By Sym Posey
For The Birmingham Times
As the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Alabama (UA), in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Kenya Goodson can help fill a gap between science and political issues—neither of which typically acknowledge each other or people of color, she said.
“As a Black woman, I want people to know that Black folks love the outdoors, too,” she said. “I also want more of our young people to experience the river. I believe that would make a significant difference.”
One of the many ways Goodson demonstrates her love of the outdoors and Alabama’s rivers is through her roles as President-Elect – and President of the Board in 2024 of the Cahaba River Society, which will hold its 14th Annual Cahaba River Fry-Down on Sunday, Oct. 1, when teams of culinary competitors will vie to see whose catfish, sides, and desserts can win a one of the organization’s coveted frying pan trophies.
The event celebrates the Cahaba River, Alabama’s longest free-flowing river and one of the most biologically diverse waterways on Earth. The proceeds benefit the Cahaba River Society, a Birmingham nonprofit that works to protect and restore the Cahaba River watershed and its diversity of life.
Making A Difference
Goodson—a scientist, educator, history-maker and activist who is deeply passionate about Alabama’s rivers—is one to make a difference. She taught and mentored students in the Upward Bound program at Stillman College, her alma mater, providing support for first-generation college students.
She also has been a faculty member at Stillman, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Tuscaloosa, and the University of Montevallo (UM), a liberal arts college in Montevallo, Alabama. Also, since 2016, she has organized efforts around voter registration and education, electoral campaigns, and climate change.
“The short of it is that I am a community organizer that focuses on climate work,” said Goodson.
Asked about one of her passions—water conservation—and how it affects the community and the people who benefit from it, Goodson said, “I want to bring awareness to people about the importance of water, not just to use it but to value it and protect it.”
In addition to working with the Cahaba River Society, Goodson serves as vice president of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring Alabama’s Black Warrior River and its tributaries; she spent five years volunteering with the organization’s advisory council and board of directors prior to assuming her current role.
She also is a board member for Conservation Alabama, another group that’s devoted to safeguarding the state’s natural spaces and resources.
“When I was an adjunct professor, I talked to my students about the watersheds in Alabama with their beauty and biodiversity,” said Goodson. “I’ve started going on nature adventures around the rivers in Alabama and posting on social media so people can see these beautiful places in Alabama.”
A Tuscaloosa native, Goodson was raised in the city’s West End, a majority Black community just minutes from the campus of Stillman College and the UA.
Goodson wished she’d had more time for outdoor activities while growing up. “I had never even heard of the Black Warrior River, which comes from the indigenous word ‘Tuscaloosa,’ or ‘Black Warrior’—the city I live in. I think life would have been more fun if sometimes we were able to go to the river, which was five minutes from our house,” she said.
The Black Warrior River, located in western Alabama, is the state’s deepest river and just minutes away from Goodson’s childhood community.
Goodson grew up with her late grandmother and as a preteen and teenager “in a blended household with my stepdad and six of my siblings: [two stepsisters, one stepbrother, one blood sister, and two blood brothers],” she said.
“We would be outside playing, picking plums and pecans. After my mom was divorced, she became a single parent, so I assisted her with my brothers and my sister. As a result, we didn’t do as many things outdoors.”
A product of Tuscaloosa City Schools, Goodson earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Tuscaloosa’s Stillman College and a Master of Science in environmental management from Birmingham’s Samford University.
“After getting my degree in chemistry, I decided to go into the environmental field. I wasn’t sure what area of environmental science I wanted to get into, so I did environmental management for my masters,” she said.
“My first job was with the Alabama Department of Public Health. I did site assessments and inspections on private onsite sanitary systems, [septic tanks], in rural Tuscaloosa. I saw a lot of poor people unable to afford adequate sanitation, and that inspired me to find a solution. So, I decided to get an environmental engineering degree.”
Achievements and Activism
Goodson, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, would become the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from UA in 2013. Asked how it feels, she said, “Honestly, I’m very proud of myself for attaining my degree. I had no idea that I would be making history. I want to do more with the training I received in my program, and I want to make a significant difference in the field of water resources.”
Goodson’s vast experience includes wastewater management, stormwater quality, and environmental regulation, and she is committed to environmental protection. One of the many roles she holds as an environmentalist is climate and sustainability coordinator for Hometown Action, an Alabama nonprofit that specializes in grassroots organizing.
“The simple way to explain organizing is that you bring people together to come up with a plan to bring the changes that they want to see in their communities,” said Goodson.
“Hometown helps communities organize themselves. This brings political power, community empowerment, and self-autonomy. I help organize communities about their climate needs. I found out about Hometown through a colleague in 2020, and I started as a phone texter to get people to go out and vote during [the COVID-19 pandemic].”
Outside Of Work
Goodson enjoys watching biopics. “I love biographical movies that talk about how important people got to where they are and [what contributed to] the amazing things that they do or have done,” she said. “I read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and watched the movie, [‘Malcolm X’]. It changed my life,” she said of the book (penned in collaboration with renowned author Alex Haley) and film (directed by Academy Award–winning filmmaker Spike Lee) about the life of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, born Malcolm Little and better known as Malcolm X, who was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1963.
Her favorite food is Mexican, and her favorite color is Delta red.
Goodson said she is “a single Black woman in my late 40s who has never been married, and I have no children. I help support my mom, and I am holding on to the desire to be married.”
Updated at 8:38 p.m. on 10/2/2023 to correct Goodson’s title with the Cahaba River Society.