What Do We Look Like in the Eyes of Injustice?

At the 17th Annual Lakewood Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, Christian Paige asked the crowd “What do you look like in the eyes of your enemy?” Paige is an Emmy-nominated spoken word poet and Lakewood native. He went on to question what he might look like to oppression, poverty, white supremacy, eviction, and homelessness. He offered an alternative to the all so common “broken ideologies and poorly written policies that chronically create disproportionalities”— collective community impact to address oppression, gaps in services, and poverty. Listening to his words, I felt like Mr. Paige was speaking directly to me.

Gail Pethe and I were at the event representing the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s Lakewood Community Engagement team. Lakewood is a focus community the Agency has identified to work with based on the community’s historic challenges to economic opportunity and decision-making access. These factors, and other compounding issues, result in disproportionate impacts on the community from air pollution.  We came prepared with a table display highlighting African American "Hidden Heroes” of Environmental Science. 

Our “Hidden Heroes” display was in response to a call from Grant Twyman, the Lakewood School District Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Specialist, to highlight a broad range of African American achievements.  We highlighted:

  • Valerie Thomas, Ph.D.: NASA scientist and inventor of the illusion transmitter
  • Robert Doyle Bullard, Ph.D.: Sociologist credited as the father of environmental justice
  • Lisa Perez Jackson: The first African American Administrator of the EPA
  • Benjamin Banneker: Born a free man in 1731, the first African American scientist
  • Gladys West, Ph.D.: Navy mathematician whose work led to the development of GPS
  • Warren Washington, Ph.D.: A pioneer in computer modeling of the Earth’s climate system

What do air quality and environmental science have to do with an MLK Day celebration? Dr. King helped plant the seeds for what is now called environmental justice. The civil rights movement focused on the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of everyone in society, especially marginalized people. Dr. King also worked directly toward improving the environment where people of color lived and worked. He protested poor housing conditions in Chicago in 1966, and led a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, shortly before he died (read more here and here). The civil rights movement brought together many different people with a common interest, which is similar to the modern day environmental movement.

Our goal at the event was to showcase African American leaders in STEM so young people can see their own leadership reflected in people that look like them.  Lack of diversity and representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color is an important issue across so many parts of our society, including in STEM and especially the Earth Sciences.  “But science is objective!” you might say --  “the answers don’t depend on who you are!” There is growing recognition that diversity makes better science, because the questions we ask depend on who we are. How studies get designed, which grant proposals get funded, which papers get published, all of these nuts-and-bolts of the scientific enterprise depends on who is asking questions and making decisions.

These same concepts of what questions get asked and what issues get prioritized link directly to environmental justice, equity work, and community collaborations. Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice, highlighted how involvement of marginalized communities shifted environmentalism from focusing on “more-privileged wildlife- and conservation-oriented groups” to including disparities in the environment of where we live, work, and play. The meaningful involvement of communities means making room for historically disenfranchised groups, whether through taking the time to learn about minority scientists, or taking the time to participate in community events. The latter can be a step toward hearing and understanding the right questions.

Now, how does this look in the eyes of injustice?  Was our participation and presentation a symbolic action or a small step toward meaningful engagement and change? Where does highlighting African American Environmental Scientists fall? While representation is important, I have little delusion that we inspired a generation of Earth Scientists; there are many barriers beyond “lack of interest” that lead to the lack of diversity in STEM and the Earth Sciences in particular. Did this action, regardless of intent, simply make us feel better about ourselves as white people?

Only time will tell. However, through this event, we had the opportunity to speak with several high-school students from the Lakewood Youth Council who are interested in Environmental Justice and reducing transportation pollution in their neighborhoods. We also connected with the Science Chair at the Lochburn Middle School in Lakewood. We have been invited and plan to participate in their upcoming 6th grade Science Fair. My hope is that through the Lakewood Focus Community work we can keep listening for the questions, keep showing up where it is helpful, and keep finding ways we can work with community members to create a healthier, more equitable environment.

Blog by Sarah Waldo, Ph.D., Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Air Monitoring Specialist
Artwork by Joanna Gangi, Equity and Community Engagement Communications Specialist