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Creating Healthy Environments for All to Live, Learn, and Work

At first glance, LaSalle Park in South Bend, Indiana seems like any other winter park, with children laughing and playing in the snow. However, beneath the surface lies a disturbing reality. The park, located in a historically black neighborhood known as The Lake, is built on top of a pile of concrete rubble containing hazardous substances such as heavy metals, solvents, and cyanide waste (Smith, 2022). Despite reassurances from the EPA that the toxins are not at dangerous levels, the history of environmental racism in this community leaves residents with doubts about the safety of their yards and the long-term effects on their families. A recent project aims to cover several acres of the park with clean soil, but residents continue to voice their concerns to authorities (Smith, 2022). The scars of historical neglect linger, reminding us of the ongoing consequences of environmental injustice.

Where is environmental injustice?

The environmental injustice depicted in this local news story is unfortunately not unique. The EPA defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies" (United States Environmental Protection Agency). Across the United States, predominantly black neighborhoods and cities are disproportionately affected by environmental injustice. For instance, in Mississippi, an 85-mile stretch known as "Cancer Alley" is home to numerous oil refineries and petrochemical plants, posing a significant health risk to residents. In Florida, black communities are impacted by the smoke from burning sugar cane fields, which can trigger respiratory illnesses. These examples demonstrate the various forms of environmental injustice that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.
Furthermore, environmental injustice is not just limited to contamination of soil, air, and water that harms physical health. It also includes the deprivation of nature, which can have negative impacts on mental health. In order to address and rectify these issues, restorative justice practices can be utilized to heal and repair affected communities. It is important that these pressing issues receive more attention and action.
Initially, these local injustices were shocking to me because they were so different from my experiences working to protect the environment in Indiana. In the summer of 2022, I worked for the Lake Maxinkuckee Environmental Fund (LMEF), a small organization in Northern Indiana. While taking E. coli samples of a stream flowing into the lake, the LMEF discovered that the levels were too high. LMEF quickly took additional water samples, applied for funds, and contacted other officials. We had the resources to inform and protect the community, and action was taken swiftly. However, the situation in South Bend, Indiana is very different. In contrast to the mostly white, upper-class community near Lake Maxinkuckee, low-income communities in South Bend have been exposed to dangerous chemicals for decades with little action taken to address the issue. Davis Jr., a community council member who grew up in the area, talks about how "word of nearby families developing cancer or other illnesses has unnerved people" and how the contamination has "really destroyed the quality of life for many, many families generationally" (Smith 2022). It is troubling to think about how this suffering has gone on for so long without being addressed.

Why does environmental injustice persist?

Environmental injustice causes daily suffering for affected communities, but it persists because those in power do not fully understand the suffering of others. In her book The Trouble With Reality, Brooke Gladstone discusses the ways in which people's realities differ and the limitations of our perceptions (2017). Like everyone else, I cannot fully know what another person's life is like, but I can try to understand. For example, when a friend in South Bend described her fear of her daughter getting lead poisoning, I listened to her concern and tried to imagine the stress and worry she must feel for her daughter's safety. Reflecting on my own experiences, I have never had to worry about polluted air, contaminated water, or being afraid to go to a neighborhood park. These stressful factors may be part of daily life for some people, yet we often do not scrutinize others' adversity enough. Gladstone suggests that we "construct cozier, more comprehensible versions [of other realities] and move in and hunker down" (2017). Stepping out of this cozy worldview and showing compassion and taking action can help bridge the gap between different realities. However, it is not always that simple. For example, even if those in power historically understood the presence of toxins in certain communities, they may have thought that "technological development was synonymous with progress" (Gladstone, 2017). While new thoughts are important, it is also crucial to take action and interact with people in order to lessen this gap.
One way that I have sought to expand my field of vision is by volunteering at Unity Gardens, a collection free pick community garden in low income communities in South Bend. Unity Gardens improves the community’s health by providing access to free food, education, social capital, and other opportunities for the disadvantaged (Unity Gardens, 2022). During my time volunteering, I remember one day picking potato bugs off the potato plants (a very strange but needed task). A woman and her young daughter came up to me asking for directions to the fruit trees. There was a slight language barrier, but I directed her to the fruits. Later, I saw how excited her daughter was to be eating juicy fruit while watching the chickens in the garden. My experiences here with nature as well as my other engagements made me wonder about how important experiences with nature are to mental health and overall well being. There turns out to be a huge correlation between nature and wellbeing. So, I also wondered if all people had equal access to these resources of wellbeing.

What does it mean when people are deprived of nature?

