by Caitlyn Johnstone
July 26, 2019
He trained in North Carolina, worked throughout the South and still travels back to New Orleans four times a year to work in the Gulf Coast, but most of the time you’ll find him working right here around the Chesapeake. If you’re seeking knowledge on environmental justice and how the environment affects lives, meet Dr. Sacoby Wilson.
Wilson is a professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health with the University of Maryland-College Park. His research on exposure science, which looks at how chemicals and other elements affect organisms, and air pollution led him to work on uncovering the effects of infrastructure. Both are irrevocably tied with environmental and social justice. We met with Dr. Wilson to discuss his work and what drives his quest for environmental and community health.
What inspires you?
“Oh, it’s the community! They’re engaged. They want to be involved. I’m inspired by the emergence of community science. Science is not an end, but a means to an end. Anybody can be a scientist.”
Community science, also called citizen science, is when the public participates in and conducts scientific research. It has taken off in recent years as organizations have begun to recognize the incredible value of all people to advance scientific understanding across many fields. People care about the environment where they live, and community science gives every resident a chance to affect it for the better.
For many communities, the battle to improve their local environment is a Herculean effort. Wilson worked with the community of Curtis Bay in Baltimore to bring a legal battle against a newly proposed incinerator going into their community.
Environmental injustice was already commonplace in Curtis Bay, thanks to years of toxic hazards. When an area is already polluted, it gets harder and harder to fight against it. Curtis Bay was at one time rated the most toxic zip code in the U.S. for air pollutants on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory. Impacts were compounded by current environmental pollutants and economic pressures, adding to the difficulties for a community to band together and fight for their rights.
Curtis Bay won their fight against the incinerator.
What has been your biggest challenge?
“Making sure impoverished communities are heard in the work. They aren’t available to go to community meetings and talk about bills. As an advocate, a community advocate, I don’t take over for a community. I carry their spirit and voice into those conversations and bills, and I empower them to speak themselves. I work to create the space for communities to share their voice. It’s about having environmental self-determination.”
Wilson further explained environmental justice on an episode of Hip Hop Caucus: “part of the problem is that economic power equates to political power. So, when you think about environmental injustice, you’re talking about economic injustice, you’re talking about political injustice, you’re talking about cultural injustice, you’re talking about public health injustice.”
Nature affects all of us. A community with tree cover, for instance, will have a lower temperature (and therefore less expensive electricity costs) than communities without greenery. Cities trap heat and release it overnight in what is known as the urban heat island effect. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study on heat islands showed a 16 degree temperature difference between the city and its outlying areas. Trees also help control flooding, add to the aesthetic appeal and help clean the air of pollution. Without tree canopy, says Wilson, “you can’t effectively reduce the impacts of poor public health.”
A recent project for Wilson has been Maryland environmental justice screen, a tool to show areas that are vulnerable to environmental injustice. It builds off tools developed by the EPA and California Institute of Technology to create a community-focused detail map of Maryland. Governments can use this tool to make informed decisions on policy and development.
Wilson sees a great chance to correct environmental injustice through this tool, as it leaves decision makers with no excuses for ignoring communities overly burdened by environmental hazards.
What does the Chesapeake Bay mean to you?
“It’s an opportunity to connect with nature. What goes into a river goes to the Bay. A healthy Maryland needs a healthy Bay. Equity and access to resources means a better Bay.”
Find out more about Sacoby Wilson and his work through the University of Maryland.