The primary goal of the environmental justice movement is to involve all people in the process of developing, implementing and enforcing environmental law so that everyone receives equitable protection.
In practice, it’s a complicated endeavor, requiring coordination among experts on what’s happening in affected communities, implications for public health, legal protections, policy and regulatory protocols. In order for any one group of experts to work effectively, they often must borrow expertise and insights from other groups. Community members need to understand their rights. Lawyers need science to win cases. Scientists need to understand the needs of the affected communities. But working together can be hard. Cultural assumptions and language can vary widely from one group to the next, and, because of historical injustices, levels of trust may be low.
How can we engage better?
One step in the right direction was the Third Annual Environmental Law Symposium titled “Environmental Justice for Washington and Beyond” organized by the University of Washington (UW) School of Law and co-sponsored by the UW Superfund Research Program (UW SRP) and UW Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics & Environment.
Held at UW on November 2, the one-day symposium brought together lawyers, scientists, elected officials, agency administrators, tribal members, and advocates to advance a collective understanding of the rights and needs of affected communities. Registration was free and open to the public, and participants packed the 180-seat auditorium for most of the day.
One highlight of the day was the panel of tribal members organized by the UW SRP. Members of the panel included Larry Campbell, an elder in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community; Clarita Lefthand-Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and professor in the UW Information School; Rosalina James, of Lummi and Duwamish descent and Director of Evaluation and Research at the Urban Indian Health Institute; and Jessica Hernandez of Zapotec & Ch’orti’ descent and a PhD student in the UW College of the Environment. One theme of the panel was the need to understand how relationships to the natural world are integral to the identity of native peoples so that moving from contaminated sites or ceasing to eat contaminated food sources may not be viable methods of reducing health risks. The panel provided an essential component to the symposium- first-hand accounts from members of communities subjected to environmental justice.
We hope that participants left the symposium with concrete ideas about ways to better engage with members of other groups in order to advance the goals of environmental justice.