Part 3 with Julie Sze, discussing her book Noxious New York, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.
WF: What place did science play in the EJ issues of the communities you’ve studied? We’ve talked about tensions between expertise, technical knowledge, and lived community experience in other conversations. It’s a vast subject, in fact, and I shouldn’t cast this question so tidily. But for Noxious New York, where did scientific practices fit?
JS: Science played a large part in the story I told in New York City, a story that echoes many different places and problems. Primarily, I was interested in how communities engaged environmental health and air pollution research, and argued that the questions that activists brought to the table deepened the knowledge base around the question of how asthma comes to be, how best to treat it, how do you measure cumulative impact? etc. what environmental justice activists do in the realm of science, is to make the questions more complex, using what Jason Corburn calls “the Jazz of practice” in his excellent book Street Science. [Ed. note: Gregg Mitman’s Breathing Space offers a nice complement here on the historical context of asthma.]
WF: What do you hope for the combination of scientific practice and the EJ movement?
JS: I’m hopeful in general about the combination, I think. In an article I wrote with a collaborator in New York City in an interdisciplinary urban public health textbook, we really outline this concept of environmental justice praxis. We define EJ praxis as “a practice based on a holistic worldview that integrates environmental justice organizing, policy analysis and research. Environmental justice praxis also opens up new roads to interdisciplinary practice.” Of course, we are arguing that this holistic worldview both creates better knowledge, and better policy in the field of urban public health and community development. There are lots of examples of cutting edge research in environmental health that is deeply informed by the movement, research that has major public health implications, especially in California.
WF: How have the community members that you write about responded to your book?
JS: Pretty well. Many of the activists that I wrote about have gained recognition in a number of important ways, in the realm of policy and activism of course, but also in policymaking. I find interesting, for example, that Mayor Bloomberg brought one of the activists I talk about–Eddie Bautista–on board to work on New York City’s sustainability plan. After being cast out in the wilderness for about a decade, environmental justice activists were increasingly recognize as being some of the most creative policy makers in the city on issues of health and environment.
WF: I want to finish up by asking quickly about your work at UC-Davis, where the dominant EJ issues are of a different sort. Is it urban versus agrarian? Residents rights versus workers rights? Am I close?
JS: Environmental injustice and inequality looks different on the surface of it–but there are some structural similarities. First off, asthma and air pollution are major issues in the Central Valley, even though the issues are not primarily urban, but rural and stemming often from pesticides, and automobiles (and the unique topography of the state).
Of course, UC Davis has a problematic history related to this landscape of social and environmental inequality, with a large part of the agenda having long been a handmaiden of corporate agribusiness (and of course, on the opposite side as well) . Thus, as founding director of the Environmental Justice Project at UC Davis, we try to generate interdisciplinary knowledge that supports social movements fighting to improve a landscape of environmental and social inequality. We are attempting to engage many of the leading environmental scientists on our campus, as well as engaging in meaningful campus/community collaborations. But that’s a long-term process of course!
WF: I wish you good luck on it. And I’ll suggest some websites for readers.
JS: Yes, check out our websites. The first is our general website, here. But we’ve also been involved in some work around storytelling which has been very compelling. The second is called 25 stories, which is a great site especially if you want to teach these topics–we are working on incorporating curricula, some of the women’s stories, and some maps.