Memo 1 REFLECTION MEMOS: Each Wednesday you will turn in a reflection memo, with your personal reactions to the course material. You should use this exerc


Each Wednesday you will turn in a reflection memo, with your personal reactions to the course material. You should use this exerc

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Each Wednesday you will turn in a reflection memo, with your personal reactions to the course material. You should use this exercise as an opportunity to integrate course material with your own life and experiences, and for you to give me feedback on how the course is going for you. The content of the memos should focus on both the course material and your experiences but are otherwise open to you. For example, you might discuss your reaction to class discussions, films, lectures, or readings, report on an event in your life or conversations you’ve had with friends and family about course material. These are not reading or lecture summaries. Your reflection memos should be no less than a paragraph but no more than a page.


Science as a Double-Edged Sword: Research has often rewarded polluters, but EJ activists
are taking it back
Author(s): Azibuike Akaba
Source: Race, Poverty & the Environment, Vol. 11, No. 2, Burden of Proof: Using Research
for EJ (Winter 2004/2005), pp. 9-11
Published by: Reimagine!
Stable URL:
Accessed: 25-03-2022 20:04 UTC

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Science as a Double-Edged Sword
Research has often rewarded polluters, but EJ

activists are taking it back.

By Azibuike Akaba

I I istorically, powerful and dominant institutions such as polluting industries have manipulated science to serve their own

■ ■ profit-making interests, with poor communities and communities of color paying the severe price in our health and

well-being. Yet as more communities are learning, when science is “taken back,” it can also be a powerful tool to

equalize the playing field and bolster our struggles for safe and healthy environments.

EJ and Science

The Environmental Justice Movement has come a long

way in a short period of time. While people of color
have been fighting for environmental justice for decades,

recent media exposure has propelled EJ into the main-

stream. Community struggles are receiving more
attention in local news media and several large, tradi-

tional environmental groups have embraced the core

concepts of EJ – that people of color are disproportion-

ately impacted by environmental hazards and that they

should participate in decision-making that affects their

communities. The EJ Movement has sent a strong and
clear message that we have the right and ability to
demand self-determination.

However, science is less commonly considered part of

a community’s arsenal. We have embraced tools such as

community forums, protest and legal action. Science,
however, has often been seen as an arena in which our

opponents have the upper hand. The reasons for this are

understandable. Science has been used by industry and

the government, typically against our interests and
safety. Furthermore, the industry-backed model of
“innocent until proven guilty” clearly favors polluters

over community safety. Naturally, activists are turned

off by science because they are accustomed to the
“corporate institutional” approach to science.

Yet science can be a tool that community organiza-

tions use to realize our agenda for social and environ-

mental justice. My work at Communities for a Better
Environment (CBE) enabled me to use science on behalf

of the community. By demystifying the science,

advocates and community residents can learn to use
science for their own benefit.

Science is Not Neutral

In 1996, I came to the Environmental Justice
Movement after eight years of working in various
technical and scientific capacities. When I was 22, I
began working in an industrial shipyard as an industri-

al hygienist, where I was responsible for ensuring that

factory employees of the shipyard – from workers re-

moving asbestos and pipe- welders, to sheet metal
workers and painters spraying and sandblasting the

hulls of ships with organic solvents – were kept safe
from occupational harm. This seemed a nearly impossi-
ble task in such a relentless work environment. It was

here that I got my first taste of how people were
exposed to environmental hazards. Later, I worked as a

medical laboratory technician in an U.S. Army hospital

and as a research scientist for a military research center.

During these years, I gained a detailed understanding

of the fragility of human biology and the effects of
various environmental exposures on human health. I

also grew to recognize the malleability of statistics and

the unjustified claim that science and scientific studies

are “objective” endeavors devoid of any biases on the
part of those who stand to benefit from the research

With that background, I joined CBE and worked
for the next seven years as a staff scientist. Whether I

was researching ozone-depleting chemicals that were
released into predominantly low-income communities


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and communities of color by private corporations,
investigating troubling practices of the oil industry,
helping communities conduct their own air monitor-

ing, or critiquing Environmental Impact Statements,
my work enabled me to use science to protect the
interests of communities.

