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environmental justice

LISTEN: Valerisa Joe-Gaddy on tribal water justice

“They’re still fighting for water rights.”

Dr. Valerisa Joe-Gaddy joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the importance of including Indigenous people in water management decisions.


Joe-Gaddy, an alumna of the University of Arizona receiving her Ph.D. in environmental science with an emphasis in microbiology, also talks about growing up on the Navajo Nation and balancing the researcher life while being a new mother.

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 Joe-Gaddy, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

How are you doing today?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

I'm pretty good. How about yourself?

Brian Bienkowski

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

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

I'm located in Tucson, Arizona. Sorry about that. I'm located in Tucson, Arizona. And I'm right, now I'm in my office, working.

Brian Bienkowski

I'm just assuming... I'm in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It is cold. snowing. We're talking here in mid November. What is what is it like there? Is it hot?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Um, it's actually really nice weather. Outside is probably about like 65 right now. So perfect weather. And it's going to be about high 70s today. So.

Brian Bienkowski

Wow. Yes, that is perfect. I had it in my mind. I had it 100 degrees and sweltering. So I'm glad. I'm glad it's not that. Well. Let's talk about where you're where you're from originally. So not too far from there. But I'm a little bit geographically ignorant of the Southwest. So tell me a little bit about growing up on the Navajo Nation.

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Yeah, so I'm from the Navajo Nation. So it's in the Four Corners region between New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. So I grew up on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, in a small little town called Gallup, New Mexico. But I also spent a lot of time on in Lupton, Arizona. So right on the border. It was great, I loved growing up there. There was a lot of things that I feel like I was able to do, that I wouldn't have done otherwise, like, like learning to drive, I learned that at a really early age like 9, 10; because there's no one on the roads. So things things like that, like you don't really take into consideration. They're just kind of normal. Like all my cousins and friends, they all learned to drive early as well. But when I went to college, I realized that wasn't normal. But then there was some other aspects of like the lack of running water, or lack of electricity, and there was not that much infrastructure, or the infrastructure is very poor. So realizing that there was some disparities in that, especially after going to college and realizing that our, the Navajo Nation is a such a poor community, when you really think about in the grand scheme of things.

Brian Bienkowski

Now, I don't want to probe on kind of the discomfort but I am curious when you say that you didn't realize, that maybe you realized it more in college. I mean, when you're a kid, though, is is a lack of running water or electricity, Is that something that's top of mind or was that just your reality?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

It was just our reality. I mean, I went to school with, you know, with kids, were like that If they didn't have running water and electricity, and like myself included in it, it wasn't wasn't weird. It was the norm for us. And I think that when I think about it now, it it is sad, and it saddens me now. But before, when I was like actually living it, it was normal. Everyone hold water. People you know, I mean, Gallup is still a place where, even today that bottles of water are sold per capita more than any place in the country. And it's just because there's still there's no running water, not even talk about drinking water. I mean, that's just something that I grew up with. And I didn't realize that it wasn't normal to, you know, have all your water come from a bottle.

Brian Bienkowski

So, right, right. And maybe on the more positive side, was there, was cultural history part of your upbringing? was kind of the history of Navajo in that region, something that was embraced in your household growing up?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Yes. My mom was very traditional. She tried to teach us Navajo, it's very difficult language to learn. So I don't have a great grasp of it. But my husband, his first language is Navajo. So he and my mom are able to communicate in their native language, and they're really trying to teach my son that. But yeah, I feel like my mom really made sure that the foundation of our household holds a lot of Navajo traditions and cultures and, and even to this day, she's still trying to make sure that my son has a lot of those cultures and traditions instilled in him while he's while he's growing up. So

Brian Bienkowski

yeah, that's excellent. And I I definitely want to hear more about that, that little boy, later on. But first, let's talk a little bit more about you. So as you move throughout your education, where in and how did you know that you wanted to be a researcher? And what did that path look like for you?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

