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Flint water crisis

Flint water crisis

Democracy and Environmental Justice

SCU students are working with Communication Department faculty to understand and promote environmental justice.

SCU students are working with Communication Department faculty to understand and promote environmental justice.

Communication faculty members are helping to tell the stories of how low-income communities of color cope with severe environmental and health threats, and how they are organizing to protect themselves. In the process, SCU students are discovering the role they can play in promoting environmental justice.

Senior Lecturer Gordon Young has written extensively about his hometown of Flint, Michigan before, during, and after the Flint Water Crisis made international headlines. His portrayals in the New York Times of Flint residents fighting against the odds to improve their city reveal that there is still hope in a place that can seem hopeless to outsiders. Young's book, Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, captures the spirit of the city and the efforts of innovative urban planners and policymakers searching for ways to help Flint and other "shrinking cities."

Yet his analysis of political and economic trends reveals that it would take far more than willpower and civic pride to improve the city. And that fixing the water crisis will not solve Flint's fundamental problems. True environmental and social justice will require a national effort.

"Simply dealing with the latest calamity without having a national conversation about why these bad things happen to places like Flint—and coming up with systematic, long-term solutions—ensures that in five or 10 years we will be right back where we started," Young wrote in Politico. "Flint’s problems may seem outsized, but they are not isolated and hold dire lessons for the rest of America. A growing number of places throughout the country look a lot like my hometown, defined by persistent poverty, crumbling infrastructure and a populace that feels betrayed and abandoned. If you think your community is immune from these problems, I’d ask you to reconsider. A familiar line I’ve heard more than once around town is a warning we should all heed, regardless of where we live: 'Flint, coming to a city near you.'"

Students in Assistant Professor Chan Thai's Technology & Communication course get a more global perspective by examining how the manufacture and disposal of various technological devices affects the environment and workers around the world.

Through readings, videos, and class discussions, students are guided through the life cycle of smartphones, laptops, computers, and tablets. They learn that mining raw materials — also known as "conflict minerals" — is essentially funding a war and fueling sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. China-based manufacturing workers then put in long hours for little pay to make the devices. Finally, students examine why only 20 percent of our electronics are recycled and most are shipped to China where they are disposed of improperly, leading to the threat of toxic chemicals being released into the environment.

“The class is able to offer students some tangible ways to reconsider their consumption patterns related to technological devices and how they could be more conscientious consumers and advocates for policies that support environmental justice and human rights,” Thai said.

Professor Chad Raphael has spent two decades advising advocates on communication campaigns for safer electronics production and e-waste recycling to protect workers and communities from lead, benzene, and other hazardous substances.

“These problems started in the early 1980s with the discovery of chemical contamination in Silicon Valley groundwater from some of the early semiconductor plants and spread around the world as the industry globalized,” Raphael said.  Public health researchers found abnormally high rates of cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects near some of these spills and among the industry’s workers. “By the 1990s, e-waste became the fastest growing and most toxic segment of the waste stream in the U.S., and most of it was shipped to Asia and Africa, where it threatened recycling workers and their communities.”

More recently, Raphael worked with an interdisciplinary group of Santa Clara faculty members to organize a conference on community-engaged research on environmental justice.  “People in less healthy communities have a healthy skepticism about researchers who get grants to study environmental justice problems without doing much to help solve them,” he said. “They rightly expect us to democratize research and make it more useful by sharing control with communities over funding, research questions, publicizing results, and implementing solutions.” 

Held at Santa Clara in May 2019, the conference convened more than 250 students, faculty, and staff from Santa Clara and other universities to meet with representatives of community-based organizations. They collaborated to:

  • Help Jesuit, Catholic, and other universities to form regional and global networks for research and teaching about environmental justice.
  • Draw on exemplary projects to share lessons about how university and community partners can work together well.
  • Incubate new collaborative projects with community-based organizations and strengthen regional networking in Northern California.

In breakout groups, participants explored potential partnerships on issues such as food, water, and climate justice, toxics, the personal dimensions of social change, and more. Raphael circulated a guide to conducting engaged research for environmental justice which he wrote for the conference.  Students and faculty also presented examples of their community-engaged research on EJ at a poster session.

Many participants were inspired by Pope Francis’ call in his groundbreaking encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ for an “integral ecology” that addresses the links between poverty and environmental harm. In addition, outgoing Santa Clara University President Michael Engh, S.J. opened the conference by reiterating the challenge he gave the university in his inaugural address a decade ago to “champion environmental justice, and to do so explicitly for the sake of and alongside the poorest in our world.”

Thanks to support from Father Engh and incoming university President Kevin O’Brien, S.J., the Santa Clara team will continue to build on the conference in the coming years, forging new partnerships among community-based organizations and universities to study and strengthen environmental justice.

“Environmental justice communities don’t just want cleaner water and air,” Raphael said. “They want past injustices corrected. And they want more control over future policy decisions that affect their environment and health. They want more democracy.”

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