Environmental Health and Justice for Black & Minority Groups

By Yvette Oppong

When I first came to UConn as a freshman in 2017, I did not major in environmental studies. I had decided on being a biology major on a pre-med track. I had always cared about the environment ever since I learned about it in my AP Environmental Science class; that is where my passion for the environment grew and was nurtured. I was hesitant to be an environmental studies major because I did not know if you could be on a pre-med track and not be a STEM major. I had always wanted to combine my passion for the environment with my career, but I didn’t think it could happen because of how common it was to separate environmental issues from human health and social issues.

It was not until I did a summer research program with the UConn Health Health Disparities Clinical Summer Research Fellowship Program where I learned about the health disparities occurring in Hartford, a city I have lived so close to for so long.  This program opened my eyes to the importance of health disparities and why there needs to be more people of color in the health and medical field. In the beginning, it was overwhelming to be learning about how, for example, children of color, regardless of socioeconomic status, are less likely to be diagnosed with autism. It took a while for this to soak in because I was scared of what this meant for people of color: no matter how wealthy one may be, they can never immunize themselves from health disparities. 

Similar to how there needs to be more black people and people of color in the medical field, I realized the same also needs to occur in the environmental arena. When learning about the health disparities occurring in Hartford and in other areas, I realized it all connected somehow to environmental injustice, environmental racism, and environmental inequality. People suffering from health disparities are low-income residents and these residents also are more likely to suffer from health problems due to their proximity to Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) and food deserts. All of these factors are related to environmental racism and create a cyclical cycle of poverty that continues to keep low-income black and minority residents trapped. People who live in these communities have no power or say in what is built around them, so instead of having grocery stores, healthier food, and green spaces, they get fast food restaurants, corner stores, and pollution-causing facilities, making them suffer physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

Being an environmental studies major has helped me realize that I do want to do more as a doctor than see my patients for 15 minutes and treat a symptom of a larger problem. I want to be able to help my patients outside of the doctor’s office, in their community. I want to be able to make long-lasting change for residents and that begins with unpacking the issue of environmental injustice, environmental racism, and environmental inequity. Being an environmental studies major has allowed me to be able to plan how I will be able to accomplish this goal of mine because unpacking all the environmental injustices is very overwhelming and complex, but this major allows one to think from multiple perspectives, including an intersectionality perspective, which is important in being able to not only solve the environmental injustices, but also the threat of climate change. The only way we will be able to start fixing the issue of climate change is when we fix the environmental injustices. 

Too often when an advancement is made toward the development or convenience of human society, it only improves the lives of certain people and makes the lives of others increasingly worse. The injustice is ignored because those who benefit from the advancement or convenience do not experience any form of pollution or climate change. This perpetuates a cycle of people continuing to live unsustainable lifestyles with little concern for the long-term or larger impacts of climate change. Ironically, indigenous people, who do know how to make the environment livable for generations to come and are well-versed in a sustainable lifestyle, suffer the most from the pollution, excess waste, and climate change, while top polluters are able to protect themselves from the immediacy of climate change with power and money. The voices and perspectives of indigenous people are neglected, ignored, mistreated, and silenced. This is environmental racism. If people were to treat others equally and equitable, there would be consideration and fair treatment of how the earth’s resources are managed. Until this can happen, we will continue to lack the necessary tools needed to solve our climate change crisis. Being an environmental studies major has helped me realize this, and I am so grateful for being able to gain this knowledge and perspective before graduating from college.