Health Equity Challenge Finalist - Monika Shankar

On a Monday morning in December 2002, the improper dismantling of a mortar shell by workers at a local metal recycler in Watts sent a 40-pound cannon round 1,000 feet into the air. On descent, it landed in the baseball field of David Starr Jordan High School, which stands directly adjacent to the facility. At the time, no students were present on the field (luckily). Despite public outrage and political outcry, the facility remained open and has continued operating until today. While extreme, Atlas represents a situation that many communities in Los Angeles face — they live, study, and play near hazardous industries that pose significant threats to residents’ health and well-being.

I recall the first time I visited this area of Watts for a toxics tour. Within a span of two minutes, I had walked past quiet residential streets, a community center, Jordan High School, and finally, this massive compound filled with piles of scrap metal. I wondered at the time: Why is this facility here? How can it be allowed to operate so close to populations that included children? What are the impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods? And most importantly, what is being done to protect the community?

In my former role as a community advocate and in my current role as a graduate student, I have started to unpack some of the answers to these questions. Historical research has shown that most cities embraced discriminatory planning policies and practices, which saw certain communities targeted for the siting of industrial facilities. The legacy of this planning system is that low-income communities, and communities of color, are disproportionately impacted today by the presence of active facilities and the contamination left behind by those long gone. As a result, these communities experience greater health risks from exposure to air and soil pollution, noises and smells, as well as direct physical harm from facility accidents.

“Historical research has shown that most cities embraced discriminatory planning policies and practices, which saw certain communities targeted for the siting of industrial facilities. The legacy of this planning system is that low-income communities, and communities of color, are disproportionately impacted today by the presence of active facilities and the contamination left behind by those long gone.”

While land use and air quality regulations provide some protections, a lack of proper regulatory staffing and funding often leads to lax oversight by agencies. The result is that communities are left to fend for themselves. I recently attended a community meeting to discuss Atlas, where an organizer succinctly expressed her frustration: regulatory agencies should do their job, but they’re not.

Despite the gravity of the problem, I am inspired and motivated by communities and organizations who are on the frontlines advocating and planning for healthier communities. Organizations like the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) are proactively developing solutions for the challenges posed by industrial facilities. These solutions are community-driven, rooted in justice, and have massive transformative potential.

In 2016, WLCAC launched the Better Watts Initiative (BWI) to advance a vision of an environmentally clean, informed, and empowered Watts. In the last year, they have engaged in a campaign to shut down Atlas, alongside the Coalition for Healthy Families and the LA Unified School District. In the long term, they envision the transformation of all contaminated and polluting sites in Watts into healthy, sustainable, and community-serving spaces.

I am honored to be able to partner with WLCAC in the UCLA Health Equity Challenge, to conceptualize and potentially advance one piece of the solution. Our proposed project — the Watts Community Scientist Pilot Training Project — will aim to collect local community knowledge and build the research capacity of community residents to advance policy solutions and interventions that directly address the challenge of industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Our novel prescription for change is rooted in the power of local knowledge, innovative participatory approaches to research, and the tenacious capacity of residents to shape their environment.

In closing, I would like to express my deep gratitude to my mentor, Thelmy Alvarez, who has provided invaluable insights into the lived experiences of Watts residents, and steadfast guidance on how to craft effective strategies that tackle health inequities like this one. My gratitude also extends to the Health Equity Challenge team who have given me, and my fellow participants, the opportunity, skills, and resources to turn our ideas for community-based solutions from seeds in our heads, to actual full-fledged projects.

    Monika Shankar


    By
    Monika Shankar
    2024 Health Equity Challenge Finalist
    Monika Shankar is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Environmental Health Science at UCLA. Her graduate and professional work is situated at the intersection of environmental health and justice, and urban planning, with a particular emphasis on advancing research and developing policy strategies to address the presence and impacts of industrial sources of pollution in vulnerable communities.

    continue reading

    Related Posts

    • Published On: May 16, 2024

      Coming from a low-income community of color, I personally witnessed how generations of systemic racism and economic corruption have led to a powerful mistrust in the health care system.

    • Published On: May 6, 2024

      Postpartum depression (PPD) is a silent struggle for many new mothers, but for South Asian women, cultural stigmas and generational pressures often exacerbate this already challenging condition. As a woman of color and a first-generation college graduate, I have walked a path shaped by the nuances of both my cultural heritage and my academic pursuits.

    • Published On: May 6, 2024

      The scent of antiseptic and tapioca pudding wafted through the air. Placing the empty food tray on my borrowed cot, I glanced around my grandparents' shared room. Clunky metal beds, a suitcase full of clothes, and a bulletin board on the wall filled with doctor notes and medication lists.