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environmental justice

LISTEN: Ashley James on protecting children from environmental exposures

We should “think of children not necessarily as a special sub-group or population, but as a life stage that everyone experiences.”

Ashley James joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss reframing how we think about children’s health, and what organizers and regulators can learn from each other.


James, an ORISE Fellow in the U.S. EPA Office of Children's Environmental Protection and former reporting intern at EHN.org, also talks about community organizing, and her work educating folks on beauty justice.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with James, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Ashley, how are you doing?

Ashley James

I am doing well. How are you?

Brian Bienkowski

I'm doing excellent today. And where are you today?

Ashley James

I am in Maryland, just slightly outside of Washington, DC.

Brian Bienkowski

Washington, DC. Excellent. So let's talk about place a little bit. I have had the good chance of working with you the opportunity to work with you. But I actually don't know. Where did you grow up and didn't have any impact on your interest in environmental health injustice?

Ashley James

Yeah, that's a good question. So I was born in Brooklyn, New York. But I spent a good amount of my youth – so middle school and high school – in Chester, Virginia, which is just south of Richmond. And I'm not sure if that impacted my interest in environmental health consciously but I did live just three miles from Hopewell, Virginia, which as you know, my most recent Environmental Health News story is about and I did notice that Hopewell was overburdened with a lot of pollution and I remember hating seeing the smoke, the stacks of smoke, I hated the smells coming from that direction. So maybe subconsciously it did impact my interest.

Brian Bienkowski

Totally and for listeners, we are recording this the day that Ashley's new feature came out about a proposed BlueZone in Hopewell, Virginia. So if you go to ehn.org You can check that out. So you went to the University of Richmond and then eventually got your Master's of Public Health at Emory University. What was it about public health that grabbed you?

Ashley James

Yeah, so I actually started off as an undergraduate, my initial interest was in Marine Biology and Environmental ecology. I worked in a sponge lab and I had really great experiences doing research in the Florida Keys. And then I went to study abroad in Bocas del Toro, Panama, which is one of the sites for the School for Field Studies, which is like a – basically what it sounds like: a field study abroad program. And I went there thinking that I would go even deeper into, you know, the marine biology world, which I did, but I also got exposed to social science. And that's really where my passion for environmental health and justice started. So I'll go a little further into that. When I was abroad, I interacted with a lot of indigenous communities. And I had the opportunity to even live with an Indigenous family for one week during a homestay. And I learned that there definitely a population that was, you know, experienced marginalization, discrimination, had their land and their natural resources threatened constantly, you know, didn't have great access to education and employment opportunities, you know, those social determinants of health, and I definitely observed health impacts as well. And then when I did a research project that ultimately ended up being a social science project, where I interviewed community members about waste management on the islands, because basically, they didn't have the infrastructure to properly manage all the wast, and there was tons of trash everywhere. So I was kind of trying to investigate that. And I distinctly remember interviewing a particular woman in this Indigenous community, and she was telling me, they don't have the money to afford formal trash collection, so they dump it in the ocean or the immediate environment or burn it, and she was telling me about outbreaks of rashes, and dengue fever, and just all of these, you know, illnesses. And I remember writing down in my journal while I was talking to her public health circling it. And ever since then, that's pretty much been... my interest has always lived in the intersection of environment, justice and health. And I realized I care. I started off caring about how people are impacting the environment, like, "Oh, what are we doing to the planet?" and then I left also caring about how that environment's impacting people.

Brian Bienkowski

That's a really nice way to put it. And I've talked on this podcast before about in my journalism career, I went through the same flip where I was very interested in the natural world, and water and biodiversity and creatures and wildlife –and I still am to a large extent– but then I started realizing how all these things act upon us, and I believe it was Shakespeare that said, we are nature too. So it's all kind of it's all kind of the same, the same thing when you get down to it. What is a sponge lab? I don't know what a sponge lab is?

Ashley James

Oh, yes. Okay. So we I say sponge lab, because that was like the organism or the animal that we focused our research on. So, you know, like marine and freshwater sponges basically, is what we work. Okay.

Brian Bienkowski

Very cool. Very cool. So you just, you just outlined what sounded like a very pivotal moment in your life. So maybe it was maybe that was the moment or experience. But my next question was, what was a defining moment? Or event in your life so far that shaped your identity?

