New DC-based publications: part 1

Publications from the work I initiated in Washington DC during my time at Howard University have just started coming out, even though I’ve now moved to Arizona for a new job at Arizona State University.

When I moved to DC in the summer of 2015, I started to nose around to get a sense of what kind of environmental justice work was happening in the area. I met Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, Katrina Lashley at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Lesley Fields at Sierra Club, Mike Ewall at Energy Justice Network, Michael Dorsey, who was then at the National Academy of Science, Rhonda Hamilton from Syphax Gardens near DC’s Buzzard Point, Fred Tutman of Patuxent Riverkeeper, Kamita Grey in Brandywine, and more. It was a pleasure to meet a whole new host of people doing important work locally and nationally. Many meetings and a few protests later, some potential synergies became clear between my role as an educator, Katrina’s work preserving the stories of people along the Anacostia River with the Anacostia Museum, Rhonda’s activism on the redevelopment of Buzzard Point, and Empower DC’s efforts to support affordable housing and people’s health, both of which were threatened by the Buzzard Point redevelopment.

During my second year in DC, we built a plan around our overlapping interests in which the students in my Environmental Inequality class would conduct oral-history interviews with Rhonda’s neighbors to document their history in the near-Buzzard Point neighborhoods, interaction with the Anacostia River, and current experiences redevelopment. Buzzard Point was undergoing a transformation from an industrial site to a mixed residential and commercial space, and the nearby residents were experiencing the resulting impacts: dust from the construction, rats that relocated from the construction site into their homes, and potential displacement from their homes.

I was pleased with how the project worked out in terms of what the students got out of it. They were introduced to research skills: the first year of the project, students practiced and conducted oral history interviews, and during the second year the next batch of students coded the interviews for cross-cutting themes. We also went on field trips to the Anacostia River and to Southwest DC. Many reported that talking to people struggling with the real-world problems we were reading about in class added a new level of gravity to their understanding of environmental inequality. The archival objectives of the project have also been largely met. Transcripts of the first round of interviews we conducted with Rhonda’s neighbors in Syphax Gardens are held by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, while a second round with residents of broader Southwest DC conducted by graduate student Jesse DiValli (formerly Card) are available at the DC Public Library. However, as often happens, we can’t say that any particular improvement in the material lives of the people we interviewed came out of the work.

Still, we are hopeful that the project was valuable not only for the students and myself, but will also in some small way help raise the visibility of the challenges faced by residents impacted by the redevelopment of Buzzard Point.

Here is the first piece to come out of that work, a profile of the indomitable Rhonda Hamilton, long-time resident and elected representative of her neighborhood in the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission:

Rhonda Hamilton: Community Leader and Public Housing Advocate in Southwest D.C.

Rhonda Hamilton, talking with my students in Southwest Washington DC. September 9, 2017.

 

Two other prior blog posts about the class project:

New job at Arizona State University

This week I began a new position as an Assistant Professor in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. I come to this position after working for five years as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Howard University in Washington DC.

My time at Howard went quickly. When I drove cross-country to DC with my luggage and my cat in May of 2015, I was excited about many things: having a job with benefits, a new role as a faculty member after many years as a graduate student, new opportunities for learning at Historically Black University, and starting a new life in Washington DC. The transition from Santa Cruz to Washington DC went smoothly. Even though I’d never lived anywhere more than an hour away from the San Francisco Bay area for more than five months, life in Washington DC wasn’t hard to adapt to. People are people, after all. I (mostly) got used to the fact that it rains in the summer, gloried in the fireflies, tried to adopt the more formal dress-code and mode of address (“hello, Dr. so-and-so”), and then settled into a middle ground between Santa Cruz and DC professional standards. I met wonderful new friends and quirky, smart colleagues, got to know dedicated students, and developed what I believe will be a lasting interest in Black Studies.

