LISTEN: Dana Williamson on bringing communities to the forefront of environmental justice research

"There needs to be more intentionality around working with communities that are experiencing environmental inequities."

Dana Williamson joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the crucial role of social science in examining and maximizing the impact of environmental justice research and on-the-ground work.

Williamson, an Environmental Health Fellow at the U.S. EPA Office of Science Advisor, Policy & Engagement, is part of the current group of Agents of Change fellows. She talks about her upbringing in downtown Detroit, challenging days working as an EMT, and her work on both the academic and government sides of health research.

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

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


Brian Bienkowski

All right, today's guest is Dana Williamson. Dana, how are you?

Dana Williamson

I'm great. Thanks for having me.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, thanks for being here. So I wanted to start with a place that I know quite well, Detroit, which I know is your hometown. Tell me a bit about growing up there and how it shaped your interest in environmental justice and health equity.

Dana Williamson

So being a native Detroiter, you know, I love everything, I love my lions and pistons and Red Wings. But, you know, I think the Motor City is very popular for being the car capital of the world. But it's also well known for its deep entrenched history of racism, and redlining and white flight and a host of environmental issues that really pervade the entire city. So, you know, Detroit continues today to be predominantly like a majority minority city with about 80% African American. But what also isn't given much attention is that really the life expectancy of folks living in the inner city is like 10 to 15 years less than the average person that lives in the suburbs. And so there are real impacts of some of the environmental inequities and environmental racism that pervades the city. So for myself, growing up in the 80s, I learned that Detroit was like on the forefront. And this is what probably most impactful for me it was on Detroit was on the forefront of the waste to energy movement. And, you know, they created this innovative, innovative way to recycle their garbage to power the large portions of the downtown area and what's kind of known today as Midtown. But this was one of the largest inner city incinerators in the world at that time. And it emitted all kinds of horrible toxins that were especially harmful for children. And, you know, while the industry was supposedly a direct benefit to Detroit, they allowed all of the surrounding suburbs to import their trash into the city without any limitation. So not only was the smell horrible, but there were all these great harms from all of the toxins that you couldn't smell. So not only, you know, or just being in Detroit or as a resident, the the environmental inequities that particularly folks living in southwest Detroit, they really had the heaviest burdens to bear for the entire city. They had the highest rates of asthma and cardiovascular problems and kidney failures and cancers. And these were all a consequence of living in a particular area of the city. And unfortunately, was really related to socioeconomic status and what the people look like that live there. So being from, you know, the city of Detroit, I feel like I just have this more of a personal understanding of what environmental justice is and what environmental racism really is. And some of the history of an equities that have really driven me to want to be a change agent in this area and uplift the voices of those that are really impacted by these inequities, and really advocate for change.

Brian Bienkowski

So you mentioned your position now you're now with the EPA, Office of Science Advisor policy and engagement. And I'm wondering if you can kind of bridge the gap from Detroit, to where you're, what you're working on now, and the research and journey that brought you there.

Dana Williamson

Sure. So it's been a very circuitous journey for me to get to this point. But I feel like all of my experiences haven't been extremely influential, and really afforded me with opportunities that I have. And so I think like a lot of younger folks, growing up, I thought that I would go on to be a doctor, I didn't really think that I would be more of a expert or PhD, I thought that I would be a pediatrician. And so I was medical school bound, but then after like two rounds of unsuccessful applications, and maybe not doing as well on the MCAT, as I wanted to, I was, I was forced to re evaluate my passion, and kind of reorient my career option. So I became I became an EMT, and an emergency medical technician and hands down, I feel like this was the most rewarding, but also the most conflicting experience in my life, I had the ability to directly impact the course of people's lives.

But, and it was exhilarating and helping other people undercut some of their desperate situations. But I was often placed in communities that were suffering from poverty, or suffering from really a lot of social inequities and environmental challenges. And, you know, I saw firsthand as an EMT, just how limited the healthcare options were, and some of the differential exposures of those that resulted in poor health outcomes. And so my interest, since you know, I wasn't necessarily medical school bound anymore, my interest in as an EMT really helped solidify me wanting to be on the forefront of disease and beyond just helping people individually, and more looking at other determinants of health. And so that kind of catapulted me into the field of public health. So I got my master's in public health from Emory. And I took a position at the Centers for Disease Control, and I was there for a couple years. And then I found my way back to Emory school public health, and I was a project director, but I was really fulfilling kind of the and I was great at my job, don't get me wrong, but I was more fulfilling the, the vision of someone else. And I thought that I was great at what I was doing. But I really wanted to pursue my own interests and related to health disparities, and really get back to those initial passions, you know, and what incited me and being and having an interest in public health, so I wanted to create my own pathway. And so I decided to return to school once again, and pursue a doctorate in public health, behavioral science. And so my dissertation work was broadly related to community capacity building, and allowed me to hone in on my early interests related to environmental health disparities and environmental justice.

