Engaging Scientists in Environmental Justice Communities

October 17, 2014 | 2:57 pm
Juan Reynosa
Environmental Justice Organizer, SouthWest Organizing Project

The environmental movement in this country went through a major culture shift in the 1980s, when organizers of color expanded their vision and redefined their goals. Many communities of color felt that the environmental movement prioritized wildlife conservation over the protection of low-income communities, which usually experience the brunt of environmental injustices. This change in philosophy led to the coining of the term “Environmental Justice (EJ),” which we now associate with the efforts to value people of color in our movement, and to view the environment as where we “live, work, and play.”

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Science and Democracy: Community Voices

Image: Letizia Tasselli/Flickr

Growing up with environmental injustice

The appreciation I have for the people who’ve started and worked on the movement is immense, largely because of my personal experiences growing up in a rural oil and gas community. I only had to walk half a mile from my house in Hobbs, New Mexico, to find abandoned oil well sites that hadn’t been reclaimed. I also began to notice many gas flares that were burning from oil and gas refineries, as well as the many dairies that heavily contributed to the air pollution. I dealt with asthma throughout my childhood years as a result of the poor air quality where I lived.

On top of the air quality issues, there were instances of water pollution in my hometown. I’ve witnessed friends’ water sources get contaminated from harmful drilling chemicals, which caused many people to get sick. Today, there is still an ongoing fight around regulations to prevent water contamination from oil and gas and dairy practices. To say the least, I gained a fair amount of experience on environmental injustices just by growing up in Hobbs.

My father still works in the oil industry, and almost all of my friends and family worked in the oil and gas industry while I was growing up. No one really thought of living around industry as abnormal and didn’t really take notice of the issues it brought to the community.

Science-informed action

It wasn’t until I took an advanced environmental science class in high school that I realized I was living amongst environmental injustices. When I coupled my science education with my personal experience, I was able to truly understand what impacts these environmental injustices were having on my health and community.

This combination of education and experience motivated me to get my environmental science degree at the University of New Mexico and eventually led me to the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) in Albuquerque, where I now work as the Environmental Justice Organizer. Growing up in an environmental justice community has helped my work as EJ organizer because I can relate to the community members I’m working with to resolve their issues. My science background has also benefitted my work as an EJ organizer, as I am able to decipher technical documents and scientific findings. This added value of a science perspective has made me realize that bringing science and health experts into an environmental justice campaign will add data, expertise, and moral support to community members that is much needed.

Community members have many moving, heartfelt stories about the negative impacts on their quality of life because of environmental injustices, but when they convey their stories to elected officials or regulatory bodies, they are often met with the same question: “How can you prove your story with data?” Thus, I always work hard to recruit both health and science experts to my campaigns to add more technical information to the community’s argument.

Citizen science, scientists as citizens

The demand for scientific evidence has led SWOP—most recently through our Breathe in New Mexico campaign—to train community members to record their own air quality data in a scientifically proven way. By collaborating with a multitude of health experts and scientists to quantify data, community members are able to scientifically show the impacts they have been talking about for years. These technical experts have tools at their fingertips to produce scientific reports and health impact assessments that add value to the environmental justice work we are doing. These scientists also learn much from community members about the history of the community and how they’ve arrived at the current conditions they are facing. This people’s history of a community is essential information to any environmental justice campaign.

I’ve seen great friendships spurred from collaborative work between community members and technical experts. I feel this type of relationship is mutually beneficial. Scientists are able to step outside their comfort zone and experience the value of these great communities, and community members become very skilled at scientific methods and at using scientific equipment. It’s always great to see people learn something valuable from each other, and this situation is a perfect example.

While I will always first look to empower and uplift the community members in EJ fights, the addition of scientific allies is an important component in our ability to prove the injustice via data. I call on any scientist who is contemplating becoming more involved in environmental justice work to take the jump in headfirst to this vital community work. You won’t regret it.  You just have to be willing to put yourself out into a community, listen and learn from them first before acting, and then figure out how your scientific skills can be of help to them.

Along the way you will be working hand in hand with amazing community members who have a lot to bring to the table as well. These types of symbiotic relationships are key to resolving big issues on the community level, and I look forward to seeing many more of you getting involved in this great and important community work. Environmental Justice belongs to all of us, so let’s live, work, and play together.


Juan is an organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project who focuses on environmental justice issues. Before joining SWOP, Juan was the New Mexico Beyond Coal organizer for Sierra Club, an organizer with New Mexico Youth Organized, and a Green for All fellow. Beyond his professional experience, he has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of New Mexico. His hometown is Hobbs, New Mexico, which is the epicenter of the oil and gas industry in southeastern New Mexico. Hailing from Hobbs’s low-income Chicano community, Juan brings a wealth of knowledge about the issues facing communities subject to polluting industry, and a strong skill set in organizing.
SWOP Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/swopista.

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