State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Christine Appah-Gyamfi Empowers Students to Lead on Environmental Justice Issues

Born and raised in New York City, Christine Appah-Gyamfi has always had an interest in the built and natural environment.

When her elementary school shut down for repairs due to asbestos, and then the same thing happened in her junior high school, Appah-Gyamfi started to question the toxins she and her classmates were being exposed to on a daily basis. As early as high school, she began to wonder, “How can we protect people from these issues? Are there systems and laws in place to do this?”

A woman in glasses smiling
Christine Appah-Gyamfi teaches a course on environmental justice at the Columbia Climate School. Photo: Christine Appah-Gyamfi

“You start to connect these questions with other things around you. You think about your friends with asthma. You start to see the linkages between air quality, urban air pollution, and health, and wonder if maybe there’s something that you can do to help,” Appah-Gyamfi said.

Her passion for the environment and public health only grew stronger as Appah-Gyamfi progressed in her education. She interned at the U.S. House of Representatives when she was in college, researching indoor air pollution in elementary schools, and also completed an internship at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a “transformative experience” where Appah-Gyamfi studied asthma in the urban environment. In addition, Christine studied abroad in Morocco and conducted research in Ghana on how developing nations designed policy initiatives to address urban environmental problems. Over 20 years later, she’s now an adjunct professor at the Columbia Climate School, and is using her background to explore some of the persistent questions on the social determinants of health.

In law school at Duke University, Appah-Gyamfi knew her goal was to work in the public interest. “All of my experiences, taken together, propelled me into this field and encouraged me. I knew that whatever I could contribute to the study and the fight for environmental justice would require me to be a strong attorney and researcher, and an effective community advocate.” And those skills brought Appah-Gyamfi to her first job with the Legal Aid Society of New York, where she learned more about advocacy, New York City systems, and the intersection between housing, homelessness, and environmental health. “These issues were amplified as I worked to secure affordable and safe housing for my clients, many of whom unfortunately had asthma or health effects that are often associated with indoor air quality. I started to see trends and understand that these were environmental issues, although I was serving as a housing attorney,” Appah-Gyamfi said.

When New York was hit with catastrophic storms, first Hurricane Irene and then Sandy, the city was forced to grapple with the risks that severe climate events pose, especially to those with limited means.

“My clients suffered from the effects of Hurricane Irene and many of them were still trying to recover from issues related to mold and other concerns that come with structural damage when Superstorm Sandy happened,” she said. This became a turning point for many advocates and a reminder that in addition to the legal systems already in place, resilience and disaster preparedness needed to be included in the conversation, and needed to be informed by considerations for environmental justice. “Our work is informed by the struggles of our clients and we have to be prepared to transform and get them the services and help they need. If the laws in place are not going to address certain issues, like the ones we saw with mold, then we have to strategize and figure out ways to do that.”

Appah-Gyamfi later served as a senior staff attorney in the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest where she worked extensively on advocacy campaigns for various environmental health issues, particularly those that affected children. Her background in advocating for healthy and affordable homes bolstered her drive to find innovative solutions to the problems she saw in her housing practice.

And Appah-Gyamfi did exactly that, when she joined a dedicated coalition of advocates who were focused on addressing the rates of asthma across the city. It took years of collaboration among a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a new approach to help alleviate this indoor environmental justice problem. They worked to help people who faced severe weather, mold, or other asthma triggers and needed a repair process that was efficient and effective, she said. They were eventually able to pass Local Law 55 of 2018, also known as the Asthma-Free Housing Act.

This semester at the Climate School, Appah-Gyamfi is translating her experience in environmental justice to teach students how to see themselves as part of the dynamic effort to ensure a healthy and resilient urban environment for all New Yorkers.

Can you tell us about the environmental justice class you designed and why you decided to teach at the Climate School?

I’ve always had a passion for working with my community and making sure that everyone who is interested in this type of work has an opportunity to learn and get involved. That’s been the focus of most of my career—encouraging community involvement and also pursuing issues that affect communities, especially environmental justice communities. When I decided that I was going to enter the teaching field, I wanted to do something innovative. I wanted to create a course that would allow students to not only learn about the theory and doctrine of environmental justice, but to also envision themselves as practitioners.

I came up with this concept of an environmental justice advocacy portfolio based on work I had already done, thinking that if a student was able to write an op-ed, conduct policy research, learn how to reach out to legislative staff, and see themselves as part of the legislative process, they would be ready to help any organization they started working in almost immediately. Oftentimes, these skills are taught on the job, but if we can put them in the curriculum, students would be able to make real and lasting contributions as soon as they started working, whether that’s in their internships or in their post-graduate employment. I teach students to not only have a background in the history and theory of environmental justice, but to access some very practical tools and see how they can establish their voices as advocates early on in their careers

I try to make legal advocacy real to them and show them how people who work in the legal field use and apply these tools. The advocacy portfolio reflects the skills that I think are going to be most transferable to whatever field they’re in.

The other part of the course is that they’ll be able to participate in advocacy in real time using for federal policy initiatives. They’re going to submit regulatory comments during the course of the class, which will allow them to literally be a part of the process because every regulatory agency is supposed to review every comment that comes in. They’ll be part of the record. We’ll also look at ways to get involved locally at the New York City Council level.

The Climate School is an excellent learning environment that is well equipped to help students to explore these issues. I am happy to be a part of this community and share my knowledge of environmental and climate justice.

What do you hope your students will take away from the course?

I hope to help students understand environmental justice work and to see themselves as community leaders so they can take on and advance the work. I love the way practice can inform your approach to teaching, and how teaching can really help you to see how to be a better advocate.

There’s so much potential and momentum around climate justice and environmental justice right now. I want the students to really use their background and experiences to inform the work that they do, and then take the time to reflect on their involvement and how they’re interacting with the community, and to use that to direct their work. I want them to be able to know the theory and principles of environmental justice, but I also want them to be skilled at applying what they’ve learned in a way that helps them to develop skills and broaden their reach.

The highlight of the class for me is seeing the students make connections between their past work experiences, their future goals, and how they can plug in and amplify issues that are important to them.

What lessons have you learned from mentoring students in this field?

Environmental justice is a very dynamic field. You need to understand and appreciate varying perspectives and be very creative because we didn’t have a lot of the more specific legal protections that we see states and municipalities promulgating now. Oftentimes, we had to learn new ways to apply existing laws. Now is a really important time to help guide students because we know they’re going to make such wonderful contributions in the future. Mentoring and teaching can help to guide them on their way. I also teach environmental justice to law students at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and find that although their career goals differ, their dedication to environmental and climate issues is similar, and that is inspiring.

We all have opportunities to help one another, and the way we encourage and support each other sustains the work that we’re doing. If anyone ever wants to reach out about law school, working in a community, or ways to be a more effective advocate, and they need my help, they should feel free to do so.

I have this teaching philosophy where I say, ‘You’re my student today, but you’re my colleague tomorrow.’ The time that you’re in school is short compared with the time that you’re in practice. My hope is students will take what they learn in my course and be able to bloom in a way that is inspired by the work we did together. And then to use that to also help newer practitioners in their field, so it just keeps on growing. I’ve had the benefit of being mentored by really great people, and I think the only way that you can truly express this gratitude is by being a great mentor to someone else.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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