Sustainability Initiative Launches Seminar Series

Series holds its first panel “Urban Resources: Who Has Access to Basic Needs?”

Sustainability Panel
Panelists Stephanie Maddin, RonDell Pooler, Jehan El-Bayoumi and Megan Haberle.
November 11, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

The George Washington University Sustainability Initiative introduced a new year-long seminar series, Frontiers in Sustainability. The series will include research presentations, panels and workshops that will examine trends and issues in energy and climate, water and urban sustainability.

The first event in the series was a lecture on approaches to green chemistry on Oct. 23. Frontiers in Sustainability held its first panel on Wednesday with the discussion “Urban Resources: Who Has Access to Basic Needs?” in Funger Hall. The panel included the perspective of experts in clean air policy, community organizing, law and public health. Upcoming events will include a discussion of water scarcity in developing countries on Nov. 18 and a look at sustainable wastewater treatment on Dec. 5.

Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and Public Administration Gregory Squires moderated the discussion on Wednesday. The panelists included Stephanie Maddin, legislative counsel at Earthjustice; RonDell Pooler, field coordinator at Washington Parks & People; Jehan El-Bayoumi, associate professor of medicine and founding director of the Rodham Institute; and Megan Haberle, policy counsel at the Policy and Race Research Action Council.

Each panelist gave brief remarks on how his or her area of expertise relates to the basic needs of urban communities.

Ms. Maddin started out her career in housing and urban planning. She learned that when it comes to affordable housing issues and policies, people often focus on rent and mortgage prices—but the environment also plays a huge role in the housing situations of low-income people. 

“Just because of your income, you might be more exposed to air pollution because you can’t afford to live in a different place,” she said. “I had never considered that your health and your entire well-being could be compromised simply because of how much rent you can afford.”

Mr. Pooler shared his experience as a community organizer in D.C., where he’s been involved in clean-ups and has led volunteers in Ward 7’s Marvin Gaye Park. Mr. Pooler explained that it was through his work in D.C. neighborhoods that he first heard the phrase “food desert.” He said that although many food stores and restaurants exist in urban areas, the quality of the food is often unhealthy. Families have to travel to different parts of the city to access healthier resources, he said. GW helped raise awareness of food deserts during last month’s Food Day, when the Urban Food Task Force launched a pop-up market to provide Ward 7 families fresh produce.

“For a lot of families who have children and have to take public transportation to get their meals, it’s a struggle,” Mr. Pooler said.

Dr. El-Bayoumi spoke of the importance of getting public health practitioners to remain dedicated to low-income neighborhoods. To address disparities and promote health equity in D.C., Dr. El-Bayoumi has helped create the Rodham Institute, named in honor of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s mother, the late Dorothy E. Rodham. The institute will develop training models to teach other academic health care institutions to address urban health disparities.

“I decided, through the Rodham Institute, to really look at how we train our clinicians so that there truly is a voice and a real connection with urban populations,” Dr. El-Bayoumi said.

Professionals interested in urban poverty and environmental issues often intersect on the topic of public health. Dr. El-Bayoumi explained that particularly in D.C., a city with some of the nation’s highest AIDS and infant mortality rates, access to public health is crucially important. 

Ms. Haberle described her work at the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, a small non-profit that advocates for civil rights issues in D.C. The organization brings together advocates and social scientists that work in areas related to race and poverty, and examines affordable housing policy.

Following the panelists’ remarks, Dr. Squires asked what should be done to make sustainability a central issue in Congress. Dr. El-Bayoumi emphasized the importance of bringing people from all sectors together and uniting sustainability experts under a centralized message. Dr. Squires highlighted the efforts of the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Planet Forward, which is working to bring sustainability to the forefront.

The panel concluded with a short question-and-answer session with the audience.