I didn't know. I think like a lot of people, when you go to college, you have this thought, and this dream that you're gonna be something great. And for me that was going to be a lawyer. When I went off to college, I quickly realized that I hated law. I hated policy. I hated all my, my criminal justice classes. So. But science has always been something that I was always doing really well in. When I was, like a freshman and sophomore, I was taking the AP classes that were meant for seniors. So even by the time I was a senior in high school, I opted, I finished every single science class at high school, so I kind of had to go to online classes, just to keep up and be able to graduate on time. So but, but I was I was already... really love science. And so... but that wasn't something I wanted to do. It was kind of funny. I, I went, I went to New Mexico State University for my undergrad. And it wasn't until I saw or actually met one of my professors, their name was Dr. Unguez. And she she really saw something in me. She she was a professor in the biology department, and she kind of took a chance to me. I feel like I wasn't the best student in undergrad, I worked a lot and then I kind of had the mentality that C's get degrees, but Dr. Unguez saw something and she was... she really pushed me and she told me that you know, working in a laboratory might help mitigate a lot of the financial burden that I was struggling with at the time. They paid more and plus they offered a stipend for your, for your, for the semester that you're working with. And she really encouraged me to apply. So she really did take a chance on me. I mean, considering that all my fellow classmates during that time have all become like doctors and they went on to really great things, it was a little intimidating because I didn't feel like I belonged. And I think that's always something that I struggled with having that impostor syndrome, especially in graduate school, and then even now in my professional career, but I really ended up liking working in the laboratory, and working in a lab that allowed me to be outside and also go back into the laboratory. So a little bit of both not just strictly lab work, or bench work. So.

Brian Bienkowski

well, having gotten to know you a little bit and your work a little bit more, I can say, it's not just the other folks that went on to do some really incredible things, but you are too. And maybe that mentorship was this this moment. But what is the defining moment or event that you feel like has shaped your identity up to this point?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Oh, so right at the tail end of my PhD, I went to Hawaii for for a vacation. And I was really excited to go on this vacation. I was, I plan months in advance, and I plan all these events and, and when we got there, I was just really tired the whole time. And I was really, really sleepy. I didn't really want to do anything. And then I felt guilty the whole entire time I was there. And maybe like the last night I was there, I realized that I felt guilty for taking this vacation, taking this week off essentially celebrating the end of my PhD, But I didn't feel like it was then because I still had a chapter left to finish. And, and I just remember just sitting there being like, "I'm in one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet, I can't help but think that I'm failing, and I'm not doing enough. And I'm not. I'm not... I'm really not taking in this moment. And, and I'm, I'm just sitting here and I'm sad and upset with myself." And I really, that's when I realized that I was in a state of like major depression of coming from during my PhD, and just a setting all these expectations of myself that I couldn't accomplish. And even though I planned for this vacation, and, and was really excited when it finally came, it didn' really move me and I felt really upset by the whole time of the rest of the trip because I was just like, why I don't deserve to be here. This should be something that's I should be celebrating, but it really wasn't. And so when I finally came back from vacation, I realized that I was not in the best place mentally and that I needed to get some help. And then that's kind of where my journey of like mental health and then taking a step back from a PhD. I was one chapter away from being done. And I had to take a semester off, like, step back just to be able to, you know, be mentally okay. So that was that was a big defining moment for me, because it really did make me realize that I need to put myself first.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, I'm so glad you discovered that and thank you so much for sharing that. I feel like your experience, obviously is unique as that is your own personal experience, is so common in graduate school for people. There's just such an emotional and mental burden and burnout that I feel like is so common as I talk to folks on this podcast and people in my own life who have gone through similar things. So hopefully your story is one that's more common, where people understand that it is okay to take a step back and practice self-care. So I'm glad you came out the other side.