Brian Bienkowski

So I apologize in advance for this next question, a little peek behind the scenes I I do like to give some some frameworks to the guests, but this one, I don't and it's a big question. And maybe you've touched on this a little bit. But I'm wondering if you can identify a defining moment or event that shaped your identity, to get where you're at today.

Dana Williamson

Defining moment, I've had so many defining moments, I guess I feel like I've, I've, I've kind of I've been able to navigate a couple different professions, but they've all had a thread of health disparities and a thread of wanting to engage with communities. And I'm really just feeling like I've been given a lot in, in my upbringing. And I've been supported a lot along the way, and wanting to give back to communities in a way that I can continue to uplift others and help to alleviate disparities and really be a voice for systematic and structural and political change. So I'm not sure that I have one particular defining moment, I just feel like there's been a constant or a very consistent thread of wanting to engage with communities that I'm from, engage with other communities and continue to be a benefit and give back to others.

Brian Bienkowski

And in looking at your, your, your research and your interest, I see the term capacity building come up quite a bit. And as a journalist, I want to deconstruct that right away and to understand a little bit more what that means. So I'm wondering if you can talk about, you know what that means to you. And when we're talking about improving environmental health and reducing environmental racism at the community level, and any examples of success that you've seen in building capacity.

Dana Williamson

So when I talk about community capacity or capacity building, I'm referring to an asset based approach, meaning that it focuses on community strengths. And so these are the strengths that are specific characteristics of a community that can be leveraged to address environmental inequities, such as centering on leadership development, or skills development, focusing on knowledge and empowering empowerment. Also aligning with the values of a community or partnership, and even even focus on financial and social capital. And so these are all attributes that require partnership and collaboration, and can be very instrumental in creating policy and systems and environmental changes that are needed in many of these ej communities. So I had the opportunity with my dissertation work, to evaluate the US EPA, Environmental Protection Agency's environmental justice Academy, and this is a leadership development Academy that was able to attract people predominantly from the southeast of the US, southeastern states of the US. And they were a myriad of people that were community advocates, or academic activists, and even college students, and they were all interested in addressing environmental justice concerns in their community. And so this particular program, I feel was definitely a model for capacity building, because they and and, and I would, I would align this with being a success story, because they have been able to really infuse leadership development skills, among those that are passionate about alleviating environmental justice issues, and arming them with ways that they can then go forth into their communities to struck to create a structured approach to address some of the challenges that communities are experiencing.

Brian Bienkowski

Another thing that stood out to me about your research is that you're not just adding more data to the environmental health field, but which is obviously really important, but you're evaluating and researching health programs like the EPA, environmental justice Academy are working. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why this kind of research is is somewhat unique in environmental health research, and also why these evaluations are imperative to advance healthier and more just communities.

Dana Williamson

Yeah, so my work with the ej Academy. And when I say ej, I mean, environmental justice was unique in many aspects, I think the field of environmental justice is very interdisciplinary. But most scientists in this area are experts in environmental health, environmental engineering, or planning, toxicology.

And me being a behavioral scientist, I offer a very different lens to this work, I bring a skill set of evaluation, and really wanting to understand how participants have implemented the learnings into their community projects that they developed to alleviate some of the concerns, and how these projects have actually been able to impact environmental change. And so the program was implemented for over four years without any understanding of the true benefits that were being received by the participants without really taking any of the acknowledging the success stories, that the program itself was doing, and instilling these skills into the community and, and helping shape the activists to be able to go forth and make the change, and really being able to assess the impacts that they were having in the community. So in the ej world, and among many programs at the EPA, historically, evaluation has been underutilized because there aren't many social scientists, like myself or behavioral scientists in this space, they really have a skill set. And, you know, largely, the reason that you evaluate a program is so that you can identify what you're doing right what you're doing wrong, how it's really making an impact. And I feel like this is definitely a skill set that I bring to the world of ej and you know, it could be that many because of you know, environmental injustice, it can be very consuming. And you know, evaluation actually takes a lot of time so it you know, it could be my lens as, as an outsider or and having this specific skill set can really be valuable to those that are on the on the ground during the work that you necessarily don't have the time, or the wherewithal to really invest in an evaluation and evaluation in particular, in particular.

Brian Bienkowski

Having had a seat both at at the federal level now looking at federal initiatives and in academia, I'm wondering, if you have some of your own ideas, you know, if you had a magic wand or you were in charge, whether it's at the policy or community level, that that, that you would like to see change to better address environmental justice?