Ashley James

Yeah, that's a great question. I think I've had a few defining moments. But one of the earliest that I can remember, is in third grade, in third grade. So as I mentioned, I was born in Brooklyn, and for elementary school, I went to PS 38, in Park Slope. And I remember my teacher telling us to write a poem for an Earth Day writing competition. So I wrote a poem about a tree, it rhymed. And I won the competition. And I was so excited, I got to plant a tree with Marty Markowitz, who was the borough president of Brooklyn at the time, and I got my picture in the newspaper. And I consider this a defining moment, because it really is the first time I can remember my two loves, which are writing and the environment, colliding, you know. And third grade was also... I was always a pretty ambitious child, I guess, or I guess I've always been an ambitious person. And by third grade, I had already declared I wanted to be an environmental scientist, and was planning out my colleges that I wanted to go to. So overall, yeah, third grade.

Brian Bienkowski

Talk about differences in maturity. I believe I was 18. And still like "I don't even where where should I go to college? Someone just kind of tell me tell me what I should do" Have you been back to Brooklyn to see if your tree has grown?

Ashley James

Oh, my goodness, no, I don't even think I would know the tree if I saw it.

Brian Bienkowski

That'd be a cool pilgrimage to go to try to find your your third grade tree and see if it's, see if it's grown up. So speaking of speaking of New York, so kind of following your career trajectory here. I want to talk a little bit about your time at WEACT for Environmental Justice. So you were part of the environmental health and justice leadership training, I think most of our listeners are familiar with WEACT, it's a kind of one of the preeminent environmental justice organizations. So what did it look like and entail educating hundreds of folks about environmental justice organizing, and did you see any of the training take hold in communities and if so, what did that what did that look like?

Ashley James

Yeah, so the EH JLT that's the acronym for it was a major part of my role when I worked at WEACT, I helped to revise the entire curriculum, which had over 20 lessons on various topics. And we... while I was there, it was still, you know, middle of the pandemic, so we had all of our lessons virtually. And we would have different cohorts with a theme. So say the theme was climate, then I might teach a lesson, introducing climate justice, and then one on clean air and one on energy and one on green solutions maybe. And in terms of seeing it taking hold, I think something that I got to witness in real time was, at first, even though I taught mostly adults, my class was always very quiet in the beginning. But then when it came time to relate what we were talking about to their personal experiences, that's when I saw people like really start to open up and make those connections. And I can see that passion developing in real time. So that was always, that was always nice.

Brian Bienkowski

That's excellent. It does help to connect things to people's personal experiences. Otherwise, it can seem a little abstract for folks. So I think that's a... that's definitely true when it comes to teaching. And you've also worked on a subject we've talked on this podcast quite a bit and our founder, Dr. Ami. Zota, is one of the foremost researchers on this, but you worked on beauty justice. And we have talked about this. But I was wondering if you can just kind of outline what beauty justice means and how you all try to educate folks about it.

Ashley James

Yeah, thank you so much for asking this. I think beauty justice was one of the most interesting things that I learned about and got to work on while I was at WEACT. And for me, I would define it, I would define beauty justice, as recognizing that beauty and personal care products often contain toxic ingredients, and that women of color are disproportionately exposed to these products for various reasons. And the ultimate goal is for the products to be marketed to women of color for those products to be free of harmful ingredients, clearly labeled, affordable and accessible, and also to hold responsible parties accountable. And in terms of what we worked on, we had a lot of different initiatives, one that comes first to mind is The Beauty Inside Out. Initiative, which raised awareness about beauty justice in northern Manhattan. So they launched surveys to understand personal care product use, essentially, and to educate community members and work with local realtors, also, to you know, sell safer products. And then we also partnered with Mike Schade from Toxic Free Future. And they have something called the retail report card, which assesses retailer actions to eliminate toxic products. And we partnered with them to add criteria, specifically on products marketed to women of color. And I also got to co-lead a session in a conference that we held last year, around this time, actually, in November, last year, and that was on beauty justice as well. So that was a way that we were able to kind of keep the conversation going between various different stakeholders. That time last year, Johnson & Johnson was also in the news because they were being you know, sued for their baby powder, which had talc in it, which can be contaminated with asbestos, which causes cancer. And so I made a lot of infographics kind of talking about talc, and you know, how to limit exposure. I feel like something that ,a recent example that really highlights what beauty justice is all about, actually came from something that was recently trending on Twitter. So growing up as a Black girl, specifically, –I have this seared into my memory and it's a common, you know, thing for a lot of Black girls–, you go to CVS or the local beauty supply store, and you see these boxes of DIY hair relaxers promoted to children or young girls. And it's always these cute little girls with bone straight hair and it makes you... it's marketed to children and you know, seeing that you want to ask your parents for a relaxer. And so someone tweeted a tweet that went viral and said like "Oh, I wonder where all these hair relaxer box girls are today." And so a lot of the girls were like, "oh, here I am. I was on In one of those boxes," and it came out that a lot of them are either natural now, or they never had a relaxer in the first place, like, the people would just straighten their hair with a hot comb or a flat iron, and take the photo. And so the girls actually never relaxed. They never used the product that was being marketed. And it was all you know, fun and jokes and everything on Twitter. But that really made me think about how a lot of, you know, beauty and personal care companies have predatory advertising and marketing and also false advertising and marketing. And There have been studies connecting the chemicals in hair relaxers to uterine fibroids, a study recently came out connecting hair relaxers to uterine cancer and Black women are diagnosed and die more often with uterine cancer than other racial groups. So thinking about that compounded on top of the fact that this is exposure to children, and I'm sure we'll talk about, you know, how children are even more vulnerable to chemical exposures. Yeah, I just think that's a great example of the issue at hand and why so many parties need to be held accountable, but in particular, the companies that are making the products.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, that's a great current example. And I hadn't seen that on Twitter. I'm wondering when you started doing this work, was it, was was it a surprise when you would talk to say friends or your aunts and other women in your life to hear that that products that they may have been using were toxic in some way?

