“Centering sustainability in our relationships helps root us in some shared goals about the world we inherited and the world we would like to help create and share with future generations.”
Sustainability Insider is an occasional feature we use to spotlight the exciting and impactful work of local environmental/social equity advocates here in the Pittsburgh region. Meet this week’s sustainability champion, Kara Rubio (she/her). Kara Rubio is the Public Health in Philanthropy Fellow at The Pittsburgh Foundation, a community foundation located in downtown Pittsburgh that “works to improve the quality of life in the Pittsburgh region by evaluating and addressing community issues, promoting responsible philanthropy and connecting donors to the critical needs of the community.” In her interview with Sustainable Pittsburgh, Kara details her pursuit to “advance environmental justice as a tool for health equity”:
What does sustainability mean to you?
RUBIO: Sustainability shares the same root word as sustenance, which makes me think about what it takes to support life, to endure from now into the future. I approach my own practice of sustainability from that lens. To me, sustainability is about how we name and hold our obligations to each other through the ways we steward shared resources like clean air and water, safe shelter, mobility through our communities, and access to nutritious and high-quality food to name a few. I think centering sustainability in our relationships helps root us in some shared goals about the world we inherited and the world we would like to help create and share with future generations.
As a Public Health in Philanthropy Fellow at the Pittsburgh Foundation, what public health issue facing our region do you think needs more attention?
It’s tough to pick just one! As a public health practitioner, I’m constantly asking the questions, how can we prevent disease from happening in the first place, and how can we ensure that people have what they need to live healthy and happy lives. To answer these questions, I work on what we call the social determinants of health – all the factors outside your doctor’s office that can affect your health, such as your housing, access to food, employment opportunities, environmental exposures, and social environment. While it may be easy for folks to draw on their lived experience to talk about how their ability to access affordable and safe housing affects their physical and mental health, the solutions may be more challenging because they require people in different sectors to join their resources together. But it can be done! Some of these prevention-focused solutions live in the policy world – such as revising building and zoning codes to include protective barriers from pollution-creating sites, making sure shelter that’s available is also safe and habitable; and some live in other important sectors like our economy – especially with federal dollars coming in to support jobs in ‘green’ industries that can provide family-sustaining wages. At the end of the day, I believe that effectively addressing the social determinants of health is a way to make sure that we are creating a region where all people can thrive.
What are opportunities to ensure residents’ equitable access to public health information?
One public health issue I think we can do a better job communicating is the way environmental exposures – whether it’s legacy hazards like lead in paint or asbestos insulation in our homes, or ‘newer’ forever chemicals like PFAS – can stay in our bodies and the environment for a long time, and how they can and do affect our health across the lifecycle. Oftentimes, environmental exposures go unseen until symptoms and illness have already occurred. There’s a general sense of “Well, I probably grew up with lead in my house and I turned out okay”, or “The air is much cleaner today than it was 20 years ago” and I can understand where that comes from. It’s important to not only bring problems to people, but to offer opportunities to be part of the solution. I’m encouraged by the fact that we have real-world tested solutions to protect people from unnecessary environmental harm. While residents can take individual actions to reduce their exposures to air or water pollution, more can be done to address the source of pollution!
I think our health systems have a responsibility to ensure that residents have access to timely and accurate information regarding our shared environmental exposures, such as clean air and water. I also think there are opportunities to improve our environmental and health literacy skills – for instance, empowering and educating residents to read and understand their consumer water reports, install higher efficiency air quality filters in their homes, and get their homes tested for lead and radon.
How has your personal experience shaped your approach to addressing environmental justice as a pathway to achieving health equity in your work?
I grew up on the island of Guam, which is a US territory. On my island, the biggest polluter is the US military. The history of radiation pollution in Micronesia is a heart-breaking reality, seeing how people’s health and ancestral lands became battlegrounds to test lethal military weapons. At the same time, it’s been incredible to witness the great resilience of the Chamorro people and how generative and bountiful land and oceans still are. I grew up swimming in turquoise beaches, with thriving coral reefs and abundant ocean life. I also distinctly remember going to Zumba fundraisers and bake sales for my friends’ relatives because they would get cancer so young; the incidence of environmentally related cancers in Micronesia is extremely elevated. If you have cancer on Guam, the best place to get treatment is in Hawaii if you have insurance, or in the Philippines if you don’t. From a very young age, I could see how health disparities and inadequate access to health care were affecting my community. While there is so much progress being made, the history and impacts of US imperialism are still alive and well in the island territories. The US military is a major employer on my island, which is another important intersection of environment, health, cultural heritage, and economic and political agency. There is also a horrific and ongoing lack of representation that US territories get in Congress, which can be seen in the delayed and inadequate responses when hurricanes, typhoons and other extreme weather events happen.
This is just one piece of my personal background that inspires the type of work I want to do and how I can use my public health skills to advance environmental justice as a tool for health equity. To me, this work is a lot about imagining what systems of care would look like, where no one is outside the system because their town is too small, or too rural or hard to reach.
What can readers do right now to aid in supporting healthy sustainable communities?
At times, working towards creating the healthy, sustainable communities we want can feel like an uphill battle. When I’m feeling discouraged, I reread the Environmental Justice Principles that were created by grassroots organizers during the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. There’s a deep history of collaboration within the environmental justice movement that’s so inspiring and resonates deeply with me. It’s important to me to honor the history and progress we’ve made to help reaffirm that we are all working towards the same shared goals!
I also recommend attending your next local zoning meeting – this is where people make real-time decisions about what gets permission to be built in your neighborhood, especially what’s close to your schools, childcare centers, parks. It’s also about being a proactive part of how you’d like your neighborhood to grow and thrive.
Lastly, if you have the time and energy, volunteer at your child’s or local school’s Green Team! Help your child’s school write a climate action plan – there are nonprofits who can help you with this! – And even better, help organize writing a climate action plan for your neighborhood. There is so much we can accomplish, but we must first dream it and believe that it can be achieved!