March 27, 2017

ENVS Blog: From Environmental Education to Public Health

Aly Robinson (’11) writes about her work in environmental education and public health after graduating from Lewis & Clark College’s Environmental Studies Program.

Aly Robinson (’11)

Lewis & Clark has shaped many aspects of my life. I went into freshman year knowing I wanted to pursue an education in Environmental Studies, but I was uncertain about a focus. ENVS’s core classes, including Situating Environmental Problems and Solutions and Environmental Analysis illustrated the impact of environmental issues and in a broader sense, environmental justice. I was drawn to the social sciences and ultimately wrote my thesis on multicultural environmental education in Portland public schools. My interest in education and environmental justice has evolved into my present decision to pursue a career within the social determinants of health and health disparities.

I am using my ENVS degree on a daily basis. I work as a Conservation Education Specialist at a nonprofit in Bellingham, WA. I educate low income residents of Whatcom, San Juan, and Island counties on reducing their energy consumption and reducing in-home asthma triggers. I am a certified Building Analyst through the Building Performance Institute, Healthy Homes Specialist through NEHA, and Community Health Worker. The organization I work for facilitates the Washington State Weatherization Program in these areas. Through this program we weatherize homes, add insulation, ventilation and do air sealing work around the home. These improvements impact health and well being for residents in many ways. My ENVS education facilitated this interest in social services and community education and health. The interdisciplinary approach allowed the flexibility to study my interests and think critically about environmental problems, solutions, and policies.

Last year, Washington state legislature passed a bill funding the Weatherization Plus Health program. This program is designed to address in-home asthma triggers for low income residents. We provide education, tools (green cleaning kits, HEPA filtered vacuums, etc) to clients and provide much needed deferred maintenance and repairs. I see these policies making crucial impacts on the lives of low income families daily and understand the necessity of smart public policy addressing public health concerns at their root cause. Another program I work with is a collaboration between the Northwest Clean Air Agency and the organization I work for, the Opportunity Council. The Northwest Clean Air Agency is the enforcement agency in Western Washington for the Clean Air Act and works to reduce particulate matter in this region, which is plagued with poor air quality due primarily to residential wood heating. Since residents cannot afford split, seasoned wood, many heat with wet wood or other materials such as garbage. My work with the NWCAA began by working to improve ambient air quality through conducting education related to proper burning techniques. The program allows low income residents to change out their old, uncertified wood stoves with new more efficient burning stoves or a ductless heat pump. Over time, and with continued interaction with residents, I began to see how ambient environmental issues impact the health of the community, increasing the amount of respiratory illness and asthma symptoms for many residents. Since 2012 we have changed out 109 wood stoves and significantly reduced the amount of poor airy quality days measured in this region in Washington.

My next step is a master’s in Public Health with a focus on environmental health and the impact of health disparities. I am looking forward to being able to shape these policies and use the GIS, SPSS, and other skills gained through the ENVS program to create innovative public health solutions. The ENVS program has helped me navigate my interests and created a foundation of education and resources for me to build upon.