The Democrats’ climate bill would erase former President Donald Trump’s 10-year moratorium on offshore wind in the U.S. Southeast, but few experts are betting on a regionwide surge in projects.
The Democrats’ climate bill would erase former President Donald Trump’s 10-year moratorium on offshore wind in the U.S. Southeast, but few experts are betting on a regionwide surge in projects.
Proposed federal rules governing care of organic livestock would help ensure that Vermont’s organic dairy farmers are competing on a level field against producers that milk thousands of cows.
Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss nature as medicine for our physical and mental health.
Roberts, a tenured Associate Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park, also talks about inequity in greenspace access and how she approaches mentorship.
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.
Alright, today's guest is Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts, a tenured associate Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland, School of Public Health in College Park. She is also the director of the public health outcomes and effects of the Built Environment Laboratory. Roberts talks about nature as medicine for physical and mental health, inequity and green-space access for different communities and how she approaches mentorship. Enjoy. Alright, I am super excited to be joined by Dr. Jennifer Roberts. Jennifer, how are you doing today?
I am great, Brian. How are you?
I'm doing wonderful. We are so happy to have you. We're so excited to have you here today. And I like to start with folks way at the beginning and you are from Buffalo, New York. You know, I just talked to one of our fellows who was from Buffalo, and she had such a beautiful, poetic way of describing one of my favorite rustbelt cities. So tell me about your experience growing up there, and if at all, how it shaped you as a person and the researcher that you are today?
Sure. So yes, I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. And when I was a kid, I was a kid in the 70s and 80s and 90s, the city had a much larger population – almost double than what it is today. And the city was quite segregated in terms of like black, white neighborhoods. It still is today. And I think for me, the earliest time when I was growing up, I grew up on the east side, which was predominantly African American, and then by the time I was in middle school, my family moved a little further up north, near the University of Buffalo. And that neighborhood was a little bit more integrated racially, which I think had a lot to do with being near that campus. But along with my neighborhoods, I attended private schools pretty much my entire life. And so I was often that only Black child, or maybe one of few. And so that kind of imprinted my early notions and understandings regarding inequity and opportunity, because it's like, in my neighborhood, there was a lot of Black kids who look like me who were going to different schools, and those schools were under-resourced, and they just didn't have the same opportunities. And I could see that really early on as a child. And I think I, early, very early on saw like the difference between a black Buffalo and a white Buffalo. And that really just, you know, that shaped my experiences as a Black child and subsequently as a woman. And I think that's what I'm definitely informed by research and work today.
So just skip forward a little bit, you went to Brown University for undergrad, Emory University for your masters, and then earned your Doctor of Public Health degree from John Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, I'll put the whole title in there. Where along the way did you decide that public health research was what you wanted to do? And what advice would you have for people who are still on that journey?
I often get asked this question. I actually have given some talks to undergrads and graduate students, because my professional as well as my academic trajectory was not really that linear. I mean, I knew since I would say before high school, and much earlier, actually, probably elementary school, that I wanted to do something with health and wellbeing and so I just kind of figured, well, that means you want to be a physician. So when I went to Brown, I was premed and I continued along that path, even when I started my MPH program at Emory University. But during my very first semester at Emory, I had to take the general introduction to environmental health class which all MPH students have to take. And there was a lecture by Dr. Howard Frumkin, we're still friends to this day, but I immediately fell in love with environmental health. And this whole idea of, well, public health and specifically environmental health, and then that completely changed my trajectory, my pathway away from medicine, to public health. So I guess, if I was gonna give some advice to folks, I would say, like, listen to your gut and try to follow your heart with what gives you passion, like what helps you say, "I would still do this if I wasn't getting paid," that's also a good way to figure out if you like it. And then also like, don't compare your journey to others. So like, for example, I didn't have like maybe the traditional trajectory into academia, I was a consultant for about six years. And then I said, "Oh, okay, I think I want to go into the academy." And so it's okay if you take pitstops along the way and do other things. And you don't have to have the same kind of pathways other folks.
I really like that advice. Especially the idea of taking your time figuring out. I mean to figure out at 18... when I when I went to my university, I was 18 years old, and everybody was going into business. So I went into business, and then two years in, I'm wearing Grateful Dead shirts and have long hair, and I'm realizing I should not be in the business college. This is not me, this is not who I am. And to decide that at 18, it's just a really, at least for me – and I think men mature a little more slowly – but it was an early time to decide what I wanted to do with my life. So I really like that advice.
Yeah. And even how it's changing. Like, you don't have to just choose one thing anymore. Like before, in our parents’ generation that was like, "Okay, this is one job, I'm going to stick with it for like 60 years." But now you can have like, multiple careers. I went to school with someone, he went to law school practice, and then he was like, "Okay, I want to open like a cupcake store." Like, you can just do whatever you want (well, not whatever you want), but, you know, don't try to like box yourself into something if you're kind of being drawn to something else that you find interesting.
Yes, totally. So I want to hear about the work you are doing and what you would be doing, even if you weren't getting paid for it. But first, I've been asking everybody, what is the defining moment that shaped your identity?
That's a really good question. You know, when I think about it, I don't think there was one single moment. I think a defining period for me that shaped my identity, specifically as a Black woman, was when I was a student at Brown University. And so up until this point, before my freshman year, I attended so many predominantly – and I would even say centrally – white schools, from kindergarten through high school. And so this was my first time to be surrounded by so many Black scholars. And I kind of just found my tribe in terms of the folks who were just sort of like me, but not always like me. And even though Brown is a predominately white institution, there was so much pro Black energy from students and faculty. And I think having that positive energy throughout my four years there, it kind of like reinforce the pride I had already as a Black individual, but also it really opened the doors to really be drawn and kind of surround myself by other cultures and other races and ethnicities. And I just think it was just, it built pride and happiness. And I think that was one, that was a defining period of my life, I guess, that shaped my identity.
