Helping Marginalized Communities Receive Environmental Justice

By Georgina To’a Salazar, PhD

Konya Bangura is a student in her final semester of completing a bilingual degree in International Studies at York University in Toronto. Before joining the Black Environmental Initiative (BEI), she was a volunteer at the Toronto Youth Cabinet for about three years, advocating on behalf of young people while working part-time. Presently, she is a volunteer researcher at BEI, passionate about environmental justice and eager to raise awareness about the environmental racism that exists in her community and in others across the city.

Konya Bangura
Konya Bangura. Photo taken by Christiana Ceesay.

Environmental racism is a term that was coined in the United States in the 1970s as part of the environmental justice movement to describe the barriers that impact the ability of people in BIPOC communities to live in safe, healthy environments, for instance, in areas free of harmful pollutants. Bangura’s interest in speaking up for these communities has led to her decision to pursue an MS in environmental studies and business or in law and diplomacy (with an emphasis in environmental studies) in the near future.

GTS: How did you know that you wanted to pursue work in environmental social justice? How did you know what that was and that you wanted to work in it? What are the challenges that you have faced?

KB: One day, I was sitting in class, and we were talking about environmental racism. I thought to myself, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this term.” In high school, I had studied environmental science and had done really well. But we had never talked about how the environment and race intersect, or about how the intersectionality among our race, our gender, and our culture influences how we treat the land or how the land treats us.

Then I realized that own my neighborhood—which is filled with immigrants and other kinds of minorities—is often polluted by plastics and garbage coming from affluent communities. Seeing the truth of such issues, I decided to pursue work in environmental social justice.

I have had a lot of experience with advocacy and research and in speaking out against the injustice that minority communities generally face, so I thought that there had to be some way in which I could help. Then I came across BEI—an organization speaking out about this intersectionality and working to address different environmental impacts.

It’s just like any other nonprofit work: it doesn’t pay a lot. That’s okay because I have the passion, and I’m not really concerned about the income. It’s mostly about the work: how can we help communities?

GTS: Can you tell me about some of the projects you are working on?

KB: We’re working with the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS) to collect data and responses from professionals in the water, weather, and climate sectors to better understand their experiences. We are also collecting responses from Black and Indigenous youth to assess whether there are any obstacles or barriers in their lives that prevent them from having a science career. BEI is producing a video full of testimonials from BIPOC meteorological professionals to inspire diverse youth to invest in water, weather, and climate careers.

BEI and CMOS are also writing a report to share with Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Canadian Water Resources Association to make them aware of the barriers that diverse professionals face when they try to succeed in meteorological careers.

Konya using an air monitoring device in a neighborhood park. Photos taken by Christiana Ceesay
Konya using an air monitoring device in a neighborhood park. Photos taken by Christiana Ceesay

GTS: I saw that you also were part of a panel on “The Intersection Between Food and Environmental Justice.” Can you tell me more about that work? What did you like most about it?

KB: I liked the discussions that we had behind the scenes before we started contacting people to participate on our panel. These discussions were about the complex relationship between the existing food system and environmental racism. Our team was very keen to ensure that the audience would understood this complex relationship, which we were trying to grapple with ourselves. We looked for professionals from different backgrounds, including those who are Indigenous and who also focus on such issues, wanting to get their expertise.

When we presented our panel discussion, we talked about how certain marginalized groups and BIPOC communities don’t have access to better food because they don’t have proper land or green spaces to grow it.

People in these communities are told to go to big supermarkets and to purchase food from multinational corporations, and this way of obtaining food degrades the environment, not only here locally but also globally. For example, bringing an avocado from Mexico to a grocery store in Canada creates a lot of pollution because of the distance required to transport it. When you go to buy that avocado, it has required a lot of greenhouse emissions to get it into your grocery cart. So our panel tried to explain what minority communities, especially BIPOC ones, can do to improve these circumstances.

I was responsible for creating questions to ask the panelists. I drew from my knowledge and brainstormed with a partner: how can we help people understand these terrible environmental outcomes and the inherent racism built into our food system?

GTS: I see on the BEI website that you wrote a report, “Research Areas in Scarborough and Etobicoke (Toronto) That Are the Most Polluted.” Can you tell me more about the steps that you took to get your results? What conclusions or solutions do your results suggest?

KB: I looked at both primary and secondary sources to collect my data, searching academic journals through the City of Toronto websites to understand exactly how certain areas in Toronto are polluted. I also studied both qualitative and quantitative aspects of the impacts. The quantitative data is important, but seeing people’s stories to understand the adverse effects of these pollutants is also important.

In Etobicoke and Scarborough, we mostly looked at the pollutants caused by highway use and at chemicals produced by manufacturers in those neighborhoods. We found exceedingly large amounts of five toxins: nitrogen oxide, benzene, benzo(a)pyrene, Particulate Matter PM10, and Particulate Matter PM2.5 along the Gardiner Expressway, Queen Elizabeth Way, and the 427.

My work involved a lot of critical thinking, including synthesizing arguments and data to understand exactly what had happened in those neighborhoods.

GTS: What happens next? Have you communicated to the members of the communities affected? How can they use the information that you collected?

KB: We are hoping to use some of this information in our “I can breathe” projects to support use of our air monitoring devices in these communities and to show the people living there, “This is how you can see environmental racism, or environmental injustice in your communities because you live next to a highway.” Those neighborhoods, especially Scarborough, are filled with a lot of low-income immigrant and minority families who live in a very condensed area, and their homes are built next to these highways. We want to show how the nearby highways and the chemical manufacturers are factors causing nearby residents to have adverse health outcomes. We want to give them power to mobilize themselves.

They could use this data to ask local government to include more green spaces in lower income areas. There was a study saying that certain areas in the city have more green spaces than other areas. The areas that have these green spaces are mostly in affluent neighborhoods. Encouraging more neighborhood gardens and more parks are asks that the community could make.

GTS: Thank you for speaking with me and sharing details of the great work you are doing!

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Georgina To’a Salazar, PhDGeorgina To’a Salazar, PhD, works to create innovative solutions in science communication, research, and policy. With a BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Salazar has fulfilled her dream of exploring the world, having taken research positions in Singapore and Japan before returning to the United States to focus on science communication. She is currently at Takara Bio USA, Inc.


This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.