Introduction: Using Research for Environmental Justice

Credits, Vol. 11, No 2.

Editors Emeritus
Carl Anthony
Luke Cole

Editors & Publishers
Juliet Ellis
Peggy Shepard

Ziba Kashef

Guest Editors
Bhavna Shamasunder
Swati Prakash

Guillermo Prado, 8•2 Design Studio

Website Conversion
Editing and Design: Ben Jesse Clarke
Design: Tumis
Publishing Assistant: Mike Matz

Cover Photo
Jean Riordan

Race, Poverty & the Environment is published twice annually. Articles are © 2004 by their authors. Annual subscriptions are $20 for groups and individuals; $40 for institutions (or free for grassroots groups upon request). Send submissions and subscription checks to RPE, 436 14th Street, #1205, Oakland, CA 94612.

This joint issue of RPE is a project of Urban Habitat Program and WE ACT for Environmental Justice. It is supported by the Ford Foundation, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Beldon Fund.

RPE was first published n 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. The views reflected in RPE are not necessarily those of the Editors or Urban Habitat.

Urban Habitat Advisory Board Member,  Winter 2004
Fred Blackwell (Co-Chair), Annie E. Casey Foundation
Joe Brooks (Co-Chair), PolicyLink
Tamar Dorfman, Corporation for Supportive Housing
Arnold Perkins, Alameda Public Health Department
Bernida Reagan, Port of Oakland
Belvie Rooks, Carrie Productions, Inc.
Omowale Satterwhite, Community Development Institute
James Tim Thomas, East Bay Habitat for Humanity

About This Issue


About this IssueWe’re excited to present the Winter 2004 issue of RPE, a joint project of Urban Habitat and WE ACT for Environmental Justice. As Urban Habitat was brainstorming the topic of science’s role in the EJ Movement, WE ACT had recently finished guest editing the April 2002 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal that featured 24 articles about community-based research in communities of color. This joint RPE issue enables us to bring some of that research, as well as new ideas and case studies regarding the place of science and research in the EJ Movement to a broader audience of individuals and organizations working for social and environmental justice. 

The issue is designed to tackle some key questions: What are the legacy and limitations of science, research, technology and public health methodologies that underpin environmental policies? And how has dependence on existing paradigms of science perpetuated environmental racism? In the first section of the issue, three knowledgeable leaders address the role science has played in the EJ Movement. Azibuike Akaba of the Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project in Oakland presents the big picture, while Karen Pierce of Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates (in San Francisco) and Shawna Larson of Alaska Coalition Against Toxics offer their local perspectives.

In the next section, WE ACT’s Environmental Health Director, Swati Prakash, examines the often unspoken problem of uneven power relations between communities of color and academic and government researchers and institutions. Her article suggests specific strategies for forming more equitable research partnerships. This analysis section includes an article that dissects the problem with the dominant scientific method used by mainstream scientists to evaluate environmental risks—risk assessments. Articles also offer an overview and analysis of community-based participatory research or CBPR.

This issue presents a number of model case studies that illustrate how communities and their allies have begun to “take back” science, including: a nuclear hazards management campaign initiated by Native Americans in the Southwest; a community-driven diesel study that resulted in concrete changes for residents of West Oakland; an asthma survey and campaign conducted in New York’s Chinatown; a coalition effort to block hog industry expansion near communities of color in North Carolina; and youth-driven research in Massachusetts. We round out this section with snapshots of additional models for EJ advocates to learn from and emulate.

As always, RPE ends with a look toward the future. In the final section, contributors discuss such strategies as “holistic” environmental decision-making that takes into account the social, cultural and spiritual practices of communities. In another article, the Environmental Health Coalition advances the idea of using research results to not only combat specific sources of toxics but to also promote the principle of precaution. Finally, the Golden Gate Environmental Law and Justice Clinic offers a list of standards for fostering more just environmental decision-making.

All in all, the issue serves as a call to action for low-income communities of color. To protect our communities, the EJ Movement must engage in the debate over environmental science and research, and become active participants in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

From the Director's Desk

Scientific research and technology have been key tools in the struggle for environmental and social justice. Research and data interpreted by environmental justice activists have provided much of the evidence community advocates use to bolster claims of disproportionate environmental impacts on poor communities of color. Yet the EJ Movement has not fully embraced science.

While environmental health has been an important focus for poor communities, EJ groups haven’t typically been involved in the research because environmental health advocates and scientists tend to focus primarily on health outcomes and environmental inputs, and academic disciplines like toxicology, without an analysis of such factors as race and class. This problem leaves EJ activists torn between their need for science and their disappointment in it because it often comes from a perspective that discounts their experiences. 

