Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Building an Academic Ecosystem for Environmental Justice and Health

Dr. Sacoby Wilson is a Professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, as well as at the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Health. He is also the Director of T.H.E. EJ Lab and the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health. Dr. Wilson visited IBES on March 16 and 17, and provided this interview, which was edited for clarity and length.  


Q: Your center has environmental justice, health, and community in its title. How is environmental justice connected to health at the community level? 

A: Health is at the heart of  environmental justice. Why do people complain about the hazards of pollution? Because it also impacts their health. Kids have asthma. People are worried about dying from cancer. Health. The whole framing allows you to really connect the dots. 


Q: Has community engagement always been a part of your work?

A: It came into focus in grad school. Some of my mentors introduced me to the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, where I really got to see how a network should look, how you collaborate and partner with communities, how you make sure communities are driving the work. All that came from, sure, being trained at USC, but really from working and being immersed in the community. I really try to uplift the community and make sure others are in the space. That's the model. It has to be a win-win-win: a win for you as an individual, a win for your institution, a win for the community.


Q: So much of your academic scholarship centers on justice. How can academia more explicitly integrate justice into all that it does? 

A: You have to overhaul academia. It's a tall order. You’ve got to create safe spaces for people to have conversations, deal with implicit bias, put anti-racism and justice into the curriculum. Do the opposite of what's happening in Florida right now. You have to really bake it into the curriculum and the training; integrate it throughout every aspect of the organizational structure. 

You need an overarching strategic plan for the university, for each institute, each department. Then you need your partners who help you implement that. They have to be part of the evaluation team, they need to be on the steering committee. Do you have community leaders and social justice leaders on your steering committee? Are you paying them for that time? Are you working with K–12 schools? You’ve got to be doing those local partnerships. 

So you have to change the whole ecosystem. And that doesn't happen overnight, because the ecosystem has been this way for decades. And then if leadership changes, it can all go away. You have to get a lot of stuff in place and baked into the system, so that if someone disagrees with the politics and tries to undermine the work, they can't. And you have endowments, which allows you to have sustainability and durability as well. 

But I think the justice focus is really important — and being honest about your positionality and the benefits that the university has when it comes to justice work. Think: How does it look to be an ally university? An ally institute? How can we activate the infrastructure to benefit the community? 

It's like some Star Trek characters — very important, but they're in a supporting role. You don't see them, but you know they're there; without them, the enterprise would flood. Think about social movements: you got a lot of the people as the face, they're the leaders. But all those thousands of folks doing the work, grinding — they keep the movement going. So as an ally, how can you be part of that infrastructure that keeps the movement going and growing? And then when it's over, you're still ready to go and provide support, infrastructure, and resources. Have students who come in, have staff who can come in; university leadership can provide support when needed. 


Q: Unfortunately, it seems that environmental justice has become a deeply partisan issue. Where do you see our political system playing into all of these things?

A: I mean, that's part of the problem: politics. The winds will change, so all this money that's out there and all this emphasis on environmental justice is going to change if a different administration or political party comes in. Now there’s the state level, too, which maybe doesn't turn over as quickly. You have to bake stuff in, regardless of political party. It isn’t necessarily going to be resilient. But at the federal level, a lot of us are worried about all this money that's out there. The systems that allocate the money have a history of being biased against the communities. So we should have green banks and separate systems to directly invest in or apply to, because we’ve got racist systems. 

One of my mentors once asked, 'How do we expect money to get into a county where instead of pulling down confederate monuments, they put up fences to protect them?' You expect that county to give money to communities of color? No. 


Q: Do you have advice for students who are looking to get into this work?

A: You have to find the right mentor who values the work, who supports your why, who sets you up for success. And you need courses focused on environmental justice and community engagement. There should be community mentors, and they need to be paid to do that work. And then to really ramp it up, you should have actual environmental justice degrees. I think right now the only university that has a master's level or above degree in environmental justice is Michigan. And that's been the case for over 20 years, which is sad. 

Since we haven't had actual degree programs, not enough people actually have the sensitivity, empathy, skills, orientation, motivation, and mission for environmental justice. So that's also part of the infrastructure we need:  we've got to have people. This is not a peripheral issue. This should be integral to what we do as academic institutions: train students to integrate social, racial, economic, environmental justice into who they are. We should have interdisciplinary programs so we're training scholars who can do research but also translate it into action to address these problems. 

A lot of institutions are starting climate centers because climate change is going to impact us all. Well, guess what? Racism, hate, discrimination, and social injustice have been impacting folks. And for people in certain states, unfortunately, climate change is just going to make their situations worse. So you need courses and concentrations at the undergraduate level and degrees at the graduate level. Every school should have a dean for community engagement. And then you need external committees that you work with: external partners, public-private partnerships that you want to engage in. Make sure you're engaging with folks in the health sector and folks in social impact entrepreneurship. That, to me, is the ecosystem we need.