Final Project: An Analysis on Environmental Racism and its Effects on Public Health in Detroit

Please watch this video before reading further on the blog 🙂

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The reason why I chose to do a project on public health in Detroit and environmental racism is because I wanted to understand why the concept of environmental racism is even allowed to exist. I wanted to know how the government could stand by while innocents are getting sick and dying. I wanted to know if the government could really side with big cooperations, even if it meant harming people who have been living in the same neighborhood for years. I was debating about how personal I wanted to make this project and how open I wanted to be about my own thoughts and feelings. I quickly learned that I need to realize my own faults in if I ever want to be an ally for this community. Through this project I have started to understand my own privilege, and my role as an oppressor in this context. I feel so embarrassed to say that I lived in Michigan my whole life and did not know that this was occurring.

What I discovered in my journey of completing this project is that environmental racism has roots in historical racial discrimination, economical, and sociopolitical issues and is a more complex issue than I originally thought it was. Structural oppression plays a big role in each fragment of this issue, and structural oppression is a big reason why this issue is not easy to solve.

One of the things that bothered me about this issue was the “chicken vs. the egg” attitude that some people have about this issue (Mohai, 2009). I am sure you’ve been asked the question… “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”. Similarly, in this context, there is a debate about what happened first… were people of color already settled into neighborhoods before these big industries moved in? Or were these industries already up and running but their surrounding land value allowed people of color to move in? (Mohai, 2009). This argument oppresses those people of color who live in environmentally racist environments by implying that they brought their situation upon themselves. In most cases of environmental racism, neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color are settled first, and then these facilities come in and take their land and pollute their environment (Mohai, 2015b). By falsely accusing and blaming a population that is already suffering at the hands of these big industries, industry leaders and government officials are creating a wider gap between the rich and the poor, and are further oppressing the poor.

The problem of environmental racism runs deeper than just the “chicken vs. the egg” debate. These industries have a power that only attainable by taking advantage of the most vulnerable populations. This power is the reason that environmental racism still exists today. People of color who are living in environmentally poor conditions have been victims of structural oppression for as long as the structure has existed.

As Mullaly explains, capitalism is a structure that help preserve hierarchical social divisions (Mullaly, 138). Similarly, one of the reasons environmental racism continues to exist today is due to economics. Large polluting facilities seek land where prices are low… this happens to be in neighborhoods where poor people and colored people live (Mohai, 2015a). Once the pollution starts to get out of hand, those who can afford to move (mainly the rich people or white people) will move to a better and safer neighborhood. However, in the neighborhood where the polluting industry is, property values will decrease and will allow more and more people of color or more people who are economically disadvantaged, to move in (Mohai, 2015a). Sadly, even if a person of color had enough money to move out of the neighborhood, he or she may have had trouble finding a new home because of housing discrimination (Mohai, 2009). The industry will continue to make money, and may even buy more surrounding land for cheap, all while local residents suffer health effects. Mullaly explained that a country competes in the global market and is moving towards globalization, cannot support a modern welfare state (Mullaly, 140). Environmental racism is a result of globalization and capitalism. Industries care more about how much money they make and how they can compete within global markets more than they care about people they are affecting.

Another way that these big industries are further oppressing people and enforcing environmental racism on people is through sociopolitical means. Mullaly stressed that in a pluralistic political system, the people with an advantage will be those who have financial and political resources available to them (Mullaly, 147). These are the people who ultimately have power in government and influence laws and policies. Big industries seek the path of “least resistance” when looking for new locations for their plants because they already know that their facilities will cause resistance among local residents (Mohai, 2015a). They are taking advantage of the system by putting industries where opposition will not be effective because they know that disadvantaged residents will have minimal resources and barely any political influence (Mohai, 2015a).  These communities will not have any government official stand up for them, and they will not be represented when laws and policies are made (Mohai, 2015a). By taking advantage of this sociopolitical system, big industries have all the power when it comes to influencing government.

