Jul 3

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Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Ana Mascareñas, MPH

Ana Mascareñas, MPH has devoted herself to making sure that everyone has the opportunity for their voice to be heard and finding creative solutions to address inequities. Whether that is through asking for input or taking all points of view into consideration, her goal is that when a project is designed, all community members have had their values recognized.

In her work with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CA DTSC), her job is to provide meaningful spaces for underrepresented communities in environmental regulatory decisions that affect them.

“My role is to ensure that the voices of environmental justice and tribal communities are incorporated, brought to the front and really considered part of the decision making processes here. It is my job to make sure we share information [and] that we find proactive solutions to really reduce environmental impacts and improve environmental health,” Ms. Mascareñas says.

This is important to her because she grew up with an understanding of what it can be like for families who were not included as part of the process. And, that is why her work focuses not only on environmental health, but bringing environmental justice to the table as well. 

“For me, environmental justice is one aspect of broader social justice work. My mother and grandmother and great-grandmother all worked in the fields [in California’s central valley] harvesting food for families and understanding the connection between worker’s rights and health and protection and how toxics, especially pesticides, can add to further burdens and exploitation of communities. [This] really laid the foundation for me growing up and my understanding of social justice and what is injustice,” Ms. Mascareñas shares.

Those experiences and that understanding has shaped how she goes about her job. And, in the projects that she works on for CA DTSC, she has seen the value of including all perspectives.

“I go back to the concept of equity, and, if you consider the most vulnerable and you design your process and your work in that way, you are going to have some immediate impacts,” Ms. Mascareñas says.

For others who work in environmental health and do projects where the intended audience includes any community of people, she suggests considering two important concepts: distributive and procedural justice.

“Procedural justice [is] making sure that with your process [and] whatever information you are gathering, that you make sure to ask a wide spectrum of people with experiences. Not just those who you believe have the technical training on the issue you are examining, but [also] the people who live the experiences of the projects you are working on and the change you are trying to make. That’s valuing people and valuing community knowledge and really doing a thorough job of researching, qualitatively and quantitatively, what people’s experiences and perspectives are,

“On the distribution of benefits and burdens side, [it is about] recognizing that you can put forth a perfect process but still have disproportionate burdens and impacts in ways that you did not intend. So, making sure to sort of step back through your project planning and not just be tied to process but also look at the impacts of certain decisions along the way,” Ms. Mascareñas says.

She also suggests that you “do it in a way that you are ready to adjust your course based on the information that you receive from a number of stakeholders.”

While this isn’t always easy, especially if you are working on projects that have had long planning phases or didn’t originally account for community feedback, the outcomes of making these considerations can be great.

Ms. Mascareñas knows working in California, where there have been incredible environmental justice movements in the past, puts her in a special situation that is more open to these approaches.

“I feel fortunate that because so many communities have organized and so many community leaders have been at the forefront, we have been able to do a lot in California. We’re moving things forward in a way to examine environmental justice and vulnerable communities and direct creative solutions and resources to try to solve some of these really, really complicated environmental health problems. These problems didn’t just appear overnight, but that have appeared because of decades of other kinds of policies and laws that have been exclusive of marginalized communities that have further exacerbated disproportionate impacts in environmental justice communities.” Ms. Mascareñas shares.

With that understanding, and the pride in her work that she feels, she is optimistic about the future.

“My hope is that we is that the field of environmental health can play an increasingly important role in helping inform and engage communities on what they are being exposed to how to reduce hazards. In parallel, and very much connected, [I hope] that the work can help create better polices and decisions on protecting people and the environment,” Ms. Mascareñas says.

All communities deserve the right to be heard and take part in projects that impact their health and environment, and Ms. Mascareñas is devoted to making that happen.

We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

In April, we held our eighth webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Tags: community based researchEnvironmental JusticeCommunity Impactwebinars

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