My research led me to environmental injustices and how they deprive people of nature which also deprives them of the mental health benefits of nature. As I mentioned, research of the benefits of nature is not surprising to me, since I have recently felt these benefits while doing amphibian research. During the amphibian breeding season, I spent many nights listening and training my ears to pick out the sounds of various species of amphibians in a tranquil forest. The calming experience seemed to replenish my sense of peace span in all areas of my life. The idea of nature benefiting mental health is not just from my feelings, but it is also backed by research.  Research on participants interacting with nature finds evidence to highlight some of these benefits (Bevc et al., 2007). In one study, two groups were either assigned a 50-minute nature walk or a walk in an urban environment. The results from a series of psychological assessments taken before and after the walks found that the experimental group in the natural environment had clear emotional benefits. Such benefits included a decrease in anxiety and improved cognitive function such as working memory (Bevc et al., 2007). These results build upon other research that interaction with nature improves people’s well-being.
Sadly, these benefits are not evenly distributed, as seen in a significant “Nature Gap” between the privileged and people of color, families with children, and low-income communities. The Center for American Process affirms the idea that “Nature is supposed to be a ‘great equalizer’ whose services are free, universal, and accessible to all humans without discrimination” and that “In reality, however, American Society distributes nature’s benefits—and the effects of its destruction and decline—unequally by race, income, and age” (Rowland-Shea et al., 2020). These differences in access are pronounced in American communities. For example, communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in nature-deprived places. Others who are marginalized in society see differences in access to nature too. Seventy percent of those in low-income communities live in nature-deprived neighborhoods (Rowland-Shea et al., 2020). Nature deprivation is more than just a lack of trees or nice scenery; instead, picture areas with the construction of roads, pipelines, mining, logging, drilling, and urban sprawl (Rowland-Shea et al., 2020). While these are societal resources, they burden underprivileged communities with consequences such as pollution or deforestation while privileged communities greatly benefit from these same resources.

Why is it hard for those underprivileged to seek out nature?

Several hurdles inhibit people in deprived neighborhoods from seeking the benefits of nature. Some immediate issues are those of time and money. Even though there might be parks or other sources of nature close by, people need a car or payment for transportation. When people venture outside their neighborhood, they reach other hurdle: discrimination and stereotyping. For example, a white woman in Central Park called the police on a black man named Christian Cooper, who was birdwatching (Rowland-Shea et al., 2020). Police arrested Cooper and threatened him with violence (Rowland-Shea et al., 2020). Lastly, administration has historically left out people of color from the U.S. conservation movement. The Center for American Progress finds that racial exclusion is “bolstered by the underrepresentation of people of color on the staff and leadership levels of conservation organizations, foundations, and natural resource agencies” ((Rowland-Shea et al., 2020).  Before going forward to find possible solutions, it is important to recognize that the U.S. can not perpetuate this underrepresentation, because of the tremendous impacts on human health and the well-being of disadvantaged communities.
Environmental justice matters because people have the basic right to live in a safe environment where they can thrive physically and mentally. One might debate that issues of environmental justice are at the bottom of the list of priorities, but we can not neglect the agency all people deserve in their daily lives. Education, donations, and charity are important, but we need to address environmental health hazards–both physical and mental–that disrupt the well-being of communities. People deserve to enjoy the best of what earth has to offer. Yet, action is not just about treating the negative health effects of the environment, it is also focusing on the “origins of health rather than the origins of disease” and making them accessible in all communities (Scott et al., 2021). There is “evidence mounting that an ongoing relationship with nature has significant salogenic [or positive] health effects on mental health” (Scott et al., 2021). Why not also bolter and teach positive sources of well-being in struggling communities than wait to give them charity after they have suffered?
South Bend has resources to aid the victims of communities with environmental injustices, but they may not be evident to those in need. The mind map I created visually organizes the different resources readily available to the public. An online version has links that take people to different websites and free resources. Some of the resources included are parks, gardens, and different environmental hazard testing in the South Bend area. Although some of these resources would normally cost money to access, I noted that the public library offers free passes to check out. Despite these public resources, I believe addressing the deeper environmental injustices in South Bend require a different approach.
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Figure 1. This mind map visually organizes information of the different resources to interact with nature in South Bend.
One such approach South Bend can use to heal its communities is through environmental restorative justice. People hurt over the neglect of their neighborhood and the lack of action from the City of South Bend. A Restorative Justice Collaborative Hub here in the community describes that restorative justice is “a relational approach to accountability” that “offers significant benefits, from trauma healing to just relations to stronger communities to personal and social transformation” (Restorative Justice Collaborative Hub, 2022). The process of restorative justice seeks to identify harm and repair the damage to all parties. Environmental restorative justice takes these same principles to apply them to the victims of environmental crime when criminal justice does offer little reconciliation. Restorative Justice further applies to environmental harms because “the offenders in these cases are often corporations who choose to ignore confrontation and reconciliation through the court system” (Christen-Schneider et al, 2019). Financial compensations can not fix the hurt and loss of trust in polluted communities, but previous examples show restorative justice helps to heal.