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Right and I had some of the best supporters and even my PhD advisor was really great throughout my PhD is just, it was ...When you're doing a PhD, you get, you get so... even competitive within yourself, you know, obviously you have to have some type of motivation to get going. And I think I lost that during that time. So

Brian Bienkowski

Well, that's a great point. I think a lot of the issues are external, just external pressures from the PhD program. But equally, are internal. I think a lot of folks who go through these programs are hardwired to be very hard on themselves. And it sounds like maybe you're one of those people. And I don't think that's an uncommon thing for people pursuing higher education. So yeah, no, that's an excellent point, the internal and external kind of rigors and pressures, they can be overwhelming. We can, we can move on to your work, because you did come out the other side, and you've been doing some excellent things. So I wanted to start by talking about... I know you're passionate about tribal water resources, which is such a crucial issue down where you're at. And one of your jobs and things you've been looking at is diversifying voices in water resources. So I was first, if you can just kind of give listeners a crash course on some of the water issues faced by Southwestern tribes in particular. And second, maybe explain why it's important to bolster diversity and tribal involvement in water resource management.

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Right. So I can probably sum it up in one word right now. So it's drought. We're going through a huge drought right now. A mega drought. Well, so specifically, I can't really speak to a lot of the other tribes. But for the Navajo Nation, I know that the drought has been hard, especially since that the Navajo Nation is still in litigation and still trying to get their water rights. Out of the 22 tribes here in Arizona, only four of them have water rights, meaning that they're able to claim some of that water, the other tribes and Navajo don't have rights yet. And they're still contesting a lot of the recent, it was just like a few months ago that there is an update, that they're still in litigation. So that was the update that they're still fighting for water rights. But for I feel like the reason why it's important to bolster diversity is we need a better understanding and we need all different people at the table right now. Right now there's, it's just essentially industry and state government that are at the table. And really, that's not what the state is comprised of, we're comprised of many different tribes, many different businesses, including like small businesses; and so I think there's a lot of smaller entities that don't get a voice at the table. So that's really what I'm trying to promote, and why I think it's important. For example, in Washington State, after of like a 40 plus year litigation, finally, was settled, after the tribes, the state, the cities, and the small businesses all came together to the table and finally just hashed it out. It took about 10 years, but that was something that everyone walked away from the settlement happy. So kind of having making sure that everyone that uses water, which is essentially every living thing on earth, has a has a say in what goes on, especially here in Arizona, when it's really, really difficult, especially with the drought going on right now.

Brian Bienkowski

That's a good too into the weeds. And if this isn't something, you know, no problem. But when you talk about four tribes who don't have water rights, what does that look like? Does that mean they do not have control, jurisdiction, kind of say in how the water in their land and on their reservation, how it's used, how it's managed, is that accurate?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Yeah, their management has to do so through the state I believe. Again, a lot when I work with tribes I focus more on irrigation aspect, so I'm not quite sure about like drinking water or other potable uses. I mostly focused on what they're doing with agriculture. So I can't speak to drinking water per se. But I know that for tribal agriculture, sorry, it does have to go through their council and see how much is allotted for the agriculture aspects.

Brian Bienkowski

And having paid attention to this and in your work, I'm wondering what are some of the ways that you think communication between state federal agencies and tribes could be improved when it comes to water access, water resources, and what that better communication would look like?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Right, and that's kind of where my, my nonprofit that I developed come in. And it's more about developing communication and understanding, what I feel that is lacking is that people don't know how to communicate and work with tribes. A lot of the times, tribes don't have a written language. And so a lot of the history is told through stories and artwork and song, dance, and other forms of media. So when, when non-natives come in, and you know, mentioned, like, "oh, you should read a book, or you should know, read this policy or something," it's not, it's not information that will be retained, especially within tribes, just because that's not how we grew up to communicate and to learn, learning is very hands-on for us, we retain so much more by like, talking about in a story, like I was saying, or even visually, am is, it's so much better than to read a policy or to go to a class just discussing policy. So making sure that that information, whether that be from agricultural policy, we then translate that information and try to make it into a form that is very easy to understand, whether that be like a digital form, like media, like videos, or essentially podcasts explaining it, and also trying to explain it in their native language, to natives. And vice versa. A lot of the times when natives go to discuss these water problems, I feel like they end up talking and they can talk and talk and talk. And they're not really saying what they need to say, I mean, they are, but they're telling it in a story or something. And a lot of non-natives don't quite understand that. So also getting some of these historical or these stories that have been passed down for generations out there and in media form as well. So that non-natives can view that and and, and have a better understanding of why water and other water resources are so important to natives. So just trying to bridge that, the miscommunication and in the misunderstanding, and how that different groups learn in different ways. So we're really trying to bridge that and make sure that everyone has a good understanding and the best access to the agriculture policies here in Arizona.

