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UCI Ph.D Student Researches Health Equity and Environmental Justice to Better Her Community

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Connie Valencia, a first-generation Latina Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine, is researching the inequity and health issues that low-income Latino communities face in her hometown, Boyle Heights. She seeks to understand the social inequities and health disparities these communities endure in an effort to provide residents with the resources needed and give them a voice. 

Valencia found her niche in public health through her love for patient care. Her inspiration to be a medical doctor and her passion for social justice resulted from her experience without health insurance and frequenting the hospital growing up, but after being introduced to public health her mentality shifted. Valencia said that she thought to herself, “Wait a minute — the community is my patient, I need to do something in public health.” 

That’s when her journey towards her current career in public health began.

Valencia chose Boyle Heights as her current “patient” and subject of research because of its constant exposure to pollutants in the air and soil. Boyle Heights is surrounded by the East Los Angeles Interchange, which facilitates more than 430,000 cars and trucks daily and in effect contributes to poor air quality.

There are also a myriad of companies emitting pollutants in the area. For example, Exide, a battery recycling facility in the area, was shut down in 2015 as a result of working with false permits for thirty years and polluting the surrounding soil with lead. Extensive research has revealed that lead can lead to weakness, anemia and kidney and brain damage.

For years, Boyle Heights residents have experienced symptoms of illnesses, such as asthma, which can be a result of strong contaminants in the air, water and soil. However, Valencia shares that by living in a city and environment as toxic as Boyle Heights, the exact cause of illness is difficult to determine. 

“As a result, many people don’t really question, ‘Is it because I live next to a refinery? Is it because I live next to a freeway?’” Valencia said.

Valencia shared with the New University that the average citizen in the Boyle Heights does not understand how their environment could be affecting their health nor do they know what can be done about it. That’s why Valencia feels such a need to give back and focuses her research on how to alleviate these poor living conditions. 

To reach her goal of understanding environmental injustice in Boyle Heights, specifically in air pollution, Valencia is completing a fellowship with the Research Justice Shop at UCI and working with local organization, MPNA Green, a local organization in Santa Ana. She is currently in her second year in her fellowship with the Research Justice Shop at UCI with co-directors Dr. Connie McGuire and Dr. Victoria Lowerson. The Research Justice Shop supports community-based organizations by providing yearlong fellowships to graduate students and collaborating with communities to solve environmental and social issues. MPNA Green focuses on improving the well being of Madison Park and the surrounding area by providing support for educational and leadership opportunities and improving health equity. 

Working with these political organizations helped Valencia understand policies that have been developed and can be used, such as Assembly Bill 617 (AB-617). The bill requires that the California Air Resources Board and air districts create and implement measures such as additional emissions reporting and monitoring to reduce air pollution in communities facing environmental injustice. Such measures encourage communities to understand and speak up about the environmental injustice they face.

Valencia aims to find out what kind of resources residents need in an effort to give them more opportunity to work with elected officials and change policies. Through her interviews with focus groups she is learning more about what can be done.

Boyle Heights is not alone in its injustices; many other communities mirror the issues that they face. Valencia hopes that what she learns in her research can be used to improve the conditions for her home of Boyle Heights and low-income Latino communities facing the same issues.

Valencia has been supported by UCI Director and Founding Dean of the Program in Public Health,  Bernadette Boden-Albala. She is also a recipient of the 2021 Campus-Community Research Incubator Grant (CCRI), along with her advisor, Dr. Brittney. Morey and LegacyLA’s Director of Leadership and Community Engagement, Lucy Herrera.

Giselle Garcia is a STEM intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at gisellg8@uci.edu