Ashley James

Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of people were surprised because some of these products – like I think about the baby powder, it's so... it's just an integral part of your, you know, personal care routine. And so, and there's no, there was no warning or knowledge about the fact that it had any harmful ingredients. So I think it's just kind of shocked because there was no awareness about it.

Brian Bienkowski

And the other part of this that you mentioned, as a girl, seeing those boxes in the drugstore is just the notion of what we find that what media is telling us is the ideal, right or is beautiful, or what people should strive to be. And for the longest time, that was straight hair, and maybe it was rail thin, or whatever these misguided notions of what people should strive to be, were plastered on all of our media. So I hope some of that's changing to what we consider healthy and beautiful and what kids should strive for, from all races. Really, I mean, to not feel like they have to look like the woman on the box in the store. You know what I mean?

Ashley James

Yeah, absolutely. And I do think it is. Like, I remember in middle school, literally begging my mom to give me a relaxer because I wanted, you know, to look like that I wanted to have straight hair. But now there's a lot more promotion of just embracing your hair, your skin, whatever, in its natural state. And I think there's a lot more positive images for girls growing up.

Brian Bienkowski

Good. I mean, it's hard enough to be a kid. I remember. I remember being embarrassed because I couldn't afford at the time, I believe it was like bomb equipment, or polo or these brands that the cool rich kids were wearing. I can't imagine on top of that, wanting to change my hair and my appearance. It's hard enough to be a kid. So I hope I hope you're right. And that's a nice transition and thinking about children and how they intersect with environmental issues and exposures. So you are now in ORISE fellow at the EPA is Office of Children's Environmental Health Protection. So what is something people might not know about children's exposure to toxics that you've you've learned there at your job?

Ashley James

Yeah, it's funny, you ask that. So my mother has worked in maternal and child health for the majority of her career. And so through observing her and learning about her work, I have known for a long time that you know, the prenatal period as well as childhood, especially early childhood, is the most critical developmental period when it comes to exposure, whether that be environmental exposures, like, you know, toxic chemicals, or social exposures like traumatic experiences. And I also learned that you know, children's behavior patterns and their biology, like underdeveloped immune systems or organs in general, make them more vulnerable. And this might be because I'm in the field, but I do think a lot of people know that or You know, recognize that. However, something I learned when I started at my current office at the EPA is something that kind of helped to change my perspective. And that is thinking of children, not necessarily as a special subgroup or special population, but as a life stage that everyone experiences. And so, for example, me, I'm not a child, I don't have children. But children's health is still relevant to me, because at one point I was a child, and whatever I was exposed to then does impact my health, you know, today and will moving forward. And so even though that's essentially saying the same thing, I think having that perspective of that this is a life stage that everyone goes through, is good to better understand children's health and to make people realize that it truly is important to everyone. So yeah, I hope if you're listening to this, and you think," Oh, well, children's health really isn't relevant to me" that that changes your mind. And since you asked specifically about toxic exposures, I'll say, we live in an extremely toxic world. And I believe that if we can protect our most vulnerable people, for example, children, we can protect everyone.

