A Movement for Community-Oriented Science

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By: Leija Helling, Organizing Intern
Today marks the inauguration of Joe Biden as our president and there is work to be done. Across the country, groups are coming together in an effort to push the incoming administration on progressive policies. We must continue to demand better from our government and, unlike over the past four years, we are soon to have a White House that just might listen.
Throughout the past few months, part of my work at CHEJ has included contributing to our Unequal Response Unequal Protection campaign, a project through which CHEJ is seeking to make its voice heard in the Biden White House. The campaign is attempting to address the federal government’s repeated failure to protect communities from toxic pollution, building on growing calls for community-oriented approaches to science across environmental and public health fields. We centered community voices in our process by holding multiple meetings with local leaders from EJ and Superfund communities throughout the country to discuss their experiences around environmental contamination and public health studies. These conversations helped me understand why building trusting partnerships between scientists and marginalized communities and creating a substantive role for local expertise in the scientific process are so crucial to developing strategies for environmental justice.
The burden of proof is one example of how the current scientific approach fails to protect communities from the health impacts of environmental contamination. Impacted communities currently bear the burden of proving their health issues were caused directly by exposure to toxics in the environment. This can be incredibly difficult to do, as exposures can add up over years and health conditions can be caused by the cumulative effects of many exposures and risk factors. Agencies can use a lack of hard proof of a direct link between a chemical exposure and a health condition to deny a community the intervention they need. In other words, the current response assumes chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. The system values scientific certainty over protection of communities being harmed. This approach cannot provide environmental justice. Something that is not statistically significant can still be causing harm!
All this reminds me of an article I recently read by a professor in the Science, Technology and Society department at my university. The piece first talks about a “data-to-action paradigm” which leads us to believe that more data and better science will tell us how to solve problems. More data and more science equals more action, according to this model. What we need, Professor Samantha Jo Fried argues, is a new “civic engagement paradigm” where issues that matter to the public would guide the scientific process through collaborative partnerships between empowered communities and humbled scientists. I believe CHEJ’s Unequal Response campaign and the many community groups and organizations that are working alongside us in these efforts are attempting to provide just that. This would be a fundamentally different approach, but it is only through these equal partnerships and collaborative processes that science can address the disparate impact of environmental hazards on low-wealth communities and communities of color.

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