That's excellent. Yeah, I think what I really liked in what you said, was seeing people that were like you, and also maybe not like you, maybe Black scholars that are different in their own way. I think that's important, this diversity within diversity, and that it's something you know, as a white man that I didn't, you know, you don't really think about that, because I was always told you can be whatever you want. And you see people in all these professions. So that perspective is great. And I hope that's changing today. Do you see that changing a little bit now that you are in institutions and maybe mentoring people like your younger self?
I do, but I feel like to some degree, it's changing at a snail's pace. I still find students – particularly my undergrad students – who seem to be kind of mirror images of me in terms of like, particularly my students of color, who are mirror images of me, of how I was at 18 years old. And almost... when I say a mirror image, I mean, kind of little hesitant, a little unsure, [asking themselves] do I fit in, and I wish the students kind of felt a little bit more like, "of course I belong here," like "of course I fit in." And so I still feel a little bit of that hesitancy and so... But I do see you know that there's many other... like there's community groups, there's, you know, the Black Student Union, and a lot of the students are still, you know, they feel comfortable. But I wish there had been a little bit more and faster advancements. But at least it's going in the right direction.
Of course, yeah, I mean, part of obviously, part of the Agents of Change program is to identify these folks and amplify them, and let others know that there are all kinds of people researching. And as a journalist, I've seen for years the same five climate scientists quoted in every New York Times story. And then I started working with Agents of Change and through other avenues, and it's like, "oh, there's so many people working on these issues that deserve to not only be in the media, but deserve to have their own words on the page," and so on, and so forth. So, you know, hopefully, we're all moving in that direction. So you now focus on the impact of the built social and natural environments and the public health of marginalized communities. Can you walk us through just what this means and some examples of how these different environments create health inequities for certain communities?
Sure, sure. So again, my focus is on the impact of built environment. So rather, I can easily say our manmade environments, like our houses, or neighborhoods, or even our transportation systems, and how that environment is related also to our social and our natural environments. And specifically, a lot of the inequities, whether they're the institutional destruction equities of all of these environments, how all of that put together impacts public health outcomes, specifically health outcomes or health behaviors. And so a lot of my research really examines the dynamic relationship of all of these with kind of active living lens to it, or specifically physical activity, but that can be like for play or recreation, or even for the purpose of transit. So do we walk to our schools? do we walk to work? And so I can give you an example. Often, or I can even say earlier on when I was earlier in my kind of research of this particular scholarship as an active living researcher, I focused a lot on the built environment. And so it was very much focused on Okay, are there sidewalks with the intersection density? You know, is there a transit system that people can get to and from places? and so, despite my lived experience as a Black woman, I kind of, I will say, ignored, but almost forgot about the impact of the social environment. And so I often now reference I'll say, well, Trayvon Martin, he was engaged in active transportation trying to walk from his home to the store, or Ahmaud Arbery, he was engaged in recreational activity, going for a jog, and because of their social-political environment, they were unable to complete the activity. And it was a fatal reason for why they were unable to complete the activity. And so I often talk about, you know, it's not just about the built environment, because as active living researchers, we really want to make sure the built environment is perfect, which it should be (well, not perfect) but should be promoting of activities. But we also have to think about, well, are some of these environments not welcoming for others? Or do some of these environments cause a different level of threat? And so a lot of my research will focus on these kinds of health inequities related to environments and I often talk about issues with walking while Black or running while Black, or even for a lot of communities of color. And then also to it's not even just the relationship built in social work, but the natural environment. So you know, how some natural environments are not as welcoming for communities of color, or how some kids of color don't even feel comfortable to go in natural environments. So kind of all that together, put together like in a salad, it's kind of like, all the little things or the big things that I research.
I thought of you the other day. So I was researching a little bit about your work for this call. And I was listening to a different podcast and they were talking about activity among children – just being physically active, basically. And it was, the researcher was talking about how from such a young age now, we're either kind of... we consider ourselves an athlete or a non-athlete. And the people who don't think they're an athlete now, there's a lot of things to do, they can watch TV, they can, you know, play video games, they can sit on their phone. Where back in the day, even if you were a "non-athlete," you still rode your bike and ran around with your friends because there was nothing else to do. So I'm just wondering, you said the word play in there, and I'm wondering if you could talk about that a little bit how we don't all have to be cycling 100 miles or running marathons to be active and healthy and just kind of playing or just being outside and moving our bodies is a good thing, even if we're "non-athletes."
Right, right. I think that's one of the things that's kind of been a barrier in how we self-identify ourselves very much early on with regard to activity. And a lot of times when I mention active play, I'm thinking about children, but adults play too. And when I did some of my earlier studies, I was looking at the physical activity of children. And so I would call it active play, because kids don't say, "Oh, I'm gonna go run around the block," you know, they go outside, and they're playing, and they're climbing trees, and they're doing whatever. But adults, you know, we can characterize our physical activity as play as well, you know. We, like you said, we don't have to get on the bike and you know, cycle 50 miles, we might just want to, you know, play a game of hide and seek with someone or we want to play badminton outside, or just, you know, games, just anything, that we're not sedentary and that we're moving. And something as simple as just walking is great as well, you know, so I think, if we kind of come outside of our heads and say, "Well, I'm not an athlete," or "I'm not this," and we just say, "Well, I just want to go outside and play," then we will start to welcome those opportunities of playing and before you know it, you will be a little bit more active.
