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HNU's First Annual Environmental Racism Symposium

On Tuesday, November 16, Holy Names University held its first annual Environmental Racism Symposium directed by Dr. Talia Moore and professor Melody Parker. Dr. Moore is HNU’s associate professor of criminology and Parker is a faculty member in the English and integrative studies department. 

HNU’s Environmental Racism Symposium is a part of United Against Hate Week (November 14-20, 2021) United Against Hate calls for local civic action to stop the hate and implicit biases that threaten the safety and civility of our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The conference was held via Zoom, where undergraduate students presented their work on racism in the areas of healthcare, policy, and pollution. 

Dr. Moore began the event with an introduction to racism and how it affects the facets and systems of American life, as well as the idea of the three ‘C’s’: conscious, critical, and contributions. “Consciousness is being aware of your place in society, and how you choose to leverage your power,” said Dr. Moore. “Consciousness is also understanding that systems are still in place to relegate individuals into race-based systems determining an individual’s social values based solely on their melanin content.” She further expressed how people can assess the ways in which racism impacts people and determine the critical change that needs to come to ensure equal and equitable treatment for everyone. “Critical can also reflect thinking skills and how we individually move each other to either reinforce or disband racist talk, thought, and action.” These contributions can help move the conversation and people along to produce real change in society, and guarantee racial equity and equality. Contributions can be made from all individuals in many forms, such as “attending a symposium of environmental racism, writing a book or paper on ending racism, or simply in the form of a correction in the form of a racist comment in a conversation.”    

Parker then informed the audience of the concept of privilege and what it means for someone to hold this advantage in society. “I have white privilege, which means that my perspective is limited and I can’t fully understand the point of view of a person of color.” She explains that even though she identifies as biracial, she is still most likely perceived as white, therefore her experiences on environmental racism are limited. “During these presentations, we will be talking about the broader term of the environment, which could be someone’s neighborhood, home, or culture—a place where we have revelations about race,” said Parker. We are always a part of our environment even if we feel like we’re not connected to it because it inevitably affects our socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, food sources, and air quality.    

Sophomore speaker, Kimberly Yee, led the student presentations by discussing what it’s like to live during a time of increasing hate crimes against Asian Americans in society. “Since I was a little girl, I’ve learned to fear for my life,” expressed Yee. “My dad would explain to me that because I was Chinese some people wouldn’t like me or would try and hurt me because my facial features are different from theirs.” Due to the pandemic, there has been an uprising of Asian American hate crimes and it has also revealed the long held prejudices against Asian Americans around the United States. “My community is hurting, but it feels like nobody is listening. We are in a place of fear and are forced to stay home because many people within the United States regard the virus as foreign and condemn those who are Asian American as the cause of the virus.” Yee revealed the struggles and discrimination that people within her community have faced because of racial differences. She encourages everyone to support these minority groups because “if we don’t put an end to this now, it will just be a matter of time until someone acts out on their hatred and attacks another Asian American.” 

Another student presentation was senior Maria Avila on her topic: “What is Missing White Girl Syndrome, and Who Does it Affect?” Avila discussed how people of color represent the majority of people who go missing in society, but their cases rarely become the center of public attention. “First, we have the case of Laci Peterson, a pregnant white woman, who went missing in the year of 2002,” stated Avila. “Her case received a lot of media attention and it helped gather the necessary tools, which eventually helped in solving the case.” Avila noted how Laci Peterson’s case was such a well-known event that there was a series produced, which solely focused on the fine details of her case. “Second, we have the case of LaToyia Figueroa, a pregnant woman of color, who went missing in 2005,” said Avila. “Her case received minimal attention and didn’t compare to the highlight of Laci Peterson’s case until someone spoke up to a news organization and questioned why the case of a white woman was receiving more attention than LaToyia’s.” Avila revealed that news organizations are largely the ones at fault for “Missing White Girl Syndrome” because they decide which stories should receive the most attention. Additionally, she explained how law enforcement is also at fault because they handle the cases behind the scenes and decide which case they’re going to prioritize over others. “Missing White Girl Syndrome is something that can be prevented by media organizations receiving better training on what stories to present to the public and how they present these stories, as well as giving the same spotlight to all missing people cases,” stated Avila. Learning and spreading awareness about “Missing White Girl Syndrome” is important because certain cases are being neglected and aren’t given the equal amount of time and effort. “When it comes to a missing persons case, the white woman’s story tends to receive the most attention and their stories are spread from coast to coast. While their cases are being solved, another person has gone missing and a person of color is being overlooked.” 

Undergraduate students, Faith Onyewuchi, Regina Parra, and Tina Nguyen covered the topic of air pollution in Oakland and its effect on underrepresented communities. They explained how Oakland is known as one of the top cities in the United States with many commercial and industrial facilities that are close to residential areas and public spaces, which have caused air pollution to increase in the city. “The port of Oakland, Oakland airport, and I-880 have increased the levels of air pollution that has impacted vulnerable areas like schools, hospitals, and senior centers. Air pollution from motor vehicles and refineries have increased death rates associated with heart, lung, and strokes, affecting low income communities and people of color.” Onyewuchi, Parra, and Nguyen mentioned how West Oakland and Downtown Oakland are one of the most exposed communities to pollution, and these communities have high minority and poverty populations. They additionally revealed that the port of Oakland is the fifth busiest port in the United States and it’s one of the biggest pollution contributors in West Oakland. “Oakland is ranked eighth for worst ozone levels, fifth for annual particle pollution, and third nationally for worst twenty four hour fine particles. People of color and low income families are breathing more air pollution than any other demographics within California, and these minority groups are more prone to severe health concerns.” 

The student presenters of the first annual Environmental Racism Symposium noted that it’s important to recognize the environmental injustices within our communities and how people of color are disproportionately oppressed with health hazards. These policies and practices force minority groups to live in close proximity to sources of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems, and by raising awareness, our community can help to combat the underlying issues of environmental racism.