One factor of structural oppression that really saddens me is how this form of oppression is a form of violence. Mullaly says that “… structural oppression in the form of such inequities as inadequate income, substandard or no housing, unemployment, and lack of health care leads to a slow, agonizing, unpunished, and premature death for countless numbers of subordinated people…” (Mullaly, 152). Although this form of violence does not have immediate effects, the end result of structural violence is still death. The end result of environmental racism is death. I’m surprised why this form of violence doesn’t spark outrage for people the same way a sudden violent act does. People who live in a hazardous environment are constantly under stress, and if they do not directly die from the effects of pollution, they may die from chronic stress. Inflicting stress on an innocent person is a form of violence (Mullaly, 153). I am baffled as to why someone’s slow death does not affect society as much as someone’s quick death. Industrial companies know that they are killing people. They know that they are harming the futures of innocent children. However, people are not standing up for these innocent people because their deaths are not sudden. This is another way victims of environmental racism are being oppressed.

So, how do we as social workers help people who are victims of environmental racism? Mullaly made a good point when he said that social inequality at the structural level is a major form of violence, and social workers should be aware that this form of extreme inequality can cause death in a person (Mullaly, 151). If we only help these groups cope with the problem or stay within the environment that is harming them, we are part of the social violence that is oppressing them in the first place (Mullaly, 127). The best way to help these people is by advocating for them. There need to be policies put in place that protects the lives of these people and their children. More people need to be aware that this is happening. Air and water, the only things that we as humans need to survive, should be kept clean and available for all. No industry or government should be allowed to take those away, no matter how much capital they will gain from it.

References

Mohai, P. (2015a). Which came first, people or pollution? A review of theory and evidence from longitudinal environmental justice studies. Environmental Research Letters. 10(12). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/125011

Mohai, P. (2015b). Which came first, people or pollution? Assessing the disparate siting and post-siting demographic change hypothesis of environmental injustice. Environmental Research Letters. 10(11). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/115008

Mohai, P. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34 (1), 405-430. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348

Mullally, B. (2010) Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege 2nd Edition, Oxford Press.

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#SocialMedia ≠ #SocialJustice

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There is a popular story that is going around on all of my social media newsfeeds called the #FreeJaggiNow campaign. A British-born man named Jagtar Johal went to India on November 4th to get married, and was abducted by police. He was not charged for any crimes and has been denied any legal representation from England or India. Jagtar Johal is a Sikh activist, who advocates for people that were victims in the 1984 Sikh Genocide in Punjab, India. More than 10,000 Sikhs were killed in a matter of days, however, the Indian government still denies that the genocide even happened. Jagtar Johal is being tortured in police custody, and is being denied medical care.

Through social media, his campaign has been able to rally support worldwide and has gained followers from most of Europe, Canada, USA, and India. When a person is being tortured and is being denied human rights, it is important for the world to speak up. I have been seeing this campaign on my social media for about a month now, but I am sure that most of my classmates have not heard of any of this happening.

We often believe that social media is the best way to spread awareness on an issue, however, this is not always the case. Yes, more people know about the issue now than they did before. Yes, the #FreeJaggiNow movement is gaining some momentum, and is helping to put pressure on both the Indian and British governments to intervene. However, due to social media algorithms, this movement is not getting the amount of attention it deserves. Why am I seeing funny videos of puppies or pranks on my newsfeed over issues that actually matter? Why are none of my classmates aware of an issue that involves torturing an innocent human being, but are up-to-date on Trump’s latest tweet?

The reason is because social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were never intended to be used as a means to promote social justice and change. They were simply made to connect people and spread ideas and entertainment. If promoting social change was truly one of the goals of sites like Facebook, we would be seeing a lot more posts on issues that really matter. I really wish that social media was a better agent for social change, but the reality is that social media is better for just socializing.

