The Loka Institute

Making research, and science & technology responsive to democratically-decided social and environmental concerns


Loka Institute - STS in Action Project

Gwen Ottinger, University of Virginia

Posted June 4, 2008

1.  Engagement activities

I see myself as engaged with two communities: environmental justice (EJ) groups, and the engineers and scientists who interact with residential communities and allied EJ organizations.

In my environmental justice work, I am engaged with the kind of organizations that Sylvia Tesh has termed “grassroots support organizations” (Uncertain Hazards: Environmental Activists and Scientific Proof [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000], p. 3)—not the community groups who organize to fight nearby industrial facilities and other environmental hazards, but the more formally organized, regional non-profits that provide training and resources to those community groups. I work especially with grassroots support organizations with a focus on building technical capacity and providing technical support to community groups: in 2001 – 2002, I was a volunteer for Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) in Oakland, CA, and since 2002, I have had a relationship with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) in New Orleans, LA. My role in these organizations is primarily a technical one. Drawing on my undergraduate training as an engineer—and, more importantly, my continued willingness to grapple with new technical terms and acquire new programming skills—I have researched air monitoring techniques for these organizations and developed tools for interpreting air monitoring results. My goal in this work, of course, is to support the organizations in fulfilling their mission: my technical work supports their efforts to enable communities adjacent to oil refineries, chemical plants, and other sources of toxic air emissions to characterize the effects of those facilities on air quality and, ultimately, community health. But to this work, I also bring STS insights that can further EJ organizations’ missions; for example, in the course of investigating how air monitoring is typically done by industrial facilities and regulatory agencies and how community members might do monitoring themselves, I have been able to explain to EJ advocates at LABB why experts approach the problem of monitoring in certain ways—and, in the process, to help the organization strengthen its arguments for community-based monitoring.

In my engagement with engineers and scientists who interact with community groups, particularly environmental regulators and relatively high level technical people at industrial facilities, my goals are two-fold. I want to help convey the nuances of community members’ perspectives to these experts, who often feel attacked and demonized and, as a result, miss the complexities and ambivalence in residents’ feelings about their industrial neighbors. I also aim to suggest to experts how their own perspectives limit their success in establishing durable relationships with communities; in particular, I would like to have them understand how their assumptions about “rigorous science” reflect values not necessarily shared by communities members, and how disparities in power between them, as highly educated representatives of government agencies or multinational corporations, and residents of low-income communities persist despite their efforts to construct egalitarian dialogue. How to engage these experts is a challenge—unlike resource-poor EJ organizations, who always welcome volunteers, there is no obvious avenue for an engineer-turned-social scientist to offer her insights to a large company or a state agency, much less to see her pearls of wisdom influence the organizations. My strategy thus far is to try to engage this audience by writing publications targeted to them; the first such attempt is a paper on the effectiveness of Community Advisory Panels (CAPs)—bodies central to the chemical industry’s efforts to foster positive community-industry relations. The paper will be published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), as part of their Studies in Sustainability series, and will be distributed to the chemical industry veterans and “thought leaders” that are part of CHF’s networks of support. I also hope to contribute to an EJ activist-led project to create a “Good Neighbor Handbook” that includes advice for plant managers as well as community members.

A third site of engagement, the classroom, offers the opportunity to pursue both my goal of furthering the mission of EJ organizations and my goals for broadening experts’ understanding of the dynamics of EJ and community-industry relations. In a course on “Technology and Environmental Justice,” I engaged engineering students directly with EJ organizations: working in groups, students undertook technical projects—involving data analysis, research on industrial process emissions, and web programming—on behalf of EJ groups (including LABB, Ohio Citizen Action, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice ) and the communities that they support. Through these projects, students not only helped organizations directly, they also came to understand the ways that science and technology, as they are typically structured, tend not to support the goal of environmental justice. It is my hope that this understanding will help them to reflect critically on their own perspective when they become regulators or plant managers who must interact with grassroots or EJ groups.

2. Challenges

    a.  How are your goals for engagement related to your academic career goals?

Academics conceive of their work in terms of research, teaching, and service. I see my engagement as a key component of the service aspect of my work—and, as a result, I suspect I define “service” a little differently and value it much more than the average academic. I am also pleased to have found ways to integrate this form of service with my teaching by making engagement with EJ groups serve pedagogical purposes. But my goal is to teach at a university where I will be evaluated primarily on my research, and I aspire to make theoretical contributions to social studies of science, to anthropology of science, technology, and environment, and to the academic conversations on environmental justice. I tend to separate these aims from my engagement: I am not conducting participatory action research or listing activists as co-authors or expecting that my most important articles will necessarily be relevant to policy or activism. Nonetheless, the research clearly informs my engagement, and the potential for it to do so is among my motivations for doing academic research.

    b.  How do you navigate among competing identities?

Opportunistically. What I find most relevant in this work is my dual identity as engineer and social scientist. At this point, I am much more social scientist than engineer—even one of my undergraduate degrees is in STS—but my technical work with EJ organizations, my interdisciplinary background, and my interest in engaging with both fledgling engineers and full-fledged experts all seem to prevent me from completely leaving behind my engineering identity. As one piece of my identity, then, it becomes at times a resource for establishing my competence and credibility (with students and plant managers but also EJ activists and STS colleagues). At other times, having one foot in the technical realm allows me, as a social science researcher, to find non-partisan ground from which I can get access to the perspectives of feuding groups. (The irony of this move is not lost on me.)


STS in Action Workshop Abstracts