In the U.S., minority populations are disproportionately affected by environmental threats. To better understand their needs, the environmental health workforce must have more people of color, according to Natasha DeJarnett, PhD, MPH, special advisor to the Environmental Health and Equity Collaborative. A new award can help raise awareness, says DeJarnett, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville.

How are justice, equity, diversity and inclusion important to work in environmental health?

Environmental health services have lengthened life expectancy and improved quality of life through clean air, clean water and so much more. Absent consideration of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, though, not everyone will benefit or will benefit equally from those services.Father playing with son outdoors

Here in Louisville, Kentucky, West Louisville is home to a much higher population of color than East Louisville. It’s also home to a lot of major highways and 11 or 12 rubber manufacturing facilities that have led people to call it "Rubbertown." It’s an environmental justice area, where residents suffer a disproportionate burden of air pollution and other contamination that affects their health. 

East Louisville, on the other hand, is less diverse and full of nice big green spaces, a higher quality of life and a life expectancy that is 12 years longer than in West Louisville. It’s just not right. Because of the way health disparities work, the populations most burdened by environmental exposures already have preexisting health disparities that make them more vulnerable. 

Ensuring that the delivery of environmental health services benefits all — that the initiation and enforcement of environmental health policies serve everyone — is imperative. That is no more clearly laid out than with the life expectancy gap between East and West Louisville. And this is just one of many examples. We have to change this situation, and that starts with changing the field itself to reflect the people it serves.

How well does the environmental health workforce reflect the people it is trying to help?

The National Environmental Health Association's Uncover Environmental Health report found that the workforce in this field is 85% white, 7% African American, 4% Asian American, 3% American Indian and 6% Hispanic or Latino. Those numbers are stark, but not surprising. Demographically, we don’t represent the populations that we serve. 

This means that we may not have the diversity of thought needed to serve everyone, or may put in place policies and practices that exclude ethnic and racial minorities from the great environmental health solutions we know work. 

We have to ask ourselves, are we advertising environmental health positions far and wide, through historically Black colleges and universities, in places that help create a diverse applicant pool? There’s lots of guidance out there for how to go about it.

Let’s expand our hiring practices, and then let’s retain a diverse workforce with an inclusive working environment. The collaborative wants to celebrate places that are getting it right and hold them up as a model for organizational change.

A new award from the Environmental Health and Equity Collaborative just opened for nominations. What is the award for?

We want to showcase successful examples in the field. The collaborative’s inaugural IDEA EH Award is designed to do just that. It stands for Inclusion and Diversity for Equitable Advancement in Environmental Health, and we feel the acronym really captures what we think is a great idea for organizations to embrace. 

Nominees can be any environmental health organization that demonstrates a commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; improvement and success in this space; and the benefits of meeting this challenge. Ultimately, we want to highlight an organization that can tell a story that will resonate and inspire others to follow this path.

The award will be presented at APHA’s 2021 Annual Meeting and Expo in October. The meeting’s wide audience of professionals hungry for environmental health leadership on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion offers the perfect opportunity to showcase the winner. 

And the ability of this organization, and of those in years to come, to tell its story through APHA, the council and collaborative and beyond will hopefully show results in NEHA’s next Uncover EH report. Perhaps those workforce diversity numbers won’t be so stark and, in turn, the life expectancy gap between ZIP codes won’t be so wide.

Nominations for the inaugural IDEA EH Award are due by Aug 31.

Photo by Anete Lusina, courtesy Pexels