I personally do not think that I would use social media as the sole means of promoting social change. The only advantage of social media is that I would be able to reach a lot of people with minimal effort. However, this effort is needed in great amounts if I really want to make a difference. In the TED Talk by Zeynep Tufekci, she asked if by embracing technology such as social media, are we overlooking some of the benefits of organizing change slowly and sustainably? In other words, there are benefits in tediously organizing a movement and taking time to do the slow work. When we use social media to push our movements forward, these slow and important tasks are often ignored. In our generation, we are so used to receiving and spreading information instantaneously. With the instant push of a button, we get instant results. Few people in our generation have the patience to wait for something to happen online, and even less have the patience to stick with an online campaign for months. If we try to organize a community for social change in person, the effects are more profound and last longer. Connections in people that are made in person last longer than connections that are made through social media. Promoting social justice and creating movements that fight against injustice are very difficult tasks. There are going to be times when the task will seem impossible and many will want to give up. However, if there is a solid foundation upon which the movement was built upon, more and more people will push the movement forward. If the only support you have is from thousands of people around the world, who kind of know what the campaign is about, the foundation will be weaker and more likely to crumble. The best way to overcome these challenges is to not only depend on social media as the sole means to support social justice. The #FreeJaggiNow campaign is using social media to spread awareness, however, it was most effective when people in England took to the streets to protest and met with British lawmakers to gain support for the injustice. Community organizing, rallying, and advocating are just, if not, more important that using social media.

Anti-Oppression at personal, interpersonal & cultural levels

In chapter 8, Mullaly addressed ways that we can oppose oppression at personal, interpersonal, and cultural levels. I thought it was interesting how he stressed the fact that there is not a “how-to-do-it procedural manual” on how to end oppression and change the world. I do not think that I ever really understood that each and every individual experiences oppression differently, because I know I have previously stereotyped individuals as belonging to a certain group. Only after reading Mullaly’s book am I realizing different ways I am oppressed, and different ways I am the oppressor. My own experiences are unique, just as everyone else’s experiences are unique to them. It is very enlightening for me to learn all these new things about myself with introspection, and figure out how to use the things I learn about myself to see others. One of my goals at the beginning of class was to learn and unlearn ideas that will allow me to project myself further in my social work journey.

At the personal, interpersonal, and cultural levels, Mullaly suggests that it is important to empower individuals to overcome challenges. At the interpersonal level, one way to empower individuals is by helping members of an oppressed group to come together and discuss some similar experiences. Through shared experiences, individuals can develop a sense of identity that they can build their strengths upon. However, Mullaly suggests that sometimes it is best to allow these groups to remain segregated, and social workers or other members of dominant groups should not get involved. Some social workers may be offended by suddenly being excluded from the group that they are trying to help. It is important to remember our own privilege whenever we deal with someone different from us, and it is necessary to remain aware of their feelings. It is okay to be excluded from the group, as long as the group is making progress. However, it is important to still remain an ally of those who need help. An ally not only supports that group of people, but also helps them navigate systems to further push their agenda. An ally has to disregard his or her own beliefs and ego, and really put the marginalized group first. An ally is brave and is not afraid to lose anything in order to help someone.

Recently in my Intro to Community Organization, Management, Policy and Evaluation Practice class, we were assigned to do a community profile project. My group chose to study the homeless community in Downtown Detroit. We researched agencies that helped different categories of the homeless population, and interviewed key stakeholders. We also completed a community observation and volunteered at the soup kitchen at COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter). I was nervous about volunteering because I did not know how those living in the shelter would perceive us. I consciously tried to dress as plainly as I could because I did not want to stand out. In fact, I felt uncomfortable walking into a situation where I knew I was privileged… and I was doing my best to hide my privilege. Everyone at the homeless shelter, however, was very welcoming and were very happy that my group was volunteering our time to serve them food. The community within the shelter seemed like they had a very empowering relationship with each other. The women in the shelter were taking care of and feeding each other’s kids, women were doing each other’s hair, and it just seemed like they were one big family.  My experience related to what I mentioned above about Mullaly’s suggestion to allow oppressed groups to empower themselves interpersonally. These women were not facing hardships alone, but rather, had people just like themselves to depend on. This sense of empowerment and community in the homeless population was one of their biggest strengths.

