Jul 9

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Meet Our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Vanessa Galavíz, PhD, MPH

Vanessa Galavíz, PhD, MPH is committed to making a difference for communities most affected by environmental hazards such as air pollution, pesticides, and water contamination. Her work has always focused on marginalized communities, and her work with the California Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Washington School of Public Health is no different.

She is intent on doing this work because she remembers how she felt when she first learned what public health can do and what environmental health means.

“When I was obtaining my masters in environmental health, I started learning that some communities have more environmental hazards than others and as a result experience increased adverse health impacts. It struck me by surprise that these communities were predominantly low-income and/or minority. It was even more shocking to learn that environmental and health inequities resulted from things such as racial profiling and lack of economic and political power. That hit home when I realized this was my environment and those closest to me, my family, were being negatively impacted. The high prevalence of exposure and health risk and lack of awareness because you trust those who ultimately make the decisions that impact your environment is unacceptable. Being the first person in my family to go to college, [I] took it upon myself to use this education I have been privileged with to try and improve the environmental and health inequities,” Dr. Galavíz said.

In order to do this, she set her career path to be one focused on understanding environmental health and working closely with communities to address community-prioritized concerns.

Her degree focus was on “environmental health and industrial hygiene. This means I have the skillset to be able to recognize, evaluate, prevent, and control environmental factors or stressors that negatively impact health; in addition to biological monitoring of human populations for measurement of exposure and genetic susceptibility,” Dr. Galavíz explains.

In addition to understanding the science of environmental health and industrial hygiene, most of her work incorporates elements of community based participatory research (CBPR), citizen science, and civic engagement as a way to ensure community-driven solutions and increased capacity and resilience.

“The purpose is to improve educational transparency, literacy, capacity, and resilience at a community level when faced with environmental injustices. The power of community knowledge and capacity for new knowledge is often undermined but in reality to ensure sustainability of improved environments and health, community members have to be at the forefront of all action that includes research and decision-making,” Dr. Galavíz stresses.

Additionally, “the power of collective action between community members and various other stakeholders such as government and/or academics to address environmental and health inequities brings about a powerful transformative process that leads to a better understanding of cause and ultimately drives positive change,” Dr. Galavíz adds.

While working with communities and addressing their needs is vitally important, there are ways to do it that are more respectful and productive than others. From her experience working with communities and many different researchers, Dr. Galavíz shares something important to keep in mind.

“I have seen relationships between communities and stakeholders, such as academics and government, dissolve due to lack of respect and understanding from the stakeholders. The biggest mistake [I have seen] is going into a community and not respecting the culture, downplaying the risk[s], and having this persona of you know it all. I have seen folks go into communities and bring down the risk to a level where they say it’s not concerning when the community itself says, no it is concerning. Being educated and knowing the science does not qualify a person to have the skillset needed to address environmental injustices faced by marginalized communities. However, being able to understand and respect community concerns in relation to the science and in relation to the other risk factors that [you] can’t directly quantify, such as vulnerability, does allow for the privilege to work with communities if given that respect to do so,” Dr. Galavíz shares.

The power of communities is great. Not just in relation to the massive amounts of information they can provide, but in the impact they have. For example,

“Despite the progress made in health of farm workers and their families, there still exists disparities in exposure, susceptibility, and health, particularly for hard-to-reach populations and for those who speak languages other than English and Spanish, such as Trique and Mixtec. As a result, they are oftentimes left without a supportive infrastructure to develop and/or strengthen resilience to the cumulative health impacts of environmental exposures and socioeconomic and biological threats. To address these challenges, grassroots organizations are formed to address systematic and structural barriers through the movement to create opportunities for their constituents to self-identify issues and solutions in a culturally appropriate space. In this process they create community leaders who demand justice. And, that is where the environmental justice movement comes from. It doesn’t come from academics. It doesn’t come from government. It comes from the people rising to demand change because they are tired of seeing the health and safety impacts prevalent in their communities because of environmental hazards. Recently, I have been given the honor to be entrusted by a farmworker organization to support the launch of a much needed project to assess the influential health factors and inform subsequent actions for the agricultural community. Having the privilege to work with this organization is exciting, and I look forward to learning from them and assisting them in creating positive impact,” Dr. Galavíz says.

That is great inspiration for designing CBPR projects. Talking to communities, providing them with research and facts, and helping them get the resources they need in order to organize and create change is a powerful motivator, and a result that is more likely when researchers and community members work together. 

You can learn more about designing CBPR projects through this curriculum put together by the University of Washington.

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: webinarsCommunity Impactcommunity based research

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