Climate Access hosted an online conversation on May 13 about how United States environmental communicators can build relationships with low-income and minority communities. Insights from Detroit, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, New Orleans, and southeastern coastal states enriched the conversation.

“The folks who are most impacted or most vulnerable are not at the planning table,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. She said low-income minority communities may have poor-quality housing, live in flood plains, lack infrastructure, and have few grocery stores nearby. During weather-related disasters, women become more likely to experience domestic abuse and sexual violence.

When weather-related disasters happen, authorities don’t always communicate with low-income housing residents, Patterson said. She recalled one flood in Mississippi where people returned to homes that “were contaminated with mold and other toxins.”

In Alabama, Patterson said, a black family was turned away by a nearby church during a tornado and returned home. As a result, almost all of the family died.

Environmental organizations can be part of the solution to climate-related social problems by building genuine, sincere relationships with low-income and minority communities. “A relationship takes time and takes investment,” said Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess and head-of-state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in the southeastern United States.

For minority communities, Patterson said, contacts from majority organizations can feel very “transactional.” “There is not enough attention to just building relationships,” she said.

Goodwine offered advice for minority community leaders who want to build connections with environmental organizations. “One of the key elements is being vigilant about seeing what people are working on besides your own circle of people. You can start to reach out to groups that don’t even know you exist.”

Approaching people by speaking about topics that interest them already is also valuable. Community activists may not think the issues they care about are connected to climate change. For example, said Ann Baughman, associate director of Freshwater Future, the Detroit activists she has met care about improving safety, beautifying the city, getting rid of vacant lots, and taking care of trash. Planting rain gardens can beautify Detroit while helping the city adapt to climate change.


Photo Credit: buckshot.jones via Compfight cc

Freshwater Future’s staff went through a one-day training on environmental justice once they realized they needed to reach out to the urban communities in the Great Lakes region which are likely to be hit hard by global warming’s weather and flooding. The training was led by Judy Hatcher, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

Local low-income and/or minority communities may be very familiar with the signs of global warming in their own backyards – or on their shores. “We literally live in a hurricane zone,” said Goodwine. “We became knowledgeable for how to watch for different changes in the environment.”

Goodwine observed trees falling along the shore and herbs not growing correctly. “It made me be more inquisitive as to erosion,” she said. This motivated her to learn more about sea level rise and climate change.

“I take examples from my daily life and what has happened and utilize it in inter-generational training,” Goodwine explained. Before she began talking about sea level rise with the Gullah/Geechee Nation, she said, her community thought of sea level rise as a problem which affected people in other countries.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation is working to prevent erosion and preserve water quality by planting oyster beds in shoreline areas where people are unlikely to walk. “We have been evaluating areas where oysters grew over the generations,” she said. “Where the shore is more firm, we bag the oyster shells. The more that we have these oyster shells planted into our waterways, the more we have a barrier. There are a number of creatures that feed from the oyster beds. Other sea creatures lay their eggs in the oyster beds so they can have a safe haven.”


Photo Credit: Basenisa via Compfightcc

Cara Pike, director of Climate Access, said hands-on activities like planting oysters can help bring concepts of climate change, sea level rise, and erosion prevention into perspective for people who are new to these subjects.

Localized messaging matters to Goodwine as well. “We are place-based people. Staying there is always part of people’s ongoing life identity in this region. That’s the thing that galvanizes people who have been there for generations.”

Goodwine said she would like to see scientists share their resources by doing community-based environmental work and hiring staff from underrepresented groups.

Environmental organizations can also partner with local leaders. “We come in mostly as a way to provide some resources,” Baughman said. Freshwater Future links local organizations to small grants, professional expertise, and regional policy activism.

Reaching out to underrepresented communities “can be uncomfortable, it can be a little scary, but you have to do it,” Baughman said. “Start building authentic relationships. That trust has to be built on something real.”

This month, Mother Jones published the results of a surprising investigation into the foul effects of lead in the United States. The article claims leaded gasoline caused a wave of crime in the last century. Crime rates dropped once the lead was removed. The author also says lead causes lower IQs and ADHD.

Journalist George Monbiot was skeptical when he first saw the news. After digging up related academic studies, he published a supportive article in TruthOut. He focused on crime, not on ADHD or IQs.

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism website weighed the evidence and cautions us that other chemicals may be involved and that the connection between lead and violence is not entirely clear. As the article says, there is “no clear biological pathway by which the metallic element lead somehow turns on a violence switch in the human brain.”

A leaded gasoline sign. (Source:
A leaded gasoline sign. (Source:

I’ve been interested in investigating the link between crime and heavy metal pollution ever since I read a publication which said that researchers had tested biological samples from prison inmates and found that the heavy metal concentrations in their bodies were much higher than that of a control group. This article describes that study and other research on the connection between lead and crime.