Brian Bienkowski

You mentioned your nonprofit, tell me about that. Tell me about starting a nonprofit what is called First of all, and what some of the work on the ground now or what you plan to do in the future looks like?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Um, yeah, well, so my nonprofit is called irrigation resources reaching indigenous growers and tribal entities. And if you're just wondering, it actually it's an acronym for Irrigate. And it's actually Irrigate-AZ right now because we're, we're just focusing on the tribes and everything in Arizona. And so what we're really trying to do again, like I said before, was just bridge this understanding and making sure that, that both natives and non-natives have resources available to them in many different forms of media so that they can so they're able to make better decisions and choices Regarding water, water resources. Yeah, so right now, that's, that's pretty much my nonprofit in a nutshell. Right now we're just in the beginning stages. It's been a process. I'm not, I'm not a business person. I'm not. I'm a scientist by training. And so it has been a completely different world. And something that I'm not quite familiar with. Luckily, I have the MIT Solve fellowship. So they have been such a huge resource and help in helping me develop my nonprofit, however, it is a lot of work. And then I noticed that I'm constantly Googling, you know, terminology that I never thought I would have to. Like, what's your, like? What's your EIN number? And I'm like, "Oh, my goodness, what is that?!" And I'm like, Okay, I need to Google that real fast. But yeah, it's things that I'm quickly realizing that we are right now, we're small is just me and my web designer right now. But we're working so much. And on top of that, I'm doing my job here at the University of Arizona, as well. So yeah, we may quickly need to acquire more people. A lot sooner than I thought we did. Because we are going through a lot. And I feel bad for my web designer, who is also going out to a lot of the different tribes up in northern Arizona and filming a lot for me, since I'm down here in southern Arizona. And I can't go up there all the time.

Brian Bienkowski

I wonder if there's a lesson in that, in what you all are trying to do. When we look at federal or state policies. I'm thinking about where I live in Michigan there, you know, there are frameworks within where agencies work with tribes in the state, there's 12 tribes here. And every tribe is different, you know, and there's what? 500, you know, 538, I believe I may have that number off, federally recognized tribes, andhaving a framework to work with tribes, you know, quote, unquote, doesn't doesn't look the same for every tribe. So it sounds like you are trying to make this much more culturally competent by working with individual tribes and within the way they learn and their kind of the historical context of water and what that looks like, is that accurate?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Right in, we are looking at all the different policies each tribe has, because each one of them is a little different. So we will do luckily, being here at the University of Arizona, we have some really great researchers that have already built a lot of these relationships with these tribes. So I feel like I haven't really been able to ask them and rely on them to be able to, to introduce tribes because even though I am Navajo, I may not be as you know, accepted in another tribe, just because I mean, these are still each tribe has had issues dealing with universities, with state government and, and so I mean, essentially, a lot of tribes are very wary of outsiders –including myself, it's not like I'm an exemption or anything just because I'm Navajo. So I'm very lucky that the university does have a lot of connections with all the different tribes that I can reach out to these researchers and they're able to help me.

Brian Bienkowski

So I know one issue, especially for rural communities is access to labs or resources to test water, whether that's irrigation or potable drinking water, but there's some encouraging signs on that front. I was wondering if you could talk about some technologies that you see as maybe bridging this gap and giving access to communities who maybe didn't have it before.

