Michelle Mabson, MPH, MSc is a health scientist and social justice activist based in Washington, D.C. A dedicated and mission-driven leader, she joined the Earthjustice healthy communities team shortly after leaving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where she saw firsthand how the Trump administration threatened essential health protections for communities, especially low-income and communities of color. As a Staff Scientist at Earthjustice, Michelle gets to hold polluters and the government accountable and works to ensure that communities are protected from pollution and toxic chemicals.
As an activist, Michelle serves as the co-founder and chief advocacy officer for Black Millennials 4 Flint, the nation’s first and only grassroots nonprofit environmental justice and civil rights organization fighting to eradicate harm from lead exposure across the country. Founded in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, BM4F works to empower people to take action and advocate against the lead crisis plaguing many Black and Brown communities.
We Empower Magazine got an exclusive interview with Michelle.
Tammy Reese: What intrigued you to get involved with environmental justice?
Michelle Mabson: As a freshman at Howard University, I began to discern how disparities between race and socioeconomic status affect one’s access to resources. During a service trip to New Orleans, three years post-Hurricane Katrina, I worked alongside Black residents in the Ninth Ward who felt they had been left without adequate economic and social capital to fully recover and were experiencing lasting health issues and trauma.
I had friends who lost their homes and never moved back, friends who lost family and who dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina years later. During the trip, we stayed in what used to be an orphanage near the Art District, which is a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood in an elevated area of the city.
But our work in the Lower 9th Ward was where we saw the devastation left by the hurricane and you would have thought the water had only receded days ago – not years ago.
So it was a very visceral feeling to see that it was mostly Black residents who were still living in harmful conditions – being sickened by living in homes that weren’t environmentally safe due to mold & other toxicants.
The following year, I learned even more about climate change and the devastating nexus between health and our environment. From that year on, I became committed to learning more about the natural environment and to understand how health disparities in low-income & communities of color can be exacerbated by poor environmental conditions.
Tammy Reese: What were some memorable moments that stick with you from Howard University?
Michelle Mabson: There are so many! I was a member of the SHOWTIME Marching Band and had the opportunity to travel to universities across the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference, I was an active and elected member of Howard’s student government, and I conducted dozens of tours as a student ambassador.
Something that sticks out to me from my experience as an ambassador is a question I often received from parents. They’d want to know why they should send their child to Howard when the rest of the world looks so different & they’d ask: how can Howard possibly prepare their child for the “real world”?
I know the question was asked in earnest and my answer was generated by my own experiences and observations. I grew up in a small suburban-rural town in New Jersey where the majority of students and teachers at my schools were white. I found it to be refreshing to attend a university where I got to see the beauty and diversity among people who looked like me.
Howard has students from over 80 countries and all 50 states and when compared to traditional PWIs, Howard is technically one of the most diverse universities in the country, with students of different ethnicities & races, and nationalities represented.
For me, Howard was the first place where I could truly be myself. I was not tokenized & if I stood out it was because of my merit, my commitment to excellence, and my ambition – not because of the color of my skin.
I firmly believe we all deserve a space to breathe and to exist without the pressures of a highly racialized society. I credit my time at Howard for helping me to grow and to become aware of my own privilege; helping me to recognize the importance of giving back and serving my community with my time, gifts, and resources.
Tammy Reese: What are some impactful highlights in your career so far?
Michelle Mabson: I’ve had some incredibly impactful opportunities throughout my career. I’ve traveled to Mexico, India, Japan, and Italy to conduct and present my research on topics concerning climate, environmental health, and justice.
My organization, Black Millennial’s 4 Flint was featured on the BET docu-series, Finding Justice, where we had the opportunity to shed light on the issue of lead-based paint in Baltimore (alongside Michael K. Williams) and discussed the relationship between childhood lead poisoning and the tragic and untimely deaths of both Freddie Gray and Korryn Gaines.
I’ve worked with Jaden Smith and his non-profit 501C3 to help to bring a portable and sustainable clean water solution to Flint, MI called the Water Box and I even got to meet Jada Smith in the process.