Race and income may play a role in kids’ lead exposure. For example, lead pollution tends to be concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in New Orleans. The maps in the Mother Jones article show income and lead concentrations in these communities.

Based on this evidence, one can reasonably say: if a young person grows up in a lead-polluted community, experiences hardship due to poverty and/or violence, and is more likely to be arrested and judged guilty based on his race and/or income, his likelihood of entering the prison system could become very high.

It is possible that other chemicals in addition to lead may be affecting youth too. We should address these problems when we talk about environmental issues, equal opportunity, and public policy.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Like a wet catfish on a dock, the messaging provided by fishing advisories about toxic chemicals flops, flails and fails when it reaches communities of color in some parts of the United States. That’s the implicit conclusion of an article in Scientific American.


Much of the article is based on the failure of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fish consumption advisories in Madison, Wisconsin. I lived in Madison for many years, bike-commuted along Lake Monona, and often saw people of color fishing there. During the entire time I saw them fishing, I did not see a single sign about fish consumption posted near the spots where they set up their poles. I didn’t even see any brochures left out for them to read.

View of Lake Monona
Monona Terrace, a spot where fishermen meet in Madison. (Source: Wikipedia)

Local environmentalists such as Maria Powell, who is quoted in the article, have been aware of this problem for years, but it has received relatively little media attention. Powell and I had a conversation about the fishing advisories in 2004 when I told her I wanted to study news coverage of environmental justice.

The DNR, to its credit, has translated its brochures into multiple languages. However, I am not sure how the DNR is putting these brochures into the hands of the people who need them.

As a communications professional, I see multiple issues with the DNR’s approach. These are issues I see frequently in outreach to multicultural populations.

  1. There is no guarantee that the DNR’s audience can read the literature. If Powell has difficulty reading the brochures, it’s unlikely that people without college degrees will be able to make head or tail of them (to use a fishy cliché). Why isn’t the DNR buying advertising on Spanish and Hmong radio and TV shows? Why doesn’t the DNR buy bus ads in minority neighborhoods?
  2. There is something fishy about using science-oriented messaging when one is dealing with a minority culture where subsistence fishing is both culturally sanctioned and economically necessary. Why don’t these brochures address cultural beliefs and economic realities?
  3. Given that the fishermen quoted in the article are very skeptical about the advisories, why doesn’t the DNR enlist respected people from minority communities as messengers? It sounds as if the author of the article was not seen as a credible source herself. Why not engage well-known community members in spreading the message about fish safety?

Environmental justice outreach requires being aware of these basic issues – seeking credible messengers, being culturally aware, using appropriate media, and knowing people’s literacy levels.

If any environmental organization staff happen to read this blog post and are seeking models of culturally appropriate outreach, I’d like to direct them to Population Media Center, which conducts entertainment-based public health education in many nations. In some ways, public health organizations are ahead of environmental organizations when it comes to handling issues of cultural diversity. I’d like to see more environmental groups borrow public health communication and messaging tactics.

The article below is an edited reprint of a story about worker safety which I wrote last year. I’m posting it in honor of May Day. 

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, 146 garment industry workers – mostly young Jewish and Italian women – died during the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The safety flaws that led to this tragedy – locked stairwells and exits, unsafe fire escapes, and lack of communication systems between floors  – seem nearly unthinkable today.  Yet the employer resistance to health and safety improvements that cost these women their lives 100 years ago sounds disturbingly similar to arguments that we hear today from industry trade groups opposing safer chemicals policies.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

After the fire, New York Governor John Alden Dix created a commission to investigate health and safety in New York factories.  The commission visited over 3000 factories in 20 industries. As a result, the state created its first workplace safety requirements, a set of 25 different laws passed over the objections of business owners and industry representatives. 100 years later, although some companies are adopting responsible practices, industry groups still use very similar objections to obstruct modern health and safety legislation.

Here are quotes from 100 years ago followed by similar statements that industry groups make today.

1911: Obstructing Factory Safety

1: Industry says: The chemicals are safe

Before the Triangle Fire, there were no chemical safety rules for New York factories. After the fire, companies were required to provide hot water so employees could wash after handling chemicals. (Today, we know that this is highly inadequate, but it was a major step forward then.) One manufacturer downplayed the health and safety threat by saying the chemicals his workers used (such as lead) were not dangerous to workers unless they were careless.

“The only tendency toward illness comes to men who are intemperate in their habits.  In every case of poisoning I have heard of, the man was an exceedingly hard drinker….Where the men are temperate in their habits I never found a case…”
– Arthur S. Summers, a dry colors manufacturer

2: Industry says:  Products will not be available

In the days before the fire, employees in cellar bakeries faced unsafe working conditions due to poor ventilation. Despite the cries of bakery owners and the real estate industry that the cost of bread would skyrocket and bakeries would vanish, the legislature prohibited opening new cellar bakeries.

