Mobilizing Black Environmentalism and Data Justice

Taking a Critical Race Approach to Environmental Research and Data

By Faithe J. Day

Photo by ev on Unsplash

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Environmental Racism and Justice

In 2014, I was introduced to the intersection of Environment Racism and Justice through the Flint Water Crisis. During this time, I saw how organizing efforts and coalitions could be used to address localized environmental concerns because much of what we knew about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, came as a result of citizen science initiatives. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “citizen science engages the public in efforts to advance scientific knowledge by formulating research questions, collecting data, and interpreting results.” Through the Flint Water Study, independent researchers supported citizen scientists by keeping track of the water conditions and responding to those conditions through protests, campaigns, and water drives.

The Flint Water Crisis has catalyzed greater public awareness around the role that racism and classism play in the distribution of resources within cities, and how politicians and policy-makers should respond to environmental injustice. This awareness bolstered social media activism, such as responses to the Twitter hashtag #FlintWaterCrisis and the work of young activists like Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny (@LittleMissFlint). Mari Copeny led a years-long campaign to ensure that the public and politicians did not forget how much time passed before the water crisis was adequately addressed.

This event also signified a shift in how media, data, and technology could be used to combat environmental racism and promote social justice. Many Black environmentalists use media and data to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in environmental organizations and activism. However, addressing environmental concerns with data and technology also comes with addressing racial justice issues, like the policing and surveillance of BIPOC communities.

Therefore, this essay asks the question: What must be considered when generating solutions to address environmental concerns within Black communities? Specifically, this piece will address the issue of environmental data collection through smart city technologies and the importance of centering critical race and community-based approaches to environmental science research.

The Role of Smart Cities in Environmental Justice

A significant concern for Black communities is the constant threat of environmental crises, which affect specific neighborhoods or cities. Through practices like redlining, financial institutions, real estate agents, and government officials have made it more difficult for BIPOC individuals to live in areas with access to economic and natural resources. Redlining is one of many contributing factors to environmental racism, pushing Black community members toward living in areas that deal with multiple forms of pollution, toxic waste, and the threat of natural disasters. As a response, institutions such as the EPA promote “Smart Growth” initiatives that address environmental justice issues through urban planning and development. Specifically, smart initiatives focus on conserving and contributing resources to underserved communities, such as creating more green spaces and increasing access to public transportation.

Like the EPA’s Smart Growth program, scholars such as Robert Bullard support the need to address environmental racism by building better communities. Known as the father of environmental justice, Bullard claims that working towards “regional equity” is necessary because it addresses environmental issues through structural change. For Bullard, increasing regional equity includes creating more public transit and economic opportunities while improving access to resources within cities.

Calls to create more sustainable and resource-filled cities have led to the implementation of smart city data and technologies. Smart cities are offered as an environmentally friendly form of urban planning and regional development that incorporates data collection devices and technology into the architecture of a space. In line with the push to use data science and cloud-based technologies to monitor climate change, smart cities also contribute to the ever-growing “internet of things” used by researchers to collect data. Smart city technology has also been proposed as the solution to decreasing waste, monitoring pollution, and increasing safety and sustainability.

However, what is not always recognized is that tech, which surveys an issue, also tends to surveil populations. From the COVID-19-inspired technology which monitors social distancing to the devices and sensors which undergird smarter cities, the same technologies which public health and environmental concerns can also increase activities like policing and surveillance. In addition, as neighborhoods are revitalized to become more smart and sustainable, research has shown that they can also encourage gentrification and the displacement of residents.

Incorporating a Critical Race Approach to Data Collection

Although smart cities have experienced fast growth outside of the US, these technologies have also garnered criticism. In recent years, citizens across the globe have become more conscious and skeptical about data collection devices and BigTech companies that constantly gather information about individuals and their neighborhoods. These same citizens are now creating organizations and efforts to combat the use of these technologies in their communities. For example, organizations such as “Our Data Bodies” have demonstrated the harmful impact of facial recognition and surveillance technology in cities from Detroit, Michigan, to Los Angeles, California. Therefore, smart devices and data collection projects continue to be critiqued by activists and community organizers who care about protecting data privacy, civil rights, and environmental justice concerns.

Researchers don’t always do the important work of engaging with community groups, who have a deep understanding of the racial politics of a city. In my writing on the role of research and data science in Black communities, I outline the long history of research that takes an extractive approach to work with Black communities, taking data from the community while not focusing on how that collection will affect the community, or even giving back once a project is completed. Extraction can also occur when using smart devices and technologies to track environmental conditions if community members are left out of the decision-making process when collecting environmental data, or are not included in the thinking about how that data will be used.

As stated in the article “When Data Justice and Environmental Justice Meet,” there is a need for scholars to address and circumvent this legacy of extractive data practices. Therefore, we must ask the question: What does it look like to incorporate Black Environmentalism and Data Justice into understanding the effects of data science and technology on Black communities?

Within environmental science, in particular, taking a critical race approach to data science and technology means incorporating the principles of Black Environmentalism and Data Justice into the design process. This means understanding that there is a need for different approaches when it comes to different communities and incorporating an anti-surveillance ethos in the use of data collection devices. The development of community-based approaches to data collection should also mean collaborating with community members and organizers, not just corporations and institutions.

As demonstrated by the Flint Water Crisis, researchers and policymakers rarely experience the lived reality of intersectionally marginalized communities. When addressing environmental racism and injustice, there is a need for more citizen science and participatory design projects where community members join scientists and researchers to create solutions for their communities before problem-solving begins. Furthermore, any consideration of environmentalism must also critique data collection practices and the mobilization of technologies and devices which have the potential to reinforce racism and injustice within the very communities that they are trying to help.

Faithe J. Day is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Science at the University of California — Santa Barbara in the Center for Black Studies Research. Dr. Day is also an alum of the University of Michigan and a former National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) Postdoctoral Fellow. Her research and writing can be found on Medium, @faitheday.



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