On a national level, we have witnessed how politicians can distort or ignore even the most rigorous science (e.g. global warming, mercury emissions) for political and economic ends. Polluting industries can hire expensive scientists to prove their case while communities, lacking comparable resources, often don’t have the expertise or the opportunity to object. But when there are such rollbacks in environmental policy and a lack of enforcement, communities of color and low-income people are hit hardest.

We bring this issue to you at a time when environmental illnesses, such as asthma, are on the rise and the desire for data linking environmental factors to illnesses is growing. Because low-income people are most affected, they are at the forefront of demanding science that is more accountable to their everyday realities. Through techniques such as community-based participatory research, communities are not only gaining skills and greater capacity, but more tools that can be turned into action.

As we shift the research paradigm on the ground, we must also advocate with our representatives to make sure public policy supports the needs of affected communities. Decision-makers must adhere to guidelines for meaningful public participation in the process of conducting environmental impact reports and other findings that affect communities.

UH Update:

  • As part of our transportation justice campaign, UH recently helped organize a regional diesel meeting, “Ditching Dirty Diesel.” More than 100 EJ and asthma advocates gathered in Oakland to share strategies, build capacity, and identify core regional campaigns to address the burden of diesel pollution in our communities.
  • This fall, UH joined local leaders in supporting the reauthorization and enforcement of the Local Employment Program (LEP) ordinance in Richmond, California—largely a low-income community of color. Since 2001, LEP has called for the employment of Richmond residents in City-supported development projects.
  • In preparation for the 2005 World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, UH hosted discussion groups to inform local activists about the impact of global economic trends on communities of color worldwide. After hosting a public forum on globalization with allies at the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community at UC-Santa Cruz, we plan to raise funds to send a delegation from the Social Equity Caucus to the WSF.

We hope you enjoy this issue of RPE and welcome your feedback.

In solidarity,

Signature JRE

Juliet Ellis
Executive Director


Letter from WE ACT

Environmental justice is a global movement challenging the disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental degradation borne by communities of color and low-income people, and the egregious racial disparities health linked to these exposures. This issue of Race, Poverty and the Environment explores a theme of science, health and environmental justice that has increasingly sharpened the focus of WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s work. WE ACT is a New York City-based environmental justice organization dedicated to building community power to fight environmental racism and improve environmental health, protection and policy in communities of color.

This publication is the realization of a collaboration between WE ACT and Urban Habitat, two social justice organizations working in distinct regions of this country to explore a key tool and dynamic—science and technology —that has great impact on our ability to support the development of healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

WE ACT’s focus on science began when we realized that evidence-based organizing campaigns moved policymakers and empowered residents. We realized that the lack of scientific literacy, information, data, and context was a serious void that contributed to the systemic exclusion of communities of color from decision-making. community residents living in Harlem in the late 1980’s, we demanded health studies to assess the environmental exposures of residents living near the multiple diesel bus depots and sewage treatment plants that mar our neighborhood.

No officials responded to this call, so WE ACT, then an unincorporated volunteer group, began a process inquiry, outreach and relationship building that ultimately led to collaborative research with Harlem Hospital and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. In 1997, WE ACT was awarded our first Environmental Justice grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), who continues to support work reshaping and redirecting the environmental health research agenda to include the critical concerns of communities of color.

Our improved understanding and public communication about how the environment affects our community health has helped us successfully avert noxious land uses — such as a city marine waste transfer station that until this month was destined to open in West Harlem. We are also proactively creating healthy urban environments incorporating green and healthy building design principles to renovate an abandoned brownstone, and by participating in the creation and maintenance of Harlem on the River, a community-designed waterfront park.

As a movement, Environmental Justice has articulated a powerful vision of justice that places human health the center of environmental struggles. Yet the circle of funders embracing the notion that environmental health and environmental justice struggles are intimately linked remains small. Looking ahead to the future, we will continue to hold dialogue with the larger funding community about helping environmental justice organizations to reclaim the tools of science. The old paradigm that some groups organize, some do research, and some transform policy is slowly being augmented with an approach that builds the technical and research capacity of organized grassroots base to demand long-term policy change. As RPE contributor Azibuike Akaba states, our organizations “have taken the tools of research and technology and turned these into weapons and strategies that serve to defend our communities.”

In Unity,
Peggy M. Shepard

11-2 Signature Peggy Shepherd

Executive Director/Co-Founder WE ACT For Environmental Justice


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