And I love thinking about solutions in this space. And I want to talk about Nature Rx, and I read about this in one of your publications about how "admiration for nature can save us," you wrote with colleagues. So um, can you explain what Nature Rx looks like on your campus and in the context of, you know, college students specifically, just for an example, how this increased access to nature and green space can affect our physical and mental health in very positive ways?
Sure, and that quote, yeah, that "admiration for nature can save us" is a quote that I borrow from Alice Walker, who is you know, an awesome novelist, but she's a naturalist as well. And I just love how she can take words and make nature seems so majestic and beautiful and welcoming. And so I just love that quote. But in any case, the Nature Rx program, it was started a few years ago by myself and another colleague, Dr. Shannon Jetty, who's also here with me at the University of Maryland. And we kind of just stumbled on it at first, you know, we had met Robert Zarr, who is kind of the lead person of Park Rx, and that's the whole initiative to kind of combat chronic disease with nature through the use of like writing prescriptions. And he initially started doing that with his pediatric patients. And we met him at a luncheon when they were talking about Park Rx, and its partnership with Prince George's County – which is where University of Maryland sits – and he came and he said "You know what? Cornell has started this Nature Rx program, would you guys be interested in starting something at UMD?" And we were like "Sure!" And it sounded like a really cool idea. And so we came back that fall, and started to ask folks around campus who'd be interested. And we realized people all the way from landscape architecture, people from our arboretum office, from the rec center, all over, even, we have a historian; they came together, and they said they were interested in it. So we launched the program, and we came up with the mission. And our mission was to say that we wanted to highlight and leverage the natural spaces on our campus Arboretum, primarily for the purpose of health and well being as well as environmental stewardship. And there's so much data out there that talks about how beneficial nature is for your physical and your mental health, you know, it can reduce stress, it can improve cognition for adults and kids, help you with your sleep... I mean, it goes on and on. And so we wanted to make sure that we took advantage of this beautiful Arboretum in which our campus sits and encourage our students and our faculty and staff to go outside and engage in nature. There's many people on campus who don't know all of the green spaces around the campus. And so are the arboretum offers, you know, tours around campus for people who even been here for years. And then I would say that, as the organization evolved over the past couple of years, and particularly I would say, during the first year of the pandemic, and as I was really seeing things about the inequities with nature, our people didn't have parks to go to during the high level of quarantine, I really wanted to make sure that the aspect of inequity historically and presently was recognized. And so I came back and I said I wanted to add in another aim to Nature Rx, a goal, and that was one to really recognize the Piscataway people. So our campus lies on the indigenous land that was seized from the Piscataway people. And so I want to make sure that Nature Rx not only recognizes these Piscataway elders, but also brings to light, you know, some of the legacies of violence and the displacement, the migration of those ancestors through not only education, but other acts of tribute. And then along with Piscataway, I want to also make sure that Nature Rx is part of the conversation that acknowledges UMD's historic ties to the slave trade and even encourages conversation on ways that we can atone. So all of that kind of comes under that Nature RX umbrella, you know, the recognition that I just spoke about, the education – I'll be starting a new class this fall called "Black bodies, green spaces. From 1619 to today" – we'll have a research arm, and then that part, I'm assuming the prescription arm. So we'll start to have a pure program where we actually can write nature prescription so people can actually get a "prescription" and go outside, you know, and get 15 minutes of some nature, or however their their prescription will be written.
I need one of those. I need, I need a whole script! [laughts] you know, Jennifer, I was talking to another fellow on this podcast recently, and she talked about... she's a Hispanic woman and talked about when she got to college, environmentalism and kind of nature access in general was framed and like, people wearing Rei and $400 boots, and, you know, just the depiction of what it meant to be out in the environment. And someone who loved nature was a very specific kind of person and not a person that looked like her. I'm wondering how, if that aspect of environmentalism and nature access, you touch on that in your research? And if so, you know, how you deal with that dismantle those notions of, you know, high dollar entry costs, and you have to look like this in order to enjoy being outside?
Yes, I do. I do touch on that. And I will be touching on that in the class that I will teach this fall. And a lot of it is kind of an evolution of the relationship, and the connection of nature with communities of color. There may be some historical trauma that is associated with nature. So for example, a lot of lynchings occurred out in fields and out in nature. So there may be that, there may be other traumas associated. So there may have been some kind of retreat from nature. And then this kind of dogma was prevalent, like, "oh, people of color don't like nature, or they don't go out in nature." No, there was some stuff that went on. It's not that they don't like it, but there may be some hesitancy and so I do touch upon that in research, and then also the whole idea of how many places were segregated. In early parks, you know, they had a segregated, Shannon Doyle had a segregated spot for African Americans; pools, beaches were segregated. So there's that whole backdrop as well. And so that is something that, you know, we can't like gloss over, and then jump to why don't we see folks out, you know, who don't look white in these spaces? And so it's important to really know the history. And then also, presently, when you do go out, I also talk about kind of the microaggressions. So sometimes it's the overwelcoming or the subtle, not necessarily not so subtle, but the comments of like, "how did you know where this park was?" Like, like Rock Creek Park, like, this is the biggest park! like those subtle kinds of questions. So it still has this kind of like white centrality of like, well, this is nature, like, this is where we go, how did you guys hear about it? So some of those microaggressions even to this day, I've had colleagues who come and tell me, you know, since the pandemic, I've been going on nature more, and you know, I'll get these looks, or I'll get these comments or this and that, and it's so that kind of that microaggression. So it's all those things that are still there. That can be barriers for some folks, you know, and I try to tell people, I actually wrote an op-ed that's going to be coming out this month or next month, and I forgot the title, but it has to do with Black bodies and green spaces. And literally, I was talking about the fact that we need to reclaim it. And I just, I literally just moved to a new house in November, and I was talking about how much I love walking in the tree canopy but I know just like maybe five six miles away in a predominately African American neighborhood is not the same. And, and it shouldn't be that way. And so I talk about the nature gaps, but also talk about how, you know, we, we deserve it. When I say we, I mean communities of color, BIPOC, to be able to go to these spaces just as much as anyone. And I also like to say nature doesn't belong to anyone, you know. So it's something that, you know, you should just go and just reclaim that space and be able to enjoy it. So. So I just feel like, you know, all these things have to be discussed when we're talking about equity in nature and in green spaces.
