Reflections from the National Environmental Justice and Training Program Conference

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By Sarah Wilkins, TEX Project Manager

Who has a voice? Who has the power? And whose stories are we missing?

These are three of the many thought-provoking messages scribbled in my notebook from last week’s National Environmental Justice and Training Program Conference in Washington, D.C. They surfaced during a presentation about place and people-based education by a member of the Ojibwe Tribe from Northern Michigan, and they resonated for me throughout the conference.

The conference brought together academics, public health officials, agency representatives, students from historically black colleges and universities, community leaders, tribal leaders, consultants and advocates to exchange ideas and approaches for achieving environmental justice. According to the United State Environmental Protection Agency, “environmental justice is 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.” This year’s conference theme was Justice, Equality and Equity for Our Youth and Future Generations.

Some of my take-aways:

  • Environmental justice cannot be achieved unless we also address social justice issues.
  • Translation is often essential to working with environmental justice (EJ) communities. In some cases, this may entail the translation of languages, in other cases the translation of experiences.
  • Students are inspirational! Several students took to the podium to talk about their experiences as minorities in the STEM field and their aspirations to not only transform our world into a better place for all but to inspire the next generation of scientists.

The conference also included the debut of a new TEX-hosted workshop structured specifically for community leaders. One of the workshop’s objectives was to show how science can support community priorities through hands-on interactive activities. To kick off the workshop, two guest speakers shared their personal experiences working on community science projects and their insights from interactions with scientists: Eboni Cochran, the Deputy Director of Rubbertown Emergency Action (ReACT) (more about that project here) in Louisville, Kentucky and Dr. Gloria Horning, Vice President of the Tanyard Association in Pensacola, Florida (more here). Here’s some of what they shared:

Given your past experiences, what was your biggest concern about working with a scientist?

  • That the scientist wouldn’t know how to work with my community or be loyal or responsive to my community’s needs.
  • That they wouldn’t take the time to break down technical information in a way that a lay audience can easily digest, or that they would hesitate to share technical information because they don’t think the community can comprehend the science.
  • That they may forget that community members have their own knowledge, expertise and background that enrich and enhance community science projects.

Why is community science important?

  • Working with scientists legitimizes community concerns in the eyes of decision makers.
  • Working together allows scientists and communities to refine science questions to ask.
  • Scientists help communities interpret data and determine how the data can be used to address their priorities.
  • Scientists help determine whether a proposed policy is good for the community.
  • Scientists help communities improve how they communicate about the issues with decision makers, regulatory agencies, and so forth. (Eboni shared an example of how mispronouncing a chemical name can invalidate a community member in the eyes of a regulatory agency.)
  • Scientists help connect the dots between science and health disparities.

The conference also inspired me to think more about trust, listening and empowerment.

Trust, because if we cannot humanize science, if we continue to make science something only the elite can access and understand, then we are doing all of humanity a disservice. By opening access to science and connecting it in meaningful ways in our communities, we help build trust in its process and outcomes.

Listening, because there are ways of knowing the world outside of traditional science. We must listen to each other to better understand our relationships with each other and the land, water and air that sustain us.

And empowerment, because each one of us has unalienable rights to a clean environment. The existence of fenceline and frontline communities is a product of social and racial injustices. We must all stand up for diversity, inclusion and healthy communities.

As one conference speaker put it, “We must maintain and expand partnerships that are transformational—and not transactional.”

Thank you to the EPA CUPP program and Michael Burns for inviting TEX to NEJC this year–including a panel where Natasha Udu-gama, TEX Senior Specialist, and TEX team members presented on their community science projects.

Sarah Wilkins editor