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. While much environmental justice scholarship explores a broad range of cases in which environmental concerns intersect with race, class, or gender differences, I analyze the social movement actors who self-identify as environmental justice activists. This grounds my work in a historically specific social movement and the political challenges it faces.
The Political Evolution of Environmental Justice Activism
At the Crossroads of Protest and Participation: Three Decades of Environmental Justice Activism, draws on participant observation, legal and policy research, case studies and interviews with 88 environmental justice leaders across 44 organizations at 39 locations across California. I show how California environmental justice activism has gained recognition in the policy world and become increasingly professionalized over the last three decades while engaging in more policy advocacy and collaborative engagement with the state. 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. My work 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. Analyzing activist changes against larger historical trends also links environmental justice scholarship to broader theories of societal change that help explain its form and outcomes.
In addition to generalizing about environmental justice activism across California, I also explore its changes over time through the use of two case studies. The first analyzes three generations of place-based environmental justice activism in Kettleman City, host to the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi. The second explores environmental justice activists’ growing engagement with climate change and policy advocacy through an analysis of their work to influence the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.
Public, Digital Sociological Methods
This body of work reflects on my experience conducting public and digital sociology to share lessons learned with other scholars and aspiring scholars. It has produced the chapter “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. I am also currently preparing a journal article that reflects on the challenges of conducting participatory action research for graduate students.
Women’s Pathways into Environmental Justice Activism
My master’s research 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 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.
This research also led to a series of non-traditional products intended to honor environmental justice advocates and educate the general public about their work. See Voices from the Valley as well as this article for a general audience.