Dana Williamson

Well, I'll also touch on one additional aspect of my dissertation work. So I had the opportunity, as in one component, to do a systematic review. And I was looking at how researchers have engaged with environmental justice communities over the past 30 years. So over the past three decades, and I was applying a capacity building lens to this work to get more of an understanding of, you know, how they were really working with communities, or if they were really just working on communities and communities where the body or the target audience but not really benefiting from the work. And my takeaway from some I guess my long winded way to answer your question is more my takeaway from this research is that I was able to identify from an academic lens, that there needs to be more intentionality around working with communities that are experiencing environmental inequities.

You know, from an academic lens, I think focusing on capacity building is one way of instilling power back into the communities, and instilling leadership and arming communities with the knowledge and the skills and the resources so they can mobilize to fight back. And from an academic perspective, if your work is only narrowly focused on whatever your academic outcome could be, then you're really not working in collaboration with the community in a more sustainable way. And so, when I think about some ideas around addressing environmental injustice and environmental racism, I would like to frame from my knowledge, more of a capacity building approach, as one way to instill power or bring the power that the community has to the forefront, to be able to tackle some of the inequities that they're experiencing.

Brian Bienkowski

That brings me back nicely to the, to the reason we're here, the agents of change program, we had a few researchers, researchers last round, our first group of fellows write about this disconnect between a lot of academic research and the communities they're researching. And just the lack of integration, lack of diversity in research, whether it's the researchers themselves, or the communities. And so they were writing about it, and you're obviously going to write an essay at some point. And I'm wondering what kind of what your experience has been so far up to this point, communicating science to the general public. And if if that is an interest, I'm assuming it is, because you're here, and why you why you think it's important.

Dana Williamson

So I have not had the opportunity to really talk about my work, and the way that I feel is most meaningful and beneficial to, to communities, and I consider myself to be a community engaged researcher, and much of my passion around environmental justice again, has a foundation of my own personal experiences. And so, you know, I as a now, as a trained behavioral scientist, I have an understanding that in my training, your you are taught a certain way to talk about your research.

It is you pulling specifically from your data, and you don't have an opportunity really to translate your work outside of an academic space or outside of an academic journal. And so I haven't really had the opportunity to do that. And I feel like my work can be so beneficial to others outside of just academia, as capacity building is a topic that is highly discussed among many different disciplines, among many different disciplines, and even talked about commonly in the community organizing world and space. And then my lens as an evaluator can definitely help to do more of measurement and assessment of capacity building approaches. And so I want to be able to talk about this in a meaningful way. And I want to make my work really be of most benefit to the people that and the organizations and the communities that need it the most. And so I look forward to talking about my research and my expertise, as well as uplifting the actual communities that I've been able to have these conversations with through my dissertation work, and uplift the wonderful work that they're doing in this space, and be able to infuse some of my expertise in that and talk about it in a way that I haven't been able to in the past. So I look forward to that with this opportunity.

Brian Bienkowski

And how about social media has that has that played a role at all in your, it sounds like maybe kind of formal, formal writing for lay audiences hasn't hasn't been as much of a part of your work, but how about use of social media and whether you use it and kind of what you see the role for social media when it comes to the scientific community, government and advocates.

Dana Williamson

So I don't use social media a lot. I mean, I have, of course, the I have a Twitter account, and Instagram and Facebook.

But I guess definitely over the past five years, I've been more, more invested in my academic work and haven't had much time to really translate my work or in a social media environment. But I feel like social media is absolutely a, an a fantastic way to connect with a diverse audience, as well as a wide spread, and more people that you can engage with one on one. I think it's a resource I'm not sure that academia has used as often. Because again, most academics are trained to talk about their work in a very streamlined way, to other academics and scientific journals. And through social media, I think it's definitely an opportunity to translate your work to a broader audience, garner support, as well as solicit other ideas and see creative approaches to the way others are doing similar work as yourself.

Brian Bienkowski

So one more question here out of left field, what is the last book you read for fun? Sounds like you're really busy, but I'm sure you worked a book in there somewhere.

Dana Williamson

Oh, my goodness, the last book I read for fun.

I saw I don't remember the exact title, but it was a Deepak Chopra book. And I think the stresses of, of dissertation of being a PhD student life has definitely taken a toll. And I was seeking an opportunity to really just find a peaceful place and space and wanting to be a little more centered, and try to alleviate some of that stress. And so

I have turned to just doing a little more meditation and reading some of the works of Deepak Chopra have been very helpful in that way.

It works. And now that I've graduated, and I'm no longer a PhD student, so much of a so much stress has been alleviated. So yes, it worked in that way also.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, Dana, this has been really great. I was really awesome to hear about your research, and I appreciate you taking time today.

Dana Williamson

Thank you so much. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you today and share with you some thoughts around my work.

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