Giving Communities “Big Megaphones”: Robin Saha, 2016 Ehrlich Award Winner

September 19, 2016

This year, Campus Compact recognizes Robin Saha, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, as the 2016 Thomas Ehrlich Civically Engaged Faculty Award Recipient.

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Saha’s engaged scholarship sits at the intersection of environmental justice, health and policy, emphasizing advocacy for marginalized communities. His nationally recognized work shed light on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and has been cited in Fortune Magazine, the Boston Globe, and the Huffington Post.

Using Geographic Information Systems, Saha has worked to establish quantitative methods for assessing racial and socioeconomic disparities in locations with environmental hazards. Dr. Saha, in partnership with Robert Bullard and other nationally recognized leaders in the field of environmental justice, published a 20 year update of the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which catapulted issues of environmental justice to the forefront of national conversation on systems of inequality. Their findings revealed the nation’s hazardous waste facilities continue to be concentrated disproportionately in minority and low-income communities, and highlighted the need for continued attention to the problem.

Dr. Saha’s scholarship is grounded in partnerships with communities that inform his teaching, research, and activism. Saha consistently engages his students in real-world environmental problems and connects them with affected communities. He has been a consistent advocate for the importance of community-engaged scholarship within the University of Montana System by creating opportunities for both faculty and students to promote community engagement through his role as a founding member of UM’s Service Learning Advisory Board and through his contributions to the creation of a Climate Change Studies minor known for its engaged curriculum.

I believe that community engagement is vital to social justice, which is a core value of my work, because one cannot be of true service to those whose basic needs are not met without engaging and collaborating with affected communities. To approach social justice any other way is to risk being paternalistic. I have never given up–and never will–on the promise of a fair and just society where all people can thrive, not just survive, and I have dedicated myself to helping to achieve environmental and social justice for all.

Dr. Saha’s career has included work with a wide variety of communities ranging from rural tribal communities in Montana to urban settings in Michigan. When asked to describe a particularly impactful moment in his career, he talked about sharing the stage with grassroots leaders of a small, former smelting town called Opportunity, Montana. Opportunity is a community lying entirely within a Superfund site, classified by the Department of Health and Human Services as “any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified as a candidate for cleanup by the EPA because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.” Opportunity faces arsenic contaminated soils and groundwater, and is located next to a major waste repository for Superfund cleanups around the state of Montana. The community of Opportunity was concerned about the safety of their well water, dust blowing in from the repository, and contaminated soils in their own back and front yards.

We were able to share the stories of the people of Opportunity at the National Summit of Mining Communities. Our panel was titled, “Give Opportunity a Chance: A Superfund Community’s Struggle for Justice, Health, & Safety”, and my students were in the audience as part of a class field trip. It was gratifying to see and hear community members, who often aren’t comfortable speaking in public, tell their inspiring stories of struggle and triumph in the face of injustice on a national stage. There’s no substitute for hearing their stories in their own voices–the unmistakable power and authenticity of direct experience. I tell my students that it’s important to find ways to give members of disproportionately impacted communities big megaphones—it was so great to see them use it so well!

As a result of Saha and his students’ efforts organizing and partnering with the community, significant environmental management improvements were made to address the community’s health, safety and quality of life concerns.

For more on Dr. Robin Saha, see his page on the University of Montana’s website, and learn more about the Thomas Ehrlich Civically Engaged Faculty Award here.


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