Science and Social Justice — Lucia, ID, 2024
Hello everyone, hope you all have had a lovely summer so far, full of plenty of learning, fulfillment, rest, or relaxation — whatever you were looking forward to. Since my previous update, I’ve been able to forge some incredibly valuable connections and understand more about the intersection between environmental science, justice, and design.
An unexpected gem of my internship experience this summer has been meeting some truly incredible people who do amazing organizing and advocacy work. It’s been a privilege to learn from such a diverse group of talented, dedicated, and hard-working people.
As an organization, we had the pleasure of working with Jim from the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS) on a community soil monitoring project. Jim is an incredible person — after moving to San Francisco as a young adult during the peak of the AIDs crisis, he has dedicated his adult life to advocacy and teaching underserved students how to use social justice to uplift and direct scientific data-collection. During our discussions, I recalled the principles of human-centered design research I had been trying to introduce into the Eco-App’s curriculum as well.
Under Jim’s guidance, throughout the course of several weeks, we collected 180+ soil samples around San Francisco. We focused on collecting surface soil from areas around the local Bayview Hunters Point community (i.e. community playgrounds, lower-income housing) as well as around Noe Valley, one of SF’s historically wealthier districts for comparison.
Going into the study, we wanted to establish a clear purpose or direction — to both inform our methodology while also giving the analysis some kind of social application and direction. See, we couldn’t just go into an already struggling community, say “your homes are poisonous” and leave. A big part of equitable pollution monitoring is to provide meaningful and actionable next steps and resources after presenting data — community agency, if you will. With this in mind, we decided on an objective:
We will collect lead level data from surface level soil around local Bayview Hunters Point community areas and map the data to inform the community on where it is safe for their children to play and live.
To analyze the samples, we used an XRF gun to scan for the atomic signatures of materials like lead, arsenic, mercury, and thorium. Then, using the GPS coordinates we collected alongside the soil samples, we placed all of our lead findings on EBAYS’s existing map that compiles all the lead collection data they have — which was originally around the East Bay in Western Oakland.
We analyzed our data based on the CA Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standard of 80 ppm as “acceptable.” We were surprised to find that many of the areas around Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) — where we had initially expected to see high levels of lead contamination from the history of industrial activity — had more data points in the “acceptable” concentration range than Noe Valley, which tended to land more in the yellow range, under the guideline “restrict access to children.” This was a bit concerning for the latter, considering some of these observations were taken near a local park with groups of children and around residential streets. The highest data points were taken from paint chips we had directly collected from peeling houses, so we hypothesize that the high lead levels in the soil were due to runoff from these historic, lead-painted houses. Ultimately, these findings are somewhat promising for what they suggest about the efficacy of environmental advocacy in areas under tight public scrutiny (on the part of BVHP) and of sweeping, large-scale developmental overhauls — and shows just what good properly maintained green spaces can do for historical contamination. A more concrete resolution requires further investigation, though. This week, we will prepare to present our findings at a local environmental justice task force meeting.
Aside from the work we’ve done with Jim, LEJ has also served as a catalyst for many other kinds of connections. We recently tabled at the California Academy of Science’s Teen Science Night, where we were able to talk about our projects and speak about environmental justice in BVHP — all the while making connections with the youth who were interested in joining future cohorts of Eco-Apprentices.
Additionally, I was personally able to connect to Dan Fiske from the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals (CCLP) through the recommendation of another staff member at LEJ. CCLP works on providing direct and specific legal advice and policy understanding to local underserved communities in Bayview — which connects wonderfully with my original goal of increasing access to environmental justice. Recently, they have focused on the ongoing lawsuit against TetraTech, the company who was originally responsible for cleaning up after the Hunters Point shipyard closed down and was allegedly found to have falsified clean soil analyses. CCLP needs help with layout and design work for their publications and outreach materials. On top of these, I’ve also been able to connect with various other community-based organizations and even SF government organizations working to build up community resilience to climate change-related issues — helping to set the groundwork for community surveying projects that will extend far beyond the end of my internship here.
To end off, I’d just like to share a quote that Jim shared with us all when he came to speak — a bit of a mantra that he says has kept him going through difficult times, and which I’ve taken to heart when thinking about my own role and future as a designer and artist.
“If you pursue fixing something important to you as your career, you will wake each day excited to pursue your goals.”