Is restorative justice a viable tool for environmental injustice?

One of these examples took place in southern France where farms used pesticides in their orchards. When the United States condemned a large producer of herbicides, Mayors in France had concerns about their local growers (Forsyth et al., 2021). They realized that they needed something more than laws to repair the damage herbicides have on farmers, neighbors, water, and food. At the same time, they could not just abolish the use of pesticides since farmers rely on them. One farmer’s testimonial reads “We cannot do without, we must defend a production, a harvest,” but nearby neighbors have reservations. One concerned neighbor said, “I live four meters from the orchards, the farmers treating the vines are wearing an astronaut suit” (Forsyth et al., 2021). These complaints along with increasing scientific data of the harm of pesticides for water caused the government to step in, look at the environmental impact and fix water quality. It did little to ease the social tension between farmers and other community members. A restorative justice facilitator came in to restore these broken social ties by inviting everyone to come together to express themselves in dialogue. Part of the restorative justice practice was a talking circle with the central question of “How can we contribute to improving the water quality on the territory”(Forsyth et al., 2021). The results of even this one talking circle session–under three hours—were staggering. All parties agreed on a shared action plan of 27 actions concerning 15 different themes (Forsyth et al., 2021). People left feeling empowered and heard on both sides. Can something like this example take place in South Bend?
Much like the community in France, residents of The Lake in South Bend have had some action, but they need something more from the offending parties. Neither Bendix Corp. (who put the toxic dump in the neighborhood) or the City of South Bend “admits any liability for the soil contamination that occurred at the site” (Smith, 2022). To promote restorative justice for all parties, low income and black communities, Bendix Corp. (whose predecessor is Honeywell International), and the city of South Bend would need to voluntarily listen to each other to seek healthing. It is clear victims want someone to take responsibility. Most of these parties were present at Charles Black Community Center in June 2022, but this event is only a step towards restorative justice because there are still many concerns that have yet to be addressed. One such resident expressed his frustration saying, “I didn’t see none of you guys raise your hands when I said ‘who is going to be responsible? Who is going to look into this?’... Why can’t somebody address the situation and do something now” (Murphy, 2022). A more effective restorative justice approach would add a few more elements to the conversation.
A productive environmental restorative justice practice that could be used is a talking circle with questions to frame the conversations (map guide included). I highlighted some aspects of environmental restorative justice in South Bend as well as some needs for growth. A facilitator of environmental restorative justice could form a conversation around a wide range of questions for healing of all parties (see Figure 2). My hope is that this visual display of local information sheds light on how all parties in South Bend can “better repair and correct harmful practices and prevent future environmental damage” (Forsyth 2021). I hope that conversation could take place in several different communities and we would see more projects like restorations of community parks or adding beautiful walkways.
I hope that those little children sledding on that hill in LaSalle park do not have to grow up worrying about chemical exposures or about lead in their water. I hope that receive all the gifts that nature brings to human wellbeing. Lastly, I hope to leave a question for the future. What would a world, nations, and communities look like, if we are to create healthy environments for all to live, learn, and work?
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Figure 2. This display of environmental restorative justice in South Bend calls for action to heal communities.

Works Cited
About Us. Unity Gardens Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from
Bevc, C. A., Marshall, B. K., & Picou, J. S. (2007). Environmental justice and toxic exposure:
toward a spatial model of physical health and psychological well-being. Social Science
Miranda Forsyth, Deborah Cleland, Felicity Tepper e.a. , 'A future agenda for environmental
restorative justice?', (2021) The International Journal of Restorative Justice 17-40.
Murphy, M. (n.d.). City discusses remediation work for LaSalle Park. https://www.wndu.com.
Retrieved December 1, 2022, from
Scott, Britain et, al. (2021). Psychology For Sustainability (5th ed.) Routledge.
Smith, J. (2022, April 4). Waste was dumped in a South Bend neighborhood. The soil-based lead
will finally be treated. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Environmental Justice Related Terms As
Defined Across the PSC . epa.gov. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from
Rowland-Shea, J. A., Doshi, S., & Edberg, S. (2020, July 21). The Nature Gap. Center for
American Progress. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-nature-gap/.