Environmental Health’s Place in Social Justice

By Cally Xi

November 1, 2019

Being an Environmental Health Sciences student tends not to be the most cheerful of disciplines. This is especially true when one specializes in environmental quality and sustainability. I can list off the harmful chemicals the everyday person may encounter in air we breathe, food we eat, personal care products we use, and the furniture that we sit on. I used to struggle to keep information to myself because 1) I didn’t want to scare anyone and 2) a lot of the time, there is very little that we as individuals can do to avoid exposure to these toxins. At the time, I feared that change – in the context of environmental health – could only arrive in the form of stricter regulations and policies. Changes that I did not anticipate happening any time in the near future. I had never factored in the possibility of applying my knowledge to the non-profit sector and in environmental justice movements.

My time at Air Alliance Houston triggered a change in perspective. In my three months in Houston, I worked on four projects, all of which required my knowledge of air pollutants and United States environmental policy.

For example, I spent one-month making fact sheets for Houston’s most common air pollutants, containing pollution sources, health effects, and steps they could take to reduce their exposures. The work wasn’t sophisticated; I wasn’t pioneering advocacy projects in Houston communities, warning them of the dangerous contaminants in the air. In fact, a good chunk of my time was spent at my desk with an aching back and a mug of coffee, conducting something many scientists actively dislike: a literature review. But luckily, I enjoy reading and I understood the value of that literature review and the place that research and facts have within the narrative of advocating for clean air. It is difficult – but not impossible – to advocate for your air if you don’t know what’s in it. So, with my fact sheets, I wanted to arm Houstonians not only with knowledge of their air, but with actions they could take.

It is not only vital for community members to have knowledge of their environment and their air, but also for community members to know the public participation options that are available to them, whether it be reporting environmental pollution issues to their local agencies, participating in the permitting process, or commenting on draft environmental impact assessments. Environmental health students and specialists can play a large role in facilitating and guiding participation in a way that can empower communities to take charge of their own environmental quality.

Through my fellowship experience, I learned that I, as an environmental health student, have a place within advocacy spheres. We don’t only have to work exclusively in government agencies, research, and industry. Our knowledge and expertise are needed in other areas, in ones where we can actively help and empower the communities most impacted by the pollutants we study.

About Cally Xi

Cally Xi is from Broomfield, CO and is currently a 2nd year graduate student at the University of Michigan pursuing a Master in Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences. She also has a B.A. in Biology with a specialization in Neuroscience from Colby College. Through the Environmental Fellows Program, Cally served as the Environmental Fellow at Air Alliance Houston in Houston, Texas thanks to the generous support of the JPB Foundation.