Air pressure

A TU professor and her students collaborate with a South Baltimore high school in push for environmental justice

By Christine Collins on September 20, 2016

TU anthropology students first learned about the history of environmental and health issues in Curtis Bay
TU anthropology students first learned about the history of environmental and health issues in Curtis Bay

Do you know what environmental justice is? Do you know how to ask for it?

Those two questions have been the essence of a years-long fight in South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood, and Towson University students are again involved in helping the community advocate for itself.

The community suffers from relatively high occurrences of respiratory disease coupled with the troubling trend in job loss that came with the rise and fall of industry and manufacturing in Baltimore. Earlier this year, TU senior Destiny Watford won a major environmental prize for her work with the advocacy group Free Your Voice in stopping developers from building the nation’s largest incinerator in her neighborhood. That incinerator would have spewed hundreds of pounds of mercury and other pollutants into the already sickening air there.

Related: When danger meets Destiny, Destiny wins

Now, a handful of students from Assistant Professor Nicole Fabricant’s anthropology courses are working with high schoolers in the South Baltimore neighborhood to help encourage environmental justice.

“You don’t really think about environmental injustice,” said James Mileo ’17. “But it struck a chord with me, and once I learned about Curtis Bay, it really made me passionate about helping in any way I can.”

That can sound, to some, like a savior complex—an attempt to swoop in from the outside and rescue a neighborhood from the damages inflicted upon it. But that’s not what this is about for Mileo and the other TU students involved in the project. For them, it’s about something much more fundamental to a sustained effort: providing community members with the resources and support they need so they can stand up for themselves.

The project grew out of a connection between Fabricant and the principal of Benjamin Franklin High School, when they started talking about ideas a year and a half ago. According to Fabricant, the summer work laid a sort of foundation. Some TU students helped prepare a shared curriculum and matched anthropological methods with individual skill sets. Others worked on community-building activities.

“Since [the TU students] have worked with a lot of Benjamin Franklin students, we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to get to know students during their actual class day,” Fabricant said. “The hope is that we could begin with research on environmental problems and then move toward civic engagement.”

Mileo agreed.

“We’re helping students document their life experiences so that we can help them mobilize their own communities to effect change,” said Mileo.

That effort involves working with the school's environmental sciences classes to help the students learn anthropological research methods like photography, audio, narrative mapping and ethnographic film. It literally puts the power of storytelling in the younger students’ hands.

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“They're behind the lens, in charge of what knowledge is visualized,” explained Chelsea Conley '16, who is helping with the initiative. “Visualizing issues or perceptions then allows for group discussions, locally produced records, and sharpened observational skills.” 

More than that, said Conley, she’s hoping for a collaborative effort that encourages critical thought, leading to creative solutions and sustainability.

But ask these TU students what the students at Ben Franklin HS are working toward, and they’ll only have one answer: “We can’t speak for them.”

Which, of course, is the whole point.