by Shanti Brown
As a second-year graduate student in sociology at Roosevelt University’s Chicago campus, my connection to sustainability and environmental justice stems from my longstanding interest in studying poverty and social justice. Sadly, the inequities of the poor also include inferior natural resources. Through my own personal experiences, and interest in the promotion of social justice, I have learned that poverty is and has long been a very complex phenomenon on both the domestic and global fronts. Specifically, I have learned that this phenomenon, combined with continued deep segregation, often means unhealthy communities for Blacks and Latinos in Chicago. Moreover, this city has long overlooked the depth of impact of harmful environmental factors which plague its residents.
From scholarly and community conversations about poverty, I am learning that poverty is not simply an economic crisis, but one which includes the compromise and degradation of environmental resources (exemplifed in places like Flint, Michigan). The complexities of poverty force us to examine the historically harmful environmental conditions of the poor. Even more, it is increasingly difficult to overlook antiquated city planning which continues to leave Black and Latino populations in Chicago at an environmental disadvantage. Polluted soil, toxic water supplies, and lack of access to fresh food on Chicago’s South and West Sides have long been a generational dilemma for many residents. Who decides who should have clean air and water?
As a sociology scholar and citizen, I’m interested in examining how urban and environmental planning has joined other failing institutions (education, criminal justice, employment) of the city to negatively impact many predominately Black and Latino communities in Chicago, the legacy of systematic racial segregation. The term environmental racism explains the current environmental injustices of many underserved communities in Chicago. Native Chicago author and activist Haki R. Madhubuti expressed his thoughts on this matter in his 1994 book Claiming Earth:
This book is not an investigation of the environment; rather, it is about questioning our noninvolvement in the environmentalist movement. Why is it that many urban children think that the source of all food is the corner grocery store or the chain supermarket? It is obvious to any thinking person that part of the health problem in urban areas is closely tied to fast-food restaurants, bad water, the over-consumption of processed foods, the non-availability of fresh fruits, vegetables, and up-to-date health information. Environmental racism is partially manifested by toxic dumps, incinerators, and landfills located to Black communities. It is also about the exploitative use of land and its resources to benefit the few at the deadly expense of the less powerful and less informed.
The recent merging of Roosevelt University’s Sustainability and Sociology programs in the new Department of Sociology, Sustainability, and Community Development is exciting because I believe that environmental injustices have taken a back seat in the critical dialogue about poverty. The interaction among these programs will allow for the intersections between sustainability and social justice to be more pronounced in the classrooms of Roosevelt. It is incumbent upon all of us to further understand the relationship between social justice and environmental justice theories and practices in building healthier communities for all.
Shanti Brown is a second-year graduate student at Roosevelt University working on his MA degree in sociology in the Department of Sociology, Sustainability, and Community Development. His research and writing interests include the impacts of poverty and racism in urban communities and their relation to environmental justice issues such as food access and toxic exposure.