Towards the end of our project, we began to realize the needs of the homeless community in Detroit. Some of the needs that we discovered were a need for a housing-first system, a need for reforming Identification System Laws (for people who lost their ID and cannot get employment), a need for the increase in public transportation, a need for affordable housing, and more. I do not meet the definition for an ally at this point, however, I believe that educating myself on this community is a good start to helping it. I hope that after I learn more about how social systems work in the future, I can start advocating and become an ally for this community.

Final Project Proposal

For my final project, I want to look at the relationship between social factors and a person’s overall health. I have worked in healthcare settings in both high-income and low-income areas, and I have noticed differences between the overall health of both populations. The social factors that contribute to a person’s health include their “…early life, education, employment and working conditions, food security, health care services, housing income and its distribution, social safety net, social exclusion and unemployment and employment security” (Mullaly, 2010). A person’s health is built up starting early in their life, and if a person has less than ideal living conditions and unjust social conditions, it will affect their health later in life.

I think the “Opression at the Structural Level” chapter will be useful in helping me provide a theoretical framework for this project. Inequalities at the social level contribute to many problems other than health. However, I personally believe that a person’s own health is one of the most important things a person has, and therefore should be given extra importance in the political system. It will be interesting to see how different factors contribute to a person’s health over time, and how the government and common people can help better a person’s social environment to change their health outcome.

I want to explore this project using Photovoice. I want to find participants that work in healthcare in areas of both low and high incomes. It will be interesting to see how diversity is viewed through the healthcare lens. I am still brainstorming ideas that I can incorporate into my project, so any feedback is appreciated!

Mullaly, B. (2010). Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Cultural Oppression and Microaggression

This week’s readings were about oppression at the cultural level and about microaggression. Both of these readings were very humbling for me, as they brought to light serious issues that I, myself, am guilty of contributing to. As some of you may know, I belong to the Sikh faith. In Sikhism, one of the main teachings is the phrase “Ek Onkar”. Ek Onkar is a phrase that refers to the notion that there is One God, and all races of people, animals, living things, planets and galaxies come from one creator. I have been taught from a young age to look at everyone equally, to not discriminate based on religion or skin color, and to treat everyone with the same amount of respect that I would give a loved one, because we all belong to the same creator. In a way, I guess you could say that I didn’t see people for their race and I was colorblind to an extent. However, after reading this week’s readings, I have started to understand the dangers behind looking at the world through this neutral lens.

While I believe that I had the best intentions in mind when I decided that I would treat everyone equally, I never realized how unfair I was to those who experienced racism and oppression based on their race, religion, or skin color. Only a person coming from privilege can be neutral and colorblind, a fact which most of us fail to recognize. Ignoring skin color is not helping us become less racist, but is actually downplaying the racism problem we have here in America. By being colorblind, we are not telling a person of color that we see them equal to everyone else in this country. Instead, we are telling them that we are ignoring their skin color because we do not care about the oppression their race feels and do not want to put in any effort to help get rid of racism in this country. While I understand that the intent of some people to be colorblind is pure, more people must become aware of the dangers of being impartial and neutral to race.

This issue relates to another form of oppression from a privileged background: oppressing people at the cultural level. In the book “Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege” Bob Mullaly explains how both stereotypes and language are two aspects of culture that are used to oppress subordinate groups of people. Stereotypes about minorities are created by the dominant group so the dominant group can maintain power. As an Indian, I have been made aware of many stereotypes regarding the Indian community. For example, I have been asked if I spoke Hindu (Hindu is a religion, Hindi is a language), if my grandparents live in a hut in India (they live in a normal house), and if I eat a lot of butter chicken. While I do love butter chicken, I am not constantly eating it.  Most of these stereotypes, I have been able to laugh off in the past, but I am starting to see how oppressive they actually are. Throughout my classes in elementary school and middle school, India has been painted as a poor country, rich with slums and beggars. As a result, some of my peers who have not been to India, still view India in the same light and continue to believe stereotypes without educating themselves on another culture.

