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The phrase “Environmental Justice” may immediately bring to mind protecting endangered species and fighting for more green spaces, but it’s more than that. Environmental Justice is how life impacts us and our ability to thrive as individuals, a community and as a system that cares for the world around us.  One’s environment is not just the ecosystem or even the neighborhood lived in, but “environment” is also the support and access that impacts our mental health. Which in turn is affected by the equity and empathy expressed and fought for by society.

At Impact Hub’s “Co-Creating Our Future: Examining Environmental Justice in Boston,” expert panelists spoke on issues revolving around community engagement, self-resiliency through communal support, empathetic health care, and having a vision for the natural resources of our planet.  After giving a brief introduction, each panelist spearheaded small community groups to brainstorm solutions addressing healthcare for women, urban forestry, composting, and trauma amidst underserved populations in the city.

“By educating people, we allow safe spaces for individuals dealing with trauma to no longer feel ashamed.” – Judith Foster, HERO Nurturing Center

How do we provide opportunities for residents to engage in our work in meaningful ways?  David Meshoulam, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Speak for The Trees, sees the individual and communal connection to trees. Through Meshoulam’s eyes, a tree is a place and opportunity for healing and resilience that benefits the community as well as the individual. He believes that as we care for trees, trees care for us and on a larger scale it allows us to care for each other.  There is a lack of care that hasn’t gone unnoticed in communities of color, where a low number of trees has resulted in more asthmatic kids and neighborhoods that are polluted by the dirtiest rivers. To plant one tree can cost anywhere from $600 to $1000, a cost that is many times hindered due to the dance of maneuvering around bureaucracy. 

Hardiesse Dicka, a program coordinator for the Resilient Sisterhood Project brought to light the severe impact human trafficking and diseases can have on black women.  In asking the question, What strategies should we use to connect and educate more women on health issues?, Dicka aims to make education and scientific knowledge common and comfortable areas for black women to dwell in and empower them to self-advocate. Dicka believes that institutions of research and science need to understand black women and the health issues that matter most to them. Within her breakout group, Dicka spoke on the hesitancy healthcare providers have with certain diagnoses and how black women need to be educated and empowered to make choices and even push back against medical perspectives and prescriptions that don’t give black women answers or choices that contribute to their overall health. Dicka was emphatic on the secrecy that exists and is protected in the culture of science, a secrecy which germinates stigmas and fears among the very women who are afflicted.  

Affliction defined the life of Judith Foster of the HERO Nurturing Center when her daughter was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease and her son was murdered. These events catapulted her into a traumatic, deep depression and along with other medical concerns, led her to be hospitalized. She found herself at odds with medical personnel’s approach to her treatment and chose to rely instead on the natural healing wisdom of her Jamaican roots. Through natural herbs and engaging nature as a healing conduit, her road to recovery began to materialize. Out of this experience, she launched the HERO Nurturing Center where HERO stands for Healing Empathy Redemption Oasis. She started small by hosting nature walks in the Blue Hills, a program to help people dealing with trauma to become connected to nature as a method of healing. Foster’s research on the effects of nature on the human body led her to gather scientific proof through an MRI which showed visible improvement in the cellular structure of the body when one spends at least fifty minutes communing with nature. This has driven her to seek opportunities to help doctors and medical facilities create a capacity for nature-based empathy, leading to the focal point of her question  – How can we institute policy which will enable doctors and care facilities to prescribe nature as a therapy?  Foster also believes the individual can self-create a space for empathy and help others through the resiliency of being connected to nature, as it was her own pain that served as the catalyst for starting the HERO Nurturing Center.

“We can’t compartmentalize the issue of composting but addressing it needs to have a wholistic approach, it must be statewide.” – Lor Holmes, CERO Coop

What is needed across sectors — public and private, policy and investment to build a sustainable, transformative economy that truly benefits our communities? Lor Holmes of CERO Cooperative stands firm on the mantra of people, planet and profits for the good of the individual and community.  CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling and Organics) is a commercial composting company that works with sixty businesses across Boston and they are already proving that composting works. CERO is the only hauler in Boston that turns organic waste into soil for local farms, organic waste that is the solution to our world’s climate change dilemma. But although composting is enforced legally for business producing more than one ton of food waste per week, regulations around the definition of compost are not solidified resulting in low traction despite CERO’s efforts to educate customers and the community at large. Holmes hopes concerned citizens will lift up their voices to expose green washing and bring about change for every neighborhood in Boston, especially poor communities that are heavily impacted. 

It was obvious that the scales of Environmental Justice weren’t balanced as low income areas don’t receive the same attention and resources as other neighborhoods.  It is in poorer communities where the streets aren’t as clean, the water is dirtier and they fall victim to hazardous power plants. These communities are bearing a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies as defined from The EPA Office of Environmental Justice on what violates fair treatment.

By the time all the groups reconvened to share their solutions, it was greatly understood that change would require more than just spreading awareness.  Meshoulam reminded us of the city’s commitment, when Mayor Menino was serving,  to plant one hundred thousand trees in the city of Boston by 2020. But here we are in 2019 and only a handful of trees has been planted around the city, a number more close to six thousand if he had to guess. Action would be needed in the form of political support and meaningful involvement where people are given access and choice. Where communities understand their voice can influence regulatory agencies and where their involvement will move decision makers to act on the behalf of those negatively and unfairly affected.

“When you plant a tree, it claims that space for the community.” – David Meshoulam, Speak For The Trees

As the event came to close, each participant parted with a cemented understanding that Environmental Justice is the right and ability of each person to thrive, benefiting from the impact of a balanced and advocated for ecosphere and individual climate.  

It’s more than just nature but the nurturing of ourselves and our community.