We’ve Only Just Begun: 2012 First Annual Environmental Justice and Environmental Health Disparities Symposium for Maryland and Washington, DC

On Saturday, December 1, 2012, University of Maryland’s School of Public Health hosted the First Annual Environmental Justice and Environmental Health Disparities Symposium for Maryland and Washington, DC.  Dr. Sacoby Wilson spearheaded the effort which brought together several hundred of the region’s faith leaders, public health and environmental experts and students, community activists, and social and environmental justice advocates.  Finally, an opportunity for dialogue about the environmental health of our region’s most vulnerable communities.

On our way to the conference, early on a Saturday morning (with a toddler in tow) we wondered who else would show.   During the opening plenary session, the huge auditorium seemed to dwarf a modest, but dedicated crowd.  Those who managed arrive in time for the opening session were treated to an upbeat and uplifting message from Cassie Meador, artistic director of Dance Exchange.  In Spring 2012, Meador walked 500 miles from her home in Washington, DC through the hills and mountains of Maryland and Virginia, ending at the site of a strip mine in West Virginia, unearthing stories old and new.  Her journey was intended to help build a deeper understanding of the path that natural resources take from the mountain to the electrical outlets in our homes.  Meador’s work is a refreshing reminder of the great potential of art and stories to engage people and communities in environmental health and justice work.

Dr. Wilson framed the day with the ideas of “make space” and “take space.” He encouraged, that if we were someone who tended to speak a lot, to make space and allow for someone else’s voice to be added to the conversation.  Likewise, if we were someone who tended to shy away from participating in discussions, open up and add our voice to the mix.  It was really great to have this as a frame for not only our participation in the Symposium, but our interactions outside of the event as well.

By lunchtime, the place was literally packed wall-to-wall with a great diversity of people buzzing with energy and new connections.  Vernice Miller-Travis, Vice-chair of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, gave the keynote address on “Environmental Justice and Environmental Health Disparities: Issues, Challenges, and Solutions.”  What a great opportunity to hear from someone who has spent so much time dedicated to environmental justice issues.

The symposium created a space for so many new connections to be made.  We met faith leaders, community health and hunger advocates, organizers, experts from EPA and other government agencies, academics, and students.  It was great to see a few old friends in the crowd as well, including several Town Creek Foundation grantees who presented on panels (Food and Water Watch, Maryland Pesticide Network, Center for Livable Future, and Maryland Environmental Health Network).

There were an overwhelming number of concurrent sessions –too many interesting topics to choose from –ranging from environmental justice and water issues in the Chesapeake Bay to how recently enacted Federal and Maryland health laws can be implemented to achieve environmental justice and health equity.

The session on connecting the science of disproportionate impacts to environmental justice law aimed at addressing the question: if science is advancing, why are environmental justice communities still being disproportionately impacted?  Environmental justice was equated to turning around a battleship; it is done in incremental steps.  We were reminded that this goes beyond changing the political will of today, but requires a commitment to longevity, even the most obviously changes still took decades to achieve (e.g., Clean Water Act).  Decisions and actions do not change just because we know something.  We have to build momentum from the ground up and remain committed to the longevity of the cause in order to really start turning this battleship around.

The food justice session brought to light the complex issues raised by industrial agriculture and the compounding impacts on communities directly impacted by pollution caused by those industries and those indirectly impacted through food availability.  The session linked in the health and nutrition of urban women and girls, and the challenges presented by hunger, particularly for children.   Certainly the issues and topics brought up were far more complex than could be addressed in a 75- minute conference session.  What was striking was the interconnectedness of the issues and problems –such as how industrial agriculture impacts community health not only in the places where food is grown through pollution, but also in the ways that the end products are delivered to consumers, frequently in the form of unhealthy, processed food available at local quick stops with few or no alternative options close by.

What made the biggest impression on us was the rich, diverse, and energetic universe of people doing important work who clearly need a network.  The pent up need for connectivity was unmistakable.  This symposium clearly only scratched the surface.  And, this symposium was focused mainly on highlighting environmental health and justice disparities.  Can you imagine what the conversation will be like when we start tackling the solutions?  This is just the beginning of a critically important dialogue that is desperately needed to connect and support the people doing vital work to build greater environmental and social equity in our Chesapeake Bay communities.