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Sylvia Lei: Loyola’s Choudhury Sarkar-Dey Medal

Sylvia LeeThe past four years at Loyola have reshaped my goals for the future: initially I was pre-dental, now I am exploring environmental health careers. I have always been passionate about environmental activism. During my courses and clubs, I learned about the intersection between social justice and the environment. My interest has now evolved toward environmental justice (EJ) advocacy. My most influential class was Human Health and the Environment which explored humans’ interactions with and effects on the environment and how the environment affects our health. There was an emphasis on EJ because the consequences of climate change disproportionately affect vulnerable communities—most often communities of color and those impoverished. In my Environmental Philosophy and Christian Environmental Ethics courses we also consistently discussed EJ. Each of these courses provided different perspectives on EJ and have contributed toward the growing passion for this field.

While meeting with an advisor, I was asked to connect my environmental work and future goals. When applying for the Jennings Family International Summer Research Scholarship I picked my top three programs, two environmentally focused and one in public health, and wrote an essay explaining how each would be beneficial. I realized the theme between these and my vocation is using science to help people, especially vulnerable communities.

I was awarded the scholarship and participated in a School of International Training program based in Bilbao Spain studying sustainable urban development and social justice. For six weeks I took classes that taught me about the aspects of creating sustainable cities equitably. Bilbao was the ideal city to study in because of its historic transformation from an industrial hub into an emerging city and model of sustainable development. Discovering the field of sustainable urban development was the first time I began to see a different career for myself besides a dentist because it addresses my interests in healthcare with the environment and social justice.

My studies culminated with writing and presenting research on a topic related to sustainable urban development and Spain. I investigated the way effective public transportation cultivates health equity within urban settings, using Bilbao as a case study. I narrowed further by looking at the environmental benefits and the increased accessibility throughout cities and how both can improve physical and mental health.

One of the biggest insights from this research, in regards to cultivating equity and inclusion, was the concept of specific programs versus structural solutions within a city . While programs are beneficial, they are exclusive and only benefit those in need until they succeed enough to no longer qualify for the service. Passing the threshold does not guarantee stability. Programs often do not address the root problem, and people struggle to gain enough stability to improve their situation. Structural solutions like public transportation can cultivate equity because they are not limited to a specific group or issue. Instead they identify and address a structure in society that is causing discrimination. Structural solutions are much more inclusive and often can address multiple problems.

This research highlighted that equity is not about singling out those who are suffering the most but rather creating sustainable solutions that benefit everyone including the most vulnerable groups. When everyone uses public transportation, it improves the environmental issues related to transportation, which disproportionately affect communities of color and impoverished communities. It can also increase and ease the access to the city which includes healthcare, food, exercise, leisure activities, and jobs. By minimizing the prerequisites to use transportation, cities increase inclusivity and create mentally and physically healthier communities.

Currently I am interning with Baltimore Compost Collective (BCC) researching and collecting data relating their work with environmental health. I have been collecting statistics and information about pollution generated by Maryland waste facilities and relating it to health outcomes among each neighborhood. I recently have been familiarizing myself with EJ Screens—an EPA mapping program comparing socio-economic factors with environmental information. In addition to continuing research, I am organizing this information into educational material to share at schools, with community members, and to be used by the director of the organization when advocating, presenting at conferences, and requesting resources. BCC is partnered with Filbert Street Community Garden (FSCG), located in Curtis Bay.

I lead Loyola’s Environmental Action Club (EAC). Our mission is to develop advocacy skills and act toward EJ both on campus and in Baltimore. I participated my first two years and as a junior and senior have been president of the club. We work to achieve our mission through a variety of activities. I organize and host bi-weekly meetings focused on education and discussion relating issues to EJ such as food sovereignty, water quality, and waste management. We also volunteer in the community with organizations like Healthy Harbor cleaning oysters to improve the Chesapeake Bay health, and this coming spring will volunteer with BCC to process compost for the FSCG’s upcoming spring season.

During the election season we wrote over 200 letters to citizens in swing states encouraging people to vote, and currently we are partnered with CCSJ to advocate for current clean energy legislation. One of my favorite events I have planned while in leadership was in partnership with Addressing the System called “Baltimore Bucket list” which included 10 activities, some on campus and off, that engaged students with our community through the lens of environmental and racial justice. Through EAC we have raised awareness and participated in action toward EJ on a variety of scales.

One of my favorite hobbies is running; for the past two years I have joined Loyola students as runner volunteers with Back on My Feet (BOMF), a national organization with teams located across 12 cities. The goal is to support people experiencing housing insecurity get “back on their feet” via housing and employment resources but also by developing a healthy lifestyle. Our volunteer role is to cultivate community and support the members through their recovery and development. Since starting junior year, I have coordinated transportation from school to the 5:30am runs and recruited new students to volunteer. Every Wednesday I join the circle of members and other community volunteers of the Penn North BOMF team to run or walk between one and four miles. Members come from the Penn North Recovery Center. Regardless of one’s ability or identity, this program meets each person where they are and welcomes everyone to the circle to build strength, confidence, connections and to support one another.

Each of these opportunities have influenced my career plans; although I do not yet know what I will be doing post-graduation, I plan to pursue a career to promote environmental health. I applied for the Peace Corps where I will be in Paraguay as an agriculture science promoter working with students and their families to develop small-scale, sustainable farming practices within their rural communities. While at times overwhelming due to the intersectional nature of EJ, the involvement to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion through environmental health advocacy has been rewarding. I enjoy the opportunity to engage with people with a wide range of backgrounds and build incredible relationships. I am excited to explore careers in environmental health as I transition next year.