Community Voices: Science, Democracy and Environmental Justice

How scientists can partner with marginalized communities to work towards justice and equity

Published Mar 2, 2015

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Communities of color, low-income communities, and tribal communities are disproportionately affected by problems such as climate change, environmental contamination, and lack of access to healthy food. Science and technical expertise can support and assist communities in advocating effectively for environmental justice. Trust and mutually beneficial partnerships must be built, and a two-way dialogue between communities and scientists is vital.

How can communities and scientists partner? Scientists should listen to the community first, and see where assistance is needed and wanted. Access to and understanding of technical information are often among the barriers to the communities’ work, and scientists can help. Scientists benefit too as they gain new perspectives and understanding when looking at problems and working toward solutions.

To help foster these partnerships, the Center for Science and Democracy is teaming up with scientists, technical experts, and communities to highlight some of the ways they are working together and how you can get involved. Some of these important stories are below.

Adelita Cantu: Environmental Justice and a Sense of Place

Adelita G. Cantu, PhD, RN is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio School of Nursing. Dr. Cantu teaches population health and conducts environmental health and justice issues in San Antonio and the Texas Mexico Borderland area. Dr. Cantu is the chair of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. Read Adelita Cantu's story.

Because knowing that PLACE and environment do matter, and because I have been fortunate enough to have support systems that have allowed me to expand my educational experiences, I feel that I am obligated to give back in as many ways as I can.

Alexis Goggans: The Problem with the Environmental Movement

Alexis Goggans is a neighborhood planner with the DC Office of Planning, and currently resides in Washington, D.C. with her older sister, niece and dog. Alexis holds a M.S. in Interdisciplinary Sustainability Studies from the University of Texas at Arlington, and a B.S. in History from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read Alexis Goggans' story.

I realize now that environmental justice is part of a larger discussion on racism and that similar to how war, poverty and sexual violence are often perceived as affecting “others” who live “over there,” environmental justice is rarely discussed as an issue affecting the 7 billion of “us,” who live “here.”

Felix Aguilar: Searching "Upstream" for the Evidence on Asthma

Felix Aguilar, MD, is Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine and a member of the California Latino Environmental Advocacy Network (CLEAN). Dr. Aguilar has been a social justice activist since his undergraduate days. He has participated actively in many campaigns on environmental health and environmental justice, including work on childhood asthma in minority communities. Dr. Aguilar received his medical degree from the University of California, Irvine. He received a Master of Health Care Management from Harvard University in Boston, MA, and a Master of Public Health from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. Dr. Aguilar trained in Family Medicine at H-UCLA Medical Center and in Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the California Department of Public Health. Furthermore, he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice.

Read Felix Aguilar's story.

From my work in community clinics and public health clinics, I realized that to tackle the health problems of poor communities the solutions have to be broad and include multiple sectors. It is not enough to try to cure patients but to prevent disease.

Juan Reynosa: Engaging Scientists in Environmental Justice Communities

Juan is an organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project who focuses on environmental justice issues. Before joining SWOP, Juan was the New Mexico Beyond Coal organizer for Sierra Club, an organizer with New Mexico Youth Organized, and a Green for All fellow. Beyond his professional experience, he has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of New Mexico. His hometown is Hobbs, New Mexico, which is the epicenter of the oil and gas industry in southeastern New Mexico. Hailing from Hobbs’s low-income Chicano community, Juan brings a wealth of knowledge about the issues facing communities subject to polluting industry, and a strong skill set in organizing.

Read Juan Reynosa's story.

I’ve seen great friendships spurred from collaborative work between community members and technical experts...It’s always great to see people learn something valuable from each other.

Myeasha Taylor: Redefining Food Narratives as a Rising Black "Fooducator"

Myeasha J. Taylor is a native Washingtonian dedicated to growing fresh food in urban communities. Her journey of growing food has blessed her with the opportunity to educate people and grow food in Baltimore, D.C., and North Carolina. She is an aspiring “farmacist” (one who grows food as medicine), and aims to create her own business where she can continue to educate, serve, and grow food in disadvantaged communities. Read Myeasha Taylor's story.

Our bodies desire to be nourished, to be fed food that gives us life, not food that takes up space.

Wornie Reed: The Modern Plague of Lead Poisoning

Dr. Wornie Reed is a sociologist and a professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. He is also currently the Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center. Read Wornie Reed's story.

Lead poisoning is more dangerous than some forms of cancer—yet it is virtually ignored by the American public.

What is environmental justice?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has defined environmental justice (EJ) as "The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies."

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