In this capacity, I learned that modern science is not

neutral. It often produces results skewed by the vested
interests of the funders of science and research. Scientists

tend to hold class privileges that often prevent them
from identifying problems from a sociopolitical view-

point. All too often, they see political action as detract-

ing from their role as an objective scientist, resulting in

a lack of accountability. For political reasons that stem
from corporate or government funding, many scientists

are careful not to criticize environmental pollution cases
that are encumbered with race and class issues. Medical

professionals working for government or industry can

also be reluctant to speak out. Indeed there is significant

self-censorship that emerges from the vested interests of

those who define the agenda. Many mainstream scien-

tists will work for any company that pays well and
maintains their status, regardless of the merits of the
research. It follows that the interests of the funders, the

scientists and the potential market dictates the type of

research and science that is produced, even science that

claims to be produced in the “public interest.”

Reclaiming Science
The most common encounter with science for EJ com-

munities is in the review of Environmental Impact
Reports (EIRs) or Statements. EIRs involve a process
that allows companies to make a negative declaration,

i.e., a statement that there is no significant adverse
health or environmentally degrading impacts from the

implementation of a project. Engineers and consultants

typically write these huge technical documents to
address the mitigating circumstances prescribed by the

state and federal regulators. In order to assess such issues

as air quality, health risk assessment, water quality,
socioeconomic resources, needs versus benefits, and

public health, communities often need independent
auditing and their own technical experts to examine the

EIR. More and more, EJ communities are successfully
challenging EIRs by educating themselves and strategi-

cally promoting their own technical expertise.

For example, in 2002, the Sun Law Corporation
proposed to build the Nueva Azalea Power Plant
Project, a natural gas-fired combined cycle power plant,

in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East Los
Angeles. They were promising to “produce air cleaner

from the 550 megawatt plant than you are already
breathing.”1 CBE intervened on behalf of existing
neighbors of the site through the formal California

Energy Commission (CEC) process in August 2000. We

reviewed the EIR and determined that in spite of the

claims of innovative pollution prevention technology,
the plant would still contribute an additional 150 tons

of particulates in a community that was already
burdened with heavy industrial pollution and suffering

from epidemic rates of asthma.

To protect the community, CBE had to fight the city

and state legislators who had conflicts of interest and

wanted the power plant. We organized, educated the
community about the CEC process, health issues and the

science of power plants. Then CBE launched a campaign

to stop the power plant from being built. We won in

spite of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by

Sun Law Corporation because of diligent work that
included the use of scientific research.

How else might we use science more strategically?
Science is often viewed as information given to us by

government agencies; we are just supposed to accept it

as opposed to questioning it or generating it ourselves.

However, new models of community-based research

have allowed community organizers to strategically use

science as a tool that provides vital information to
support organizing campaigns. For example, in July
2000, residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico worked
together to fight the Intel facility in their neighborhood.

They documented “suspicious smells” and built a cheap
but accurate air monitoring device out of a modified

five-gallon plastic bucket that took a “snapshot” of the

air quality instantly like a Polaroid camera. They
collected data and used it to educate the public. As a

result, they found over seven different volatile organic

compounds (VOCs) that cause cancer, respiratory illness

and developmental harm to humans. The data led to
stepped up enforcement by the New Mexico Depart-
ment of the Environment, increased cooperation with
the community on the part of Intel, and reduced


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Azibuike Akaba

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Science and Social Justice

Communities in the United States and around the globe

are increasingly using science, research and technology

as part of their arsenal to fight for social justice. Science

may not be appropriate for all campaigns, but it can be a

tool to strategically strengthen our position when used

properly. Although communities are rarely invited into

the esoteric offices of government agencies and the

industries they regulate to participate in major decisions,

we have found ways to challenge corporate-driven
science. EJ activists have taken the tools of epidemiology,

environmental engineering, technology and community-

based participatory research, and turned these into
weapons and strategies that serve to defënd our commu-

