizations in North Carolina, that it’s my responsibility not only to publish in scientific journals, but to try to communicate the results to vulnerable people.”
That interview, “Public Health Hero,” can be seen here.
“Steve was a hero to many in the Gillings School and the broader world of environmental scientists, advocates, activists, policy makers and community members in North Carolina and beyond,” said Andrew Olshan, PhD, Barbara S. Hulka Distinguished Professor and chair of the School’s epidemiology department. “He was truly inspirational to students and colleagues. He will be remembered for his unyielding commitment to social justice and for his kindness and caring nature with everyone.”
Dean Barbara K. Rimer called Wing a colleague, friend, exemplar and moral compass.
“His values and integrity were irreproachable,” Rimer said.
Rimer said Wing changed how she saw the world when he took her on a guided tour of several places in eastern North Carolina where large hog farm operators were damaging the environment and people’s health.
“We met with a large community group in a windowless barn, shared a meal with them and heard their stories,” Rimer said. “They spoke of Steve with such admiration and affection, and it made me realize what a positive impact he had on people who did not have his means to tell their story. I have never forgotten the experience and look for opportunities to educate people about what is happening. He was an environmental hero, and I am going to miss him deeply.”
Wing leaves behind his wife, Betsy, their daughters, Ann and Marion, and his beloved grandchildren.
A service to celebrate Dr. Wing’s life will be scheduled at a later time.* Online comments for the family may be made here. The family’s obituary announcement appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer. Those wishing to offer a memorial gift may donate in his name to the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, P.O. Box 68, Rocky Mount, N.C. 27802 or online at www.ncejn.org.
*The service is scheduled Saturday, Jan. 28, from 1 to 3 p.m. at Gerrard Hall, 160 E. Cameron Ave., UNC-Chapel Hill campus.