there's a couple other studies you've published recently that I want to touch on. But before we move on from this, I want to ask you what nature means to you? I mean, you don't have to give me your secret spots where you like to go and be alone. Or be judged, apparently, for some reason by folks. But what does it mean to you, when you when you think about nature, what is what does it mean to you?
Um, well, sometimes, I do have to admit, I do like going out in nature walks by myself, but then I'll be like, "Okay, wait a minute. I'm here by myself" and you got to have you got to always have safety in the back your mind. But in any case, I really like to be by myself in nature, because I can really absorb kind of like the peace of it. I have a deep appreciation just for the sounds just being by a creek and hearing the water. But it gives me, it gives me hope it gives me life when I'm when I'm out in nature. And, and I really do believe the, you know, that quote that we mentioned early, "admiration for nature can save us." And sometimes when I go outside, it just kind of reinvigorates me. And I just love the idea of being out in and seeing the creation of nature, or creation of things that man did not do, so to speak, you know, it just, it's just wonderful. You'll see, well, we're out of that. Sometimes you'll see like a flower that is growing out of like, a sidewalk. It was like how did that come out through that crack? You know, like, the little things like that will amaze me. So, you know, it just, it kind of just reinvigorates me when I go out in nature.
Yeah, that's, that's really beautiful to hear. I know, during the very early days of the pandemic, when we were all literally just at our houses, you know, locked down, I live in a pretty rural area. So I was really fortunate to have, you know, I wasn't in a concrete jungle stuck in my house. And I drew a lot of optimism even though the world was just in such a crazy place at that time. Just knowing that the foxes were still coming to my house every night and that, you know, everything, everything outside was still moving at the same pace and was okay. And I know personally that made me feel really... made me feel okay.
Yeah, reassuring. Yeah, definitely is.
And my partner, my wife is, we own a farm. And we do seed saving, we focus on seed saving. And she has opened my eyes to these little tiny plants and the seeds and just like you mentioned, you know, the flower growing from concrete, these very tiny beings that are just so beautiful and have no business surviving, and they do.
Against all odds you able to come up and stand straight through the crack.
Right? That's like the Tupac poem, "The Rose that grew from concrete" Yes, very much so. So speaking of the pandemic, unfortunately, here we are a few years later, and we're still we're still dealing with it, as me and you talk right now. And so you had some interesting research on COVID-19 looking at the disproportionate impacts on communities of color, can you walk us through how decades of disinvestment in housing, transportation, schools and other resources, a lot of the built environment that you mentioned, are linked with COVID rates in these communities?
Sure. I think I often like to reference the phrase, "your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code," because that helps to address health disparities, inequities, all that are related to racism within this country. And so I think a way to understand that is to kind of look at all of our determinants. So if we take COVID-19 as an example, and we think about, okay, we're born with a set of individual health determinants that are related to our genetic predisposition, generational influences, so the health, you know, the fetal health that you had when your mom was carrying you and some of the other things that were going on before you even come, they're just set, you know, and they can also influence our health outcomes and our behaviors. So if you grew up in a household where everyone eats from the garden outside and sits around the table at dinner time, and then the same goes for family walk, then you'll have certain behaviors that you carry on, or you have maybe different behaviors, but I like to think about these individual determinants, and how they affect what we eat and in our movement, and all of those can have outcomes that can be good or bad. And so when we talk about COVID, we saw that certain health outcomes, pre-existing health outcomes for putting people at like a higher risk for severe COVID-19. And so, we were thinking, Okay, some of those were like obesity, diabetes, and when we think about that we're like, okay, is it all genetic? No, that's not the whole story. There's all of the social determinants of health. So everything from like, we mentioned, the built environment, so the type of house and neighborhood we live in, whether or not the neighborhood has public transportation, the food environment, so you live in a food swamp? Do you live in a food desert? Or do you have grocery stores or farmers market to get healthy foods? your educational environment, which is very much linked to the neighborhood environment: So do you have safe, you know, highly resourced schools that are available? The social environment, you know, are you living in a way that you know, the social and cultural systems in which you navigate at home, at work, at school, you know, are they kind of toxic to you? And so, there's other ones, you know, as well, but a lot of these affect our health. But we have to think about all of these environmental silos, and then the individual determinants that were within the silo, and how they were put into motion by the laws, the policies, regulations –most, if not all, stemmed from racist, and discriminatory ideologies, such as like redlining and other aspects. And so when we look at these determinants, like, overtake one, for example, parks. That's one determinant that would be code in our built environment. And we saw that during the pandemic, not everybody had access to parks, not everyone had access to green space, even though CDC told us in the summer of 2020, "hey, everyone go out to the park, that's the best way to keep safe." But we saw that there was some disparities regarding that. And the parks, and the disparity of parks, are related to the residential segregation, which is related to redlining. And so it's this kind of ongoing thing. And so you can't just look at one thing and say, "Oh, that's why they're inactive," or "oh, that's why they eat unhealthy." You know, it's a constellation of all of these social determinants that really take the forefront over the individual determinants that we are born with. So COVID-19 was one thing in the last two years that I think opened a lot of people's eyes to kind of structural racism and a lot of these institutions and policies. And the other