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Right. And I feel like that's such an important part. I think that or I'm sorry, any field, testing is important. And it's not just for rura communities for anyone that deals with food safety. In 2018, there was that huge romaine lettuce outbreak in Yuma, Arizona. So if there was in-field testing, then I'm sure that they could have caught it a lot earlier than they did. So it's not just rural communities, I feel like essentially, especially for food safety, there needs to be better in-field technologies to be able to predict some of the pathogens that they're testing. But it's hard, it's also one of those really things that's really difficult, because you're sampling out in the environment. And so you're, you're going to always have those caveats, you know, wind's always going to change water is going to, you know, it's, it's, it's difficult to work out in the environment, and in the field. So, but some of the technology that I'm really excited, and I really want to try and get my hands on, and work around the Navajo Nation is doing a lot of like sequencing testing and identification. So point-source identification, meaning that I want to see exactly what is essentially pooping in the water. And so whether that be birds, or bears or you know, sheep or dogs or something, I want to be able to pinpoint that source. So those are some new technologies that are starting to come out that are infield and that are just about the size of an iPhone. So that would be very, very cool to have. And to utilize that, especially in the place like on the reservations, or like you said, where there's not like access to a laboratory, since a lot since some of these samples you need to get on ice immediately, and then you need a sample within four to six hours, or else the testing fails. And when you have to drive four to six hours just to get to a town, it's not feasible to do some of these testing. So I am looking forward and I would really like to get my hands on some of the the new technologies that are out there.

Brian Bienkowski

And so you as you mentioned, you are a relatively relatively new mother, I don't know the age of your child. But I know this is a relatively new thing. And I know this was also a life changer for you, as I think happens to a lot of folks. Can you talk about that experience of pursuing a PhD? You are starting a nonprofit and you seem like you have plenty going on? And having a baby?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Yeah, Ethan, that's my son's name. He is three. He is just my favorite person in the world. He, I just love him so much. Yeah, but it was very again, he was a surprise both to me and my husband. At the time, my husband was in medical school and I was just I finished my break. It's kind of funny, that timeline. I did mention that I was in Hawaii and I decided to take a break, about a semester. And then the following semester when I finally reentered that's when I found out I was pregnant. So people always joke, they're like you had a little bit too much fun during your little break. So I guess it's true. But anyway. Yeah, so I was pregnant. And I was finishing up my last chapter. I was literally three weeks away from defending, my son wasn't was not expected to be born until 12 more weeks, so I was like, Okay, I'm right there. However, I just, I met with my advisors and I just remember feeling like really sick that morning with my advisers. And I was just like, I don't I don't feel so good. And then they're getting excited. They're like your your dissertations pretty much complete. You just need to do these last few edits. And then we could submit it to your committee. And I was so close and I was just like, Okay, that sounds good. And my plan was to defend and then you know, essentially have a baby like so I was getting that was my timeline. However, right after I met with my advisors a couple of weeks before it was about to defend, I got sick really sick that night and And I ended up in the hospital. And the doctors then told me that, that they're going to have to induce my son who was born around 11 weeks early at the time. So that was really scary. And I, I was, I was super sick, I was in the hospital for about two weeks myself, my son was in the hospital for a little over two months in the NICU. And that was such a surreal experience. And I think that if I, if I didn't take that time for me to mentally prepare myself and get into a better state of mind, I don't think I would have been able to get through that situation as well as I did. A lot of people were very impressed by or even just astounded that when when my son was in the NICU, and I would spend all day with him, you know, because he had a lot of different procedures going on, both for his lung as in his heart, and it was just a very stressful time. But the only thing that made me feel better was when I was holding him. And I could read to him and I, and I feel really bad now, because I didn't read to him baby books, I read to him, a lot of the like, environmental microbiology journals, he was able to listen to a lot of a lot of different type of like Point-Source contamination emerging journal articles while he was in the NICU. The nurses would laugh because they would be walking by and I'd be talking about wastewater treatment and different types of techniques. And they're like, well, he seems to be fine. He's just enjoying it, sitting with you. And so, and I was also sitting there a lot of the time on my iPad, doing edits and trying to finish up my dissertation. So yeah, it was it was, it was such a weird, weird, weird end to my, my PhD for sure. But when I was finally able to bring my son home, and finally able to defend, it was, it was nice too because I was able to actually focus on my dissertation and actually defending my dissertation, and focus on not having my son, you know, worrying about my son in the hospital, he was sitting right next to me the entire time he was sleeping. He was only about like, four months at the time. So he was, it was it was great. And I and that was about a year apart from when I went to Hawaii to then. And so just that whole year difference from you know, being such a, such a, in such a bad state to like, essentially not even wanting to get up to do anything to, you know, being able to defend with my newborn baby by my side. And just being happy and, and accepting and doing everything in my power that I could to bring the best defense that I could. So yeah, it was it was a really surreal experience when I think about it now, that so much can happen within a year.

