Over 600 members of the UNC community joined the Race, Racism and Racial Equity Symposium's fourth event Thursday.
At the virtual seminar, four panelists spoke about where environmental racism manifests itself within society, and what people can do to help.
The Race, Racism and Racial Equity Symposium (R3) is a virtual event series that began in September 2020, focused on contextualizing race at UNC and in the United States. It's hosted by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Jordan Institute for Families and the UNC School of Social Work's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Thursday's seminar was entitled "The Many Faces of Environmental (In)Justice: Scholarship Addressing Racism, Infrastructure and Climate Action."
Leah Cox, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, began the seminar in acknowledgement of the Indigenous people who once inhabited the land on which UNC stands.
Cox said R3 is particularly important as people continue to learn about the ways in which systemic and structural racism impact how and where people live.
“I’m encouraged to know that many of my colleagues here at UNC are doing this critical work and helping all of us to understand how we address injustices that affect our entire community,” Cox said.
Moderator Travis Albritton, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the UNC School of Social Work, then introduced the panelists for the event.
Danielle Spurlock, an assistant professor in the department of city and regional planning at UNC, said her research centers around connections between environmental injustice and city and regional planning. She discussed a study she conducted on urban tree canopy, a layer that reduces the peak temperature and air pollution from climate change.
“Our project illustrates a recurring and disheartening point that historically Black neighborhoods have less urban tree canopy,” Spurlock said.
Spurlock recommended using a community-rooted approach to solve environmental challenges, allowing those most impacted to have a stake in changing the systems in place.
Morgan Richey, a doctoral student in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health's epidemiology department, spoke about his research on preventable injury and disease. Specifically, Richey discussed workplace death, which he said is most common among Latinx workers in North Carolina.
“When the rent is coming through, when you’ve got people to take care of, when you don't have many other options, you can feel like you have no choice but to show up for that risky job or take that dangerous assignment from your boss,” Richey said.
Richey also discussed health disparities in asthma exacerbation in the United States, noting the impact of redlining and other racist policies. He said Black people are more vulnerable to asthma because they're more likely to live in areas where there is a greater presence of harmful particles.
Richey encouraged those who are interested in helping stop these forms of environmental racism to advocate for solutions and invest in the measurement of air quality.
Seth LaJeunesse, research associate for the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, discussed his studies on inherent racism within the transportation system and the ways it perpetuates inequities and injustices. He said the system is disproportionately focused on serving white male commuters.
“It's really recognizing that and stepping through and understanding the differences between what hearing from people is, what listening to people is, and what actually including people in powerful, influential decision-making situations is,” LaJeunesse said.
Anderson Al Wazni, the final panelist and a doctoral student at the UNC School of Social Work, shared her work on the intersection between climate change, fragility and conflict.
She discussed flooding in redlined neighborhoods, the weaponization of water and the positive impact that interdisciplinary research can have on people's lives.
“You have people who are technically accessing water, but they're accessing an epidemic, so we don't measure these things well,” Al Wazni said. “This is really important for researchers to work in an interdisciplinary way where we can say, ‘Wait, hold on, there's an issue with the measures themselves.’”
In the Q&A portion of the seminar, the panelists shared their thoughts on how to best approach these issues of environmental racism moving forward.
“Come in with the assumption that the way we built this system will marginalize community members, whether it’s by race, income, ethnicity, gender identity — it's there,” Spurlock said. “That has to be where we begin so we can start dismantling larger systems rather than this more piecemeal, ad hoc identification, that’s often on the backs of those who are (marginalized).”
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