one, of course, was Black men dying at the hands of police. And you started, you have an upcoming paper that starts boldly with I can't breathe, and it goes on to list men and recent Black men in recent years who have said these words before dying at the hands police. So I know this is a large paper and covers a lot of ground. And you mentioned Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery. Earlier, but can you outline the connection you make between current police brutality and environmental injustice, and maybe give us some of the solutions or paths forward that you offer in the paper? Yes, definitely. We wanted this paper to be very bold. And actually, we just got the email today that it was accepted. So we're really excited, we're really excited that it's going to be coming out next month. And I knew – even before the paper was written– I wanted "I can't breathe" to be in the title because I started thinking about [how] that can be interpreted in so many ways. Yes, it can be the "I can't breathe" that Eric Garner said, or George Floyd. But it also can mean "I can't breathe" because I have air pollution around my house, or, you know, I'm around all this toxic kind of air and these, these impurities. And so we wanted to write this manuscript, because definitely of the recent incidents of police brutality. But we also wanted to kind of relate that to the historical and current policies related to a wide range of environmental hazards that many BIPOC folks have been exposed to, whether that's physical, mental, or cultural toxicities, that kind of create these unbreathable, unlivable communities. And so in order to make this connection, we kind of walked the reader through the kind of the evolution of racism within this country. Starting first the scientific racism and pseudo scientific conception of white biological superiority, along with the kind of this medicalization of Blackness in order to legitimize slavery, and then just kind of propagate this anti-black racism. And so in that first part of the paper, we talk about systems of oppression, whether it's sharecropping or black codes, and maybe how lack Codes for many Black Americans, specifically Black men, were used as a tool to have this forced manual labor through this convict leasing. So you're like, "Okay, you've been emancipated and you're free, but I'm going to convict you for just walking here, I'm going to convict you for being a vagrant. So now I'm going to still get that free labor from you." But many of these men who were working this convict leasing were exposed to numerous environmental contaminants because they were working on the railroads, and they were working in the mines. So we kind of make that connection there. And then we advanced a discussion to talk about modern racism, and we use the COVID 19 pandemic, as a way to exemplify a current day connections of racism, how, and again, you know, we'll highlight examples of residential segregation, and many of the social determinants and inequities. And then we pivot backwards in this kind of modern racism discussion, and show parallels between the 1918 influenza pandemic, and then the Red Summer of 1919 that occurred during that time, along with today's pandemic, and the racial reckoning of summer of 2020. So we wanted to show like those parallels, and then we close out our review with a talk and a discussion on environmental racism. And we reference a quote from Dr. Deborah Robinson, which she says "environmental racism, therefore, is a new manifestation of historic racial oppression, it is merely an old wine in a new bottle." And I love that because it kind of just talks about a lot of what we had alluded to in the beginning of the paper – that racism, a lot of what you see is just kind of repackaged – and then we end out, you know, the paper with the whole phrase of I can't breathe, and speak of the many forms of environmental racism, how it goes beyond just, you know, pollutants in the air, or water or food, and many different environmentalism, and it spans all of these, these dimensions, including police brutality. And so we were talking about solutions. And we actually borrowed some of the work from Heather McGee, and how this false zero-sum narrative needs to be eliminated. And if we try to achieve environmental justice, it really, you know, helps everybody you know, if we understand, acknowledge that we need to have this anti-racist existence in society, it will have benefits not only for the people who have been disenfranchised, but for everyone.
And building off that a little bit. What are, I want to know what you're optimistic about? So you touched on some solutions there some framing that would be helpful for the research. But were just in general, broadly, even beyond that, where do you find hope and inspiration these days?
I do find... I am I optimistic, but sometimes I can be very realistic. What am I pessimistic, but I am optimistic, literally for the future. That may sound kind of hokey, but it's like, I think the summer of 2020, with the protests, and then also with this pandemic, it's opened the eyes for so many people who either didn't want to see things or just had their eyes closed. And I think for a lot of people, when their eyes were opened, it created this fire in their belly. And this is especially true, I think, for a lot of the younger generations. And I think that gives me optimism, because I think they can take the baton and help us move forward to this anti-racist society that I had mentioned. And the other thing I think, that gives me hope for the future is – and it's kind of selfish, because I am at public health –bBut I think that although public health practice, literally through the lens of this pandemic has been kind of dragged through the mud a little bit, I think, actually, for a lot of people, people now have a higher appreciation for public health, and even a better understanding of what it does. Because for so long people were like, "Wait, is that people who pick up our trash or what?", think how it's all of these things. Now, I think every single person knows what epidemiology is in this world now. And so I get stuck by the fact that there's a higher appreciation, maybe got more kids who might want to go in public health, because they're seeing all these different things that you can do. And so that gives me hope as well, because I think a lot of people were like, "wow, they got this vaccine together quite quickly. And wow, this is going to help me," like all these connections. And so that kind of gives me hope as well, too.
So before we get to some fun stuff, I have one more question about you mentioned kind of the younger generation and I wanted to talk about your strategies for mentoring some of these up-and-coming researchers specifically how maybe your approach to mentoring is different than how you were mentored.
