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Science as a Tool of Protection

Editor's note:  Daniel Morales-Doyle is a 2015 graduate from the PhD Curriculum Studies program and is an assistant professor of science education at the College.  In this op-ed, he describes his vision for science educators' response to the Flint water crisis.

As the details of recent events in Flint, Michigan have been exposed, there has been public outrage - the only sensible response to a case in which the state has poisoned people en masse. I share these feelings of outrage. Small children are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead. As the parent of two small children, when I first heard of the Flint disaster in December, I became nauseous. In the weeks since, as concerns have been raised about lead levels in Chicago’s water, this nausea often returns.

But my feelings of fear and anger have been mitigated by feelings of hope as I have seen this disaster inspire a pedagogical and curricular response from Chicago’s science teachers. Numerous teachers have reached out to me in the last few weeks to share or ask for ideas on curriculum that examines the Flint crisis. The best example I have seen comes from MEd Science Education alumna and Project SEEEC Master Teaching Fellow Mindy Chappell.

What these teachers understand is that in communities on Chicago’s west and south sides and in places like Flint, science education is not only about educating the next generation of STEM professionals – it’s also about community survival. While I am outraged by Flint, I am not surprised. This is not because I am cynical or calloused. It is because I understand that the burdens of environmental degradation are borne disproportionately by communities of color. This phenomenon of environmental racism or eco-apartheid is exacerbated by neoliberal policies that prioritize profit over people. As industries have fled US cities to seek cheaper labor and more lenient regulations abroad, they have left behind a toxic legacy. Austerity measures like those imposed by the emergency manager in Flint stir up the poisonous stew that lurks in brownfields and abandoned industrial sites.

Our Dean, Alfred Tatum, PhD, conceptualizes “texts as tools of protection for African American males.” He recently remarked to me, “You see science in the same way that I see texts.” He is right. Communities need to build protection against the dangers of environmental racism and science can be a tool in this effort. In Flint, local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards have received much of the credit for enacting science as protection. These scientists deserve credit, but Edwards has also correctly pointed out that this is a case of “citizen science,” where Flint residents knew something was wrong and began to seek evidence and explanations immediately. Unfortunately, the officials who were responsible for fixing the problem were not responsive.

In a recent interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Edwards expressed outrage at the public scientists in Michigan who failed to protect the residents of Flint, saying, “I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way.” I see the problem differently, maybe because I grew up, not at the altar of science, but next to two medical waste incinerators. Burning polyvinyl chloride waste spewed dioxins and other pollutants into the largely Black and working class neighborhood. Later I spent years teaching in a Mexican-American neighborhood where the local coal power plant operated without adhering to the Clean Air Act. It was exempted under the pretense that it would soon close – four decades before it eventually did. Where Edwards sees public science as broken, I see science operating as usual. For all of the great inventions and insights provided by science, there are an equal if not greater number of disasters visited on communities of color and facilitated by scientific knowledge.

As science educators, we are in a position to change this. In the short term, it is important that we are educating community members so that they are equipped to spring into action with the rights kinds of questions when the health of their community is threatened. But in the long term, we are responsible for educating the activists and scientists who will change science – who will wrest it from those who see it as an engine of profit and development and instead enlist it in the service of sustainability and justice.

Of course, this sort of a change will not happen in science alone, but must be part of a broader movement. Recent political debates have pit reparations for the atrocities committed against people of African descent against wide-ranging policies to reverse increases in income inequality. Flint shows us why we need both. The harms of environmental racism have had devastating consequences on Black communities and thus should be included on the list of crimes committed against the African diaspora in this country that require reparations. At the same time, if future such harms are to be avoided, we need means of production that prioritize people over profit.

It makes me proud and hopeful to know that UIC-educated science teachers understand that these issues must not be confined to social studies classrooms. We are responsible for teaching about element 82. We are responsible for teaching about enzymes and neurons. We are thus also responsible for teaching our students how to protect themselves against the forces that threaten their enzymes and neurons through the criminal negligence of those who purportedly regulate and protect against the effects of Pb2+ and other toxins that are the legacy of US industrialism.