The readings from this week that I thought were the most interesting were those on microaggression. The concept of microaggression is one that I was not too knowledgeable on or really even aware of until these readings. According to dictionary.com, microaggression is “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.” These types of comments can target one’s race, gender, culture, religion, or any other group that one may belong in. This made me think of some comments that people have made about me, comments that I never really offended me. For example, I have been told that my name is too hard to pronounce, or asked if I preferred a nickname. I have been asked by people in my Indian community about when I am getting married, or when I expect to have kids. Personally, I have never been too offended by microaggressions because I am normally a passive person and I can usually laugh at these types of comments. However, I can understand how someone who deals with constant microaggressions can become angry or offended. In dealing with microaggressions, I believe that there are three ways someone can react: (1) by attacking the person who made the comment, (2) by educating the person who made the comment, or (3) by ignoring the comment all-together. In that type of situation, I would personally try to judge a person’s intent and react based on what I thought they were implying. I understand, however, that some microaggressions are offensive and people have the right to defend themselves in a tough situation.

One thing that I thought was interesting about microaggressions is that they are usually unintentional. If someone makes an offensive comment, they are usually not trying to offend you. In their case, they might be asking a simple question or making a simple comment, and it might do more harm than good to react offensively. As social workers and as citizens of the world, one common goal I believe that we all share is to be a part of a fully integrated society without any racism or discrimination. In order to be a fully integrated society, we must learn about and understand other cultures. If we want to really understand each other, we must ask each other questions, some questions which may make some people feel uncomfortable and seem offensive. My question is, do microaggressions and our reactions to microaggressions create hurdles in becoming an integrated world? Or in other words, is the fear of saying something offensive forcing us to take a step back from the path of becoming a more united group of people? Are we moving in the right direction if we are afraid to communicate our thoughts, due to the fear that we may be perceived as being offensive?

I am a teacher and a learner and am constantly learning from other people’s points of views. These thoughts are my own, and I do not mean to offend anyone. If you agree or disagree with anything I wrote, please kindly leave a comment and let me know! 🙂

Mo’olele

 

I love to eat, and I love to travel. I have not visited many places around the world, but I have explored India quite a few times. \I love nature (except for bugs), and I love taking walks in the evening as the sun is going down. I love to smile and to laugh, and I love making others laugh as well. I love helping people, and I love standing up for people that cannot stand up for themselves. I love being the person that others can count on for help.

 

 

My way to measure success is to see the difference I made in the lives of other people. Sure, I thought I wanted money, nice things, and comfort. But the more I have lived, the more I’ve realized is that these are not the things that make me truly happy. In order to be truly satisfied and content with my life, I want to make a difference in the lives of other people.

For this Diversity and Social Justice class, I am looking to learn more about others and learn about social injustice from their experiences. Everyone has something unique to offer to this class, and I am excited about learning about everyone’s background. I believe I bring a unique background to the classroom. Not only have I seen social injustice in my local community, but I have also seen it in places like India as well. I visit India almost yearly, and the poverty I have seen there is incomparable to the poverty here in America. I have seen up close the differences in treatment based on a person’s caste, creed, or even family name. I have seen poor, barefooted children, some too young to even formulate full sentences, running up to strangers with their hands held out begging for food or money. I have seen poor rickshaw drivers being told that they could not receive healthcare because the hospital they are standing in is only for “elite” people. I have also seen people being turned away from temples because they are a part of a low class and therefore should not be allowed to worship God with everyone else. In India, these types of divisions and social injustices are so normal that very few people even try speaking out against them. The concepts of reputation and conservatism are regarded so high that people fear that they will be alienated if they try to make a change.

From my experiences, diversity and social justice go hand-in-hand. Everyone I meet is diverse in some way. Everyone has the right to be diverse and express who they are freely, while also living a just life. Social justice is a concept that should be able to empower everyone, regardless of of their diverse background. I think this class will be important in teaching us to always have a social justice mindset for everyone we meet. In our careers, we will not be able to fully help anyone until we understand how their unique backgrounds play a role in the injustices that they face. In this class I will try my best to put myself in the shoes of the communities we will learn about so I can better understand the challenges they face. I will remember the privilege I was born with and try to understand how my privilege effects the issues we learn about.

I am looking forward to reading all of your blogs!