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JBS: A truly enlightening experience

By Philip Lu
On August 24, 2010

As I begin my reflections of the past two months of community service, scientific research and bonding during my Justice Brandeis Semester, "Environmental Health and Justice," I have come across many different perspectives on how this has all left a lasting impression and influence. Going into JBS, I had only the slightest concept of what community organization, outreach and environmental justice were. I felt a sense of na'veté: There was an entire spectrum of issues that were routinely underreported and of which I had a very cursory understanding. I can remember my first day with the Waltham Alliance to Create Housing as very busy, and I recall thinking instantly about how WATCH plays a very large role in the community, considering the amount of clients it services during clinic hours. Throughout JBS, I felt especially attached to the plight of one particular woman, Marilyn, and her bad luck in being the tenant of an infamous landlord. You become emotionally invested in the people you see week to week. Learning about her struggle and those of the many other clients I had the opportunity to work with during my weeks at the clinic definitely made me appreciate the privileges and opportunities I have as an undergraduate. A lot of these individuals arrive to start new lives as they work for better opportunities for themselves and their children. Anything that I could do to assist them in their endeavor, no matter how small, made me feel like I contributed to those who sometimes start with very little.

By working with the Worcester Roots Project, also known as the "toxic soil busters," in conjunction with the Environmental Health and Engineering Team, a firm that does enviornmental consulting, I learned a lot of what it means to work in a grassroots organization. For all its good and bad, I felt that what we did in Worcester had a positive impact on not only furthering research on the efficacy of lead remediation but also on strengthening the connections between Brandeis and the Worcester community. Working in the field collecting lead samples for research taught me about many of the steps necessary to conduct a proper study. In addition, it improved my ability to interact with residents, especially those who were confused with what we were doing. This study had a tremendous impact on the way I will work on future scientific papers or any other research that I analyze. Coming into the project I thought that my previous experience had provided me with a good deal of insight. However, where previously I had years to work, my JBS, which we had nicknamed the "EJ Crew," was limited to a span of a few months. This taught me that a project the size of the Worcester study depended on a willing crew that would take initiative to get things done even during times of communication breakdowns.

Talking with Mary, Donna and Kevin Conway, one of thee families described in A Civil Action, was definitely an aspect of my experience during JBS that I will never forget. To me, Mary and Donna were simply average Americans who wished to attain the American dream but who ended up paying for shortsighted actions of local government and corporate negligence. Even decades after the passing of their children from leukemia, you could still sense the love and heartbreak they feel when they tell their stories. Hearing their stories, especially Donna's description of her son Robbie's last days, brought me close to tears. It's one thing to read A Civil Action; it is quite another to have a firsthand experience listening to the people who lived and endured that tragedy.

I remember initially holding an unfavorable view of personal injury lawyers, the "ambulance chasers," as my mother who works in the health profession calls them. However, once reading through A Civil Action and meeting Kevin, I began to have a much larger perspective on the practices of personal injury lawyers. Without lawyers willing to take such large risks, seemingly insurmountable cases would unlikely be pursued, to the detriment of those that were affected.

In addition, we were able to work very closely with the Waltham community. Our work at the Waltham Family School showed that even basic steps can lead to major changes. With a few handouts and tutorials on alternatives to environmental hazardous products, I feel that at the very least we were able to instill the idea that someone on a limited budget could still make his or her home and work environments healthier.

Working with the Wayside Youth was a part of JBS that most affected my motivation for future community work. I felt at ease working with the students, discussing random things and doing something one youth, William, recommended: "You can always discuss video games." It surprised me to see the number of problems the youth had. Reflecting back, I can see how big of an impact simply being there to talk and listen had on the students. I would definitely look forward to working with children such as the Wayside Youth in the future.

I thought our conversations with Philip and Alice Shabecoff, the authors of Poisoned Profits, as well as Judy Helfand, the director of A Healthy Baby Girl and Blue Vinyl, over Skype deeply enriched our background knowledge of their bodies of work, which covered topics of environmental justice. They were all passionate about their work, even during our times of technical troubles; they would continue giving great insight even when Skype managed to freeze. The Shabecoffs' and Helfands' perseverance in trying to find and report the truth was something that makes me hold great respect for journalists.

Throughout JBS, I just enjoyed learning. I felt that a large part of the learning process was just listening to pieces of advice and experiences that everyone I interacted with shared. Everyone with whom I interacted, from the Wayside Youth to the residents of Worcester, taught me a little something that I could incorporate into my future thoughts and actions. Throughout JBS, I developed an understanding that with activism, no one can do it alone. To that end, a big part of the entire JBS experience was the camaraderie that developed within our small, dedicated group. Even Erin Brockovich needed a little help.

What I took away from JBS was that ordinary people can still make a major difference in the face of large entities that try to take advantage of those who are perceived as weak and vulnerable. In addition, everyone has a right to a clean and livable environment, regardless of his or her socioeconomic status. Real change begins from the bottom up. It has been a long way since the first meeting of the "EJ Crew." I came into JBS knowing that I wanted to change the world; coming out, I know that I certainly will.

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