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For Environmental Justice Movements, Community Inclusion Is Key

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dr. sylvia hood washington

Courtesy of Sylvia Hood Washington

For environmental movements to succeed equitably, grassroots activists and community members need to be brought into academic discourse, instead of being treated like “lab rats,” according to Dr. Sylvia Hood Washington.

Washington, environmental epidemiologist, joined Worldview Tuesday to talk about environmental justice after more than 140 people were arrested last week during a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“We are not going to run a line like that through Beverly Hills,” she said. “They have too many lawyers, they have too many physicians, they have too many politicians who have legal, political and social voice and capital.

“We do these things in the communities which we believe will not have the political force to make a change,” she said.

Washington, who works as a research scientist at Environmental Health Research Associates and founded the Chicago-based Green Buddha Life Sustainability Center, will give the keynote address at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Black Catholic Initiative’s annual Climate Justice Conference.

She discussed environmental racism in Chicago and why the inclusion of affected communities is vital to the success of environmental justice movements.

On the how lead contamination in Flint, Mich., mirrors lead contamination in Chicago parks and schools:

It’s always those who are least empowered. It’s those who don’t have the power to move away from practices, and from a history and a geography, that contain sinks for pollution.

On the reversal of the Chicago River:

That’s one of the first environmental justice stories of Chicago. It was Eastern European immigrants who suffered the higher rates of disease because the captains of industry had the power to reverse the Chicago River.

On how to address power disparities:

One of the things we’re trying to at the Climate Justice Conference is move away from these communities as being lab rats -- or the topics for people's’ master’s theses and dissertations.

We need people in those communities engaged, being educated and in discourse so they really have a deep heart tie to what’s happening. That’s not going to change if they’re not in the departments, if they’re not making policy decisions.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Press play above to hear the full conversation.

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