A week before the U.S. Army Corps denied an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota, Micaela Edelson ’17 used the issue as an example of why she wants to enter a career in environmental justice. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued that the oil pipeline would dishonor its spiritual land and contaminate its water source, and after months of protests, the pipeline will now be rerouted.
“Political capacity is important—without people advocating on behalf of an issue, it simply isn’t heard,” Edelson said. The Dakota Access oil pipeline is, on the other hand, an example of how a group of people who are passionate about an issue—and speak up—can change the course of events.
Edelson plans to devote her career to advocating for environmental justice for those who cannot or may not have the capacity to speak up. As an environmental studies and public policy double major, with minors in political science and peace and justice studies, she has spent her time at Gettysburg learning more about environmental issues, getting involved in the Eisenhower Institute, and completing internships that have allowed her to pursue policy research. In her junior year, she was awarded a prestigious $50,000 Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship from The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct research on the potential risks faced by agricultural migrant workers exposed to pesticides—a project she is completing this year as her senior honors thesis project.
“I’ve been interested in social justice and environmental studies for a while,” said Edelson, “so [environmental justice] is a connection that just makes sense.”
According to Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, the risk of pesticide exposure can be at levels that are hundreds of times greater for farmworkers than consumers, yet sometimes adequate protection isn’t provided. Edelson said it’s difficult to measure exposure level directly, so she’s focusing on how a sample size of workers in Pennsylvania’s Adams County perceives the impact of pesticides on health.
“Ideally, I want to compare their perception of risk, and actual risk,” said Edelson.
By the end of the project, Edelson will summarize her findings and provide recommendations to policy-makers about how to enforce safer work environments. With guidance from her internship supervisor and honors thesis supervisor, environmental studies Prof. Salma Monani, and based off of previous perception studies, Edelson designed a survey. In September and October, she spent four hours every day, three to four times a week, interviewing migrant farm workers, using a connection she made through the Center for Public Service (CPS) with the Lincoln Intermediate Unit No. 12 Migrant Education Programs. So far, the responses do not indicate that the workers feel unsafe. Edelson plans to interview farm owners in January.
“Micaela is a very motivated student. I’m so impressed by the way she took initiative to apply for the EPA-GRO grant,” said Monani. "Her research is important as it provides the first such study on pesticide risk for migrant farmworkers in Adams County. We hope to be able to publish her research findings in a peer reviewed journal and share it with the local community.”
As another component of the fellowship, Edelson, who is originally from Oregon, completed a summer internship in Seattle, Washington, at the EPA. There, she was responsible for identifying communities where environmental health risks were disproportionately impacting low-income and minority communities. She provided recommendations to the EPA for local community and environmental organizations they could reach out to, about potential grant opportunities.
Why environmental justice?
Edelson first became interested in environmental justice after taking an environmental humanities course as a sophomore. She learned about a chemical company that had buried waste under an elementary school and was making children sick. The town advocated to rectify the situation; other case studies involving minority communities were not as effective in their advocacy. Edelson was struck by the disparity.
“Policy making should actively seek out marginalized voices,” said Edelson. “If someone is working two or three jobs, they can’t step out of their job to attend a public meeting. Or have time to protest. Your health is the one thing that you have, but you may not have control over it if you were born into a certain social status.”
Complementing her interest in environmental justice, Edelson has also used her Gettysburg connections to get involved in advocacy in other areas—a recurring theme is food.
“My sophomore year, I led a CPS immersion project to Philadelphia that focused on urban food justice and Judaism. While we were there we were introduced to an organization called Challah for Hunger, which addresses food access issues by selling Challah.” Edelson, who is the current president of Hillel, brought the idea back to campus. She helped establish a partnership with South Central Community Action Programs (SCCAP), which has a program for teaching adults employable skills. Students make the dough; clients at SCCAP bake the bread.
“In the first three semesters, the program raised $3,900,” said Edelson. “We donate the proceeds to Campus Kitchen, and the other half to an international organization that addresses food insecurity for people of all faiths.”
After graduation from Gettysburg, Edelson envisions working at a nonprofit related to advocacy work or environmental justice, using her broad experiences to make connections.
“Each experience provides its own set of knowledge,” said Edelson. “I appreciate the diversity of knowledge and experiences—I think that will help me have a more comprehensive outlook on everything.”