Because of these efforts, EJ advocates now work with

scientists that introduce themselves and stay awhile in

the communities they study. We have worked with
graduate students to develop new research questions that

are of use to the community, and have integrated the

data collected by community members into final reports

and public records. We have public representatives who

walk down our streets, tour our neighborhoods, speak
our language, and want to know how we feel and what

we want to have cleaned up. The perspectives and expe-

riences of working classes, low-income, people of color

and Native Americans now have greater legitimacy. Our

input makes for a more holistic view of public interests

in public policy.

However, we are under no illusions – people of color

are still living in the most polluted and impoverished

neighborhoods in the country. We are still suffering a
disproportionate amount of ills from diesel emissions,

power plants and multiple chemical exposures. For these
reasons, when we are not welcomed, we demand to sit

down at the decision-making table. We demand respect

for our cultural traditions, local knowledge and common

sense. While fighting to retain our community integrity,

we have pored over legal and technical documents
marred with our blood, sweat, tears and grease stains.

We have trained ourselves to become scientists, policy
analysts and experts. Because of these efforts, we can now

promote our own scientists, influence their curriculum, and

create institutions that develop science in our best
interest. And, at the same time, we can continue to

corral the current system and steer it in a direction that
benefits us. ■

1 CBE letter to California Energy Commission quoting Sun Law


Azibuike Akaba is community technical assistance coordinator for the Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project ( in Oakland.


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  • Contents
    • p. 9
    • p. 10
    • p. 11
  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Race, Poverty &the Environment, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Winter 2004/2005) pp. 1-63
      • Front Matter
      • notes About This Issue [pp. 5-5]
      • From the Director’s Desk [pp. 6-6]
      • Letter From WE ACT [pp. 7-7]
      • Health, Science, and Environmental Justice
        • [Illustration] [pp. 8-8]
        • Science as a Double-Edged Sword: Research has often rewarded polluters, but EJ activists are taking it back [pp. 9-11]
        • Science: More Harmful Than Helpful? [pp. 12-12]
        • Science on our Side? [pp. 13-13]
        • EJ Leading the Way: Why communities must initiate environmental research [pp. 14-14]
      • The Debate Over Science
        • [Illustration] [pp. 15-15]
        • Power, Privilege and Participation: Meeting the challenge of equal research alliances [pp. 16-19]
        • Deceptive Science: The problem with risk assessment [pp. 20-22]
        • Roots of Community Research: Primer on the legacy of participatory research partnerships [pp. 23-26]
        • Good Science: Principles of community-based participatory research [pp. 27-29]
      • Case Studies
        • [Illustration] [pp. 30-30]
        • Ditching Diesel: Community-driven research reduces pollution in West Oakland [pp. 31-34]
        • Hogging the Land: Research and organizing put a halt to swine industry growth [pp. 35-37]
        • Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples: Tribal research uncovers unexpected exposures [pp. 38-40]
        • Clearing the Air in Chinatown: Asthma advocacy stems from resident-driven research [pp. 41-42]
        • Youth Participation in Research: Weighing the benefits and challenges of partnerships [pp. 43-45]
        • Research in Action [pp. 46-47]
      • Shifting Science: The Alternatives
        • [Illustration] [pp. 48-48]
        • Holistic Risk Assessment: A new paradigm for environmental risk management [pp. 49-52]
        • The Science of Precaution: Barroi Logan residents use research and land use planning to prevent harm [pp. 53-55]
        • Body Burden Research: Communities can use biomonitoring to pinpoint poisons, and fight back [pp. 56-57]
        • Biomonitoring: What communities must know [pp. 58-58]
        • Principles for Research: Four ways to make environmental decision-making more just [pp. 59-60]
      • resources [pp. 61-62]
      • Back Matter

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