Brian Bienkowski

So I often think of organizers and community organizing, and the federal government often may be at odds with one another one pushing the other to do more and the other, moving slowly. So can you talk about since you've, you've been in organizing, and now you're working for the EPA as a fellow, can you talk about that contrast? And perhaps some areas that you see where federal researchers and organizers could intercept to better people's health?

Ashley James

Yeah, definitely, I think, you know, the fundamental difference between that organizing work and work at the federal level, is scale. And what I mean by that is, when you're in organizing, and you're working with the actual community, you're a lot closer to them, you have your boots on the ground, whereas federal level is more big picture. I do think a lot of people in the federal agency, or in the federal government working in these different agencies recognize that disconnect, and are thinking a lot harder, especially with the new administration's focus on environmental justice. So for example, a lot of researchers of the EPA are doing a lot more EJ related research, and it will be important to consult with communities, and to partner with them for that research.

Brian Bienkowski

So because you don't have enough going on in your life, you are also a reporting intern at Environmental Health News and full disclosure, when I was looking at applications for our internship, I was thinking, How is this woman going to juggle everything she has going on? And still work for us. But not only did you do it, you did it very well. And it was just so awesome to work with you. So I was curious, just as a researcher, that's been most of your work. What interested you about environmental reporting? And what surprised you about being in a newsroom?

Ashley James

Yeah, that's a great question. So one thing that interests me about environmental reporting is being able to reach a different audience than who would be reading dense academic literature. But also I mentioned when I started this interview that one of my first loves has been writing. And I was trained in creative writing for high school when I attended the Appomattox regional Governor's School for Arts. And one of the things I learned that I distinctly remember my teachers telling me is that people won't necessarily care about overarching statistics, but they will care about, for example, a story about an individual person. And having that creative writing background, I'm a strong believer that pairing narrative and storytelling with the science and the data and the statistics is a powerful way to get people to care. And I think ultimately, that's always been my goal, whether I'm doing education, whether I'm doing research, whether I'm writing, is to get people to care because I think when people care, then they're willing to you know, get involved in issues and help to create change. And in terms of what surprised me, this might be because I watched too much TV but I really thought a newsroom would be just like a extremely stressful environment like I'm thinking – everyone's, you know, going crazy with deadlines and you you do so much is what I noticed or realize that Environmental Health News are doing so much work. But you still have time for jokes and laughs and to share personal tidbits about your life. So I don't know if that's unique to Environmental Health News. But I did find that surprising.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, it's very good to hear, I can't say on most exit interviews, the first thing I hear from interns, when I asked about our culture is "chill", is usually the right word. And maybe, maybe the function of having a former hippie as an editor myself, has something to do with that. But that's good to hear. And I just, on a personal, my personal thought is any work environment you're in, whether it's a newsroom or a research lab or whatever, you have to take time to smile and get to know people. And also nowadays, you have to recognize the mental rigors of what we're, what we're not only what we're dealing with on a day to day basis, which is heavy stuff in the environmental field, but I don't know about you, but just staring at a screen and being on a screen for so many hours. I think it's just really important to take mental breaks. So that's, I'll get off my soapbox now. But I do I'm just a big fan of workplaces where people are comfortable and happy and not feeling stressed off. So I'm glad you experienced that.

Ashley James

Yeah, it really does help. It does.

Brian Bienkowski

So we've talked a lot about the environment and people but let's talk about the wildlife and the trees and the in the creatures and stuff because that was my first love. And I happen to know that you love the outdoors and hiking and being outside. So when did that become part of your life? When I think of Brooklyn, I don't necessarily think of hiking. And so where did that come in your life? And what does being in nature mean to you?