Brian Bienkowski

So yeah, well, that is a that is a really beautiful story. And I am so happy to hear that. It seems to have turned out okay. I also like to think when you say that he's your favorite person. I think it would be funny if a parent was like, you know, he's like, my third favorite, like my third favorite person. And I assume that he is, he will be on this podcast as a microbiologist in you know, 18 years or so I'll be asking him "how did you get into microbiology?" "I don't know. But it seemed like from the very beginning it's all I could think about"

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

All I could dream about, you know what was a I was I was reading a lot about beaver feces and trying to figure out different types of point source for beavers and I was I read that that article like three times just because I was so fascinated by the methods. So he read, so I'm sure he's probably gonna be like I just have a things about beavers

Brian Bienkowski

So I have a couple more questions for you, Val. I've thoroughly enjoyed this. It's been so great getting to know you and your story. What are you optimistic about? I'm it sounds like there are some new technologies. There are some some stirs communication between tribes and resource agencies. I'm just wondering in your field and your nonprofit, what are you looking at and feeling hopeful about?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

And feeling hopeful, more about the communication aspect, I feel like people are getting, are starting to understand that just because you say something, does it mean that people listen to what you have to say. And it's really how you say it really affects how people listen. And, and what I mean by that is like, people can go ahead and talk and talk and talk all they want. And, but it's not until you identify or like, be able to connect with them. And, and have a betterunderstanding of each other that they're able to listen to and actually take what you what they listen to, and what they are learning and make that interaction. So I'm a little bit more hopeful about that. And I'm hoping that this this, this new change that I'm seeing, and it's not just within the state of Arizona, but a lot of other states about tribes, finally getting a seat at the table, that that is something that is not just a, you know, a fad, like a DEI fad or anything like that, that it's actually here to stay. And that, that there's so much that we can learn from each other.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, it's really great to hear that. And I ask those questions because it can be so doom and gloom covering the environment. And it's always nice to have doses of optimism from folks like yourself. So I have three rapid fire questions. And you can just answer with a word or a phrase, coffee or tea.

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Tea.

Brian Bienkowski

My favorite thing to grow in the garden is

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

Herbs

Brian Bienkowski

My one guilty pleasure

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

True crime podcast.

Brian Bienkowski

And this one, you don't have to just stick into a word or a phrase you can give me a little more if you want it. But what is the last book that you read for fun?

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

I read last night, "The Grumpy Monkey" to my son. Um, that's the last book I read. Before then. I'm pretty sure it was something about Waldorf child education or something. But yeah, the last book The last book I read was the grumpy monkey which is about... a grumpy monkey.

Brian Bienkowski

On that note, Val, this has been an absolute pleasure. I appreciate you taking time. I'm so glad you're in this program. And have a great day.

Valerisa Joe-Gaddy

All right, thank you so much.

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