We All Have Something to Contribute: Environmental Justice and the Importance of Place

November 13, 2014 | 5:10 pm
Adelita G. Cantu
Assistant Professor, University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio

I have been a public health nurse for over 35 years! When I say it like that, sometimes I feel and know that I am getting old, very old. But it also makes me realize that I have accumulated a vast amount of experience and expertise, particularly when it comes to the community’s perspective on their health and environment and their resulting needs towards achieving a healthy community. And the one that stands out to me as the most fundamental of factors that contributes to health is PLACE and within that, even more so, the environment in which we live.

This post is part of the series

Science and Democracy: Community Voices

Image: Letizia Tasselli/Flickr

I am a Hispanic who comes from the barrio of San Antonio, TX, the deep Westsidemi barrio or my neighborhood. Ask any San Antonio resident about what they know about the Westside, they will say crime, drugs, poor schools, teen pregnancy, etc. However what I knew about it growing up was that it was home, a place to grow, play and learn.

It was not until I began to gain my education that I began to see the disparities and injustices that in many ways were fundamental to the existence of mi barrio. My eyes were opened to the facts. The fact that our public schools were funded by property taxes and that the houses in mi barrio were worth very little, thus the quality of the schools suffered. The fact that one of the schools was built over a landfill and that the children, mostly Hispanic, disproportionately suffered from asthma and upper respiratory infections.  The fact that many of my Hispanic friends left for the summer for what I thought at the time was a summer-long vacation, but came to realize they were migrant farmworkers, living in poor conditions, often coming home with skin rashes and gastrointestinal disorders from pesticide exposures.

Adelita’s nursing students getting a cycling tour of the Mission Reach, an ecosystem restoration project in San Antonio.

Adelita’s nursing students getting a cycling tour of the Mission Reach, an ecosystem restoration project in San Antonio.

Because knowing that PLACE and environment do matter, and because I have been fortunate enough to have support systems that have allowed me to expand my educational experiences, I feel that I am obligated to give back in as many ways as I can. And one issue that is near and dear to my heart is environmental justice: ensuring that all people have the chance to grow and prosper in an environment that is supportive of decisions that allow one to grow and prosper.

I am using my expertise to ensure that supportive environment in numerous ways. I teach my undergraduate nursing students about environmental health and justice issues like fracking, ecosystem restoration, and built environment to raise their awareness of these issues and so they can pass this information along to their patients. I am conducting research into environmental justice issues like a recent climate change community arts project that was done in mi barrio. I’m conducting focus groups of colonia residents–low income, minority residents of unincorporated areas–in South Texas near the Mexican border, where residents and their families are exposed to chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB’s, emitted from a Superfund site near their homes. I’m also becoming involved in organizations that work to advocate for environmental justice issues, such as the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, where I am the current chair.

I encourage my colleagues, particularly my nurse colleagues, to use not only your expertise but your motivation to give back into addressing environmental justice issues in your area and beyond.