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Meet the Anton Fellows: Promoting environmental justice

Interview with Dorothy Fennell
Those living in poverty are often forced to reside in places where the housing is unsafe, the air polluted, and the water unfit to drink. An interest in promoting environmental justice inspired Dorothy Fennell '04 to work as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic and New York City. Clark's study abroad program at the University of Santo Domingo and an Anton Fellowship for summer 2003 enabled her to realize that goal. Dot's experiences have enabled her to connect her interest in environmental justice with her ability to speak Spanish, and her major in psychology.

You're a psychology major. How did you become interested in issues of environmental justice?

I'm from Philadelphia, and my parents are both in the medical profession and for a time worked in inner city hospitals. I grew up with an awareness that not everyone has access to green space. One summer I worked at the Philadelphia Zoo in their department of environmental conservation and preservation. I helped with a project focusing on the problem of poaching in Liberia, and learned the difference between conservation and preservation. I was also exposed to the input of the local Liberian community and the impact that poaching had on them. I became increasingly interested in preservation, figuring how humans fit into that equation, and why it's important to balance development with environmental considerations. During the first semester of my junior year here at Clark I took a course in urban ecology (Geography 280).

The semester after that class you spent at the University of Santo Domingo. Why did you choose to go to the Dominican Republic?

I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country, but I had been to Spain before and I needed a country that would push me past my comfort zone. I seek out things that are difficult. I'm the last of six kids, and I think that made me pretty determined and stubborn! When someone says to me that something can't be done, I'll say yes it can, and I have to try.

How did you become involved in environmental work during your stay in the Dominican Republic?

I worked for a community organization called Tu Mujer--'You, Woman' would be the translation. Although it's a women's organization, Tu Mujer welcomes participation by male members of the community. Tu Mujer offers a number of programs relating to micro businesses, legal advice, and public health. I worked specifically with their environmental health campaign. Although their regional office is in Santo Domingo, I spent the bulk of my time working in two shantytown communities, Katanga and Vietnam.

What were some of the issues in those communities?

In the Dominican Republic there's been rapid migration into the urban areas, with people setting up shantytowns in peripheral areas around the river. At the time people settled there, no infrastructure was in place to supply water or handle waste disposal, so there's a lot of pollution. One shantytown is called Vietnam because it's kind of like a war zone. A lot of people carry guns and there's a high rate of violent crime, although that's changing. Politicians running for office would pay attention to the shantytowns and promise improvements, only to ignore these areas after elections were over. There's not a lot of government accountability.

The women I worked with understood that they're part of a larger, global effort, that they aren't alone in their struggle against environmental justice. It interested them that I would be transferring my experience with environmental problems in their country to similar problems in the U.S. They gave me so much, and hoped that what I would be doing in NYC would somehow feed back into a larger body of knowledge that would assist them in ending their environmental problems.

How did you find out about the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA)?

I had heard about NYCEJA from one of my sisters who had worked with an affiliated group called Traditional Alternatives. Also, my urban ecology class went to New York and I had an opportunity to meet some members of NYCEJA. I decided I wanted to work with them. I was persistent and it paid off.

What is NYCEJA's mission?

NYCEFA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advocate for communities of color concerning issues of environmental justice. NYCEJA supports a number of local community groups with their particular environmental agendas.

What did your responsibilities as a volunteer consist of?

I was in the main office in Manhattan helping to network between community groups. The big issue this past summer was the New York City Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. Some landlords were using wording in the documents to get around taking responsibility for lead paint in their rental units. I also worked with an organization in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. They were working on a survey designed to get an idea of what residents saw as the relevant environmental issues in their community. Twice a week I went door-to-door, conducting the survey.

My volunteer work in the Dominican Republic really prepared me for my NYCEJA internship, because there were parallels between the Dominican and New York communities that I was working with, and between NYCEJA and Tu Mujer.

Where did the Anton Fellowship come in?

The Anton Fellowship allowed me to live in New York City for the summer. I was a volunteer for NYCEJA, and needed help with living expenses. I wanted to use the Anton Fellowship and the NYCEJA internship to get a clearer understanding of the relationship between urban politics and environmental justice. Why are certain communities prevented from achieving environmental justice? What they can do to achieve their goals?

Are you following through with this kind of work this year? Are you able to see a connection with your psychology major?

When I first came to Clark, I had a different idea of what I wanted to do, and what psychology was for me. I'm still happy with the psych major. But I've managed to find my own ways to connect my major with my interest in community development. Psychology is very relevant, in part because it provides an understanding of why we do what we do. Right now I'm taking a course in motivational psychology, and knowing how to motivate people is important in community planning. For an independent project next semester I'm thinking about how to combine ideas about motivation with some project in the local community, perhaps focusing on waste management. How can people be motivated to participate in recycling?

Considering the large Hispanic population in Worcester, it's helpful that I speak Spanish. Now I can walk into a Hispanic shop and ask for a loaf of bread in the way they would say it. People are touched when you make that effort. They open up. Being able to communicate with someone in his or her own language is very important to me. I want the other person to know what I'm thinking, and vice-versa. Good communication is very important when you work in community development. It helps break down barriers so you can work together and move together towards a goal.

I understand you're considering Clark's graduate program in International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE). That sounds like it would be a good match with your interests.

Yes, and I've been able to make contact with professors in that department. I feel confident that I'll be able to combine all of my interests, which is why I like Clark. For the first time I'm able to combine all those interests and not be told by someone, 'you should limit things, you should be very specific.' During the past four years I've been finding out that there is a connection between all my interests. I guess a gut feeling kind of guides you, and if you follow that you're golden. Because you should do what you want to do. I think Clark has definitely helped me to realize that in myself and to listen to that feeling.


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