As an anthropologist, I know that each of us is shaped by the environment of our upbringing: its political conjectures, cultural tendencies, economic configurations and ecologies. We bear the marks of the places where we live – even as we, in turn, shape those very same places.
I grew up in East Stroudsburg, a small town along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Resentments that I would now refer to as “environmental” were a day-to-day part of social life. In the 1960s, the federal government planned to construct a large hydro-electric dam just south of town, transforming the Delaware River into a reservoir that would displace hundreds of people from family farms in the adjacent valleys. A powerful movement against the project emerged, with locals finding collaborators in the form of urban conservationists, research scientists, and back-to-the-Earth hippies. Ultimately, the government abandoned its plans, though the 70,000 acres it had seized from people living along the river went to the National Park Service and became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Growing up, some of my closest friends and family would, in the cover of night, sneak back to the crumbling farm houses their families had once called home, spitting on the sign of the National Park Service on the way.
When I landed at Lafayette College, my attention drifted abroad, where I hoped I might find better models for negotiating environmental stewardship and community well-being. In my junior year, I studied in Senegal, spending time along its northern border with Mauritania. There, the Senegalese government was building the “Great Green Wall:” a 500-mile long stretch of fenced grassland meant to prevent the southward movement of the mighty Sahara desert. These barriers, though, blocked Fulani pastoralists and their herds, whose migration paths crisscrossed the region. In interviews, Fulani people echoed complaints I had heard from friends in East Stroudsburg: that the cost of conservation was being borne by disempowered, rural people. I found this sudden sense of familiarity jarring, especially given the dramatic cultural and ecological differences between the Sahel and my hometown.
I spent the next few years trying to identify the global forces that brought about that moment of striking symmetry. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the tensions between the Senegalese state and its pastoralist citizens, before deciding to pursue a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Virginia. Anthropology allowed me to pair historical research into, for instance, the intellectual origins of conservation with intensive fieldwork, during which I embedded myself in two environmental justice movements. I spent 16 months over 4 years in Jamaica, where I worked with the island’s Maroon communities and some allied conservationists on an emerging movement to stop bauxite mining. Back in Virginia, I worked with several community organizations and university researchers seeking to stop the construction of two proposed natural gas pipelines in Appalachia. These experiences reordered my world, leaving me with new intellectual commitments, political affinities, and principally, life changing relationships.
Since completing my PhD in 2021, I have worn several hats. I served as a visiting professor at Bucknell University where I taught courses on climate change and environmental justice. Finding the life of a professor to be intellectually stimulating but intolerably solitary, I transitioned to a role as campaign organizer with the Working Families Party. In that role, I advocated on behalf of a new program that would dispatch social workers, rather than law enforcement, to non-violent and mental health related 911 calls in Allentown, PA. I knocked on thousands of doors, hosting delicate conversations with my neighbors about policing and social justice. Most recently, I spent my days at the National Canal Museum in Easton, Pennsylvania, where I educated the public on the legacies of coal-mining in Eastern PA and tended to two mules who pull our boat on a restored section of the Lehigh Canal. I find I’m most satisfied when my hands are busy with meaningful work that nurtures the people and ecologies of the Delaware River watershed–be it knocking on doors, writing policy briefs, or shoveling mule manure.
At OEDP, I look forward to working toward data stewardship models that transform data into a public good that can empower communities in the fight for a sustainable, just future. Environmental injustices are often difficult to track and their proximate causes are often imperceptible: invisible gases released by an industrial facility or incremental shifts in a regional climate. The consequences, even when dire, are often diffuse and mediated through complex ecological and embodied processes, manifesting in heightened rates of cancer or a disparate exposure to flooding. In identifying chains of causation, data, and the people who collect it, are key components of any environmental justice movement. Alongside my colleagues at OEDP, I envision a future where open data stewardship procedures, paired with a strenuous support for community sovereignty, transform data into a tool for collective knowledge production in service of the common good.