Sacoby Wilson wants to start a research revolution for environmental justice

Updated: Jan 24



"I like to call my work inpowerment science," says Dr. Sacoby Wilson, Associate Professor, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and the lead for FootPrint Coalition's Community Science and Environmental Justice fast grants program.


"Science is not an end, it's a means to the end," Wilson says. "We want to liberate folks from toxic trauma and environmental slavery."


And through the Science Engine FootPrint Coalition has established with

Experiment.com, Wilson is beginning to select specific projects to address these

issues.


For Wilson, a graduate from the historically black university Alabama A&M and an expert in environmental health, that liberation puts tools in the hands of the local community to inform, educate and empower.


With most initiatives "they're monitoring the geographies with no pollution... and where you have pollution, there's no monitors," he says of most systems that track air and water quality.


"In the environmental justice and social justice sector we need to be doing more, using technology for engagement, assessment and solutions," Wilson says.


That's one reason why he's working with FootPrint Coalition to promote citizen science and help fund projects that bring these tools to the communities that need them.


The burdens of environmental degradation and pollution from industrialization disproportionately fall on the shoulders of people of color and low income communities. And these communities typically lack the resources to effectively communicate to governments about the problems that they face, Wilson says.


"If you look at environmental injustice, it's due to the differential burden of industrial

hazards, differential exposure, and differential access to infrastructure," Wilson says.


And rather than trying to give these communities stopgap solutions that don't fully address the problem, Wilson is hoping these reporting tools can energize and engage to show how much of a difference full decarbonization could make in these communities.


"They don't want fossil gas. They don't want biogas. They don't want that and they don't deserve it," says Wilson of the frontline and fence-line communities that are the focus of his research and advocacy work. "They deserve wind, solar, geothermal, hydrogen and electrification."


For Wilson, who thought he would become a paleontologist, the push for environmental justice and community empowerment began during his time at Alabama A&M, when he met Dr. Robert Bullard, an icon of the environmental justice movement in the U.S., and Benjamin Chavis, the civil rights leader whose protests against PCB dumping in North Carolina became one of the defining early moments for the movement.


It was Bullard's Dumping in Dixie textbook that brought Wilson into the field, where he has emerged as a leading voice for the next wave of environmental science.


"When we talk about environmental injustice, we're talking about a new Jim Crow," says Wilson.


The history of environmental problems for predominantly Black communities in the South extend to the post-Reconstruction period of retrenchment and the enactment of Jim Crow legislation, Wilson says. In that era, communities sprung up that were excluded from towns and cities and became the dumping grounds for industrial waste and refuse. It's a tradition that has continued into the modern era.


Bringing tools to help these underserved communities monitor their environment themselves, and giving these communities an ability to interpret and communicate that data to their political representatives, should give these regions an ability to come up with ways to address the environmental problems they face.


For Wilson, addressing those problems begins with addressing some of the systemic biases that exist in the ways fundamental science is financed and conducted.


"We have big science and academia in the U.S. [and] the system has been rigged," Wilson says. "The system has been rigged against community science and citizen science... The scientific research enterprise in the U.S. is flawed. It privileges big universities. It privileges phDs. And it privileges people who have access to these systems because of a specific skin color."


And through the Science Engine FootPrint Coalition has established with Experiment.com, Wilson is beginning to select specific projects to address these issues.


One project is in North Birmingham, Al., where Wilson is hoping to highlight a project that's using an application to help the local community understand the impacts a superfund site has on their health.


"If you think about North Birmingham there are multiple environmental hazards in the community. You have federal grants out there to do this work. But this lets the people who are most impacted to do the work themselves and once they have that data it can inspire action," Wilson says.


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