Cultural Studies PhD student Shannyn Snyder presented a talk entitled: "Environmental Racism: Water and the Class Divide" at the Mason Water Research Symposium 2016. Esma H. Celebioglu conducted a short interview with Shannyn in which she explains her research projects on environmental racism and how she connects her work with cultural studies.
Can you briefly tell us about the research project you have presented in the Mason Water Research Symposium?
Environmental justice is one of the topics we spend some time on in the Health & Environment course that I teach in the Global and Community Health Department, and with our increasing conversations about the water issues in Flint, Michigan, among others, debating the term and meaning of environmental racism has a central focus. The topic of environmental racism has also been a key term in this semester's Cultural Studies 860 course on biopolitics by Craig Willse, and I have been able to partner my understanding of health inequalities with various theories surrounding such disparities. The Mason Water Research Symposium itself strives to be an interdisciplinary stage in which students and faculty can bring their projects, dissertations, thesis and capstone work, and current research on a range of water-related topics from thermal surveillance to track moisture saturation in drought-stricken areas to new technologies to purify water for those suffering from waterborne disease. Health and cultural studies are not on the periphery of these topics in science, and the College of Science welcomes the collaboration from other disciplines to understand the relationship between humans and ecology.
As a Cultural Studies PhD student, in what ways will cultural studies inform your research?
During my masters work, it was apparent that I could not generalize that health behaviors were the same for every population. Part of my directed readings were to understand common stereotypes for gender and race among medical professionals, as well as why certain populations had a prevalence for disease, despite access to vaccines, pharma, purified water, and health professionals. I quickly learned that lack of cultural sensitivity, cultural, gender and racial bias, chronic distrust, and low effort for sustainable solutions are all reasons why certain "diseases of the poor" remain endemic in certain regions. Researching cultural indicators of health behavior is just one way that we can have more informed epidemiological studies in the effort to eradicate disease.
What kind of a relationship is there between environmental studies with cultural studies? How do you link these two areas?
These two are intertwined for many of the reasons that I list above, but also because we are seeing those racial biases in the environment, and it is becoming hard to ignore that it is a problem. Flint, Michigan is a really good example of this, and in recent American Public Health Association webinars, we have been learning that, even if unintended, there is a clear racial and class divide between those affected by lead contamination in the water. Conversations here are about future disparities for unemployment due to the neurological effects of lead in a population that is already financially strained and lacking in opportunity, as well as how to gain a community's severely damaged trust when trying to find a solution for repair. As we know from other current and historical examples where there is a divide between government and a population, mistrust runs deep, and that can often hinder progress. These populations want to be heard, counted and "at the table" when decisions are made, but this is not happening, domestically or worldwide. Corporations and governments make decisions that affect disadvantaged communities (whether economic, minority, geographical or others) right under their noses. We are losing entire cultures, and we are systematically distances others, as they are shut out of a right to health and an equal quality of life.
Will you have any other future projects about this topic?
Absolutely! I hope to explore environmental racism in one of my fields in the CS PhD program, and I am submitting an abstract this month for consideration at an upcoming environmental justice conference at Duke. I will continue to include the topic of environmental racism in both my instruction and study, and I am grateful to be more involved in APHA this year, as well as courses that connect me with the theories behind these issues. I am also guest lecturing on the topic in a couple of EOS and CHHS classes this month, hoping to dialog with students about their perception of the issue and their thoughts on theory. Additionally, I keep in touch with friends and colleagues who are embedded in areas of conflict, such as oil spills, so that have a continually refreshed perspective. Finally, I have a research website, where I document some of my travel to these environmentally vulnerable areas, and for many of these studies, a cultural, racial or class disparity is apparent. The site also continues to spotlight the work of my own students and interns, for whom I direct research in many of these areas, including nutrition poverty in urban areas and respiratory illness from biomass fuels due to lack of energy alternatives.
April 10, 2016