Yeah, so it's a little bit different. So the approach I use for mentoring is, I really try to mentor the entire person, and not just the student identity. And so what I mean is sometimes they'll come in, and we'll we'll talk about their life. We'll talk about, you know, I won't try to be intrusive, but I open the door to say like, how's things going, you know, and if they want to just try to divulge some of that, I let them do that, and they feel comfortable, because they have lives outside of being a student. And, and I think, you know, by kind of getting an understanding of who they are, I can really kind of tap in to a better understanding of what influences their research, or what kind of drives them or what they find passions about. So I really try to mentor the whole person. And it's a little different than how I was mentored, because my mentors were a little bit more hands off with regard to that type of mentorship, it was very focused on the scholarship and being a student, but I still did have good relationships with them, like, you know, I was able to see them outside of the of their career. So for example, we had dinner parties or barbecues, so I was able to see them as a whole person. But in terms of them, like mentoring all the other parts of me outside of the scholarship, it wasn't quite the same way as I do it now.
I really liked that. I wish I would have had that. And also the idea of just taking the extra moment to ask how people are doing and acknowledging the fact that there are things outside the classroom, because I'm sure you're a very busy person. So you know, good on you for going that extra mile and making people feel comfortable.
Yeah. Yeah. So I am sorry, no, it just feels good to be able to kind of know who the person is beyond the student.
Yeah, it's good to make time for our relationships. And it's so easy to say, throw up your hands and say, I'm busy nowadays, because we all we all are. So I'm really glad to hear that. So Jennifer, I'm trying something new, you are the very first person I'm trying this with, because I heard this on a different podcast, and I thought it was kind of fun. It is just three rapid fire questions. And you can just answer with one word or a phrase and we can move on to the next one. So when I am not working, I am most likely
daydreaming, couldn't hurt, so
if I can, I'm surprised to hear that actually. I have to. Hello, hello, fellow introvert. If I could meet one person, alive or deceased, it would be
Nothing makes me laugh harder than
literally every moment of a girl's trip with my travel girls. I literally just came back from a girls trip this past Sunday, Saturday and Sunday. And I think I got stomach cramps the whole time laughting.
That's excellent. So Jennifer, this has been so much fun. I've really learned a lot. And I'm fascinated by your research. And it's really near and dear to my heart. So thank you so much. And my last question is, what is the last book that you read for fun?
Well, I would have to say it's weird. I've read a lot of stuff that may not seem fun, but one of them was a book called "Black Nature." And it's kind of like this collection of poetry and different prose about nature. And it's nice because it goes across time, and current day, historically, and so it's just kind of a nice little way to escape a little bit.
Excellent. Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for your time today. There's been a whole lot of fun.
It's been fun. Thank you, Brian.
How do you cut through the fog around climate change and get to a solution?
John Harte, a physicist-turned-ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, looks first to the mountains, then to the oceans and the ice, and then finally to the optimism that underpins so much political thought and action in the United States.
Speaking before the Humanist Science Committee in tiny Salida, Colorado, earlier this month, Harte used one slide to "demolish" deniers, one slide to show the real stakes—collapse of civilization—and the remainder of his chat to describe impacts he's seen from a lifetime of research in the Rocky Mountains and where he sees hope.
"There is no question that the course we have been on for the last 60 years will lead to a crash," he said. "But the alternative future is the careful transition to what we call a soft landing … where we need less than one Earth to support what we do on Earth."
But first, bad news: Global warming is going to be worse than we thought, Harte said. Various feedbacks related to a warming planet—from increasing wildfires to hotter oceans to thawing permafrost—are not understood well enough to factor into predictive models.
"This is scary. These models are likely significantly underestimating the rise in atmospheric temperature that will likely occur from our current levels of climate-changing pollution."
Harte, a senior researcher at UC Berkeley's famed Energy and Resources Group, has spent a lifetime connecting dots—studying flowers in high mountain meadows for evidence of increasing fossil fuel emissions, looking at the "smoke and mirrors" behind geo-engineering and carbon sequestration.
Solutions, he says, are more politically achievable than most would consider given today's polarized political environment:
"Who are going to be the economic winners 50 years from now? They're going to be the countries that made the greatest advances in solar energy and battery storage, in the technology needed to achieve a future without climate change," Harte said.
"Selfishly, for the sake of our grandchildren and the economy they live under, we should be doing these things."The talk clocks in at just over an hour. But it's a refreshing overview of a problem increasingly staring us all in the face.
EHN reporter Kristina Marusic won an award at the 2022 Golden Quill Awards for her reporting on the health impacts of fracking.
The Golden Quills competition, held by the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, honors excellence in print, broadcast, photography, videography and digital journalism in western Pennsylvania and nearby counties in Ohio and West Virginia. This was the 58th year for the annual awards, which were presented at an awards dinner in Pittsburgh on May 24.
Marusic was presented with an award for Excellence in Written Journalism in the Science/Environment category for her four-part series Fractured: The Body Burden of Living Near Fracking, which documented exposure to harmful chemicals in Pennsylvania families living near fracking wells.
In the investigation, Marusic collected air samples, water samples, and urine samples, and found that five families who live near oil and gas wells are exposed to higher-than-average levels of a long list of toxic chemicals used by the industry, prompting a group of more than 30 state lawmakers to call on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to do more to protect Pennsylvanians.
Marusic also won two Golden Quill awards in 2020 for her reporting on air pollution and cancer in western Pennsylvania, including a Best in Show Ray Sprigle Memorial Award.
A car pulls up to a street corner, and a young, bearded man hops in the passenger seat, only to come face to face with a weathered and bald future version of himself.
The two have an offbeat, funny conversation that veers from their shared dream of marrying Taylor Swift and the pronunciation of the word “Worcestershire” to the power of hope in the face of climate change and the benefits of electric vehicles.
