Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson, with the "No Borders: Communities Living and Working with ASARCO" project
CHE Partner Spotlight
Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson, faculty members at The Evergreen State College in Washington State, coordinate and lead the project "No Borders: Communities Living and Working with Asarco." In May 2010 they were part of a delegation visiting Cananea Mexico, site of a major strike and public health and environmental crisis, tied to the operation and impacts of Grupo Mexico (now the owner of Asarco). In collaboration with delegation colleagues from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Indiana University and University of Minnesota, along with Evergreen student Alex Becker, they did filming, photography, interviews and investigative research on the situation in Mexico and its links to Asarco in the US. They presented their report, "Crossing the Border to Cananea: High Stakes & Teachable Moments for North American Workers," on March 23 in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the United Association for Labor Education.
What first brought you into environmental health work?
Anne: At Evergreen we’re encouraged to engage in interdisciplinary teaching collaborations. Through teaching with Lin I began to learn about the efforts of workers and communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, to address the dangers to their health and environment caused by long-term proximity to industry. I wanted to be connected to these struggles for fundamental human rights.
Lin: While teaching about environmental health as a social issue in the 1980’s, I became connected to various community-based projects and labor-environment coalitions. I worked with the Central NY Council for Occupational Safety & Health (Syracuse, NY), and I was moved by the challenges facing communities in the region, from Love Canal to Akwesasne. I was also interested in bridging women’s and environmental health and began working with Our Bodies Ourselves on the OBOS occupational/environmental health chapter.
What is your primary mission in your work?
Anne: My primary mission as a teacher, is to engage students in critical thinking about substantive issues that affect our communities and environment, and see interconnections between people, places, and problems that are often perceived as unrelated. As a filmmaker, it is to document and dignify the struggles of communities that often go unrecognized and unsupported.
Lin: I try to make environmental health a compelling public issue for our students, and to support them in learning about the intersection of science, law, policy and community knowledge. I’m most interested in working on research/writing/community collaborations that embolden and support people to ask critical questions and to activate our right-to-know/right-to-act, from local to global.
What are the most important recent developments in your work, scientific or otherwise?
Anne: In my teaching it’s been gratifying to connect students to the ongoing life of communities and the issues they face. In our shared project work on Asarco-impacted communities, it’s been hopeful to work with people over a prolonged period (6 years now) and create some public awareness about their efforts.
Lin: Over time as teacher and collaborator with our students and regional partners, I’m working to help link science, sustainability and justice in the environmental health arena. A key priority has been to explore and share community and public health stories that are emerging from our project on the impact of one complex corporation (Asarco, mining & smelting, here in the NW, as well as in the SW and Mexico.)
What successes have most encouraged you in your work recently?
Anne: We’ve had some success recently with publication—several articles and reports, and our website. The website particularly was a two-year effort. It’s been well-received—and that encourages us to continue our work.
Lin: Developing practical links between our research/documentation and organizations, ex. Center for Health, Environment and Justice on Superfund policy. Seeing links between impacted communities who are collaborating to strengthen community-based research & strategy.
What have been some of the greatest recent challenges?
Anne: This project is complex. We wish we had project partners with expertise in a range of areas that we lack—everything from environmental law to corporate research. Also, a huge challenge that affected communities face is the need to build networks to provide the scientific, medical, organizational, technical and legal resources they need. This is especially true because the public agencies are often unresponsive or have been stymied in their efforts. As documentarians, researchers and advocates who are able to move from place to place, we feel it’s our responsibility to help build these networks, but it is a slow process.
Lin: A persistent challenge is carving out enough time for this project, as our regular teaching lives are quite demanding. And so, being in “real time,” with impacted communities is often difficult. It is disturbing to see communities needing and deserving partnerships with those who have medical, legal and other knowledge/resources, and yet to see many in those communities feeling isolated & vulnerable. Time works differently (emotionally, strategically) when you’re in the dailiness of the risk versus those of us who are a bit more removed (although no one is ever fully removed or insulated from modern industrial risk).
What would you regard as the most significant potential future developments in your field?
Anne: As a documentary filmmaker, I would say that one of the most important developments is our growing ability to tell our own stories and get them out to the public. The internet, for all its distractions and problems, has been a significant help in this process.
Lin: Research/documentation projects having a persistent life in impacted communities, so that there is a strong, effective search for vital information and a confidence in protecting environmental health rights.
What or who continues to inspire you in your work?
Anne: My students often ask what keeps me engaged with subject matter that involves so many hard and discouraging situations. My answer is: it’s the people we work with. They are brave, passionate, determined and unbelievably creative. I admire and care deeply about them and feel privileged to be able to participate in and learn from their efforts.
Lin: The communities who are facing environmental health risks and powerful forces blocking their path. The professionals who are committed to working with communities and together strengthening the environmental health knowledge base. There are many heroic, dedicated people out there working to build community-based research and protect public health.
Any thoughts to share with others about CHE?
Anne: We’re honored to be acknowledged by CHE. You do great work!
Lin: CHE is a vital network for strengthening the linkages between science, policy and public life. You can see the bridges being built between dedicated, trusted scientists and the courageous advocates in frontline communities.
For more information on Anne and Lin's work see: http://www.theirminesourstories.org/