But what’s been most impactful for me are the policies I’ve been able to help shape at the local & federal level specific to environmental justice and ensuring our environment is free from lead.
This work allows me to work directly with activists, academics and policymakers to advocate for stronger protections for people living in communities overburdened by pollution.
Tammy Reese: What should our readers be informed about in regards to children’s environmental health?
Michelle Mabson: Our most vulnerable populations are our infants and children. Children are not simply “little adults”. They breathe, eat, and drink more relative to their body weight compared to adults, which both increases their exposure to toxic chemicals and amplifies the harmful effects from exposure to those same toxic chemicals.
Heavy metals like lead & air pollution can cause irreversible harm to children – including adverse impacts to a child’s neurodevelopmental health and even asthma, which impacts a person’s quality of life.
We have to remember that health protections must start in the womb and that we are impacted by more than just the exposures we face as children. We have to consider impacts on infants and pregnant women as well.
The developing fetus is especially susceptible to assault from environmental pollutants and just as pregnant women are advised against smoking and drinking alcohol due to the harm it can cause to an unborn child, we need to be just as vigilant in our messaging regarding toxic pollutants and the detrimental impacts they can have during such a sensitive window of development.
Tammy Reese: What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
Michelle Mabson: This is a great question. There are many aspects of my work that I enjoy, but what I enjoy most is getting to work with young people. I think this generation is fearless and that’s because they realize how pressing these issues – like climate change – are for them.
By the time some of them are old enough, the devastating effects of climate change will already be at our backdoor and they had nothing to do with causing it. They’re inheriting these issues and many of them – like Mari Copney (Little Miss Flint) are ready to solve them.
Young people are far more sensitive to the importance of inclusion and intersectionality and I’ve learned from the younger leaders in the movement. I’m also motivated by the fact that now, more than ever, justice and equity are both front and center in political conversations.
Tammy Reese: For those who do not take climate change as a serious issue, what would you say to them?
Michelle Mabson: Climate change is going to impact every way of life – our transportation and travel, our food systems, the cost of goods and services, and of course, our access to clean air and clean drinking water.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of impacts and I don’t think we have a choice but to address these issues head-on. The environment is everything around us and we need it to be conducive for us to not only live and survive – but to thrive.
The reality is that our world is changing – from longer and more fierce wildfires out West to the strong, devastating, and increasing frequency of hurricanes pummeling our coastlines; we are experiencing the effects of climate change right now.
Research and history tell us that the vast majority of violent conflict is occurring in regions of the world where natural resources – resources like drinkable water (which is being impacted by droughts), food scarcity, flooding, sea-level rise, etc. – are harder to come by and not equitably distributed. These issues are and will be exacerbated by climate change and there will be no portion of the world that will be left untouched by these conflicts.
We are literally on a countdown to avoid the worst of the worst climatic impacts and we don’t have time to waste. A quote I often say – if you’re not at the table then you’re on the menu – rings true when we talk about climate change.
There are communities – especially wealthier and whiter communities, that are already adapting and putting plans in place to avoid these disasters and there are communities that are currently ill-prepared for when the next storm hits; we can look at the recent winter storm in Texas and the failure of our energy grid as a telling example of what our future may look like if we don’t take climate change more seriously.
We all must play a role in ensuring that those who are bearing disproportionate impacts from climate change – often Black and Brown communities – are at the table offering solutions and receiving resources needed to adapt to a changing climate.
Keep up-to-date with the climate and environment conversation by visiting www.blackmillennials4flint.org and https://earthjustice.org
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Multimedia Creative and Personality Tammy Reese is an award-winning Writer and Journalist. Writing and Directing short films on social issues to spread awareness through the arts gained Tammy the Makers: Women Who Make America Award honor on International Women's Day 2019. Tammy currently serves on the Communications Committee for New York Women In Film and Television. She is also the Founder and Owner of Visionary Minds Public Relations and Media.