Ashley James

Yeah, thank you for asking that. So in my early childhood in Brooklyn, that is where I fell in love with nature, I would say. I distinctly remember my mom bringing me to Prospect Park often, but I thought that it was the forest. So I was just asked. I just asked like, "Oh, Mom, can you take me to the forest?" and that was our little thing. didn't know it was Prospect Park, but you know. But as I got older, and I started to have more social awareness, I didn't really do outdoorsy things. Like in general, my family wasn't the family to go hiking or camping. And like many other people of color, I viewed those activities, I associated those activities with whiteness. And that's a whole nother you know, soapbox. But it wasn't until college, and I was forced to like I said, doing my sponge research, I was forced to go kayaking and snorkel. And then I was forced to go hiking in the rain forest to collect my bug chaps and leaves when I was abroad. But that was still doing it for work, not really for fun. And then, after graduating college, in 2018, I served AmeriCorps for a year in Baltimore. And I, I worked on a nature preserve with a nonprofit, and I taught environmental education to youth of Baltimore, primarily Black and brown children. And part of my job was getting them on the Nature Preserve and exposing them to nature. And that's when I started to think more critically about, you know, the benefits of the outdoors and who has access to it and who feels included in those activities. And I started to think, why is it that I don't see many people personally, that look like me that are, you know, the poster people for these activities? And I asked a friend who I knew was an avid hiker, if I could go with her and ever since then, I've been hooked. I love it so much. And I have an Instagram page called AJ for adventure, where I feature my own adventures as well as other people of color just to change the narrative, you know, about who belongs outdoors and to promote the visibly, you know, showing that the outdoors are for everyone.

Brian Bienkowski

That's excellent. And this is another space anecdotally that I feel like I've seen movement in the last few years. And maybe it's just paying more attention to social media accounts like your own and there are there are others out there. And I encourage any listeners to check out our past podcast with Dr. Jennifer Roberts, who's in Maryland who talks extensively about this very issue and how she's trying to change that. It was one of my very favorite podcasts to do so check that out. And so you've been – Whether it's hiking or researching or organizing, communicating, you've been on many different angles of the environmental movement. What makes you optimistic? What are you hopeful about?

Ashley James

That is a great question. I do find it hard sometimes to stay optimistic in this field. But right now, I am really optimistic. And that has a lot to do with all the momentum around environmental justice right now. The Biden administration has made it clear that environmental justice is a priority. There's billions of dollars of funding going into environmental justice. In academia, I've noticed a lot more researchers talking about how important it is to do community-engaged research that's not extractive and that's respecting the expertise of the community. And, you know, working in partnership – true partnership – with their community members, I've seen a lot of conversation and progress around that. And even you know, in media and communications, I've seen a lot more stories and you know, other types of media, about environmental justice. So I think that's a good sign. And I just hope the momentum keeps going and doesn't, you know, fizzle out.

Brian Bienkowski

And I don't remember if I learned this from your application, when you became an intern, or from just looking researching you online before we brought you aboard EHN. But I know you play guitar. And we've talked about this, I play guitar as well. What songs are you working on right now? And I'm also curious, do you play in front of people? Or is this just for yourself?

Ashley James

Yeah, thank you for asking. Yes, I have a beautiful oak colored Martin acoustic electric that I love. And I recently learned how to play dreams by Fleetwood Mac, as well as Redemption Song by Bob Marley. So those are my two most recent songs. And I mostly play for myself, every now and then I might do a coffee house or an open mic, but it's kind of just, you know, a way to have my own music therapy and, you know, use another part of my brain, the creative part. So, yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

I always say the same thing. I will just take breaks during the day and play an instrument for a little bit. Because it does, it hits that other side of the brain, I always say the same, the exact same thing. So that's very cool. So actually, we are nearing the end here. And I like to have rapid fire questions. We're just a couple of them here, three of them, where you can just answer with one word or one phrase, and then we can move on. So the first one is: the best piece of advice I've ever been given is

Ashley James

To cherish the present because you can't change the past and you can't control the future.

Brian Bienkowski

When I wake up, the first thing I do is,

Ashley James

I hate to say it, but I hit snooze. Not a morning person.

Brian Bienkowski

The first concert I ever went to was

Ashley James

I think the first concert I ever went to was Jay Cole. He's a rapper.

Brian Bienkowski

And last question, what is the last book you read for fun?

Ashley James

Oh, I recently read this novel called Transcendent Kingdom by Yan Jossey. Beautiful, beautiful book highly recommended.

Brian Bienkowski

Tell me a little bit about it.

Ashley James

Ah, so it's a story that covers so many topics like science, religion, addiction, mental health, race, love. And it basically is about this scientist, this researcher, who is studying psychology and trying to understand addiction, like what is it that makes people addicted to drugs, and it's basically because her brother was a heroin addict in high school, and ended up passing away. And that's kind of the basis of the story, but it really brings you on such a beautiful and emotional journey. So, it was really good.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, Ashley, thank you so much for taking time today. You're one of those people that I'm just so glad to have met doing this work. And thank you so much for being here today.

Ashley James

Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this

Brian Bienkowski

All right, that is all for this week, folks.

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