Where are you from and why there?
I grew up in the Midwest and spent the majority of my childhood living on a tree-lined street in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Grosse Pointe was physically separated from Detroit by brick walls and major streets. Less than a mile from the manicured baseball fields and boat docks in my neighborhood stood Detroit’s abandoned buildings, low-performing schools, and hospitals grappling with the HIV/AIDS crisis. The significance of the stark divide between cities was underscored when I learned how U.S. governments deliberately and openly imposed racial segregation to create whites-only suburbs. The legacy of these discriminatory policies could be seen in my nearly all white elementary school and the difference in home values, employment, and crime. In one of his final speeches, delivered at the high school I would attend, Dr. King described these “two Americas“: “In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” Knowledge of injustice and inequality became my motivation: If opportunity and freedom is only reserved for a select few, then we cannot call society just.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
Health justice for every member of society. Health, equity and justice are the keystone of a thriving society. Yet, they go unsatisfied when they do not apply equally to all members of society. In the United States, where over 40 million people and 1 in 5 children live in poverty, socioeconomic status largely determines health and longevity. This is especially true in low-income communities of color where the effects of racially restrictive covenants, discriminatory zoning practices and inequitable funding models are apparent today. Today, the black population has the highest rate of poverty at 21.2 percent (compared to the white population at 9.1 percent) and is exposed to social determinants of poor health at a higher rate.
For example, the risk of lead poisoning – and the permanent brain damage it causes – falls disproportionately on minority children, with black children nearly three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood-lead levels. Lead poisoning is a form of environmental racism, housing injustice, and health inequity. As one study found, it is “a pathway through which racial inequality literally gets into the body.” If our goal is health equity, our benchmark must be the elimination of lead poisoning. If our goal is social justice, our strategy must include eliminating the racial, economic, and social disparities that threaten the health of low-income communities of color.
How did you get involved in the issue(s)?
From serving as a Peace Corps volunteer to representing homeless children in Washington, DC, to supporting the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, to founding an award winning medical-legal partnership, my career is dedicated to the achievement of social justice and health equity. It was the day I met four-year-old Emaurie that I resolved to advocate for the elimination of lead poisoning. When Emaurie and her 8 brothers and sisters were exposed to lead hazards in federally assisted housing, her mom repeatedly asked the Chicago Housing Authority for assistance. Each time, the housing authority informed Ms. Walker that her children’s lead poisoning was not an emergency. Ms. Walker said, “They treated me like I was nothing, like my children didn’t matter.” Another mother, Ms. McMullen, had no choice but to become homeless to protect her son, Makheil, from being lead poisoned a third time in the Housing Choice Voucher program. He had already developed autism and severe developmental delay. Ms. McMullen asked, “What about the other children? When are we going to step up so we don’t lose another generation of kids to this horrible poison?”
We successfully defended the family’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and secured a reasonable accommodation in the form of an immediate move to a lead-free home, pre-rental lead hazard risk assessment, and remediation. These cases were especially significant because they surfaced the need for urgent nationwide policy change – change that my Columbia Law School Health Justice Advocacy Clinic is actively pursuing in collaboration with national and local nonprofits. Despite everything we know, the vast majority of state and federal laws today do not require any meaningful lead hazard inspection until after children develop blood lead levels one to four times the CDC reference value. This means the burden of identifying lead hazards falls on children’s developing bodies. As a result, millions of children’s lives have been altered for the worse and millions more will follow unless and until – as Ms. McMullen said – we step up. Together, as a united force, we must proclaim: a child is not a number to be tallied in a budget or measured in micrograms per deciliter, but rather a life to be valued, safeguarded, and honored.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
There is a lack of demonstrated commitment on the part of the current administration to eliminate lead poisoning and protect children from entirely preventable neurological harm. The President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children recently released a federal plan in response to lead poisoning. Instead of setting the goal of eliminating lead poisoning (like past Task Forces), the current Task Force seeks to reduce it. Instead of embracing well-studied best practices, prevailing science, and the advice of advocates, affected community members and experts, the Task Force seeks to re-evaluate and consider a number of settled questions and directives. Secretary Carson, who has expressed a commitment to eliminating lead poisoning – especially in federally assisted housing, has the opportunity to take immediate, robust action and dedicate meaningful funding. As a first step, lead hazards in federally assisted housing must be identified and addressed before children are exposed. If passed, the bipartisan, bicameral Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act will protect all children in federally assisted housing from lead poisoning by requiring this primary prevention measure.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
Scientists and medical providers are critically important in the fight to end poverty, secure social and environmental justice, and health equity. Dr. Bruce Lanphear, Howard Mielke, David Rosner, and the late Paul Mushak offered unparalleled support, time, and research in the successful effort to compel HUD to lower its “lead poisoning” definition to match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reference value. At the time, HUD’s definition of lead poisoning was four times the CDC standard. I admire and rely on doctors and medical providers, like Sara Naureckas, Martha Glynn, Lee Francis, David Buchanan and Mona Hannah Attisha, who were the first to stand when their patients suffered injustice and represent the very best of the medical profession. At the same time, any success in lead poisoning prevention advocacy would not be possible without the fearless and committed parents and affected community members, support of law students at Columbia and Yale Law Schools who believe change is possible, pro bono attorneys at Akin Gump, and the expertise of advocates at Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law and Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, among others.
Ultimately, we must recognize the interconnected nature of social problems and identify opportunities to break down silos and partner with every profession and community member that can contribute to eliminating health inequity and social injustice. East Chicago, Indiana, demonstrates the discriminatory roots of social problems and the urgent demand to break out of silos. Despite evidence of the dangers of lead and arsenic poisoning, the West Calumet Public Housing Complex was deliberately built and maintained on and next to multiple lead smelter sites. Over the past fifty years, thousands of predominately minority families resided in the complex and suffered severe lead and arsenic poisoning. Today, 70% of Superfund sites across the country are still within a mile of federally assisted housing. This issue involves environmental, civil rights, housing, special education, health, and poverty law. At the same time, it requires grassroots organizers, public health epidemiologists, medical and scientific experts, and design strategists. A singular approach to the issue would not remedy the issue nor protect the residents. To ensure justice, we engaged multiple scientists and public health practitioners, and partnered with Northwestern University School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic, University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, Goldberg Kohn, LLC, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and the National Health Law Project.
What drives you?
Every human being has an inalienable right to health, freedom, and equality. Social justice, health inequity, and poverty are inextricably linked and failure to respond to them and the deleterious health outcomes impacts all of us. In the same way everyone is affected by socioeconomic disparity through spillover effects, interventions to achieve health justice benefit everyone.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
The same principles for which I stand: honor for our common humanity, commitment to freedom for all people, investment in future generations through the provision of opportunity, and, ultimately, the attainment of health justice.