No, it’s not a fever dream—it’s a sketch comedy video produced by Esteban Gast, the comedian in residence for Generation180, a clean energy nonprofit. Gast, along with Generation180 and the American University-based Center for Media and Social Impact, has created a new project to help comedians become climate ambassadors through their craft.
The project is a response to growing research and understanding about how comedy, even about topics as serious as climate change, can be an important avenue for activism.
This isn’t the first time comedy has been used as a tool to engage people in climate conversations — last September, seven popular late-night hosts dedicated one night of their shows, dubbed “Climate Night,” to covering climate stories. The jokes ranged in accuracy and effectiveness, highlighting the need for more, and more responsible, climate comedy.
Toward that end, the Climate Comedy Cohort aims to put established comedians into conversation with climate experts and scientists — the “serious people,” said Caty Borum, executive director of the Center for Media and Social Impact. In this first year, nine comedians will spend six weeks in workshops and conversations with prominent voices in the climate movement, such as Dyanna Jaye, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement and Niklas Hagelberg, an environmental expert at the United Nations.
Learning about climate science from these experts, Borum told EHN, will help comedians infuse accurate climate science into their creative work — after all, comedians work by taking cues from the world around them. This kind of crosstalk rarely happens between the activist world and the world of comedy. “It's kind of an amazing experience that no one has really had in comedy,” Borum said.
At the end of the six-weeks, the fellows will pitch their comedy ideas and design sketches and standup comedy shows that will tour the country this coming fall.
Comedy can be a valuable tool for social change, said Gast and Borum. Research has shown that the public is more likely to take action on an issue if they feel like their actions can make a difference. Comedy can do that by changing a typically gloomy narrative into a hopeful one, helping the audience understand that solutions are possible. For example, in Gast’s sketch, his older self assures him that, while the future is different, humans found a way to live sustainably.
If comedians decide to talk about tangible solutions in their work, Gast said, they can inform people about tangible ways society can move toward a sustainable future. “We're not just going to talk about hope or solutions because we're naive but because there actually are [solutions].”
Comedy is also a way to “sustain” social movements that might otherwise become overwhelmed with anger or hopelessness, Lauren Feldman, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University who studies the role of comedy in social movements, told EHN. Additionally, she said, comedy can be disarming, making divisive topics like climate change more accessible to people who might not otherwise want to pay attention.
The purpose, said Gast, is not to turn comedians into activists, but to help them make responsible and accessible creative work that includes climate change as a topic. “They are not going to be ‘climate change comedians,’” said Gast. “They're going to do their set. And if they do an hour, maybe seven minutes or maybe one bit is [about climate change].”
Another goal of the program is to instill curiosity in climate experts to learn how to use comedy as an effective communication tool. “If serious advocates in climate start to really take comedians seriously and invite them into [climate activism], that can be really powerful over time,” she said.
Comedians, said Gast, have an appetite for creating comedy about current issues facing society. “The climate crisis is going to be more and more and more relevant, right?” he said. At a certain point, comedian or not, “we're all gonna have to talk about it.”
NORTH BRADDOCK, Penn.—On Wednesday evening, 10th grader Abby Wypych stood in front of Woodland Hills School District’s board and urged them to approve a feasibility study on installing solar panels.
“Woodland Hills has provided me with many opportunities to get involved with climate action, which I’m very passionate about,” she said. “As a student with severe asthma, I’m also very concerned about the poor air quality in our region.”
Wypych and her co-presenter Lauren Palamara, a youth educator for the climate advocacy nonprofit Communitopia, reminded the board that thanks to student advocacy, Woodland Hills became the first school district in Pennsylvania to pass a climate resolution in 2020. With a goal of having net-zero emissions by 2050, the district has helped educators create climate change lessons for their classrooms, established a climate-friendly food and gardening program, improved recycling and energy efficiency in school buildings, and students hosted the region’s first youth climate action summit. In 2021, the district won a national “Best of Green Schools Award” from the U.S. Green Building Council.
“How do we continue to champion this phenomenal work?” Palamara asked. “Imagine our next news headlines if Woodland Hills takes steps toward becoming a regional leader in solar power.”
Abby Wypych presents to the Woodland Hills School Board, urging them to move forward with a proposed solar power project. (Credit: Kristina Marusic)
The pitch was effective: The school board voted to accept a letter of intent from solar developer BAI Group. As a next step, they’ll review the company’s proposal to conduct a solar feasibility study for the district.
Woodland Hills is not alone. The number of K-12 schools using solar power in Pennsylvania doubled from 2020-2021, according to a report published today by Generation180, a clean energy nonprofit.
The 108 schools using solar energy in the state represent nearly 5% of all K-12 students in the state (about 90,000 students), and about 2% of all Pennsylvania schools.
“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for,” Shannon Crooker, the Pennsylvania director at Generation180, told EHN.
In recent years, energy costs increased while the cost of solar panels decreased. According to Generation180’s report, a majority of solar projects at Pennsylvania schools were installed in low-income districts at little to no upfront cost, enabling schools to start saving money immediately.
“We’ve been able to put the money we’re saving on energy toward teacher resources and curriculum materials,” Joe Stroup, the district superintendent for Midd-West School District, which has the largest school district solar array in Pennsylvania, told EHN. “It’s also good for the community because it takes some of the burden of taxes off people in the district.”
Midd-West School District in Middleburg is located in rural central Pennsylvania. In 2019 the district began installation of its solar array, which covers 7.25 acres divided between two school properties and creates up to 2.56 megawatts of solar power. Since the system went online in 2020, the district has generated 90%-95% of the school district’s power, which is expected to reduce its electricity bill by $9 million over 40 years.Most of the schools that have installed solar panels are in the central and eastern parts of the state, with just a handful of projects in western Pennsylvania. Historically, energy costs have been low for schools in the western half of the state, but that’s beginning to change as energy rates increase statewide.
