Environmental Justice and the NIEHS

Article excerpt

The NIEHS relationship with the environmental justice community is much like that of a family--we have a long history, we are integrally connected, and unfortunately, we don't always communicate well. I recently met with our environmental justice grantees, and during our conversations, I realized that my own failure to communicate in the accepted terminology of the environmental justice community may have led to a misunderstanding of my commitment to these issues. The failure was unintentional; embracing diversity is such an inherent part of my own life that I may have taken for granted that my commitment to this principle would be obvious. Diversity in my own family has created depth, strength, and opportunity, and I feel the same is true of the environmental justice community's interconnectedness with the NIEHS. Nevertheless, I now know it is incumbent on me to clearly describe my views regarding environmental justice and explicitly state how we, as an institute, plan to move forward in this relationship.

Although I admit that I've sometimes found the terms "environmental justice" and "community-based participatory research," as they've been defined by the constituency, to be unnecessarily constraining, I strongly believe in the concepts and in their need to be integrated into what we do. In fact, I believe that these concepts form the core of our mission at this particular institute. It is our obligation to support research that produces findings that will inform environmental justice for all people. And we've done this well. I applaud the exceptional work of the NIEHS environmental justice grantees; there could be no group of more talented, dedicated, and passionate individuals. But I think the time has come to take our approach to environmental justice issues to a new level.

Just as in families, in the scientific and outreach communities we can sometimes become too comfortable or even complacent, resting on the expected, the traditional, the feeling that "this is how it should be done" because "this is how it has always been done." Expectations become implied, though perhaps not effectively understood. And this can have the effect of impeding real growth. Environmental justice is too important to suffer that fate. We must take this opportunity to reexamine our efforts, refocus our direction, and reinforce our commitment to the best possible outcomes in this area. …