“If you eliminate further bakeshops in the cellar… the poor man is going to suffer, and we are crying now for the high cost of living. If you will wipe out the cellar bakeries, the poor man will get a smaller loaf of bread.”
– Dr. Abraham Korn, president of the United Real Estate Owners’ Association

3:  Industry says: Employers will leave the state

When New York considered legislation after the fire, there was a massive outcry. Business organizations made threats that factories would flee the state if the new workplace safety rules became law.

“The Real Estate Board of New York is informed that thousands of factories are migrating to New Jersey and Connecticut in order to be freed from the oppressive laws of New York State.”
– Op-ed by George W. Olvany, special counsel to the Real Estate Board, “The Fire Hazard in Big Buildings,” New York Times, May 3, 1914.

However, these predictions appeared to be unfounded.

“Notwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.”
– From “Seeks To Simplify Building Inspection,” New York Times, July 27, 1914.

2010: Stalling Chemical Safety Measures

100 years later, industry groups often raise similar warnings and brush aside the need to introduce safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. The following quotes are taken from public testimony by industry representatives fighting the passage of the Safer Alternatives Bill in Massachusetts and the regulation of BPA by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

1: Industry says: The chemicals are safe

Based on industry studies funded by the chemical industry, the FDA still classifies BPA as safe, although it is currently reevaluating that assessment. However, medical evidence of BPA’s toxicity, in particular at low levels, continues to accumulate in independently funded studies. The chemical industry continues to tout the safety of BPA.

“BPA is not a risk to human health, including the health of infants and children, at the very low levels that are present in consumer products.”
– American Chemistry Council statement on Massachusetts BPA regulation

2: Industry says:  Products will not be available

As Massachusetts regulators considered a ban on infant formula bottles containing BPA, industry representatives claimed that baby bottles would not be available despite the already widespread use of BPA-free bottles.

“This action is both unnecessary and not in the interest of Massachusetts infants and caregivers, as it would reduce the availability of infant formula products currently available in the Commonwealth.”
– International Formula Council statement on Massachusetts BPA regulation

3: Industry says:  Employers will leave the state

Despite solid union support for the Safer Alternatives Bill, which will create a program in Massachusetts to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives whenever feasible, industry groups regularly promote the fear that jobs may leave the state if the bill passes.

“We urge you to consider the negative impact of this bill on jobs and investments in your district…”
– Associated Industries of Massachusetts statement on the Safer Alternatives Bill from testimony provided to the Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture in 2009

Jobs vs. Safety: We Don’t Have to Choose

When businesses, unions and legislators support safety for customers and workers, they can prevent disasters like the Triangle Fire. The following quote from a worker at the garment factory shows the value of forethought and responsibility.

“If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the streets. But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.”
– Rose Sabran, Triangle Waist Company employee

Today, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO – and many other organizations – support the Safer Alternatives Bill.

“We owe those who work in our state the safest and healthiest workplaces we can possibly provide. Where safer alternatives exist, there is no excuse for putting the health and welfare of workers at risk by making them work with completely avoidable toxic chemicals…. The many workers who will no longer be at risk of chronic disease or workplace injury and [their] families… will be profoundly grateful for your role in passing this legislation.”
– AFL-CIO statement on the Safer Alternatives Bill

The story of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and the changes that came about afterwards gives us hope that when we stand up for the human right to a healthy and safe workplace and community, we can win the protections that we deserve.  It also reminds us of the terrible tragedies that happen when we let age-old myths about regulation being damaging cloud our thinking and prevent us from taking basic steps to protect our health.


Tolle Graham of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and Elizabeth Saunders of The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow also contributed to this article.

Should we fight global warming to save our urban infrastructure? Alexis Madrigal suggested this approach in an article for The Atlantic. In this article, I’m bringing that idea down to the ground level. Communities that deal with racial disparities in environmental health – also known as environmental justice communities – may become the places that suffer most.

Environmental justice health risks and global warming go hand in hand. For example, when sea levels rise, leaky storage tanks may yield their oily contents, disturbing the low-income neighborhoods where the tanks reside.

Scientists sometimes present global warming impersonally. This approach has led to criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But scientists can also use data to make research relevant to audiences without biasing or oversimplifying their results.

On September 24, I saw global warming data presented persuasively during a tour called “Sea Level Rise in East Boston.” Common Boston, an interest group within the Boston Society of Architects, organized the event.