Generation180 has helped schools across the country switch to solar power. A 2020 nationwide report by the group found that the number of K-12 schools in the U.S. using solar power increased by roughly 81% from 2014-2020, and that more than 5.3 million kids and teens attend schools using solar energy. Generation180 is officially launching its Pennsylvania program with the publication of the new report on solar-powered schools in the state, and hopes to help additional school districts switch to solar with free technical assistance and resources.
“There’s a misconception in western Pennsylvania that we can’t go solar because it’s so overcast,” said Crooker. She noted that Pittsburgh’s weather is often compared to rainy Seattle, which is home to the greenest commercial building in the world, the world’s first net-zero energy high-rise apartment building, and the world’s first net-zero energy arena — all of which rely on solar energy.
Palamara hopes Woodland Hills will help lead the way. “I think this district could be a– model in the region for solar-powered schools,” she said.
Solar panels at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Scalo Solar)
Solar array at Steelton-Highspire School District
in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Credit: McClure Company)
Pennsylvania is one of 29 states that allows “third-party ownership” of solar arrays, which enables a solar developer to pay for, install, and maintain a solar energy system on a property owned by someone else (such as a school district), then sell the property owner the power generated at a discounted price.
Most school districts aren’t eligible for clean energy tax incentives because they’re public entities, but privately owned solar companies that install solar panels on schools receive substantial tax credits, making the relationship beneficial for both parties.
Nationwide, roughly 79% of the solar energy installed at schools from 2015-2020 was financed this way, according to Generation180, and in Pennsylvania, about 66% of existing school solar projects have been paid for this way. Most of the Pennsylvania schools with solar qualify for some sort of Title 1 assistance, meaning a significant portion of their students are from low-income households.
“I think many people assume solar is too expensive,” Tish Tablan, program director at Generation180, told EHN. “Many Pennsylvania schools in low-income areas have already used third-party ownership to go solar with no upfront costs.”
A school district in rural Arkansas made national headlines in 2020 after saving more than $1 million in two years by switching to solar, then raising teacher salaries by up to $15,000 a year (more experienced teachers got the highest raises). One longtime teacher in the district told reporters the raise allowed her to quit the second job she’d had to work for her entire career.
Not all solar contracts are so advantageous, so Tablan’s organization helps school districts work with independent consultants that assess schools’ needs and shop for the best deal.
Midd-West School District used third-party ownership. The district didn’t pay anything for the installation, and will instead pay the solar company, Greenworks, a set rate for the power generated by the panels for the next five years.
“That locks in what we’re paying for energy right now,” Stroup said. “As a school district with a budget, that’s very important for us.”
When five years are up, the district will have the option to purchase the solar array, which they intend to do. The district is also considering expanding its solar capacity to generate up to 110% of its energy needs, which would enable them to sell energy back to the grid.
The proposed plan in Woodland Hills School District would also take advantage of the third-party ownership option.
“The cost savings are a no-brainer in my opinion,” Palamara told the school board, “and 80% of our energy at the high school would be coming from renewable energy, which would help us meet our climate action plan goals for 2050.”
Philadelphia Junior Solar Sprint Artistic Merit winners. (Credit: Philadelphia Solar Energy Authority)
Frankford High School—where students can learn how to install solar panels, take field trips to solar sites, and can get paid summer internships. (Credit: Generation180)
Schools throughout the country are preparing students for one of the fastest-growing employment sectors: clean energy.
Pennsylvania has been ranked as a top state for solar employment growth since 2015, and school districts with their own solar arrays have a unique advantage. At Midd-West School District, for example, high school students taught fourth grade students about how the district’s solar array works this week as part of their STEM curriculum.
In 2020, the School District of Philadelphia launched “Bright Solar Futures,” one of the first solar career training programs in the country, as a three-year vocational program at Frankford High School. Students learn how to install solar panels, take field trips to solar sites, and can get paid summer internships.
“This program has enabled [students] to take control of their future in a way that will have a positive impact on their community and their environment,” Jordan Crolly, the School District of Philadelphia’s solar energy technology teacher, told Generation 180. “Having a meaningful career path to work towards that pays well has given many of the solar energy technology students a sense of direction and a reason to try in school.”
Abby Wypych and Lauren Palamara, pictured in the Woodland Hills School District administration building after giving their presentation to the school board. (Credit: Kristina Marusic)
When Generation180 published its 2020 report on solar energy at schools across the country, Pennsylvania ranked 25th in the nation for the number of K-12 schools with solar energy, lagging behind neighboring states like New York and Maryland.
“We want to help more Pennsylvania schools flip the switch to solar, especially in low-income school districts that will benefit the most from the savings,” Crooker said.
Pennsylvania has one of the largest public education systems in the U.S. with more than 1.7 million students. If Pennsylvania schools keep adopting solar energy at the same rate over the next five years, they’d sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate equal to covering the cities of Pittsburgh and Scranton with forests, according to Generation180’s report.
The report also determined that if every K-12 school in Pennsylvania installed an average-size solar energy system of 267 kilowatts, it would eliminate carbon dioxide emissions each year equivalent to closing 3.8 natural gas-fired power plants.
“Growing up in my generation and hearing everything bad about climate change, it kind of feels like you have no hope, like what’s the point,” Wypych said. “Having opportunities in school to make [climate advocacy] something fun honestly changes your perspective. Climate change is still this horrible thing, but we have hope because we can still change things. Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean we’re any less powerful.”
Banner photo credit: Generation180