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.
As 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.