Roadway support removed during Boston's Big Dig
This roadway support was removed during Boston's Big Dig. Credit: xianstudio

To set the stage for the tour, Torrey Wolff and Neenah Estrella Luna showed visitors maps of potential flooding in East Boston and Chelsea, two communities where activists are seeking environmental justice and sustainable development. The projected floods resulted from a combination of storm surges and sea level rise.

In a global warming context, sea levels increase for multiple reasons – including oceans warming, icebergs and glaciers melting, and ocean circulation changing to create massive waves. Luna referred to the highest waves as “wicked high tide.” (In Boston slang, “wicked” means “very.”)

The term “wicked” was well-chosen. Although there’s considerable uncertainty in the projected flooding, none of the scenarios look manageable for East Boston or Chelsea. The maps showed the lowest projected flooding, a sea-level increase of 2.5 feet by 2100, could lead to massive damage during storms. Wolff said these storms might occur bimonthly.

Homeless person in Boston
A homeless person sitting in downtown Boston. Credit: juliaf

Kim Foltz described the economic challenges of salvaging the shoreline. East Boston and Chelsea were built on landfills connecting smaller islands in the Boston harbor. These low-lying areas are being gentrified but are still home to a largely international population. Many of the recent immigrants are from Central America, South America, or North Africa. Foltz added that over half of East Boston’s population is Latino.

The hands-on demonstration showed the risk of sea level rise more powerfully than the maps could accomplish. Wolff asked the group to plant flags on Constitution Beach to discover the potential effects of storm surges in the year 2100. Near the beach, storm surges – estimated conservatively at 1 meter – could cover public transit tracks and reach houses and businesses that are hundreds of feet from the water now. The businesses near Constitution Beach include a Latino supermarket, a tool lending store, and a Burger King.

The tour leaders didn’t discuss what might happen to these neighborhoods if they are flooded. I’m concerned that these seafront properties, which developers eye with acquisitive interest today, could become tomorrow’s slums. If homeowners abandon the houses they cannot repair and buildings are sitting vacant, crime might increase. Given the stories that came from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this idea is not farfetched.

Wolff painted a relatively optimistic picture, saying buildings could be built on piles or reconstructed so that they can lift up during storm surges. She said these innovations are becoming common in the Netherlands but are unusual in the United States.

The amount of capital required to complete this transformation of the shore would be immense, since many buildings in East Boston and Chelsea are former industrial sites. Building hills and sea walls would probably be more affordable than redesigning buildings, but either option could be costly. Foltz said that planting water-absorbing vegetation or introducing parks and wetlands could act as a stopgap measure to save some of East Boston and Chelsea.

Although few environmentalists might support the slogan “Save Burger King!,” it may be time to rethink how we talk about the resources low-income areas could lose. Global warming could wipe out our beaches, seaside restaurants, low-lying urban neighborhoods, and international grocery stores.

Although Chelsea and East Boston may never become high-crime ghost towns, curbing our appetite for the activities that cause global warming could help ensure those supermarkets will still be there for immigrants who may be escaping global warming elsewhere in the world.

Asking architects to demonstrate the effect of sea level rise on local beaches, stores and restaurants could help galvanize support for the changes we may be forced to make later – one way or the other.

With global warming, there is no “opt out” button. Either we face the situation or we don’t. Creative uses of data can help us see what could happen to our communities.

Originally published at Scientific American

Several years ago, someone asked me to tell a group how I became interested in environmental issues. I said I grew up in Chicago, where I could smell steel mill pollution and see signs of water contamination.

When people talk about “environmental justice” in the United States, they’re referring to our collective tendency to put pollution in places where people of color will encounter it.

There are many possible reasons for the close relationship between pollution and communities of color – including economic realities, community history, and the location of jobs. Where working class jobs are available, pollution is often nearby.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, which I visited in May, has some powerful pieces related to environmental justice.

The final room in the museum begins with an installation about César Chávez, who organized a boycott to oppose toxic pesticides on grapes in the 1980s.

In the gift shop, I saw a reproduction of “Sun Mad.” This controversial painting shows Ester Hernandez‘s anger about the chemicals workers face in the grape industry.

A painting showing a skeleton and pesticide warnings on a Sun Maid raisins box
Sun Mad (photo from the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In the painting “Blue Collar,” Oscar Moya depicts a worker in a safety mask and gloves surrounded by an ominous red glow. It isn’t clear that the piece is related to chemical safety, but the atmosphere suggests it.

Salvador Vega’s “Mother Earth” reminded me of Salvador Dali’s depiction of the Spanish civil war – but the subject is our planet.

A reviewer from The Onion describes this exhibit as depressing. It did not have that effect on me. When I see art like this, it motivates me to think about social change. People shouldn’t be afraid to go to work because of concerns about chemical safety.