Research Overview

My research brings together the study of the environment with politics and social movements. It emphasizes social inequality across these areas. I focus on environmental justice activism to show how marginalized populations effect political change on subjects from pollution to climate change to urban redevelopment. My work adds to a growing body of literature on the contributions people of color have made to US environmentalism. It also models new ways of integrating traditional scholarship with contemporary digital tools.

Current Research: California Environmental Justice Activism

My book manuscript, Movement Matters: Protest, Policy and Three Decades of Environmental Justice Activism (under contract with UC Press) shows how California environmental justice activism institutionalized over the last three decades. Activists increasingly engage in policy advocacy and collaboration with state agencies, and decreasingly engage in disruptive protest. I place these slow shifts in the form of environmental justice activism within the context of broader political trends of the last three decades, including the professionalization of the non-profit sector and the shifting racial politics accompanying the continued growth of the state’s majority people of color population. The book updates our understanding of environmental justice activism and pushes back against a tendency to conceptualize it as monolithic in ways that obscure the internal debates and varied tactics among activists. Case studies on the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi and on the implementation of California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 provide up-close examples of the opportunities and limitations that result from activist institutionalization. Ultimately, the book argues that while California is an environmental justice policy leader, the scope of the environmental problems the state’s most disenfranchized still face should also make it a warning.

A book chapter from this same body of interviews analyzes transnational activism led by California environmental justice activists and Mexican indigenous peoples in opposition to a plan to link the California carbon market to Mexican forest preservation efforts.


Public-Facing, Digital Scholarship

I explore a variety of ways to share my work outside of books and journals. Voices from the Valley: Environmental Justice in California’s San Joaquin Valley uses oral history excerpts, photography, and teaching suggestions to paint a vivid picture of environmental injustices as well as the environmental justice activists who tackle them. In Her Own Words: Teresa De Anda, Pesticides Activists (1959-2014) shares an edited oral history of Teresa De Anda’s life and the battles she fought against pesticide drift in her home-town of Earlimart and across California. An article in Critical Sustainabilities: Analyzing Competing Discourses of Urban Development in Northern California, analyzes the politics of categorizing as renewable the energy created from waste incinerators through a case in Gonzales, CA. An article in Tales of Hope and Caution in Environmental Justice presents the impact of the United Farm Workers of America on contemporary environmental justice activism in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Oral history interviews with residents of Southwest Washington DC describe how the area has changed over time (the rest of the interviews in this collection are in the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum archives). A current project will result in a searchable online collection of the privately held archival materials from the 1990s-era Save Ward Valley campaign in the Mojave Desert led by the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Quechan, Cocopah, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes (known as CRIT) along with a diverse array of other environmentalists .

I also publish reflections on conducting public and digital sociology to share lessons learned with other scholars and aspiring scholars. These include “Stories from the Field: Public Engagement through the Environmental Humanities and Allied Disciplines,” published in Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities and On Becoming a Public Sociologist: Amplifying Women’s Voices in the Quest for Environmental Justice,” published in Sociologists in Action on Inequalities: Race, Class and Gender. The SAGE Academic and Research Skills video collection also includes a video in which I describe lessons learned from the Voices from the Valley project, as well as another in which I give tips on making an academic website.


Past Research: Women’s Pathways into Environmental Justice Activism

This project analyzed women’s pathways into environmental justice advocacy in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Much existing research finds that women become environmental justice activists according to a common set of experiences in which apolitical women personally experience an environmental problem that launches them into a life of activism to protect the health of their families. Although a small group of the 25 women I interviewed fit this description, overall my interviews revealed a much more diverse array of paths into environmental justice activism. Most of the women I interviewed already had political experience before becoming environmental justice advocates, and they drew on social justice values to motivate their activism.  This matters because depicting women activists primarily as mothers can reinforce stereotypes about women, even though it may also help their immediate goal of limiting pollution by showing them in a sympathetic light through conforming to traditional gender roles. This research was published in Organization & Environment in the spring of 2012.