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Injecting Knowledge to Cure Injustice

2013 May 9

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By Dr. Sacoby Wilson

Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I had a fondness of the Big River and the love of the environment.  Unfortunately, I was aware that some communities did not enjoy the same level of environmental quality that others did.  I grew up near a concrete plant, waste water treatment plant, oil facility, and power plant in the background.  My father was a pipefitter who over the years worked at nuclear power plants, oil refineries, coal fired plants and was exposed to many contaminants.  These experiences, combined with my diagnosis at age 7 with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, really drove me to explore why some communities were burdened by hazards and unhealthy land uses and how exposure to environmental stressors can lead to negative health outcomes.


I was inspired to use my interest in science and environmental health for environmental justice after meeting Drs. Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard in the early 1990s. These professors taught me the value of getting out of the ivory towers of academia and getting into communities to spread knowledge to push for positive change. Since then, I have been a passionate advocate for environmental justice working in partnership with community groups across the United States. Through this work, I have learned that the use of science to empower through education, paired with community organizing and civic engagement, is the key to alleviating environmental injustices.

One of those individuals who helped me understand the importance of getting communities into the research process was Omega Wilson.  Wilson’s Group, the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) has  fought against environmental injustice, infrastructure disparities, and the lack of basic amenities for the last twenty years.  WERA leaders have used a community-driven research approach known as community-owned and managed research (COMR) to address environmental injustice in their community.  COMR focuses on the collection of data for action, compliance, and social change.  In combination with EPA’s collaborative-problem-solving model, WERA’s work provides a blueprint for other communities to use partnerships, stakeholder engagement, action-oriented research, and legal tools to achieve environmental justice.

Untitled-2As a professor who learned through my mentors, I also firmly believe in inspiring the next generation of academics to take their tools and research into communities that need it the most. Currently, I am building a program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) at the University of Maryland-College Park. CEEJH is building off existing work of leaders in the DC Metropolitan region to address environmental justice and health issues at the grassroots level; we use community-university partnerships, capacity-building, and community empowerment to address environmental justice and health issues in the Chesapeake Bay region.  Following in the footsteps of WERA, I plan to inspire young people to be bold, courageous, and become advocates for environmental justice.

About the author: Dr. Wilson is an environmental health scientist with expertise in environmental justice and environmental health disparities. His primary research interests are related to issues that impact underserved, socially and economically disadvantaged, marginalized, environmental justice, and health disparity populations. He is building a Program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) to study and address health issues for environmental justice and health disparity populations through community-university partnerships and the use of CBPR in Maryland and beyond.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Deborah permalink
    May 9, 2013

    Another great video and blog! It is great to hear from a Academic who is actually out there in the community supporting and empowering citizens to make change in their neighborhoods. Keep up the great work Dr. Wilson and let’s keep the EJ in Action Video Series going, it seems to be one of the few places that is sharing voices of people who are actually doing real work.


  2. Carlton Eley permalink
    May 10, 2013

    One of the reasons why Dr. Wilson is so passionate about environmental justice as a professor is because he strives to make a lasting impression on students about ‘priorities and values’ as they make their way through the educational pipeline.

  3. Marvin S. Robinson, II permalink
    May 13, 2013

    WHEN can we get you to come to KANSAS CITY to help our community decode what is relly going on in our area: YOUR interview is EXTREMELY valuable and in our area, there are people who do NOT even think that the residents should be allowed to have amss community TOWN HALL meetiing to evenhear about the dispairities of the UNDER-SERVED.
    So when you do a very super very short interview, or commentary such as the one O am trying to respond to: all I can say is THANK YOU and Appreciate your message very much. And then, too leaderhship, not the U.S.-E.P.A. staffers or officials, but others are allowed to openly and flagrantly disregard the issues of TOXIC RACE and Waste. Then quiet, very subtle and in some instance vindictive revenge and retaliation is allowed to occur, because all the professional science people, are busy doing their own reports and and officials in other governmental entities, take and use their authority to repress and oppress: all while the over-all community is not invited / nor welcomed to even get the information about how serious the matters of are about TOXIC WASTE. SO thank you and again, BLESS you.
    I am a giant supporter of what our E.P.A. continues to try and do, to help us, but then tere- always all these other(s), in any event THANK YOU-

    Marvin S. Robinson, II
    Quindaro Ruins / Underground Railraod- Exercise 2013

  4. Bradley S. Hayes permalink
    May 14, 2013

    I want to say you are right, but in Ashland Ky there are abandon mines all over city, they, city officials created fake property deeds for land that was former coal operation, I can say this for sure, I researched all records, my grandfather’s land is severly contaminated with mining chemicals, I had land tested, we just did Autopsy on my grandfather and he tested positive for all five chemicals, Lead-high, Arsenic-high, and Chromium, his test for this chemical were off the charts, highest ever recorded in Humans, sometimes cities and state cover this up, they choose energy companies over people. Also Mercury-high, Cadmium-high.

  5. Devorah permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Academia does have a role to play as long as their is an equal partnership with communities and other stakeholders.

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