Growing up, I loved watching detective shows and thought I’d be a forensic detective or a lawyer. It wasn’t until I got randomly assigned a health occupations elective in high school that I became interested in health and medicine. Like many others, I thought I’d be a medical doctor and was Biology/Pre-Med for my undergrad degree. It didn’t take me long to see that medical school wouldn’t be a good fit for me. During my senior year, a Careers in Biology course introduced me to public health. My time in my master’s program introduced me to several interests. In one course, I was assigned to present on a topic in environmental justice.
When I started researching what environmental justice was, my mom suggested I present on my dad’s neighborhood. My dad grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in Gainesville, Georgia. Gainesville’s claim to fame, other than the haunted Lake Lanier, is being the poultry capital of the world. If the large processing plants weren’t visible enough the smell definitely made you aware that they were there.
I remember seeing large purple ribbons on mailboxes but didn’t realize until I was older that these ribbons signified everyone who was sick. It wasn’t until I started researching the history of the neighborhood and its health status that I learned how many of my dad’s neighbors had lupus, cancer, or other chronic diseases caused by the pollutants they were exposed to every day. After speaking with leaders in the community, the local florist club, I realized how much the racist policies that decided who could live where and where these highly polluting plants could be located impacted and continues to impact my neighbors. This led to my interests in environmental justice, the built environment, and health equity. I started attending webinars and conferences on environmental justice like the annual one held at the University of Maryland.
After finishing my masters, I started a fellowship at the Army Public Health Center. I joined a team focused on improving the built environment on Army installations. I was able to help create assessment tools and programs that supported active living, tobacco-free lifestyles, and healthy eating. While we were able to improve assessment tools, programs, and interventions we continually came into problems with frequent leadership changes that are common to the military and lack of continuity. We needed to advocate for policy change to make the health impacts sustainable.
Thinking back and the work academic researchers have done with my dad’s hometown and all the communities who attended the environmental justice conferences, acquiring grants were vital to changing the unhealthy environments and getting support for those negatively affected while bringing their causes to the forefront. Grants allow local communities to obtain equipment and pay experts to generate data used to change policies and promote better health.