City of Angels or City of Injustice?

By Leanna Huynh

The road to glitz and glamour of the “City of Angels,” is far from golden. Worldwide, the “freezeways,” and “smog sunsets,” that paint the unique image of Los Angeles is associated with prosperity and fame, but for the 1 million that live and breathe in Los Angeles, this isn’t the entire picture. In fact, residents that live closest to these congested freeways are exposed to high levels of air pollution that can ultimately cause respiratory illnesses such as asthma and decreased lung function. Of these 1 million residents, 70% belong to communities of color.1 Why is this? How could there be such inequality in this day and age of “colorblindness?” Is there anything we can do to mitigate the effects?

On UCLA’s campus, researchers from various departments have combined their efforts in what has become the Environmental Justice Initiative. Their goal? —Push forth new and innovative ideas that answer and combat this multi-faceted problem. In short, environmental justice is the intersection of our society’s greatest challenges. Issues pertaining to the environment, class, race, and socioeconomic status are all involved in the discussion. The Environmental Justice Initiative at UCLA seeks not only to solve the environmental issues that we face such as air and water pollution, but also the social inequalities that are inherently found within the contours of our society.

At the head of this Environmental Justice Initiative are Drs. Paul Ong and Glen MacDonald. Dr. Paul Ong, a professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, first sought inspiration for the Initiative from his colleague, Professor Arthur Winer. Although Winer was a professor of chemistry, both Ong and Winer found common ground in their passion for environmental justice in their research on air pollution in microenvironments. It was then from these “ad-hoc” efforts and nearly seven years of collaborative work that Ong approached Dr. Glen MacDonald, Director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, about starting the Initiative.

The Initiative is still in its infancy, but is making huge strides towards becoming a university- wide program that bridges students and faculty from North and South Campus alike. According to Ong and MacDonald, cross-campus cooperation is very much integral in the success of this initiative. Environmental justice is an issue that requires the collaborative work of the biological and physical sciences as well as the social sciences and ethnic studies. Currently, the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), Institute of American Culture (IAC), and Luskin School of Public Affairs (LSPA), are the main organizing sponsors of this Initiative, but Ong and MacDonald are optimistic that as the Initiative gains popularity that more departments will be more enthusiastic in joining their efforts.

What sets the Environmental Justice Initiative apart from other programs is both in its structure and approach. The Initiative first seeks to engage students and faculty to advance cutting-edge research on campus. The IoES, IAC and LSPA are already making major efforts towards this by organizing a year-long lecture series featuring prominent guests from the outside entities.

The purpose of these lectures is to encourage discussion and create a forum space on campus where our communities can talk about environmental justice. The next lecture, Synopsium on Spatial Analysis of Social and Environmental Justice, will be held at the Luskin School of Public Affairs on February 22, 2013. Furthermore, Dr. Ong will be teaching a course in Spring 2013 called, Environmental Justice through Multiple Lenses, which can fulfill various major and minor programs. By increasing knowledge and understanding of environmental justice issues, the program also hopes to promote service throughout UCLA and the greater Los Angeles Community to tackle these issues in a hands-on approach. Finally, the Initiative strives to train a generation of people that can inspire and lead us to not only increase awareness of this issue, but also to create greater equality and justice in the environment, public health, and other sectors.

Of course, with any great progress comes struggles and challenges. While the UCLA community has greeted Drs. Ong and MacDonald with great reception, they both agree that it is still difficult to build cross-campus connections as well as raise resources and funding to further prolong the Initiative. However, they are also confident that the Environmental Justice at UCLA shows great promise to serve as a model for Los Angeles, the state of California, and the nation. As Drs. Ong and MacDonald both state, “We do not have time to not take action for our future generations.”

Leanna Huynh is a 3rd year Environmental Science Major and Political Science Minor. She is a member of Samahang Pilipino at UCLA. 

1 http://www.epa.gov/region9/ej/enforcement.html