I drove back across the country to Arizona this spring a little older and a little wiser. A few things were different this time. My cat and I were accompanied by my partner, I was six months pregnant, and we drove a rented RV to minimize our exposure to the coronavirus pandemic that had exploded in the US a short time before. The pandemic restrictions got looser and looser as we traveled west from DC. When we arrived in Arizona hardly anyone was wearing masks, and the host of our RV campground referred to the virus making scare quotes around the term with her hands as she talked (“virus”). Soon after, George Floyd was murdered. Protests across the nation, including here in Pheonix, have brought longstanding anti-black police violence more forcefully into the national eye. The resulting conversations led to working with my partner Vernon Morris, my tech mentor Allen Gunn and several of Vernon’s colleagues on a public letter to address systemic racism in the academy. It was one of many such letters, the results of which are still unspooling.

I miss my friends at Howard and in Washington DC, but I’m looking forward to new adventures here in Arizona. My position in the School for Social Transformation promises many new and interesting colleagues, even if it will be a while before I meet them anywhere other than on Zoom. The coronavirus pandemic, soaring temperatures in Tempe and a newborn at home mean I have rarely left the house since arriving. But the weather will cool off eventually, and I look forward to exploring the desert and the mountains that surround Phoenix when that happens. I’m grateful to have stable employment and health care in these troubled times – so far, ASU has not announced any layoffs or furloughs.

Going forward, please contact me at my new ASU e-mail address.

First siting of saguaro cacti as we drive West, as seen through a very dirty windshield.

Nora McDowell speaking about women’s environmental leadership at the Smithsonian Castle

This spring I was honored to host Nora McDowell as the inaugural speaker at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s first “Dinner and Discussion” series, which is part of their Women’s Environmental Leadership programming.

I met Nora through my research on California environmental justice activism, and in particular through a project to document the 1990s-era fight against the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley, on the traditional lands of the Mojave people. Nora grew up in Needles, California and currently lives on the Fort Mojave reservation in Mojave Valley, Arizona. She was elected as chairperson of the Fort Mojave Tribe at age 24, a position she held from 1985 to 2007. During that time she helped lead a decade-long campaign to block the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley nearby. Additionally, she was part of forming the Ten Tribes partnership to represent Colorado River tribal water rights to the Colorado River Water Users Authority. She also started the water and sewer company as well as the electrical company owned and operated by the Fort Mojave Tribe.

Now, Nora is the Project Manager of the Topock remediation project at the AhaMakav Cultural Society of the Fort Mojave Tribe. Topock is the name of the place that is the passageway to the spirit world for the Mojave people. PG&E built a natural gas compression station there in 1950, which leaked chromium six into the groundwater for over 40 years. Nora focuses much of her time on the cleanup of this site, and in particular trying to minimize the impact on the remediation process on Mojave landforms and artifacts. She also serves in an advisory capacity in a number of other settings, including on the Tribal Advisory Committee to the California EPA. She also serves on the Colorado River Basin-wide tribal advisory board, which advises a consortium of federal agencies, tribes and NGOs active on the Colorado River. She is also on the Fort Mojave telecommunications board and is a founding board member of WEWIN – Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations.

The Anacostia Museum hosted the evening in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. It was an intimate event. I asked Nora questions about her leadership experiences in front of 40 or so attendees, and then we all discussed the themes she raised and shared a meal together. You can find the audio recording below, as well as photos taken by Susana Raab. Audio, photographs and captions are provided by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

The next “Dinner and Discussion” event will take place in September, this time featuring Dr. Adrienne Hollis, hosted by Vernice Miller-Travis.

 

Tracy Perkins and Nora McDowell Thumbnail

Dr. Tracy Perkins (left) and Ms. Nora McDowell (right).

Ms. Katrina Lashley Introduces Special Guests Thumbnail

Ms. Katrina Lashley introduces Dr. Tracy Perkins and Ms. Nora McDowell.

Nora McDowell and Alexis Dickerson Thumbnail

Ms. Alexis Dickerson and Ms. Nora McDowell.

Tracy, Nora, Lisa, Katrina

Dr. Tracy Perkins, Ms. Nora McDowell, Ms. Lisa Sasaki, and Ms. Katrina Lashley.

Dr. Elgloria Harrison Thumbnail

Dr. Elgloria Harrison thanks special guests.